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Religious and Spiritual Meditation

Although there has certainly been a lot of discourse between religions around the world from disagreements to war, there is one thing they have in common, which is meditation. Exploring various meditation styles could help us gain a better understanding of each other and offer new ways to find the inner or outer peace we are all seeking.

When I facilitate retreats or meditations during workshops, there is occasionally someone who states that they cannot participate because it’s against their religion. What I facilitate in these types of situations is mindfulness meditation, which is simply practicing awareness and staying in the present moment. So as far as I know, that doesn’t conflict with any religion, but that the issue arises indicates that there is still some confusion about mindfulness meditation versus religious or spiritual meditation. In fact, all five major religions practice forms of meditation. While many religions offer the same essential practices, each religion has its unique focus, special symbols, stories, and teachings.

The difference between mindfulness meditation and religious meditation can be compared to the difference between meditation and prayer. Religious people use prayer to establish a deeper connection with God or a higher power, while mindfulness meditation’s goal is to create a deeper connection with ourselves, instead of a higher power. At the same time, the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions states that prayer is the relating of the self or soul to God and meditation is a form of mental prayer. Prayer has also been shown to have similar benefits to meditation, including calming the nervous system, shutting off the fight or flight response, reducing reactivity to negative emotions and lessening anger.

It's clear that the line is a little blurry, but perhaps the two are most separated by the intended goal. I’ve heard several times that prayer is when we talk to God and meditation is when we receive the answers, which definitely sounds like religious meditation, but since there are also varying definitions of consciousness, with some considering God as consciousness, the philosophical debate will probably never be resolved. Regardless, if we understand how meditation is used in religion, it provides us with more options for meditation and allows us to find the practice that best serves us individually.

The word meditation comes from the Latin word meditārī, which has a range of meanings including to reflect on, to study, and to practice. There are multiple forms of meditation, but with respect to mindfulness meditation, the confusion about religion probably comes from the fact that mindfulness is based in Buddhist teachings. Buddhism, founded between 400-500 BCE, probably has the most highly developed systems of meditation and that could be why many people think of meditation as a religious practice. Buddhism itself is a little confusing because it is considered by some to be a religion and by others to be a philosophy, but it’s focused on becoming the highest form of ourselves, being in harmony with the natural order of the universe.

Buddhism evolved from the meditations of Siddhartha Gautama, who became referred to as the Buddha, which means fully enlightened one. Buddha identified eight principles, called The Noble Eightfold Path, that develops the fully realized state of a person. The principles are right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right mindfulness.

According to contemplative, right mindfulness is the development of an accurate and precise awareness of the present moment uninfluenced by ideas, memories, beliefs, expectations, or anything other than just the experience as it is, and meditation is a tool used to achieve this state of mind. Zen Buddhism is an offshoot of the original religion/philosophy, founded around 600 BCE and like mindfulness meditation, Zen Buddhist meditation focuses on presence and involves the body and mind, but the goals are different. In Zen meditation, the goal is to achieve a state of pure awareness and enlightenment. In mindfulness meditation, the goal is to pay attention to the present moment nonjudgmentally.

To practice Buddhism meditation, sit cross-legged on a cushion or on the edge of a chair, with feet flat on the floor. Place hands palms-down on thighs with back comfortably straight. Keep eyes open with gaze resting comfortably looking slightly downward about six feet in front of you. Notice and follow your breath. Remain aware of your environment as you pay attention to each breath as in enters and exits the body. Note thoughts and feelings that arise and just say to yourself “thinking” as you return the attention to the breath. Attend to your breath and posture without judgment as you continue to focus on the breath. Sound familiar? It’s the basis of mindfulness meditation.

The term Hindu means India, a country with many intertwined beliefs and practices, including Buddhism. Hinduism does not have one founder or a single text, but includes The Upanishads, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism that deal with meditation, philosophy and consciousness, and the Bhagavad-Gita, the most revered of all Hindu texts. Hindu meditation is a state of relaxed contemplation on the present moment, or a state of reflection where the mind dissolves and is free of all thought. Hindu meditation includes mindfulness meditation and concentrative meditation.

