spiritual benefits of meditation for the mind body and soul
What Is Meditation, and What Is It for?
As we’ll see, there are countless ways to approach the act and significance of meditation. Some practice methods inspired by the teachings of the Hindu Vedas, like Yoga or Tantra; others follow dedicated spiritual traditions passed down through the various schools of Buddhism, others practice Taoist techniques like qigong. There are Western traditions of spiritual meditation too, like Kabbalah and other mystical doctrines (though these often look to Eastern philosophies for inspiration).
The situation becomes further muddled when you realize that these ancient meditative disciplines are pretty mixed together themselves—there’s Tantric Buddhism, for example, and Buddhist qigong. There are commonalities between Eastern and Western philosophies (like the Vedic and Buddhist chakras, energy-centers connected by channels that run throughout the body—which correlate to the acupuncture points and vessels of traditional Chinese medicine, and to the Kabbalistic tree of the Sephirot), and variations within each discipline. Worse still, the histories of these practices are so ancient as to be uncertain, or deliberately shrouded in secrecy—usually both!
What is certain, though, is that meditation has the same ultimate goal in virtually all traditions: achieving enlightenment in this life, and consequently liberation from Earthly suffering.
So how does one meditate?
When it comes to meditation techniques, as diverse as they are, we’re on firmer ground.
One universal requirement of meditation is mindfulness, and this is something every meditative practice is meant to work towards, one way or another.
Mindfulness is a kind of awareness that doesn’t need to impose any ego-driven form or content on what is being perceived. That might mean letting thoughts drift through your mind without chasing them, fighting them, or trying to push them away, until they settle into tranquility and stillness. It might mean letting physical sensations pass through you with acceptance, whether they are painful, uncomfortable, or pleasurable. It might mean recognizing your emotional reactions to different experiences in your life and letting yourself see them clearly, as they are—where they come from and what they’re pushing you towards—without dressing them up in positive or negative judgments.
There are different kinds of mindfulness meditation, but they can all help you on your road to spiritual development, whether you take them singly or in combination. Here are just a few:
- Concentrating on a Single Point: Ekāgratā, as it’s called in the Hindu tradition, involves focusing your mind completely on a single object. This might be something physical, like a distant point; it might be a spiritual concept or idea; it might even be God (whatever that means to you).
The practice of ekāgratā helps ground the wandering mind and make things clearer—your relationship to the world around you, for example, or your relationship to yourself. Our attention is like a flickering flame that dances over the objects of our reality, whether those are “real” or “metaphysical” objects, aimlessly differentiating without stopping to consider what it does. Condensing that flame into a single point can shine an illuminating light on our psychic landscape.
- Stillness: When we think of meditation, we often picture a seated sage, cross-legged or in the lotus position, motionless as if carved from wood or stone. And indeed—this is the most ancient and celebrated meditative practice. Stillness forces us to be aware of our physical sensations: the weight of our body, the light and wind on our skin, the texture of our clothing, and—soon enough—the discomfort of holding a single position for what feels like far too long.
Beginning meditators often try to follow the perennial instruction “clear your mind,” only to give up in disgust—how can you clear your mind when it’s so full of sensations giving rise to racing thoughts? This, however, is precisely the lesson stillness meditation can teach us: our mind is always “full,” and by letting ourselves realize this we can learn to disengage from attachment to it. The secret is not to push sensations away, or ignore them—it’s to accept them until they let us be. This is how we become empty vessels—and as empty vessels, naturally, we can be most mindful.
- Breathing: No discussion of meditation would be complete without mentioning the crowning importance of breathing. There are different ways to approach it: in Vipassana (insight) meditation, for example, breathing is often just observed, allowed to happen naturally. In Yogic and Tantric practices there is usually a more controlled aspect to it—breathing is slowed down until it is nearly imperceptible, regulated by a count, or coordinated with muscular contractions. But all breathing practices agree that our relationship to our breath is not to be taken lightly: breath is life (or, at any rate, its carrier).
