Western Visual Meditation

The alchemical tradition from the Western perspective developed a philosophy and system of spiritual growth which was shrouded in symbolism. Part of the reason much of the material from that time was communicated in such symbolically dense terminology was the need to hide the true meaning from church authorities. The work of Carl Jung, M.D., in the early twentieth century led to the revitalization of much of the symbolism and artwork of the alchemists. His suggestion was that the alchemists were encoding deep psychological symbolism in the spiritual imagery.

Many of the diagrams and images developed by the alchemists showed mandala-like patterns that were quite similar in form to the Yantras from Eastern paths. These images tend to flood the mind with symbolic expression, such as the image of the Azoth shown below. It can be used as a focus of meditation, much like the Yantra image from an earlier post.

The four fold symmetry, three fold symmetry and seven fold symmetry have specific meanings the alchemical literature.  Dennis Haucks “The Emerald Tablet” is one of the most user friendly books to introduce the layers of meaning.

Yantras

The aspect of focusing on mental repetition of words or phrases may be combined with focus upon an external image. In Eastern traditions, this may take a Mandala form, such as the Shri Yantra, below. To use this form of visual meditation, focus your attention on the central [bindu] point and allow your eyes to soft focus. Try to minimize blinking, but don’t let your eyes get too dry. When combined with a mantra, this can be a powerful tool to focus attention and still the mind.

Mantras for Meditation

Another quite common meditative practice across multiple traditions worldwide is the repetition of a word or short phrase. In the yogic traditions this referred to as a mantra based meditation. In the Christian versions, it is called contemplative prayer. This is the form of meditation practiced in Transcendental Meditation, with the mantra in this case given in the course of training.

The practice consists of choosing a word or phrase, and then allowing it to flow gently through your mind in a repetitive manner. When other thoughts enter awareness, and they will, gently bring back awareness to the word or phrase. Sounds simple! Hardly. Once the practice starts, the mind begins to bombard you with random impressions which form distractions. This is normal, though. No reason to become upset or feel that you’re failing, just gently bring focus back to the word or phrase. Try for twenty minutes once or twice daily. Monitor your results over weeks or months.

Although the contemplative prayer version of this meditation uses some form of phrase in your native language that has a religious connotation, most people find the practice more effective if they choose sounds without immediate meaning attached. Sounds that end with …..MMMMMM are more relaxing for many. Hence OMMM or AAUUUMMM can be excellent choices, or a brief phrase such as OM MANI PADME HUM is quite popular. Use any phrase you like, but try different sounds and see which work best for you.

Universal Practices Transcending Culture

Back in undergraduate school, I had the opportunity to take a class in Transcendental Meditation [TM], over a weekend during my freshman year. The concept that a simple practice could have potentially profound effects on both the physiology and psychology of a person was a stunning idea back then. The weekend progressed with lessons, audio tapes of the founder, and eventually the private revealing of the secret mantra alleged to be somehow specially chosen for me. A fellow classmate and I faithfully met each morning for the rest of the academic year and spent the twenty minutes in silent meditation. We figured that if we practiced together it would increase our likelihood of making the practice regular. I noticed throughout the year that I generally felt more relaxed and found the practice useful.

An equally profound realization crystalized later in the year, however, when attending a class led by the priest of our local Episcopal Church. He had described this as a course which would demonstrate a different form of prayer, called contemplative prayer, distinctly different from the more recognized prayer of petition common in church services. The Reverend at least provided some information that this earlier form of prayer had been quite central to the practice of early Christianity. As that weekend class continued, it became rapidly clear that the actual practice of contemplative prayer was in virtually every way identical to that of TM. The focus of contemplative prayer was a short phrase silently repeated, a mantra, but one in English.

What was special about this practice of quiet mental repetition? How or why did traditions so disparate as Hinduism and Christianity feature a practice identical except in the phrase of repetition itself. What kinds of benefits might accrue from such a practice? Does science have any information to bear on such an esoteric topic? What exactly is meditation, and what is the range of meditative practice? Good questions, and few enough answers.

Observing Ego

There is a rather delightful aphorism from the yogic traditions, which will paraphrase, and perhaps mangle a bit:

I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts.

This pearl of exceptional wisdom should probably be on a plaque on the wall of every therapist and psychiatrist in the world. For this is, in essence, the purpose of many forms of psychotherapy. In cognitive models one learns to identify negative thoughts as not intrinsic to the person. In psychodynamic models, one learns that we are distinct from the patterns we unconsciously repeat in life. In family therapy on learns that one is affected by and affects the family system but is not identical to it.

Gaining this ability to observe without fully identifying is core to adult maturation.

Candle Flame Meditation

This is a practice designed both as a meditative practice and as a means of further developing the faculty of concentration.

Place a lit candle at approximately eye level and darken the room appropriately.  Find a comfortable position and focus complete concentration on the candle flame.

If you keep your eyes open, you mind observe a sensation of merging with the flame.  If you close your eyes, focus upon the after-image in your mind and try to maintain that image as a visualization exercise.

After some practice with these basic exercises, you may wish to extend the visualization with eyes closed of the flame of light growing and encompassing your body.  This can be imagined as purifying and as protective.

