Meditation is the practice of focusing the mind, often formalized into a specific routine. Meditation is usually recognized as a component of Eastern religions, originating in Vedic Hinduism. It encompasses any of a wide variety of spiritual practices which emphasize mental activity or quiescence. Meditation can also be used for personal development, such as the exercises of Hatha yoga. Many practice meditation in order to achieve eternal peace, while others do it in order to become healthier and friendlier.
The English word meditation comes from the Latin meditatio, which originally indicated every type of physical or intellectual exercise, then later evolved into the more specific meaning "contemplation." This usage is found in Christian spirituality, for example, "meditations on the sufferings of Christ"; as well as Western philosophy, as in Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, a set of six mental exercises which systematically analyze the nature of reality.
However, "meditation" in its modern sense also refers to a separate practice unrelated to Christian meditations. In the late nineteenth century, Theosophists adopted the word "meditation" to refer to various spiritual practices drawn from Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religions. Thus the English word "meditation" does not exclusively translate any single term or concept, and can be used to translate words such as the Sanskrit dhyana, samadhi, or pranayama.
Meditation is usually defined as one of the following:
a state that is experienced when the mind dissolves and is free of all thoughts focusing the mind on a single object (such as a religious statue, or one's breath, or a mantra) a mental "opening up" to the divine, invoking the guidance of a higher power reasoned analysis of religious teachings (such as impermanence, for Buddhists). Its ritual and contemplative qualities are similar to prayer in Western religions, but prayer emphasizes communication with a higher being, whereas meditation focuses on developing oneself.
Meditation may be for a religious purpose, but even before being brought to the West it was used in secular contexts, such as the martial arts. Beginning with the Theosophists, though, meditation has been employed by a number of religious and spiritual movements, such as Hatha yoga and the New Age movement, as well as limited use in Christianity. It has been suggested that the recent popularity of "meditation" as a religious practice in the West signals some discomfort with more traditional Christian and Jewish practices such as prayer. Others see meditation and prayer as harmonious: Edgar Cayce taught that "Through prayer we speak to God. In meditation, God speaks to us."
From the point of view of psychology, meditation can induce an altered state of consciousness. However, many religious people would challenge the assumption that such mental states (or any other visible result) are the "goal" of meditation. The goals of meditation are varied, and range from spiritual enlightenment, to the transformation of attitudes, to better cardiovascular health.
Meditation in context
Most traditions address the integration of mind, body, and spirit (this is a major theme of the Bhagavad-Gita); or that of spiritual practice with family life, work, and so on. Often, meditation is said to be incomplete if it doesn't lead to positive changes in one's daily life and attitudes. In that spirit some Zen practitioners have promoted "Zen driving," aimed at reducing road rage.
Meditation is often presented not as a "free-standing" activity, but as one part of a wider spiritual tradition. Nevertheless, many meditators today do not follow an organized religion, or do not consider themselves to do so faithfully. Religious authorities typically insist that spiritual practices such as meditation belong in the context of a well-rounded religious life that may include ritual or liturgy, scriptural study, and the observance of religious laws or regulations.
Perhaps the most widely-cited spiritual prerequisite for meditation is an ethical lifestyle. Many martial arts teachers urge their students to respect parents and teachers, and inculcate other positive values. Some traditions incorporate "crazy wisdom" or intentionally transgressive acts, in their sacred lore if not in actual practice: Sufi poets (e.g. Rumi, Hafiz) celebrate the virtues of wine, which is forbidden in Islam.
Most meditative traditions discourage drug use. Exceptions include some forms of Hinduism, which have a long tradition of hashish or marijuana-using renunciates; and certain Native American traditions, which use peyote, ayahuasca, or other restricted substances in a religious setting.
A number of meditative traditions requires permission from a teacher or elder, who in turn has received permission from another teacher, and so on, in a lineage. Most Chinese traditions rely on the Confucian concept of a Sifu. Hinduism and Buddhism stress the importance of a spiritual teacher (Sanskrit guru, Tibetan lama). Orthodox Christianity has "spiritual elders" (Greek gerontas, Russian starets); Catholic religious have spiritual directors.
