Meditation is a word of many meanings.
For some it is guided meditations, where people tell you about walking through a deep wood, for some it is thinking and deeply pondering problems, for some it is prayer, for some it is a mantra.
There are a lot of ideas about what meditation does. Some think it is just to relax, some think it is the most important key to becoming enlightened. Some think it can have a measurable effect and others don't. There are a number of people who attribute the dissolution of the Cold War to an increase in meditation.
My experience with meditation in Hinduism is the mantra-based kind.
The idea of a mantra meditation is that you are training your mind. We do not want to be slaves to our thoughts and our racing mind, we want to be the master of it. Thoughts are fine, they have their place, but it is better to have the control of mind to choose when to think and when to simply act. Practice would ideally make someone able to stop the chattering in the head that clouds our lives. The practice is to repeat a mantra silently over and over while sitting up very straight ("as though drawn by a string from above"). When thoughts come in, as they inevitably do, one gently brings one's attention back to the mantra.
The mantra itself can be a word or a phrase or a whole poem.
I'm going to start by telling you about my own experience with meditation and then tell you more about it's history and varieties.
My parents have meditated since before I was born. They meditate for half an hour at dawn and half an hour at dusk, every day, without fail. I have never known them to miss it, no matter where they are. My mother sits on a chair, and my father uses a wooden meditation bench. He times the half hour on his watch.
When I was a young child I was fascinated by this practice and terribly curious. I wanted to know what the mantra was. But my parents wouldn't tell me. They said it was a sacred word, not to be spoken out loud except during the initiation ceremony. Saying it out loud would dissipate its spiritual energies. I was desperate to know what it was.
My mom tells me that I used to make my Barbie dolls meditate.
I started taking classes when I was ten in preparation to being initiated into meditation. At 13, the ceremony was performed. An official initiator flew to America from England. We cleaned the School building and put fresh flowers everywhere. A number of people were being initiated. I brought a basket with fruit, a white cloth, and some other items to present to the initiator. I was brought to a room where he started chanting the mantra and motioned for me to join him. For five minutes or so we chanted the mantra, a single word, over and over. Then I went to a second room to practice with an older practitioner. We silently meditated for ten minutes.
After that I was expected to meditate for half an hour in the morning and half an hour at night, ideally as close to dawn and dusk as possible.
At first I was completely thrilled to have taken this step toward being an adult member of my community. I excitedly told my best friend's family about it at dinner at their house. Her much older cousin told me that the only reason that they said the mantra was "secret" was that they didn't want me to know that everyone in the organization had the same mantra.
I was pretty shocked that she wanted to stamp on my pride and excitement. I guess she was just nervous that this was a cult situation. But I already knew that everyone had the same mantra, it was selected for the School by a Chankaracharya in India. I was unfazed by her negativity.
However, I soon found that the rules were a burden. I hated the pressure and expectation of how often I should be meditating. It was so, so hard to sit still for 30 minutes at a time when there were so many other things I could be doing. I was guilted about it frequently, told that meditation was the most important practice and the only thing that would lead me to my goal of enlightenment. It became something my parents nagged me about. Every day: "Have you meditated yet?" For the most part, I stopped completely, only doing it when on retreats or at the School.
I had a resurgence of meditation after a girl in my freshman college dorm was killed in a car accident. I was terrified of dying and I knew that meditation was what I was supposed to be doing with my life.
Since then I have stopped again. My parents always said that it "works in the dark" and so I should not expect results from meditation, but I have little motivation to do something that isn't bringing me any particular satisfaction or joy. In fact, it mostly calls to mind memories of sitting outside at dawn, freezing cold, and trying not to nod off and fall of my chair in front of a strict tutor.
I still use the mantra to try to help me fall asleep and I meditate for a few minutes as part of my puja in the mornings.
My mind is far from calm, so it might be worth finding a meditation technique that really can control my mind. There are others available.
The meditation I was taught is called Transcendental Meditation. In the form it is done today, it was invented by the Maharishi in the 1950s (though he claims that its origins are 5,000 years old).
In the 1960s and 70s the Maharishi traveled the Western world. The founder of the School was initiated in England at that time. He was so impressed with the technique, that he founded his School on it.
For this type of meditation you must be initiated. It is considered dangerous to choose your own mantra because you don't know the subtle vibrations of those sounds and what effect they might have on your psyche.
On the other hand, a wonderful teacher named Eknath Easwaran has encouraged everyone to create his own meditation practice. The thing I love most about Easwaran is that his voice is so calm and clear and full of joy. Everything I read of his leaves me feeling at peace and like life is really a delightful game. Art has left some links to his material, so I'm reposting one of those links on Easwaran's meditation technique.
He encourages people to choose a passage that is meaningful to them, a prayer or a poem from any tradition. Please read and enjoy his page about meditation: http://easwaran.org/page/101 There is an organization of his followers called the Blue Mountain Center in Northern California. I went to one of their retreats once and had a delightful time. http://www.easwaran.org/page/220
I've always been uncomfortable with the guided meditations, but some people find them very relaxing and helpful. Yoga teachers are often good resources for this style.
Buddhists often meditate for many hours at a time and I don't know how they do it! We were told that the hour a day was the correct measure, but there are many monks who think there should be a lot more meditation.
Some traditions use mala beads to count mantras, similar to a rosary.
Meditation is something that has loomed so large in my life and now I'm not sure that it deserved such an exalted place. I think it is valuable and is part of my "spiritual arsenal" as it were, but not the most important thing. To me, the guilt and pressure associated with it negated whatever positive effect I might have gotten. I may go back to it now that I am removed from that pressure, but I also may not. I'm not sure yet.
Since all I know well is TM and I've had just a little exposure to other forms, I am curious to do some more research about the history of meditation in Hinduism. I'll let you all know what I discover!
I think I will soon write a post about Sanskrit, the language of all the holy books of Hinduism, and what people believe about it.