People have been meditating for so long that no one can really say when or how it got started, but the reasons they do it haven’t changed much. Over the centuries, meditators have consistently found that their practice keeps them focused and emotionally stable, helps them to adapt to new situations, cope with stress in a positive manner, and be more creative. And yet, there is something more to it.
It’s difficult to define meditation in a way that accounts for the wide variety within established meditation traditions. Undoubtedly, specific techniques have evolved within each tradition to address specific human needs and to develop specific potentials, but much of what people call meditation may be better described as systematic relaxation, visualization, working with the breath, simple concentration, or just “spacing out.”
One of the promising ways we can get at a more complete definition of meditation is to look at what is happening in the brains and bodies of people from different meditation traditions when they are doing their practice and see what is similar and what is different. It may be that all meditative activity looks the same to the brain. Or we may find that certain practices engage specific parts of the brain and this is why they are suited to developing particular latent potentials of the mind.
Recently modern science has developed sophisticated tools to explore meditative practice for clues to how it affects our body and brain. And what they have been finding sheds new light on the power of meditation to make a measurable difference in our experience of the world. Even though there is a wide variety of studies being done these days, following a number of different approaches to meditation, the general trend of this research shows that we can exercise some degree of control over things we didn’t think we could change. The scientific study of meditation shows that once we break through our preconceived notions about human capacity, new possibilities for self-transformation abound.
adapted from Yoga International, by Jon Janaka
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