The immediate meditative environment is often held to be important. Several traditions incorporate cleansing rituals for the place where one meditates, and others offer instructions for an altar or other accessories.
Half-lotus position.Different spiritual traditions, and different teachers within those traditions, prescribe or suggest different physical postures for meditation. Most famous are the several cross-legged postures, including the Lotus Position. For example, the Dalai Lama recommends the Seven Points of Vairocana in which:
the legs are crossed in either the Lotus Position (here called the vajra position) or the other way, "Indian" or "tailor" fashion (here called the bodhisattva position)
the eyes are kept open (thus affirming the world)
the back is kept straight (like "an arrow" or "a stack of coins")
the shoulders are kept even and relaxed
the gaze is kept at a medium level—too low and one becomes drowsy; too high and one becomes restless
the mouth is kept slightly open
the tongue touches the roof of the mouth
Many meditative traditions teach that the spine should be kept "straight" (i.e. that the meditator should not slouch). Often this is explained as a way of encouraging the circulation of what some call "spiritual energy," the "vital breath", the "life force" (Sanskrit prana, Chinese qi, Latin spiritus) or the Kundalini. In some traditions the meditator may sit on a chair, flat-footed (as in New Thought); sit on a stool (as in Orthodox Christianity); or walk in mindfulness (as in Theravada Buddhism).
Bas-relief in Sukhothai, Thailand depicting monks during walking meditation.Various hand-gestures or mudras may be prescribed. These can carry theological meaning or according to Yogic philosophy can actually affect consciousness. For example, a common Buddhist hand-position is with the right hand resting atop the left (like the Buddha's begging bowl), with the thumbs touching.
Quiet is often held to be desirable, and some people use repetitive activities such as deep breathing, humming or chanting to help induce a meditative state. The Tibetan tradition described above is probably in the minority for recommending that the eyesremain open. Practitioners of the Soto Zen tradition also meditate with their eyes open, facing a wall, but most schools of meditation assume that the eyes will be closed or only half-open.
Often such details are shared by more than one religion, even in cases where mutual influence seems unlikely. One example would be "navel-gazing," which is apparently attested within Eastern Orthodoxy as well as Chinese qigong practice. Another would be the practice of focusing on the breath, which is found in Orthodox Christianity, Sufism, and numerous Indic traditions.
Sitting cross-legged (or upon one's knees) for extended periods when one is not sufficiently limber, can result in a range of ergonomic complaints called "meditator's knee".
Person can use any chair, stool, bench, anything that has a horizontal top, so that he or she may sit on it. The person sits up, with their back straight, and holds their head and spine in alignment. They rest their hands comfortably on their knees or arms of chair. Their thighs should be parallel to the floor while the person's back does not lean against the back of the chair.
Cross legged posture
Person crosses legs while seated on the floor (and on a cushion, if it is more comfortable) and unless skilled at yoga, does not attempt to rest feet on their thighs (like Indian yogis do). The person sits upright, back straight, and with their head and spine in alignment. Hands may rest in any position.
Person kneels on the floor with their knees together, buttocks resting on their heels and toes almost touching. They keep their back straight, head and spine in alignment, and rest their hands on their thighs.
Lying down posture
This is the savasna, or the corpse posture in yoga. Person lies down on a carpet, and makes sure legs are straight but relaxed. Normally, it is seldom used because it mimics natural sleeping postures, making it very easy to fall asleep while trying to meditiate. It is often regarded as more effective as a stress reducer rather than in the meditation process.
Frequency and duration
These vary so greatly that it is difficult to venture any general comments. On one extreme there exist monks and nuns whose whole lives are ordered around meditation; on the other hand, one-minute meditations are not out of the question.
Twenty or thirty minutes is broadly accepted as being a typical duration. Experienced meditators often find their sessions growing in length of their own accord. Observing the advice and instructions of one's spiritual teacher is generally held to be most beneficial.
Many traditions stress regular practice. Accordingly, many meditators experience guilt or frustration upon failing to do so. Possible responses range from perseverance to acceptance. Also, many meditators stress the importance of continual practice in order to strengthen concentration for prolonged meditation sessions as well as increased focus during their daily lives.