How to: Threefold Breath Meditation

The threefold breath meditation adds a phase in that the peak of inhalation is held for a bit. Typically the pattern is to hold your breath four times longer than the inhalation, and to exhale for a time period double that of the inhalation. As an example, breath in to the count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 16, and exhale to the count of 8. If this is too difficult, then reduce the count of the inhalation, and then keep the ratios the same. Other examples could be 3:12:6, or later in the practice 5:20:10. Take it easy during practice: try to get full inhalation and full exhalation, but don’t strain, and don’t exhaust your muscles. It may take time to build this practice comfortably, and will certainly take weeks of practice to see results. You will likely feel warmer while doing this practice. Observe your experience during each phase, and monitor your impressions. Using a metronome may help the cycle be more regular.

How to: Fourfold Breath Meditation

This is a form of simple breath meditation. You will choose a count which you will use for each of the four phases of a breath. So, for example, during a full inhalation, count to four. Then hold the breath for a count of four. Next exhale gently but fully to a count of 4. Hold the lungs empty for a count of four. Then repeat the cycle for between ten and fifteen minutes.

If a count of four is too rapid to allow for full inhalation and exhalation with full diaphragmatic breathing, then extend the count to six or to eight. Keep the count for each of the breath phases the same.

This is not a marathon, so keep the counts low enough to be comfortable and peaceful throughout the cycle. No need to strain. You may find that you can extend the count comfortably after a few weeks of practice if you wish.

After daily practice for a few weeks, how does this compare to the the Simple Breath Meditation described earlier? Any interesting experiences arise? If so, what phase of the cycle were they most commonly found?

How to: A Simple Circular Breath Meditation

Back to practical experiential exercises: Little is so primary to human life as the intake of breath to provide oxygen. The earlier breath exercise was to allow focus upon the breath without altering its natural flow. Although that exercise is quite useful to monitor your conscious awareness, and to withdraw awareness from the outside world a bit, other practices involve specific patterns of inhalation and exhalation to aid in the creation of meditative states of awareness.

This simple circular breath is perhaps one of the easiest of these methods.

Sit down and allow thoughts of the day to fade. Observe the breath as it naturally flows for a few moments. Close your eyes.

When ready inhale slowly but comfortably. Make sure that first the abdomen expands, then the chest, then the tips of the shoulder. This full breath fills the entire lung space. Don’t neglect to expand the abdomen first. Reverse this sequence for the exhalation and try to empty the lungs completely by pulling the abdomen in at the end of the exhale.

For this particular breath exercise, count the number of seconds of the inhalation, do not pause, immediately start the exhalation for exactly the same number of seconds as the inhalation. Again, do not pause at the end of exhalation, but start the next inhalation which should also last for the same number of seconds. The breath is similar to a large circle with the inhalation being half, and the exhalation being the other half, with no breath holds at any point. Keep the breath flowing in this cycle for ten to fifteen minutes to start.

How does this practice feel different from the earlier one? Do the results of practice differ?

Find a comfortable number of seconds for the inhalation/exhalation: don’t struggle or strain, and don’t slow the cycle to a point of feeling “air hunger.” It’s a relaxation exercise and a refocusing of awareness, not an endurance test!

How to: A Simple Breath Exercise

Breath has been used as a metaphor for life and life energy since recorded history began. Terms such as “prana,” “chi,” “ki,” “spiritus,” “anima” all refer to a core of life energy relating to radiant health and balance. In most traditions, this concept is intimately tied to the physical act in inspiration and expiration. Note that even these physiological terms in English have deeper meanings. To inspire raises the concept of creative insight and to expire also means to pass from life. Many spiritual systems include detailed instructions on special breathing techniques as part of practice.

But rather than delving deeply into those, let’s get started with a very simple practice that can have profound effects in your perception of such a simple thing as breathing, something you do about 10 times each minute of life without even really being aware of it.

First, even though our life is full of challenging and contradictory needs, you must find a brief 15 to 20 minute block each day to devote to meditative practice, if you wish to see personal change. The most beneficial results of meditation psychologically and physically occur after regular practice of months to years. A simple state of relaxation occurs much more rapidly, but deeper change takes regular practice!

Warning: life will immediately conspire to interrupt your practice! Your intent will have to be fierce and unyielding. Phones off, pets in another room, children at school. . .

This simple meditation exercises uses the natural inflow and outflow of the breath: nothing else is needed beyond your time and focus.

Take a seat in a comfortable position so that you won’t need to shift your posture for a few minutes. The lotus position is fine, but certainly not necessary. You can accomplish the same by sitting in a chair with a reasonably vertical spine. Most important: be comfortable.

Close your eyes and just take a moment to allow the day’s worries and issues to pass from immediate awareness.

Then gently focus all of your attention onto your breath. No need to alter its rate or its depth, just internally observe.

Next, internally state to yourself “the breath flows in” on each inhale, and “the breath flows out” on each exhale.

After a few cycles, other thoughts or perceptions will likely start to intrude on your practice. Make no judgment on this. Gently refocus attention on the breath exercise each time you reach awareness that your focus has strayed.

Try for 10 to 15 minutes of time on this per day.

If possible, keep a simple journal, and document for yourself the results of the practice. Compare the entries after several weeks and after several months. You may notice a difference in your attitude about the day when you compare days when you completed the practice versus days that you didn’t.