What is meditation?
Meditation is derived from the Latin word meditatio and refers to the word meditari, which means ‘to ponder’. This doesn’t seem correct, as meditating has very little to do with thinking. In fact, the three main reasons why people meditate are quite the contrary:
- Letting go of thoughts, to calm yourself
We often seem to identify ourselves with our thoughts; we presume to be that voice in our head. Meditation makes one realize we actually experience our thoughts with our consciousness. This allows you to let go your thoughts, with the added benefit of providing a clear, peaceful mind. This is the reason many people consider meditation an important part of their daily routine.
- Realizing the divine or becoming one with the collective consciousness.
With meditation, you may develop the realisation that you’re in fact part of a much greater whole. You can realize that you’re more than just a body with feelings and thoughts, which results in a stronger sense of unity.
- To develop certain qualities
Sometimes meditation is used to nourish and develop certain qualities. By focusing your attention on a chosen goal, it’s possible to work on improving certain qualities. More on this later.
For those that have never meditated or immersed themselves in the art of meditating before, this list may come across as a little vague. Meditation is however quite practical and everyone can do it. How this works is just one of the things this article will explain.
History of meditation
People have likely meditated for thousands of years, since the moment that shamans discovered the trance state could be reached through chanting, drumming, dancing and natural psychedelics. Through these means, they discovered different kinds of consciousness, from which various religions would later emerge.
The first traces of meditation come from India, where Vedic priests developed the sense of oneness through concentration exercises. As a result of this realization, they believed that the divine is found mainly in the self.
From the Vedic movement, Buddhism and yoga originated around 500 BC, which spread to China and Tibet. Meditation also reached the western world around 1 AD. The Romans observed the eastern monks who sat completely quiet on the ground, with legs crossed, for hours at a time. The Romans didn’t really understand what the monks were doing and couldn’t figure anything out other than that they were probably lost in deep thought. This explains why the word meditari, to ponder, was used; even though meditation is in fact an exercise in focus, with the aim to let go of your thoughts as much as possible.
In the West, the first ‘meditators' were Christian monks who lived in seclusion in Egypt and Palestine. However, meditation didn’t reach the general public before the beginning of the last century. In the 15th century traditional meditation was even banned by the church. Although prayer is itself a form of meditation but ‘clearing the mind’, which may be lead to the realisation of oneness with the divine, was expressly forbidden by the church.
In those days meditation in the West was only performed in secret by alchemists. Alchemy is a philosophy of nature, a combination of both Eastern and Western wisdom. From the seventeenth century on, alchemy disappeared due to the rise of Western science. And so the art of meditation also completely disappeared from Western society.
This changed at the beginning of the twentieth century when interest in Oriental wisdom, philosophies and religions steadily grew. Meditation was reintroduced to Western society. Many Westerners experienced the soothing effects of concentration exercises. And yet, meditation remained something exotic for many and therefore not of use in their daily life.
This situation remained largely the same until the early seventies when scientist Jon Kabat Zinn developed the first mindfulness training. During his work as a scientist he came in contact with chronically ill people and he suspected that meditation could be beneficial to them. Not everyone learns how to meditate as easily and eastern wisdom was not accessible to every Westerner, so Zinn developed his own meditation practice, called ‘mindfulness training’.
This training made it quite easy to learn how to meditate, without applying all kinds of religious concepts. Jon Kabat Zinn was proven right, as the chronically ill did benefit from his mindfulness training. In 1982 the beneficial effects of meditation were even proven scientifically. People suffering from chronic pain were found to experience less pain and endure less mood swings after 10 weeks of mindfulness training . Slowly but surely, mediation took hold in Western mental healthcare. That’s why nowadays it’s perfectly normal to be able to sign up for mindfulness meditation at mental health institutions.
Types of meditation
Meditation techniques can be divided into two types: Eastern meditation and modern meditation. There are an almost infinite amount of modern meditation techniques, but not a lot of traditional Eastern meditation techniques. Below you’ll first find a list of the Eastern meditation techniques, followed by a small selection of the most famous forms of modern meditation.
Types of Eastern meditation
- Vipassana is considered by most to be the purest form of meditation. With Vipassana, the intent is only to behold, without wanting to change anything. Usually, one sits with closed eyes, cross-legged on a cushion and focuses deep within himself. Letting go is the key.
- Gibberisch meditation comes from the Sufi tradition and aims to break the normal thought patterns. This can be done by talking complete nonsense (the Sufi mystic who invented this technique never spoke any language, only uttering gibberish) but also by laughing, screaming or crying. In fact, everything is permitted, as long as the normal flow of thought is interrupted. The idea behind this is that when everything has been expressed, one can relax.