In mindfulness meditation, stress reduction, emotional management and mental focus are considered beginning-level goals, with mindfulness considered a preparatory practice for Raja yoga which leads to the advanced attainment of higher states of consciousness. The ultimate goal is union with the Divine as the omnipresent and loving consciousness within us. In concentrative meditation, the contemplation involves deliberation on a pre-selected object. Of the many types of Hindu meditation, all are components of yoga.

Meditation plays a part in all aspects of Indian spiritual life. India has made many contributions to spiritual practice, including yoga and its accompanying teaching the Sutras of Patanjali.

Jewish meditation includes practices of settling the mind, introspection, visualization, emotional insight, contemplation of divine names, or concentration on philosophical, ethical or mystical ideas. Meditation may be included with personal Jewish prayer, may be included in structured Jewish services, or may be practiced separately from prayer.

Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish tradition of mystical interpretation of the Bible, remains significant in Hasidic Judiasm. The Hebrew word Qabala means both to receive and reveal and its symbolic code is designed to further a person’s spiritual development. By internalizing symbols and gradually absorbing their characteristics through meditation, practitioners awaken the higher abilities of the individual, transcending reason, and bringing the symbols to life.

Christian meditation involves a deep and thoughtful reading of God’s Word. When meditation is mentioned in the Bible, it refers to meditating on God’s commands or character. The word meditate is mentioned 19 times in the book of Psalms and many consider numerous examples of prophets spending time focused on the Lord and living for extended periods in isolation as meditations, including Jesus spending 40 days and nights in the wilderness in contemplation.

Unlike mindfulness meditation, Christian meditation is the process of deliberately focusing on specific thoughts and reflecting on their meaning in the context of the love of God. The focus is not on self, but on Bible passages or a single prayer word or mantra. Meditation does not replace other forms of prayer but deepens their meaning.

Although Christian forms of meditation have a long history, not all practices are accepted universally in all churches. The Desert Fathers, early hermits who established the foundation for the Christian withdrawn life, used spoken or sung repetitive prayer, with synchronized breathing to internalize the spiritual truths contained within them. The focus for meditation in Eastern Orthodox traditions is on icons. The most universal form of Christian meditation is the practice of repeating prayers, expressed through song, prayer, study or contemplation with the focus usually directed first towards the heart, producing a deeply felt understanding that permeates the whole being.

Similarly, Muslim meditation practices involve the heart as well. The Islamic word for meditation means remembrance. The goal of meditation is to remember God and to practice spiritual excellence. In the Islamic belief, people can identify with different layers of existence. The aim of the Islamic spiritual journey and its meditation practices is to navigate deeper through these layers, from the body to the intellect to the heart, and finally, to deeper elements within the heart. God is first realized at the heart level, where practitioners begin to know God and as their love grows, they identify with a deeper layer within the heart, which is the spirit.

Rooted in the Koran and the teachings of Muhammad, Islam’s mystical path Sufism includes teachings from a wide range of esoteric traditions and is supplemented by a literary tradition that emphasizes poetry, allegory, and symbolic story. The arts, including writing, calligraphy, geometry, architecture and dance, reveal universal principles, and everyday activities become vehicles for meditation. Masters dictate meditation practices to pupils with the goal of preventing the mind from wandering while the heart is focused on God. The spoken word, via prayer, chant or song, is heavily emphasized as an active invocation of God through repetition of the Holy Names.

Many other spiritual traditions have similar meditation practices that are identical in form and function to these practices and offer many more. How similar these divergent practices are to meditation is often just a matter of degree. Despite the fact that meditation can take many forms, universal principles can be found in all systems. The whole being (body, mind, emotion) is actively utilized through a variety of focus points, to develop awareness, insight, and transformation.

I think it’s important to recognize that we can appreciate new or various practices, philosophies and beliefs, bearing in mind that our intention is what matters most in meditation of any kind. Although I’m not religious, I believe all religions contribute to a rich opportunity to learn and explore and find many religious or spiritual meditations valuable and insightful. I also think that the more we expose ourselves to different views and belief systems, the more we broaden our perspectives which ultimately contributes to more inclusiveness and less division. Consider dipping a toe into another religious or spiritual philosophy through the practice of meditation. You might be surprised by the experience.

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