Purposes and effects of meditation
The purposes for which people meditate vary almost as widely as practices. Meditation may serve simply as a means of relaxation from a busy daily routine; as a technique for cultivating mental discipline; or as a means of gaining insight into the nature of reality, or of communing with one's God. Many report improved concentration, awareness, self-discipline and equanimity through meditation.
Many authorities avoid emphasizing the effects of meditation — sometimes out of modesty, sometimes for fear that the expectation of results might interfere with one's meditation. For theists, the effects of meditation are considered a gift of God or from the Holy Spirit/Ghost, and not something that is "achieved" by the meditator alone, just as some say that a person will not convert to Christianity without the influence of the Holy Spirit/Ghost's presence.
At the same time, many effects (or perhaps side-effects) have been experienced during, or claimed for, various types of meditation. These include:
Greater faith in, or understanding of, one's religion or beliefs
An increase in patience, compassion, and other virtues and morals or the understanding of them
Feelings of calm or peace, and/or moments of great joy
Consciousness of sin, temptation, and remorse, and a spirit of contrition.
Sensitivity to certain forms of lighting, such as fluorescent lights or computer screens, and sometimes heightened sense-perception.
Surfacing of buried memories, possibly including memories of previous lives and those of others, or that of those to come
Experience of spiritual phenomena such as kundalini, extra-sensory perception, or visions of deities, saints, demons, etc.
"Miraculous" abilities such as levitation (cf. yogic flying)
Psychotic episodes (see medical section below)
Some traditions acknowledge that many types of experiences and effects are possible, but instruct the meditator to keep in mind the spiritual purpose of the meditation, and not be distracted by lesser concerns. For example, Mahayana Buddhists are urged to meditate for the sake of "full and perfect enlightenment for all sentient beings" (the bodhisattva vow). Some, as in certain sects of Christianity, say that these things are possible, but are only to be supported if they are to the glory of God.
Health applications and clinical studies of meditation
Scenes of Inner Taksang, temple hall, built just above the cave where Padmasambhava meditatedIn the recent years there has been a growing interest within the medical community to study the physiological effects of meditation (Venkatesh et al., 1997; Peng et al., 1999; Lazar et al., 2000; Carlson et.al, 2001). Many concepts of meditation have been applied to clinical settings in order to measure its effect on somatic motor function as well as cardiovascular and respiratory function. Also the hermeneutic and phenomenological aspects of meditation are areas of growing interest. Meditation has entered the mainstream of health care as a method of stress and pain reduction. For example, in an early study in 1972, transcendental meditation was shown to affect the human metabolism by lowering the biochemical byproducts of stress, such as lactate, decreasing heart rate and blood pressure and inducing favorable brain waves. (Scientific American 226: 84-90 (1972)). In 1976, the Australian psychiatrist Ainslie Meares, reported in the Medical Journal of Australia, the regression of cancer following intensive meditation. Meares would go on to write a number of books, including his best-seller Relief without Drugs.
As a method of stress reduction, meditation is often used in hospitals in cases of chronic or terminal illness to reduce complications associated with increased stress including a depressed immune system. There is a growing consensus in the medical community that mental factors such as stress significantly contribute to a lack of physical health, and there is a growing movement in mainstream science to fund research in this area (e.g. the establishment by the NIH in the U.S. of 5 research centers to research the mind-body aspects of disease.) Dr. James Austin, a neurophysiologist at the University of Colorado, reported that Zen meditation rewires the circuitry of the brain in his landmark book Zen and the Brain (Austin, 1999). This has been confirmed using functional MRI imaging which examine the electricalactivity of the brain.
Dr. Herbert Benson of the Mind-Body Medical Institute, which is affiliated with Harvard and several Boston hospitals, reports that meditation induces a host of biochemical and physical changes in the body collectively referred to as the "relaxation response" (Lazar et.al, 2003). The relaxation response includes changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry. Benson and his team have also done clinical studies at Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayan Mountains.
Other studies within this field include the research of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts who have studied the effects of mindfulness meditation on stress (Kabat-Zinn et.al, 1985; Davidson et.al, 2003).
