Making Sense of Meditation and Prayer

Whole Systems Healthcare

The term meditation encompasses a broad variety of mental-training practices that vary between cultures and traditions, ranging from techniques designed to promote physical health, relaxation, and improved concentration, to exercises performed with farther-reaching goals, such as developing a heightened sense of well-being, cultivating altruistic behaviors, and, for some, attaining enlightenment. There are many different types of meditation that have been practiced throughout the world for thousands of years. Meditation and prayer often go hand in hand, as they both involve developing and cultivating an internal experience through concentrating the mind. Often meditation and prayer are associated with religious practices, but more recently meditation and prayer are being recommended in everyday as well as clinical settings as techniques for stress reduction, self-understanding, self-mastery, and cultivating a sense of happiness and joy.

There are two main types of meditation, and each have subcategories of meditation styles. Here, we’ll just focus on the two main types. One involves the practice of developing objective awareness of sensations as they are, without interpreting them whatsoever. You might think of this simply as pure observation of one’s sensory experience. Examples include cultivating awareness of breath sensations, or practicing focusing on an external object of concentration, such as a candlelight or a sound. The other type involves conditioning reality with the mind, and might involve visualizing a pleasant object, chanting a repetitive musical affirmation, practicing loving kindness, or praying to a higher power for clarity or assistance. You might think of this as intentional conditioning of one’s sensory experience.

Explaining the different types of meditation in detail would take up a whole book, or perhaps several, so we’ll focus on one meditation type that can serve as a great starting point for your practice. In order to meditate, you first need to concentrate your mind. Try finding a quiet place where you can sit with an upright but relaxed posture, with your neck and back relatively straight. You can sit on the floor, on a cushion, or in a chair. Now you can start concentrating your mind by practicing focusing on a specific object of concentration for extended periods of time. We recommend working with your body’s physical sensations first, starting with the breath. You might want to focus your awareness on a small area, like the sensation of breath moving in and out of your nostrils. For five minutes, try focusing only on your breath sensations. While meditating, you might find that you mind wanders regularly; that’s fine, just bring your awareness back to the sensation of your breath, and try to remain aware of your breath for a little longer this time. You may notice your mind rolling in the background as you remain aware of breath sensations. That’s perfectly fine, just keep resting your focus on the sensations. Eventually, you might find that you are able to be aware of breath sensations for five seconds before your mind wanders. With practice, your awareness will extend to 10 seconds, then 20 seconds, then a whole minute. If you can be constantly aware of your breath sensations for a whole minute continuously, then you have made significant progress in concentrating your mind. In time, you might practice developing awareness of sensations throughout your body.

Please Note

It is important to remember that meditation involves a process of waking up to one’s inner reality, thereby becoming more conscious of one’s subconscious experience. Sometimes, the practice of meditation can illuminate some uncomfortable sensations within the body. Moreover, while developing awareness and equanimity does make one calmer and more resilient, it also makes one’s experience of the body more vivid. Therefore, while living mindfully and meditating for an extended period of time, people may acknowledge you as seeming very peaceful and calm, while your inner experience may be vivid and intense at times. Individuals who have experienced severe trauma or have a mental health diagnosis should speak with a meditation expert before taking on a meditation practice, as going inside may be overwhelming for some, and may result in dissociation or exacerbate an existing condition. Those who wish to take on a more serious meditation practice should consult an expert as well.