I bet you’ve heard it somewhere.
Maybe you’ve even said it before.
The dismissive tone that comes straight from the inner skeptic.
“Isn’t meditation just, you know, a bunch of ‘woo woo’.”
Anyone who has meditated consistently for longer periods of time knows how silly the statement is. But we get it. Meditation is tough. And simply trusting the practice of meditation, let alone getting started, can be difficult for anyone, particularly if you’re scientifically minded.
With a culture that commercialises anything exotic, and one in which there is a strong rift in the public dialogue between science and religion, taking the side of meditation can seem a little, well, irrational.
But that begs a couple of important questions.
Do we need to be spiritual or religious to meditate? Can we be both scientifically minded and spiritual? What is spiritual meditation?
To some of us they may seem a little redundant; isn’t meditation an inherently spiritual exercise?
Is meditation a spiritual practice?
The word meditation, at least in English, is derived from the Latin verb meditari, which roughly means to think, contemplate, or ponder.
However, in spiritual circles, it has been translated from the word dhyāna in Buddhism and Hinduism. In this setting, the root of the word was a little more complex. It is more akin to a sustained focused attention on a chosen object.
More broadly in a modern context, it refers to a number of practices that are designed to achieve any number of aims. This may include relaxation, improving focus, developing love, building internal energy, and character building.
To this end, the answer to the question ‘what is meditation’, is almost as broad as the number of reasons one may choose to meditate.
So while the roots of meditation are clearly for spiritual development, this doesn’t make the act of meditating an exclusively spiritual practice.
Western meditators often equate the spiritual aspects of meditation, such as devotion, to religious fanaticism. While it’s fair to say that in some cases there is a correlation, this doesn’t mean that engaging in worship based practice is a surefire cause for destructive fanatic behaviour.
As Swami Vivekananda describes in his book on Bhakti (devotional) Yoga:
“The one great advantage of Bhakti is that it is the easiest and the most natural way to reach the great divine end in view; its great disadvantage is that in its lower form its oftentimes degenerates into hideous fanaticism. The fanatical crew in Hinduism, or Mohammedanism, or Christianity, have always been almost exclusively recruited from these worshippers on the lower planes of Bhakti…..All the weak and undeveloped minds in every religion or country have only one way of loving their own ideal, i.e. by hating every other ideal.”
When are we doing ‘spiritual meditation?’
The term spiritual meditation is actually not often used, but we’ll use it here for simplicities sake.
With regards to the large number of practices that meditation encompasses, we could separate them into secular, i.e. those without any religious context, and spiritual, those with a religious or spiritual context.
Spiritual meditation is anything where the context of practice is based on spirit i.e. non-material objects or abstractions.
Secular meditation is anything where beliefs about non-material realities (i.e. god, qi, prana etc.) are not involved in the practice.
Examples of spiritual meditation
- Mantra meditation (when the mantra is chosen by a guru and has spiritual value)
- Bhakti Yoga meditations i.e. devotional meditation
- Transcendental Meditation (TM)
- Chakra Meditation
- Kundalini Yoga
- Qi Gong
Examples of secular meditation
- Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Mantra meditation (when the mantra is chosen by the individual and has personal value)
- Self-Inquiry or Non Duality Meditations i.e. focusing on the witness
- Vipassana Meditation as explained by Sam Harris
- Loving-Kindness Meditation (Metta)
Note: It’s also important to say that you can still engage in spiritual meditation, such as meditating on the idea of god, without necessarily accepting the scientific validity of the reality of god.
What are the benefits of spiritual meditation?
There are a number of benefits to a spiritually focused meditation practice.
Firstly, the spiritual aspect of meditation, particularly with regards to areas like devotion, are key to opening up your mind to new possibilities. We could say that psychological development as a result of meditation is a combination of both structural changes in the brain and the introduction of new experiences to the mind.
While the changes that happen within the brain will generally come with practice, the new perceptions as experienced in the mind are largely dependent on the psychology of the individual. For example, they may be mediated through attitudes such as openness to new experiences and surrender to the infinite.
This is why the spiritual aspect of meditation is so important. It is necessary, maybe even vital, to unlock the true potential of meditation for the individual.
While secular meditations may be very effective, certain spiritual precepts have to be accepted on some level for the individual to transcend their monkey mind in any long-term sustainable way. This is why devotion, surrender, and humility have played such an important part in spiritual traditions over the years – they have a significant pragmatic benefit from the perspective of the seeker.
For the average skeptic or scientific thinker, who is unable to engage in spiritual meditation, there are a lot of benefits that are being left out.
If you’d like a more in depth look at a secular approach to meditation, I highly recommend you check out the following books:
What’s your experience with different types of meditation? Let me know in the comments!