- Sufi dancing aims to make you feel at one with God. This form of meditation is performed by men in long gowns with pointy hats. The men turn and rotate about their own axis, and it’s this swirl that would take them back to the core of existence.
- Mantra meditation is well-known meditation technique in Tibetan Buddhism, but also in many other religions albeit under different names (including Christianity). During mantra meditation the same word or phrase is repeated, which has a calming effect, resulting in an open attitude. It also gives a sense of reverence and respect. An example of a mantra in Christianity is repeating a Hail Mary or our-father-in-the-sky.
- Zen meditation is characterized by rigid posture, sitting with your back straight, cross-legged on a cushion and staring at a white wall. You count your breathing from 1 to 10 and start over again. This way you won’t get distracted. This meditation technique is quite similar to Vipassana, but with Zen meditation, the eyes are focused on a white wall, rather than closed.
- Visualisation technique calls upon images before the mind’s eye, which one focusses on. These images hold features and characteristics; it’s a personification. Essentially you create mental picture of what you want to become by using your imagination. To relax, you might call upon the visual memory of your last trip to the beach, or imagine a waterfall. But it could also be an inner visualization of an injury healing or anything else you can think of.
- Laughter meditation is derived from active Sufi meditation, where one is encouraged to smile and laugh as much as possible. Even when there is no reason to laugh, laughter has a very beneficial effect on the immune system. Laughter makes you loosen up and worries will disappear.
- Social meditation is designed to help you become aware of the continuous flow of inner silence, a flow which continues unhindered, regardless of the busy social movement. Through breathing techniques, movement and music, the pressures of everyday life are imitated. At the same time, you’re challenged to stay yourself. This teaches you how to remain yourself in your daily life.
- Active mediation allows you to immerse yourself in movement or expression. As a result, you’ll easily separate yourself from the mind. During active meditation, you work with bioenergetics, emotional expression, dance, movement and sounds.
- Mindfulness trains you to be more in the moment. You’re taught, step by step, how to focus the attention so you are ultimately able to perform every action with full awareness. It’s characterized mainly by acceptance of thoughts and feelings, without attaching a right or wrong judgement. This acceptance of the world, events and people leads to a feeling of peace and greater happiness.
- Dynamic meditation focuses on converting physical energy into deep silence. It starts with various breathing techniques, so your body gets more oxygen. As a result, you experience an energy boost. This energy is then used to let go of bottled-up emotions, which puts you at ease.
- Transcendental silence meditation gives you the tools to regain inner peace at any time during the day. The technique consists of several levels of perception, passive concentration, mantras and sounds. This training is given individually by a qualified teacher.
Dangers of meditation
Hans Wolfgang Schumann writes in his book 'Buddhism':
"The meditation techniques of immersion and analysis are not without risk. An excess results in a kind mental drowning; careless use can derail the mind. Psychiatric clinics in Rangoon and Bangkok have a considerable number of patients who’ve had to pay with their mental health for meditation gone wrong."
It’s true that intensive meditation can exacerbate existing mental problems. Through mediation, one can be confronted with repressed thoughts and feelings, which may be so severe that one loses sight of reality. This could, in rare cases, lead to a psychosis.
Especially if someone has been traumatized in early childhood, the person is often unable to control the emotions. If someone suffers from relatively severe personality disorders, such as psychosis or borderline disorder, then mindfulness training is not the right type of meditation to choose.
Psychologically healthy people have significantly less to fear, but it’s still prudent to remain careful. Nowadays there’s a rise in extremely intensive meditation courses, where people are encouraged to express themselves utterly and completely. To throw all their emotions in out and share it with the groups, without exerting any control. These courses often last for several days and people usually have no idea what to expect. An example of such a heavy course is the Landmark training.
These courses can be addictive because of the liberating feeling and closeness that occurs during a weekend. In a way, they could be compared to being part of a sect. The student can’t go without the group and it’s not unusual that large sums of money are required for subsequent courses. Moreover, people are often pushed beyond their inhibitions, which could cause them things they’ll regret afterwards. Or even lose control in the moment. Even mentally stable people may get confused by certain techniques. If you're considering following a meditation course, find out exactly what it’s all about.
Brain activity during meditation
There have been multiple studies on the beneficial effects of meditation and they’ve shown that brain activity during meditation follows a unique pattern. The brain activity during meditation is remarkably different from any other form of consciousness, such as deep thought, dreams, stress and sleep.
