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Meditation in Different Religions

Meditation is an intensely personal and spiritual experience. Indeed, it is a way of attaining balance and contentment even in adverse situations. If our minds are peaceful, we are free from worries and mental discomfort; but if our minds are not peaceful, we will not be happy, even if we are living with the most comfortable external conditions.

Meditation usually involves a person’s attention, allowing it to turn into a single point of reference. Because of its effectiveness in leading a person’s consciousness to a higher level than that of a common person, meditation is now being practiced by people all over the world.

In fact, the most elementary use of meditation is to relax the mind and the body. In modern times, it has been welcomed as a tool for relief in a stress-filled life. It is claimed that there are great effects from meditation, including the treatment of migraines, lowering blood pressure, decreasing stress on the heart, and strengthening the immune system.

All religions have introduced ways and approaches in their own characteristic styles to help people practice meditation. As meditation has a spiritual element, it forms an integral part of religions.

Meditation takes place in a state of inner and outer stillness, though its styles may vary according to the specific religious framework within which they are placed.

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In Hinduism and Buddhism meditation is closely aligned to asceticism and mysticism. The Semitic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — on the other hand, have placed more emphasis on the common man in society by introducing regulatory laws to order day-to-day life; and for that reason, they afford to meditation only a comparatively subsidiary role.

Meditation in Hinduism

One of the religions known to practice meditation is Hinduism. It is considered the oldest religion that focuses on meditation as a spiritual and religious practice. There are several forms of meditation practiced by Hindus. Principal among them is Yoga, one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy. It provides several types of meditation.

In Hinduism, the object of meditation is to achieve a calm state of mind. The Yoga philosopher Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga gives a detailed analysis of meditation. (How to Meditate)

According to him, meditation has three stages: “Dharana”, “Dhyana”, and “Samadhi”.

“Dharana” literally means “unmoving concentration of the mind”. The objective in dharana is to steady the mind by focusing its attention upon some stable entity. One may practice focusing attention on a single inanimate object. After the mind becomes prepared for meditation, it is better able to focus efficiently on one subject or point of experience. It is emphasized that meditation is not meant as an escape from reality, but rather as “a movement towards the perception of the true nature of Self.” (How to Meditate)

“Dhyana” in Ashtanga Yoga, means worship or profound and abstract religious meditation. It involves concentration upon a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it.

During dhyana, one learns to differentiate between “the mind of the perceiver, the means of perception, and the objects perceived — between words, their meanings and ideas, and even between all the levels of natural evolution.”

Dhyana is apprehension of real identity among apparent differences. If dharana is the contact, then dhyana is the connection.

The final step in Ashtanga Yoga is Samadhi. Samadhi means “to bring together, to merge”. In samadhi, our personal identities completely disappear.

“At the moment of samadhi none of that exists anymore. We become one with the Divine Entity.” The person capable of samadhi retains his individuality and person, but is free of the emotional attachment to it. (Yoga and SPA)

The prerequisite of a meditative state of mind, according to Hindu philosophers, is “an absolute harmony between our gross physical realm, sensual realm and our life energy.”  (Yoga and SPA)

Meditation in Judaism

Judaism has an uncertain relationship with meditation, and many Orthodox Jews question whether it is really “Jewish” to meditate.

It is pointed out that both ancient Kabbalic and Hasidic texts support the practice of gaining understanding through intense logical reflection. (Meditation Expert)

Meditation conducted otherwise is considered non-Jewish in nature and delusional. For Jews, enlightenment follows from a deep, concentrated and analytical understanding of the Torah (the Old Testament).

Many Jews argue that contemplative, non-rational meditation is useful for developing a better understanding of God, with some claiming that meditation was clearly practised by Old Testament prophets.

According to Avram Davis, who wrote The Way of Flame, an introduction to the practice of meditation, “Judaism embraces the idea of relationships, love, passion. In Judaism these are the keys to unlocking the doors of enlightenment.” (Meditation brings mindfulness to Judaism, last accessed on August 31, 2009)

Davis says there is a longing for stillness in people, especially now, when most people live busy and complicated lives.

Jewish meditation tradition has been hidden for centuries, since rabbis worried that it might lead to idolatry, or that might be of danger to uninitiated people. At the time of emancipation, meditation was strongly disavowed by secularized Jews because it was reminder of ghetto life considered “old-fashioned”. During the Holocaust, most of the Eastern European rabbis who had held on to the knowledge of it were killed.