The vital force driven or carried by the breath is called prāṇa In Sanskrit, lung in Tibetan. Many traditions see this as an energy that travels through the channels or vessels of the body—the nāḍis, in Yoga and Tantra—and ascribe incredible powers to those who master breathing meditation: immunity to disease and physical harm, superhuman strength, telepathy, flight, and an assortment of other abilities (siddhis or rddhis in the Vedic and Buddhist traditions).
Others, more pragmatically, suggest that the long-term practice of breathing meditation improves lung capacity, energy metabolism, and immune function, all the while inducing a state of self- hypnosis that can enable the mind to surpass its usual limits and perform at peak capacity—even beyond what we think possible—perhaps, indeed, by engaging some psychomotor mechanism that is still not understood by science.
Regardless of one’s opinion on these matters, it is simple enough to see what you think: find a comfortable position and breathe. Slowly, deeply, feeling the way the abdomen expands on the inhale and contracts on the exhale, releasing all tension with each exhalation. Picture the breath that enters your body as an endlessly renewed cleansing light, an energy-wind that flows through every part of you, from root to crown.
- Movement: Unlike seated stillness, moving our body around is not usually what we think about when we picture meditation. However, many traditions include moving meditations that can be combined with other methods, often have benefits similar to those of physical therapy, and can be more suitable for some people than other kinds. Any smooth, controlled motion can be turned into a moving meditation, especially when repeated—think “Wax On, Wax Off”—as long as you approach it correctly, being mindful of every aspect of your movement before, during, and after your body executes it.
You’re probably already familiar with some forms of moving meditation. Yoga can be one, for example—depending on the style you practice, you might spend more or less time in postures as opposed to moving between them, but the slow, mindful transitions from one position to another are just as important as holding and flexing them. Yoga, practiced correctly, is not just about stretching your body—it’s about movement awareness and breathing. Tai Chi is another one—taijiquan as practiced today, according to some definitions, is more a form of qigong than a martial art. The whirling of Sufi Dervishes is yet another moving meditation.
- Kundalinī: If you’ve had any exposure to tantric practices, you might have heard this term. Kundalinī is sometimes referred to as the mystical serpent, or energy of the goddess. Correct Yoga practice, especially mastery of breathing exercises, together with mindfulness taken to the point of total clarity, is alleged to awaken the serpent (which sleeps in the lower abdomen). Once awake, kundalinī rises through the central column of the back, the spinal cord (whose nāḍī is called suṣumṇā), traversing the main chakras of the body until it reaches the crown of the head, or Lotus—sahasrāra in the Hindu tradition.
The opening of the crown chakra through the passage of kundalinī, accompanied by a sensation of fiery movement and energy rising through the spine and a distinct sensation on the top of the head, is considered to be a necessary precondition to achieving the great goals of meditative spirituality—liberation, enlightenment, and so on. However, it also has its dangers. Unlike some forms of meditation, which are gentle and forgiving to the novice practitioner, the awakening of kundalinī should be undertaken only with the aid of a qualified teacher, like a guru, or a student risks losing control of the energy, leading to physical injury, illness, or insanity. At least, that’s what they say.
- Guided Meditation: The desire to awaken kundalinī is not the only reason you might seek out a teacher. In Tantric practices, for example, it has traditionally been considered of the utmost importance to receive “initiation” from a teacher who has been initiated him- or herself, and who has attained a suitable degree of skill. In the absence of an external guru, many meditators visualize an “inner guru,” which might be a representation of an ideal or the figure of a deity. The repetition of a mantra—a symbolic or significant series of words—can then take the place of the guru’s instructions, and indeed may point to the true goal of guru-led practice, which is to internalize the message being conveyed as the expression of one’s inner being. Also with meditation, you are ultimately raising you vibration, and in-turn, you can work with the law of attraction. Click here to read more.