Meditation and the brain
Mindfulness meditation and related techniques are intended to train attention for the sake of provoking insight. Think of it as the opposite of attention deficit disorder. A wider, more flexible attention span makes it easier to be aware of a situation, easier to be objective in emotionally or morally difficult situations, and easier to achieve a state of responsive, creative awareness or "flow".
One theory, presented by Daniel Goleman & Tara Bennett-Goleman (2001), suggests that meditation works because of the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. In very simple terms, the amygdala is the part of the brain that decides if we should get angry or anxious (among other things), and the pre-frontal cortex is the part that makes us stop and think about things (it is also known as the inhibitory centre).
So, the prefrontal cortex is very good at analyzing and planning, but it takes a long time to make decisions. The amygdala, on the other hand, is simpler (and older in evolutionary terms). It makes rapid judgments about a situation and has a powerful effect on our emotions and behaviour, linked to survival needs. For example, if a human sees a lion leaping out at them, the amygdala will trigger a fight or flight response long before the prefrontal cortex responds.But in making snap judgments, our amygdalas are prone to error, such as seeing danger where there is none. This is particularly true in contemporary society where social conflicts are far more common than encounters with predators, and a basically harmless but emotionally charged situation can trigger uncontrollable fear or anger — leading to conflict, anxiety, and stress.
Because there is roughly a quarter of a second gap between the time an event occurs and the time it takes the amygdala to react, a skilled meditator may be able to intervene before a fight or flight response takes over, and perhaps even redirect it into more constructive or positive feelings.
The different roles of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex can be easily observed underthe influence of various drugs. Alcohol depresses the brain generally, but the sophisticated prefrontal cortex is more affected than less complex areas, resulting in lowered inhibitions, decreased attention span, and increased influence of emotions over behaviour. Likewise, the controversial drug ritalin has the opposite effect, because it stimulates activity in the prefrontal cortex.
Some studies of meditation have linked the practice to increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with concentration, planning, meta-cognition (thinking about thinking), and positive affect (good feelings). There are similar studies linking depression and anxiety with decreased activity in the same region, and/or with dominant activity in the right prefrontal cortex. Meditation increases activity in theleft prefrontal cortex, and the changes are stable over time — even if you stop meditating for a while, the effect lingers..
Meditation and EEGs
Electroencephalographs (EEG) recordings of skilled meditators showed a significant rise in gamma wave activity in the 80 to 120 Hz range during meditation. There was also a rise in the range of 25 to 42 Hz. These meditators had 10 to 40 years of training in Buddhist-based mental training. EEGs done on meditators who had received recent training demonstrated considerably less rise.
The experienced meditators also showed increased gamma activity while at rest and not meditating. The results of the study do not make clear whether meditation training creates this activity or if individuals with high gamma activity are attracted to meditation.
During meditation there is a modest increase in slow alpha or theta wave EEG activity.
Chang and Lo found different results.  First they classify five patterns in meditation based on the normal four frequency ranges (delta < 4Hz, theta 4 to <8Hz, alpha 8 to 13Hz, and beta >13Hz). The five patterns they found were:
2) delta + theta
3) theta + slow alpha
4) high-amplitude alpha
5) amplitude suppressed ("silent and almost flat")
They found pattern #5 unique and characterized by:
1) extremely low power (significant suppression of EEG amplitude)
2) corresponding temporal patterns with no particular EEG rhythm
3) no dominating peak in the spectral distribution
They had collected EEG patterns from more than 50 meditators over the prior five years. Five meditation EEG scenarios are then described. They further state that most meditation is dominated by alpha waves. They found delta and theta waves occurred ccasionally, sometimes while people fell asleep and sometimes not. In particular they found the amplitude suppressed pattern correlated with "the feeling of blessings."
One of the first Americans to study the effects of meditation on brainwave production was José Silva who founded the Silva Method. Silva theorized that meditation, in addition to stress relief, could also be used for enhancing creativity and developing intuition. 
