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Samatha (calm) and vipassana (insight): two aims of Buddhist meditation. Also, What is Meditation?

2020-06-14

Gandhara Buddha circa 1900 years ago, courtesy of wikimedia commons

The twin aims of meditation, in Buddhist practice, are calming the mind and attaining insight.  From Wikipedia:

  • Samatha, calm abiding, which steadies, composes, unifies and concentrates the mind;
  • Vipassanā, insight, which enables one to see, explore and discern “formations” (conditioned phenomena based on the five aggregates).[5]

Meditation is a practice which predates Buddhism and probably also Hinduism– it has been recognized since at least 1500 BCE, or 3500 years ago, in Vedantic Hinduism.  The practice of meditation is recognized in all major religions, including Sufism (an Islamic tradition), Christian “Hesychasm” (from the Eastern Orthodox), and Judaism (in the Kabbalah.)  The term defies precise definition: (Wikipedia) “A 2009 study [in the Journal of Psychology of Religion and Spirituality] noted a ‘persistent lack of consensus in the literature’ and a ‘seeming intractability of defining meditation’.

In meditation, a person sits, lies down, or even simply stands still.  It is also possible to meditate while walking or while performing a simple, repetitive task.  You attend to one thing or nothing and concentrate the mind.  You do not try to do anything at all (at least nothing that you’re not already doing.)  One common technique is to concentrate on breathing slowly, in and out; in through the nose (employing the inherent air-filtering capacities of the nostrils and nasal cavities) and out through the mouth (relaxing the diaphragm, allowing it to move upwards and letting the chest collapse.)

A commonly used technique is to concentrate on a single word or phrase.  This technique, most used in Tibetan Buddhism, often includes the phrase “Om mani padme hum.”  This means, according to Wikipedia (among many other things): “The first word Aum/Om is a sacred syllable in various Indian religions. The word Mani means “jewel” or “bead”, Padme is the “lotus flower” (the Buddhist sacred flower), and Hum represents the spirit of enlightenment.”  In Tibet, this phrase is everywhere painted onto hillsides, carved into rocks, or written on prayer flags and prayer wheels.

Meditation also can begin with emptying the mind.  One would not try too hard; anything that enters the mind while meditating should be remarked upon then discarded, as if “moving on.”  It is important not to try, because trying involves effort, and the effort itself interferes with relaxation.  Calm is achieved in part through simply relaxing.  Once the mind is emptied in this way, single thoughts that arise can be  more easily dealt with.  One can acknowledge that a thought is a symptom of the mind’s clinging to the senses, and classify a thought as to whether it means one is obsessing about something in particular.  Why would this thought come up now?

Meditation is broadly classified into two forms: open and directed.  In directed meditation, one focuses on something or concentrates on a single thought.  In open meditation, one simply monitors all thoughts that enter the mind, dismissing them one by one and returning to an empty, mindful/mindless state.  You might say that open meditation steadies and calms you, while directed meditation allows you to achieve insight.  You can use both forms, either sequentially or all at once.

When one meditates, the brain often enters a state easily recognized on the EEG (electroencephalogram, a recording of the brain’s electrical activity obtained with electrodes attached to the scalp.)  A rhythm called the alpha rhythm appears, a slow 8-12 beats per second wave.  This differs from the rhythm seen when one is thinking about something, when there are no visible waves.  According to brainworksneurotheraphy.com, “Alpha brainwaves are dominant during quietly flowing thoughts, and in some meditative states. Alpha is ‘the power of now’, being here, in the present. Alpha is the resting state for the brain. Alpha waves aid overall mental coordination, calmness, alertness, mind/body integration and learning.”

The practice of meditation has been the subject of scientific research for quite some time.  It is attractive especially because it would seem to provide some therapeutic effects for pain, depression, anxiety, drug addiction, antisocial behavior, etc.  However, research has not been able to clearly establish whether the benefits of meditation can be separated from the social activities associated with teaching the practice.  Nonetheless, it seems to provide some pain relief and, in a 2017 systematic review it was found to help “improve positive prosocial emotions and behaviors.” (Luberto, Christina M.; Shinday, Nina; Song, Rhayun; Philpotts, Lisa L.; Park, Elyse R.; Fricchione, Gregory L.; Yeh, Gloria Y. (2017): “A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behaviors”. Mindfulness. 9 (3): 708–24. doi:10.1007/s12671-017-0841-8. PMC 6081743. PMID 30100929).

There are also potential negative effects of meditation.  In one criticism, the practice is felt to enhance narcissism– this is true but also highly reductive or simplistic.  Meditating in a deconstructive fashion (for example) may result in anxiety, fear, depersonalization, or distorted perceptions.  “Unwholesome or frightening visions” are also mentioned as to be expected, in a Theravada Buddhism practical manual on vipassana meditation (Vörös, Sebastjan (2016). “Sitting with the Demons – Mindfulness, Suffering, and Existential Transformation”. Asian Studies. 4 (2): 59–83. doi:10.4312/as.2016.4.2.59-83).

Nonetheless, meditation is a highly effective means of, at least temporarily, obtaining calmness and even insight.  See also the Wikipedia article on “meditation” for considerable details on the history and prevalence of meditation in various religions and for therapeutic purposes.  From a traditional point of view, see “What is Meditation” by Shiva Shakti Yoga.

 

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