In 1902, the great American philosopher William James published a seminal book, Varieties of Religious Experience. Not himself religious, he asked a number of people what they meant by “religion.” Perhaps not surprisingly, he found that this common word had many meanings, ranging from piety to mysticism to saintliness.
In the same way, the term “meditation” has many possible meanings, from a state of deep relaxation conducive to better physical health, to a spiritual union with something beyond the human — with dozens of possibilities between.
Although some meditation teachers offer definitions so narrow that only their practice can qualify, when my co-author Eleanor Viereck and I began to compile a guide to the subject, we found dozens of options for people who want to learn to meditate or to expand upon their repertoire of meditation practices. We also discovered that people have varying reasons to pursue such a practice. Some are drawn by the desire to deal with a medical problem such as hypertension or insomnia, both of which have been shown to respond well to meditation. Others seek a spiritual practice that will draw them away from the hurly-burly of daily life. Yet others seek a way of freeing up their imaginations and becoming more creative. Any or all of these can be reasons to look for a meditation practice.
What happens when someone who wants to deal with insomnia enrolls in a rigorous class in a course in Zen meditation? Or if someone who wants to create more spiritual space in her life registers for a health-oriented hatha yoga class? Most likely, they will join the long list of meditation drop-outs, people who say, “I tried that, but it just didn’t work for me.”
But switch them around. The insomniac finds relief and relaxation in hatha yoga, and the seeker finds that Zen offers the spiritual discipline she sought. But there are many other options: the Zen drop-out might have tried biofeedback to get the results he needed. The spiritual seeker might have embraced an indigenous tradition such as drumming. Or she might have found a new connection to a religion of origin through meditative traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
For every successful meditator today, a dozen people have tried unsuccessfully to develop a meditation practice. Yet by defining what they seek and exploring multiple options, even meditation drop-outs can find the right practice to meet their needs.
Questions to consider when considering meditation:
- What is your reason for meditating? Do you seek to deal with stress or chronic pain? To become more attuned to life’s spiritual essence? To become more aware of others and the needs of society? To enter an altered state of consciousness? To become more deeply conscious of the natural world? To enhance your creative abilities? Specific forms of meditation will lead you to each of those goals.
- Do you practice a specific religion? Does that religion discourage you from exploring other spiritual paths? Or, if you are not a member of a religion at this time, does religious imagery get in the way of your accepting a teaching? Depending on your relationship to organized religion, you will find some meditative practices more suitable than others.
- Can you meditate daily? While this is ideal, there are some forms of meditation that can be practiced less frequently.
- Can you meditate alone? Can you meditate with others? Depending on your level of self-discipline and distractability, different forms of meditation will present themselves as suitable.
- Do you have physical limitations? Even meditative styles that require movement can usually be adapted for those with limited mobility.
- Do you have an emotional or mental disorder? Most meditative styles enhance, rather than detract from, the lives of those with mental or emotional disorders. However, certain techniques can be difficult for such individuals.
Finding an appropriate meditative practice is the first step. Sticking with it is the next, and most important, one. All meditative forms require a commitment of time and effort. You won’t know whether a meditation form is right for you without trying it out for many months, at least. Choosing well at the beginning of your journey will contribute to a positive experience, but sticking with your practice is what finally leads to the results you seek.
Patricia Monaghan is the author of Meditation: The Complete Guide, The Red Haired Girl from the Bog, and numerous other titles. She lives in Chicago, Illinois and lectures frequently on connections between mythology, spirituality, women’s studies, and science. Visit her online at www.patricia-monaghan.com.