Predominantly, studies of meditation report positive effects. However, some studies report that meditation may have adverse effects in certain circumstances (Lukoff, Lu & Turner, 1998; Perez-De-Albeniz & Holmes, 2000). If practiced improperly or too intensely, meditation can lead to considerable psychological and physiological problems. Serious and credible teachers of meditation usually warn their students about the possible pitfalls of a contemplative path.
Another issue concerns the adaptation of eastern meditative concepts to a western culture, an adaptation that is often unfamiliar with the cultural matrix that the meditative concept originated from. Eastern concepts of meditation are often imported to a western setting within the popular context of new religious movements, or within the context of popular approaches to body and health. It is common for this popular context to be unfamiliar with the broad range of adverse effects that might ccur during meditation, and to have limited tools for dealing with them when they do arise. Since the practice of meditation may include a powerful confrontation with existential questions, it is not considered wise to engage in intense meditation techniques without an extended period of psychological preparation, preferably in contact with a credible teacher or clinician. In the case of Asian contemplative traditions (Hindu, Buddhist), which has often originated within a monastic or reclusive context, there often exist major challenges connected to the way the particular meditation techniques are to be applied to a Western mindset without causing harm to the practitioner. For example passivity.
A growing body of clinical literature is now starting to address the phenomenon of meditation-related problems (Lukoff, Lu & Turner, 1998; Perez-De-Albeniz & Holmes, 2000). Several side-effects have been reported, including uncomfortable kinesthetic sensations, mild dissociation and psychosis-like symptoms (Craven, 1989). From a clinical study of twenty-seven long term meditators, Shapiro (1992) reported such adverse effects as depression, relaxation-induced anxiety and panic, paradoxical increases in tension, impaired reality testing, confusion, disorientation and feeling 'spaced out'. The possibility that meditation might trigger strong emotional reactions is also reported by Kutz, Borysenko & Benson (1985). Therefore, meditation might cause serious side effects, even among long-term practitioners, and might even, in some instances, be contraindicated. The tendency of meditation to release unconscious aterial (Perez-De-Albeniz & Holmes, 2000) implies that the beginning meditator should approach the practice with moderation
Particularly in the Chinese Qigong tradition, stories of unguided practitioners or inexpertly guided students developing chronic mental and physical health problems as a result of their attempts at meditation training are not uncommon. English speaking practitioners and teachers of Qigong and related disciplines note that the practice of this contemplative exercise is sometimes accompanied by physical and psychological distress. The identification of this syndrome has led to the inclusion of a culture-sensitive category in the DSM-IV called Qi-Gong Psychotic Reaction (American Psychiatric Association, 1994: Appendix 1).ditative traditions which nclude the use of drugs are generally considered to be harmful to the practitioner. Additionally, as with any practice, meditation may also be used to avoid facing ongoing problems or emerging crises in the meditator's life. In such situations, it may be helpful to apply mindful attitudes acquired in meditation while actively engaging with current problems (see Hayes et al, 1999, chap. 3; Metzner, 2005).
Meditation and drugs
Some modern methods of meditation do not include the use of drugs due to the known health problems associated with the use of some drugs. However, the use of stimulants has been proposed by some as a means to provide insight, and in some shamanistic traditions they are used as agents of ritual. Some Native American traditions for instance emphasized the smoking of a pipe containing tobacco, salvia divinorum or other plants. Some Hindu traditions use bhang, East Asian traditions use tea and Middle Eastern (and many Western) religions use coffee as an aid to meditation. During the 1960s, eastern meditation traditions and LSD became popular among many people, and many people suggested that LSD use and meditation were both means to the same spiritual/existential end. However, many people who had already been familiar with eastern traditions rejected this idea, including many who had tried LSD themselves. In The Master Game, de Ropp said that the door to full consciousness could be glimpsed through with the aid of substances, yet to pass beyond the door required yoga and meditation.
Notable Quotes about Meditation
"So, to meditate is to purge the mind of its self-centered activity. And if you have come this far in meditation, you will find there is silence, a total emptiness. The mind is uncontaminated by society; it is no longer subject to any influence, to the pressure of any desire. It is completely alone, and being alone, untouched it is innocent. Therefore there is a possibility for that which is timeless, eternal, to come into being. This whole process is meditation." -- Jiddu Krishnamurti