However, a traditionally guru-driven or otherwise mystical practice is by no means the only form of guided meditation. Today, in fact, this is a very common form of psychotherapy, dating back to the earliest forms of psychoanalysis (and even earlier). A guided meditation can induce a trance-like state, for example by presenting us with beautiful and calming imagery (“Imagine you are on a peaceful beach…”), by making us aware of our bodily presence in a comforting way (“Feel your body relax, from your head to your toes. Now feel each limb getting even more relaxed, one by one…”), or by speaking directly to our emotional state, including the use of mantras (“Repeat after me: I love myself. I accept myself.” Or, “This too shall pass”).
The Heart of Meditation
Lastly, there are two fundamental concepts of which anyone with an interest in meditation and mindfulness should be aware: mettā and bodhicitta.
The Pali word mettā (maitrī in Sanskrit), usually translated as “loving-kindness,” is both a necessary practice on the road to enlightenment and one of the most important attributes of the enlightened practitioner. Meditative and spiritual practices all over the world emphasize that the character of the true meditator (or holy individual) is benevolent, loving, and kind—and the term maitrī dates back to the Vedic texts, at least. Today, loving-kindness meditation as such is commonly associated with the Theravāda school of Buddhism—but compassion, regardless of school, is universally regarded as an essential attribute of the Buddha, to be pursued by any aspiring meditators. When a person is filled with loving-kindness they are a friend and a positive force to everyone around them, even to those who have done them harm. But one must approach this state with the correct mindset—beginning with oneself. If you don’t love yourself, after all, how can you really love someone else?
Here’s a good way to practice loving-kindness meditation: choose a position, place, or action that makes you feel comfortable, whether that’s sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the traditional style, walking along a peaceful trail, or even performing a physical task like sweeping the floor. Enter a mindful state, focused on your breathing, movement (or stillness) and emotional energy, then begin the exercise by expressing love and compassion to yourself. You can choose your own words—you might say to yourself “I wish you only the best,” if you tend to undermine yourself in life; you could say “I forgive you,” if you have trouble letting go of perceived guilt even after taking full responsibility for your actions and trying to make them right; you could simply say “I love you”—because you should!
This can be the easy part for some people, while for others it’s the hardest. But once it’s done, you can start to project your love and compassion outwards: first to your nearest and dearest, then to people with whom you’re not so close, and finally to people you don’t know at all, or even have conflicts with. Let go of all negativity and project only positive emotion: use the same words you used to express loving-kindness to yourself, and manifest it towards them as well.
Bodhicitta is another important concept that goes along with metta: cultivating one, if done correctly, is to cultivate the other as well. But they are not the same.
Defined as the awakening or enlightenment mind, bodhicitta strives towards enlightenment not for purely selfish reasons, but for the sake of others. It is one of the essential marks of a bodhisattva, a person who has reached awakening in this life (whether through meditation or through good acts and loving-kindness), and is important to all forms of Buddhism.
Bodhicitta is not a method or a technique, but an attitude and an intention. It includes mindfulness in all its forms, but it goes beyond form—and beyond mind. It’s both the path to a goal, and the goal itself—because the goal is to be on that path. A person who meditates correctly for hours a day, deepening their awareness of their body, breathing, attention, and emotional state, all the while focusing on traits like loving-kindness and compassion, can be on their way to achieving a bodhicitta awakening. However, a person who has never meditated, but has dedicated their life to helping others (in itself a form of metta), might spontaneously achieve this form of enlightenment.
The practice of meditation is full of paradoxes: you cannot be focused on yourself, because you must strive to go beyond the self, or for the benefit of the whole world. But to transcend the ego, or work for the world’s sake, you must begin by cultivating yourself and your love for yourself. You cannot achieve awakening without dedication, but if you are simply dedicated to awakening, you will never find it.
Yet despite all the complications, contradictions, and unclear choices involved in the many different forms of meditation—whatever path you choose, and however you approach it—if you remember to be mindful, loving, and compassionate you probably won’t go too far wrong.
X-x”Be the change you want to see in the world”x-X
Eliade, Mircea. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Translated by Willard E. Trask. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Nikhilananda. The Upanishads. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
Preece, Rob. Preparing for Tantra: Creating the Psychological Ground for Practice. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 2011.