The antidote? Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a quality you can cultivate in any situation—whether you're walking down the street or washing the dishes. Although grounded in Buddhism, this practice is accessible to people of any faith. In mindfulness meditation you stop the restlessness of your mind by focusing your undivided attention on whatever you're experiencing in the here and now. The simplest version involves simply focusing on your breath. By enhancing your awareness in this way, you calm your mind, experience life more fully, and bring new clarity of thought to any situation that comes your way.
Jewish spiritual leaders are finding fresh applications for teaching meditations based in Jewish mysticism, called kabbalah. Kabbalah teaches that meditation is a direct way to experience God, or the divine. Kabbalistic meditation techniques include visualizing the Divine Name.
A good meditation to start out with is the Shema meditation described in Aryeh Kaplan's classic 1985 text "Jewish Meditation." Shema, which is Hebrew for “Hear,” is the word that begins Judaism’s holiest prayer, the fundamental affirmation of Jewish faith in one God. Inhale silently, and exhale "shh." Then inhale again silently, and exhale "mmm." Repeat this process, allowing it to draw you deeper and deeper into the "mmm" sound. This practice helps the meditator achieve a meditative state. Another meditation to experiment with involves focusing upon a Shviti, a line from Psalm 16 inscribed on a plaque that Jews traditionally focused on before meditation, to help them reach another state of consciousness.
Yogis believe that breathing from the diaphragm is a key to good health, and that real happiness comes from the recognition of our innate divinity—so many Hindu meditations combine deep breathing with the chanting of mantras, sacred sounds representing the particular holy names of Hindu deities (the mantra for Ganesha, the elephant god, is "Gam," for instance; the mantra for Krishna is "Klim.")
Hinduism is so linked with meditation in the average American's mind that one might almost believe Hinduism is only about quiet contemplation. Actually, Hindu meditation is one of several forms of expression, "one conveyance of many used on the spiritual journey," says Marcia Z. Nelson in "Come and Sit: A Week Inside Meditation Centers." Not to say it’s not important: As the mantras are chanted and repeated, the deity's qualities are invoked, and a "transcendental" awareness that moves beyond ordinary perception is attained. There’s a nice reciprocity today between Americans practicing Buddhist meditation and Americans using Hindu or older Vedic practices. They seem to all see there is much to learn from listening and trying each other’s methods.
This is a taste of Zazen, the fundamental practice in Zen Buddhism. A Japanese word that literally means "sitting zen" or "sitting concentration," it’s about the experience of emptiness, the depth of nothing.
In Zazen, more than other methods, correct posture is paramount. Back straight. Nose in line with the navel, ears squared with shoulders, chin tucked slightly.
Lips are closed, teeth together, and the tip of your tongue is resting peacefully at the roof of your mouth, just behind the front teeth. This is the position the Buddha was in when he received enlightenment. Start by counting your breaths: one, two…; however, if a thought intrudes upon your counting and you say to yourself, "Oh good, now I'm up to three breaths with no thinking," then you have have to go back to one since the aim is not to think about anything (because of this most beginners count "One, one, one..."). Zazen may sound hard to do with all its emphasis on discipline, but it’s the "meditator’s meditation" and will become relaxing in time. You can try it on your own but eventually you'll want to find a good teacher who'll inspire and move you more than you thought possible. Uh-oh, you're thinking again!
The labyrinth walk is a metaphoric journey. The path is your pilgrimage. And the path keeps you focused on your next step. You can find large, walk-able reproductions of the famous 14th century eleven-circuit labyrinth from Chartres Cathedral in many places today; large inner-city cathedrals and other Christian places of worship tend to provide the walk to visitors, though the actual labyrinth concept is said to pre-date Christianity. You can also purchase canvas labyrinth walks for your back yard, smaller "finger" labyrinths for your home or desk, or better still—with planning, you can mow a labyrinth in your back yard or a field by carving a simplified walkway out of the grass, or outlining a path with stones. Many people who make their own labyrinths find the act of creating a path to walk a wonderful part of the whole experience. The walk to the labyrinth’s center has its twists and turns—even moments that feel like failure, for the path sometimes seems to be taking you in the opposite direction of where you feel you ought to go. But that’s a nice part of the mystery. There are no mistakes. You will get to where you need to be. The thoughts drop away as you walk and focus inward.
