Meditation: Isn’t That a Religious Thing?

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“I can’t meditate! My head’s too crowded with thoughts!” “Meditation? Isn’t that a religious thing?” “Sure, meditation can help–but who has time?”

There’s a commonly held impression that meditation means sitting in lotus position and chanting while focusing on a mandala for the purpose of achieving enlightenment, and is a practice only for Buddhists or New Age believers. While this is in fact one interpretation…it is not the only one.

Meditation is also a practice of Islam, Christianity, Taoism, Judaism, Sikhism, Baha’i faith, and Jainism (aka, Zoroastrianism). The Friends Society, often referred to as Quakers, a religious organization historically Christian but now humanistic, has made group meditation–”inviting Spirit”–their primary practice. Others practice regular meditation without any direct religious affiliation, whether for spiritual or health purposes. A Buddhist form called “Mindfulness” has been secularized and made popular in education, business, and therapeutic settings.

Scientific study has shown that meditative practice can slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, strengthen memory and focus, and decrease pain and stress response while also increasing immunity. Considering that the stress response and low immunity are considered primary causes of disease, this is not insignificant. As we now know that neural regeneration occurs through the lifetime, there is fair evidence that meditation can reorganize neural circuitry–that is, it can help to “rewire” our brains.

Non-Asian peoples often claim to find difficulty in the Asian forms of meditation which are receptive and include an “emptying of the mind”. In fact, non-Asian traditions of meditative practice are not receptive but contemplative, taking a specific focus rather than one of “the void”. One Asian practice, that of Zen Buddhism which focuses on a seeming paradox, or koan, is somewhat similar.

And there are many physical forms of meditation as well; it’s not all about sitting in lotus or zazen position! Tai Chi, Chi Gong, meditative forms of yoga are some alternate examples, as is the “zone” experienced by athletes, or the “flow” of an artist when creating. Japanese gardens have been designed for the purpose of moving meditation. Even Chinese Calligraphic Handwriting [CCH] can be a meditative act–and is also used to complement psychotherapy.

Dr Angeles Arrien is a cultural anthropologist who has conducted extensive field study in physical forms of meditation, and found four to be universal: sitting, reclining, standing, and moving. In her “Four-Fold Way”, she has further equated these, based on her cross-cultural studies as to their purposes. for learning / enlightenment (sitting), healing (reclining), inner strength / power / self-esteem (standing), and creativity / inspiration / innovation (moving). She further equates them with the Jungian archetypes of Teacher/Counselor (sitting), Healer/Caretaker (reclining), Warrior/Leader (standing), and Visionary/Creative Problem-solver (moving). Meditation, clearly, can be used for many purposes.

I have meditated almost daily for the past 25 years–typically out-of-doors, a majority of the time at water’s edge, always at sunrise. The meditation begins the moment I leave my home, as I walk along a wooded path, listening to the birds and to Spirit. I continue in meditation even as I say “good morning” to those I pass, stop to pat a dog, or pause to look at a butterfly or a flower and breathe deeply. At the beach, water lapping at my feet, sand beneath my toes, trees and small hills at my back, the sun newly rising to my left and the craggy rocks–sometimes with the moon still above them–to my right, I transition from moving to standing then to sitting and finally to lying forms of meditation. And once again, I am made whole.

Lately, I find myself occasionally feeling the stress of crowds, noise, busy-ness of those around me and of my own thought-stuffed head. And, almost as a chant, I continue on my way while saying “Peace” in my mind, in sets of three: “Peace…peace…peace” and then a slight pause, and another cycle. I find that, in this way, even the most potentially stressful times can become a form of meditation–as I simply find my way about the city.

In an elevator, a crowded train, anytime that I don’t need to pay attention, I can close my eyes for a moment or two and picture my morning beach, or the bay with its small fishing boats and egrets, or imagine I’m sitting in a tree as I did when a child. And for those few minutes, I am in serenity, and refreshed.

Meditation isn’t only something we do, although it may be one of the most important and useful practices we can follow; it is also a way to live, in peace, in wellness, and in harmony with the world.

Dr. Anne Hilty
Dr. Anne Hilty is a Cultural Health Psychologist with a focus on the interplay of Eastern and Western theories of mental health as well as the mind-body connection. Her grounding is in the fields of cultural, transpersonal, and health psychology; she is additionally influenced by classical Chinese medicine, somatic psychology, and Asian shamanic traditions. Originally from the city of New York, Dr. Hilty lives on bucolic Jeju Island in South Korea, having previously lived in Seoul and Hong Kong.
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