Jewish meditation as described is any kind of meditation done in a Jewish context, in the service of Jewish spiritual activity. The basic definition and aim of Jewish meditation is “stabilizing the mind”. (Jewish Meditation)

One of the techniques used in Jewish meditation is accurately visualizing a letter (aleph-bet); and this is considered to be a very powerful meditative technique. And another one is using prayers; and if one does not know what to say in prayer, then one may just repeat the phrase “Ribbono shel Olam” (master of the universe). The method used is traditional and timeless for arriving at a stabilized mind, which is believed to be the foundation for a good life and service of man and God. (Jewish Meditation)

Meditation in Christianity

As in Judaism, meditation does not have a central place in Christianity as well. At the same time, we find some importance given to it in Christian spiritual training. The objective is to become detached from thoughts and images and to open up silent gaps between them.

In Christian mystical practice, this is called “contemplation”.

According to Mary Jo Meadow, “Christianity includes a call to meditate, but it never provides a method of meditating.” (Buddhism – When Christianity Meet Buddhism)
Mary Jo Meadow as well as Kevin Culligan and Daniel Chowning — her co-authors of the book, Christian Insight Meditation: Following in the Footsteps of John of the Cross — integrate ancient Buddhist meditation within a Christian contemplative prayer tradition.

They are often called “Buddhist Christians”, as they apply Buddhist techniques to their spiritual exploration of Christianity.

Christopher Boozell, author of Tantric Christianity employs Buddhist techniques of meditation expressed through the rich imagery of Christianity to address this yearning for direct experience. (Tantric Christianity)
Christian meditation is said to have begun with the early Christians. But with the Protestant Reformation, meditation was rejected along with other practices. Yet it is still understood as a part of the Christian tradition by the Catholic and Episcopal traditions.

Meditation in Islam

Islam does not permit a spiritual life that is completely separate from one’s worldly life. It rejects the purely ascetic view of life that looks down upon God’s blessings in this world.

From the Islamic point of view, the spiritual development of humans is possible only in this world, and not outside of it, as lonely places fit for solitary hermits.

Mankind’s God-appointed status as God’s vicegerent on earth demands that it should direct all its energies towards regulating the affairs of this world in the way God wants them to be regulated.
In Islam, spiritual development is synonymous with nearness to God; and nearness to God can be achieved only through unconditional obedience to Him.
From the Islamic point of view, therefore, religious people are not recluses. They have to engage in this world like secular people, with the difference that all their efforts are made with the knowledge that they are answerable to God, so that all their actions will be in accordance with God’s laws.
The first condition for spiritual progression in Islam is faith, the mind and heart of a person should always be aware: God alone is his or her Master, Sovereign, and Deity.
The second condition is obedience, meaning that the person gives up his or her independence and accepts subservience to God. This subservience effectively means that he or she should fashion his or her entire life in obedience to God’s laws.
The third condition is piety (God-consciousness). Piety means desisting from everything God has forbidden; so that we are ready to observe the distinctions between the lawful and the unlawful in all areas of life.

The last condition is that of perfect righteousness. It signifies that people should strive for harmonizing their wills with the will of God. People who reach this stage attain the highest pinnacle of spirituality and are nearest to God. (The Spiritual Path of Islam)
Islam’s methods of spiritual development rest on the Five Pillars:

The first is the Prayer (salah), which brings man into communion with God five times a day.
The second is fasting (sawm), which for a full month every year trains each person individually in righteousness and self-restraint.
The third is the obligatory almsgiving (zakah)which develops the sense of monetary sacrifice, sympathy, and co-operation among people.
The fourth is the pilgrimage (hajj), which aims at the fostering of the universal brotherhood of the faithful based on the worship of God.
Five times a day, during the ritual Prayer called salah, Muslims should be in a meditative frame of mind, if their prayers are to be effective.

True prayer is visualizing the presence of God in a contemplative frame of mind as the it is offered; and certainly this is a powerful spiritual experience. While in Makkah, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) used to spend days and nights in the Cave of Mount Hira meditating.

Apart from the Prayer, meditation is at the center of fasting in the month of Ramadan.
Islamic meditation is based on contemplation, called “tafakkur” in the Quran, which is a reflection upon the wonders of the universe leading to a worshipful appreciation of Allah Almighty’s creative power. (Meditation in Islam)

Some mystical forms of meditation, developed by some Sufis in a later period of Islam are controversial, as they sometimes lead to practices antithetical to Islamic teachings. Proper Islamic meditation is in conformity with the principles and practices of the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him).

About Professor Shahul Hameed
Professor Shahul Hameed is an Islamic consultant. He also held the position of the President of the Kerala Islamic Mission, Calicut, India. He is the author of three books on Islam published in the Malayalam language. His books are on comparative religion, the status of women, and science and human values.