The goal of lovingkindness, or metta meditation, is to cultivate compassion. Metta comes from the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Southeast Asia, and means friendship, good will, love, or as meditation instructor Sharon Salzberg puts it, "The ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as parts of the world."
In this practice, you acknowledge the interconnectedness of all beings and open your heart to the suffering of others. Beginning with a loving acceptance of the self, your compassion then radiates to loved ones, and ultimately, all sentient beings. You can repeat a single word like "lovingkindness," or concentrate on an internal mantra, like "May all beings be happy." This warmheartedness grows with practice, and provides the foundation for insight meditation.
There is a strong contemplative tradition in Islam, beginning with the Prophet Muhammad himself, who went to Mt. Hirah (outside of Mecca, Saudi Arabia) to meditate every day.
Even ritual prayers are not considered valid, he believed, if they are practiced without "presence of heart," or mindfulness. Although the daily prayers all Muslims say can have a contemplative quality, it is especially the Sufis (Islamic mystics) who are known for specific meditation techniques in Islam, including chanting and ecstatic dance (whirling). The Mevlevi Wird, the daily litany of prayers that has been recited by Mevlevi dervishes for hundreds of years, is an example of how one mystical lineage uses the Qur'an for contemplation. In the accompanying audio clip, an Arabic recitation follows the English.
In the increasingly popular method called Insight or Vipassana (which literally translates to "clear seeing"), the practitioner works systematically to calm the mind, concentrate on the breath, and heighten awareness of the present moment. The mind—with all its distractions—is something to watch during meditation without judgment or reaction.
The method repeatedly nudges the participant into just paying attention and staying present in the moment, which frees one from past and future conditioning (also known as karma). While sitting, students work to recognize sounds and other sensations, then let them fall from mind without attachment. Students of Insight alternate sitting meditations with walking meditations, and a variety of postures are permissible as long as the back is basically straight. In regard to time and frequency of practice, Insight teachers Arinna Weisman and Jean Smith say that once or twice a day is ideal, but "do not judge yourself if you cannot sit this often, because punishing yourself is not part of this practice."
Transcendental Meditation®, or TM®, was the world's most talked-about meditation method during the 1960s and 1970s. Its founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was George Harrison's teacher when the late Beatle convinced the rest of the group to meditate with the master in India. Today, both the practice and the swami are alive and kicking, but with the rise in other meditative trainings, some of the TM® organization's protectiveness about the content of its training sessions seems unnecessary in today's meditation marketplace. Nevertheless, the method retains its relevance, and no one can deny that it has done wonders for millions (TM® claims that five million folks are practicing the method today). The worldwide organization continues on its peaceful mission in some 1,200 centers in 108 countries. Though the act of repeating the holy sound of the mantra is a practice that Hindus believe will bring you closer to the deities, TM® is essentially non-religious. Two 20-minute sessions, one in the morning and one in the evening, while seated with eyes closed are recommended.
If you've always believed Christians don't meditate, think again. In the 1970s, saddened by the numbers of young people leaving the church--many of them drawn to Eastern religions and especially meditation—Trappist monk Thomas Keating realized that few people outside of monasteries even knew that contemplative Christian practices existed.
Hoping to inspire people to return to their roots, Keating worked with other monks to develop a simple, easy-to-learn "centering" prayer for lay people. Drawn from the church's own centuries-old contemplative traditions, the current practice of centering prayer offers practitioners a way to quiet the mind and rest in an intimate communion with God. Keating describes it as "two friends sitting in silence, just being in each other's presence." He also calls this practice a long journey, one in which your relationship with God deepens as you reach different levels of union. Just think of a sacred word to meditate on, and you're on your way.
