EASTERN AND WESTERN PERSPECTIVES OF MEDITATION
The word ‘meditation' is by now fairly well known though it conveys different meanings to different people. A dictionary definition1 shows that the word is derived from the Latin (meditate-meditari), meaning ‘to survey, observe, contemplate'. In order to understand meditation, this paper presents the Eastern and Western perspectives along with the differences and common features.
Interest in meditation began in the West with the introduction of the technique, Transcendental Meditation which is derived from principles in traditional yoga texts, but has been modified for contemporary practice2. Meditation was described based on physiological studies as a state of ‘alertful rest'3,4, and a strategy to control the level of arousal5. Practitioners of meditation were also interested in the possibility of meditation giving them special powers (siddhis), to control the involuntary functions such as body temperature regulation6 or levitation7.
No single technique has been described. According to one description8, there are two main forms. The more common form has been called concentrative, involving focusing on a single, unchanging stimulus. The less common form of meditation has been called ‘opening up', in which the practitioner of meditation attempts to broaden awareness to include all forms of sensations. Many scientists believe that despite mystical and spiritual connotations, there is nothing unique about the meditative state9, which is comparable to resting or relaxing.
To understand the Western perspective of meditation, it is important to understand the historical background of meditation and contemplation in the West. This is closely linked with Christian contemplative prayer which dates back to the 4th century (approximately). At the time of the Reformation contemplative prayer declined or disappeared among Protestants, and went into long decline in the Catholic countries. Under the influence of rationalism, the mystic direct experience of God became suspect. By the 19th century the contemplative prayer tradition had almost disappeared except among the cloistered Catholic religious orders, and it was marginalized even there. Christian contemplative practice began to revive among the Benedictines and other monastic orders. During the mid-20th century interest in contemplative practices increased, with the most popular writer on the subject being the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton10.
Lectio divina, translated as sacred reading, was likely brought to the Western Christian Church from Egypt, Syria, and Palestine in the early fifth century. It was recommended for both lay persons and monastics in the early Christian centuries. Lectio divina as it is traditionally taught, has four parts or elements:
Steps involved in Lectio divina:
LectioRead the passage, seek the word or GodListen
MeditatioMeditate on the passage and apply it to our own situation and needsReflect
OratioPray in response to the word of GodIntegrate
ContemplatioListen in contemplative silence, open to whatever God may wish to invite or impartReceive
Hence contemplation was accepted though by specific groups of individuals. However meditation was more generally associated with eastern traditions such as Zen and yoga, and many who wished to explore the contemplative life turned to Eastern teachers who were beginning to establish themselves in the West.
In the traditional texts (the Pataňjali's Yoga Sūtras and Bhagavad Gīta) it has been described that when awake and in the absence of a specific task the mind is very distractible (caňcalatā), and has to be taken through the stages of ‘streamlining the thoughts' (concentration or ekāgrata), and one-pointed concentration (focusing or dhāranā), before reaching the meditative state (defocused, effortless single thought state or dhyāna).
Descriptions of each of the states.
About the Author
A student of "YOGA"