Our brains produce six different types of brain waves:
- Alpha (8-12Hz) waves are connected to a state of relaxation where one is still vigil. People with lots of alpha waves absorb information quicker and are better at focusing and remembering things.
- Beta (16-38Hz) waves aim to deal with stressful situations. The strong feeling of self is the product of beta waves. Children up to five years hardly produce any beta waves. Hyperactive people producing extremely high amounts beta waves. In a normal, waking state, beta waves account for about 90% of our brain wave activity.
- Theta (4-8Hz) waves occur when you’re in a deeply relaxed state, usually just before you fall asleep or wake up. These waves are also referred to as the creative layer. During these brain waves, you can get great insights. People who are completely absorbed in listening to music or making art are often producing theta waves.
- Delta (0.5-4 Hz) waves occur in babies and during deep sleep. The deeper the sleep, the lengthier the brain waves are. In this state, you can’t remember much.
- Gamma (30-80 Hz) waves have only been recognized for a few years. These waves occur during strong mental activity, such as anxiety, problem-solving and when you’re in a state of high alert. Gamma waves are produced as a response to stress. It sometimes seems as if you act before you can think.
- Sensory-Motor Rhythm (12-16Hz) waves occur during physical rest and strong sensorimotor consciousness.
Using an EEG scan, the brainwaves of several participants of transcendental meditation were examined. It was found that the brain went through the following changes in consciousness :
- Starting out, the alpha waves become smaller and less frequent.
- Next, theta waves were created. Normally these would only show up during sleep. During meditation, the waves do differ from the regular wave form but still bear a great resemblance. At this point, the brains were completely relaxed.
- Then came the deep meditation stage; rhythmic beta waves were seen around the entire brain area. Beta waves are present when one reasons and makes decisions. Nevertheless, the beta waves during meditation look different; they are more in sync and cover the entire brain area.
- Lastly, there’s an exceptional stage where the brain waves are completely synchronized.
This pattern of brain activity is very unique. Meditation, if practised properly, can lead to a unique state of consciousness. Note that this pattern shift only applies to transcendental meditation. Different techniques will lead to different effects on brain wave activity, which in turn leads to different states of consciousness .
Scientific research has clearly shown that we are capable of altering our consciousness without the use of substances. There are many websites that provide more information about special meditation techniques, which can induce a psychedelic experiences, such as: www.psychedelicmeditation.com
No studies have been conducted on the combination of meditation and psychedelics, but this would be an interesting thing to investigate, as psychedelics can have a profound effect on one’s state of being, consciousness and sense of self. Through research into the ritual use of ayahuasca, we know the substance can greatly increase the alpha and theta waves. LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and Ayahuasca use without ritual is found to lead to smaller alpha and theta waves and much bigger beta waves .
Apparently, the ritual also greatly affects the extent to which the brain activity changes and in turn shifts the consciousness. This makes sense, as a great number of meditation techniques are used during the Shamanistic ritual, such as singing, dancing, mantas and silence.
Using these techniques, the brains are also brought into an altered state of consciousness. When meditation is combined with psychedelics, it is clear that the brain activity of a normal trip is different from the brain pattern of psychedelic ritual.
This is an important reason why some believe that psychedelics used during a ritual offer a different experience (and are therefore given a different status) than the hedonistic use of psychedelics.
- Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary result, General Hospital Psychiatry, Volume 4, Issue 1, April 1982, Pages 33–47
- J.P Banquet, Spectral analysis of the EEG in meditation, Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, Volume 35, Issue 2, August 1973, Pages 143–151
- H.-Y. Huang1† , P.-C. Lo1, EEG dynamics of experienced Zen meditation practitioners probed by complexity index and spectral measure, 2009, Vol. 33, No. 4 , Pages 314-321
- L.I. Aftanas,, S.A. Golocheikine, Human anterior and frontal midline theta and lower alpha reflect emotionally positive state and internalized attention: high-resolution EEG investigation of meditation Neuroscience Letters, Volume 310, Issue 1, 7 September 2001, Pages 57–60
- Tetsuya Takahashia, Tetsuhito Murataa,Toshihiko Hamadab, Masao Omoria, Hirotaka Kosakaa, Mitsuru Kikuchic, Haruyoshi Yoshidab, Yuji Wadaa Changes in EEG and autonomic nervous activity during meditation and their association with personality trait, International Journal of Psychophysiology Volume 55, Issue 2, February 2005, Pages 199–207
- Erik Hoffmann, Effects of a Psychedelic, Tropical Tea, Ayahuasca, on the Electroencephalographic (EEG) Activity of the Human Brain During a Shamanistic Ritual.