Dzogchen (pronounced Zog-chen) is the Natural Great Perfection teaching of Tibetan Buddhism, and is practiced by his Holiness the Dalai Lama, among others. This simple, direct-access approach promotes the attitude that our being (or Buddha nature) is complete and our wholeness is innate, "perfect and pure from the beginningless beginning," claims Beliefnet columnist Lama Surya Das, who founded a prominent Dzogchen center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
These Buddhist teachings tell us that we have everything we need, that all is within. Dzogchen does not emphasize the development of special states of concentration, or the cultivation of the mind through mantra chanting or visualization; instead, it emphasizes the inherent freedom and radiance of spiritual being. Often practiced with eyes open, Dzogchen is known for "natural" meditation according to the three principles of Natural Body, Natural Breath and Energy, and Natural HeartMind, through the three points of "Just Sitting," "Just Breathing," and "Just Being." In Tibetan, Dzogchen is called "swift and easy," "the practice of Buddhas," and is the way to awaken the Buddha within us.
Experts say as many as two-thirds of the world’s population pray with beads, and Catholics have been doing it since at least the 12th century. Praying the rosary involves reciting a series of prayers while reflecting deeply on important events in Jesus' and Mary's lives, called "mysteries."
A "mystery," explains author George Weigel, is not something that must be solved like a crime, but rather an "essential truth” that can be grasped only through an encounter with Jesus Christ. So you meditate on one of the mysteries—for example, Christ's birth—while reciting the Our Father, a decade (10) of Hail Marys, and a short prayer called the Glory Be. This series of prayers comprises one decade; a full rosary consists of five decades, plus introductory and concluding prayers. If that sounds like a lot to keep track of, well, that's what the beads are for: you touch one one bead for each prayer you do to keep track of your progress. Many find that praying the rosary is not mindless repetition, but a powerful contemplative experience that brings one closer to God. "Praying the beads can be as simple as breathing," says author Gloria Hutchinson, "and as satisfying as holding a mother's hand."
In the Hindu system of healing, "chakras" are the seven spheres, or vortexes, of energy running up the length of our bodies, mainly near the spine. Keeping these centers uncongested and balanced is an important factor in the health of mind and body. Certain yoga postures are said to be good for clearing chakras.
But meditation is another time-honored way to keep this energy circulating. The word "chakra" means spinning wheel in Sanskrit, and chakras are envisioned as four- to six-inch spheres of energy starting at the base of the spine (the root chakra), followed by the sacral chakra, naval (or solar plexus), heart, third eye, and crown (which resides at the top of the head and is sometimes considered a doorway to God, taking in and pumping out divine love). Chakra meditations are more active than other types of meditation. In them, we visualize these focal points of consciousness, breathe in and out beautiful colors (for each chakra has a color assigned to it), and get acquainted with the marvelous physical bodies we occupy in this lifetime. Chakra meditations are great for beginners since a teacher (or in this case, the narrator of our next audio selection) is always in charge, providing lots of instruction. Concentration is developed since you have to listen, and not tune out.
When someone you know is sick, when you wonder what you can do about all the pain in the world, or when you're dealing with a crisis yourself, the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen offers a way to direct your awareness toward healing.
"What keeps us unhappy," says Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, "is our tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain."
Tonglen (the word means "giving and receiving") challenges you to embrace the undesirable aspects of experience and transform them, using the breath. On the inhalation, visualize taking in negativity and suffering; on the exhalation, radiate love and peace. Breathing in negativity might seem counterintuitive, even scary, but by opening your heart in this way you overcome fear and self-absorption while developing your capacity for compassion—for yourself and others. This technique can be practiced in sitting meditation or during everyday activities—for example, while facing a grumpy salesclerk or arguing with a friend.