Once viewed by most people in the Western world as an exotic and totally foreign exercise done by mystics and holy men from mysterious faraway lands, meditation is today a quite common and generally accepted practice engaged in by people throughout the world. While individuals meditate for a wide variety of reasons including the physical and psychological benefits that can be derived from it, the spiritual aspects of the practice were at the heart of its development almost 7 millennia ago and remain an important and crucial part of it for hundreds of millions of people worldwide today.
The Advent of Meditation in the Western World
The most widely practiced types of meditation used in the Western world can trace their roots back to the earliest forms the Hindu religion practiced in ancient India before the dawn of written history. It is believed that the practice was passed from teacher to student orally for centuries beginning around 5,000 BC before descriptions of (and instructions for) forms of meditation began appearing in some of the earliest Hindu Vedas (scriptures were written in Sanskrit) starting about 1,500 BC. With the ensuing centuries and the development of new religions and belief systems that incorporated it into them (Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, Sikhism, etc.), the practice of meditation spread throughout Asia and, eventually, to the Middle East. Other forms of meditation (mostly used in conjunction with prayer) also developed more or less independently in various forms Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and some pagan religions, but were not widely practiced by the general population.
While travelers and immigrants brought meditation practices first to Europe and then to the New World with them during the ensuing centuries and it found marginal popularity with a few small ‘fringe’ groups, the practice didn’t begin to achieve any widespread popularity in the West until the 1960s, when it was embraced by the young people involved in the ‘counterculture’ of the time. Its popularity increased rapidly through the 70s, 80s, and 90s as more people began to embrace New Age religious beliefs and philosophies. Starting in the late 1990s, the medical and behavioral sciences began to take an interest in the practice and in the 20-plus years since literally hundreds of studies on the physical, psychological and emotional impact of meditation on health and well-being have been conducted, most of them pointing to the conclusion that practicing meditation has more benefits for the average person than anyone had ever realized.
Spirituality and Meditation
Even though the vast majority of meditation instructors and practitioners will tell you that engaging in or benefiting from the practice requires no particular religious belief system, there is a spiritual aspect to meditation – although what that spiritual aspect is will largely be determined by how an individual defines spirituality. And, as Tenzin Gyatso – the 14th and current Dali Lama – has said, “True spiritually is a mental attitude you can practice any time.”
As is the case with so many aspects of meditation, the spiritual benefits a person derives from the practice will depend in large part on the reason they are meditating in the first place. For example, the individual who meditates to help them communicate with the deity they believe in or find oneness with all other living things is likely to have a far more profound spiritual experience than the person who meditates for 20 minutes after getting home from work to relax and clear their mind. Those who use meditation as a way to delve more deeply into their own minds and discover their ‘ true selves’ are looking for something from the practice that is far more spiritually orientated than the individual who uses meditation to help them deal with their insomnia or back pain.
There are those who spend hours every day in meditation seeking to find Enlightenment, complete Self-realization and achieve ‘a higher plane of consciousness’ than is available to most human beings. For many of these individuals – often monks (called bhikkhu in Buddhism) – the study and practice of meditation is the entire purpose of their lives. And yet, even those who meditate for the most practical or mundane reasons to get specific physical or psychological benefits often find themselves reaping unintended – and sometimes quite surprising – spiritual benefits as well. It is these more generally available ‘spiritual’ benefits that we shall be exploring here.
The Spiritual Benefits of Meditation
The spiritual benefits of meditation – or anything, for that matter – are extremely difficult if not impossible to quantify, and so we will not attempt to do so. The same can be said of the quality and / or importance of those benefits as they relate to the individual practicing meditation. For many people, any spiritual benefits of a meditation practice will be a ‘bonus’ outcome that is present in addition to the benefits that a person was meditating to achieve in the first place.
As stated previously, not everyone defines spirituality or what a spiritual benefit is in the same way. What one person might consider as being spiritual another person might think of as ‘emotional’ or even ‘psychological’. Keeping this in mind, the benefits listed below should be taken as being ‘spiritual’ in the broadest possible sense. It should also be mentioned that the spiritual benefits of meditation are not mutually exclusive; in many cases, the benefits are intertwined and one benefit arises from – or is a byproduct of – another.
Mindfulness is a part (and in some cases the major component) of many of the most popular forms of meditation used throughout the world today. Simply put, mindfulness is a discipline that – when taught as a part of meditation – trains a person to be completely in the present and consciously observe and be aware of thoughts and feelings without judging them. When a person is engaging in forms of meditation that use mindfulness, the goal is to focus only on the present – where they are and what they are thinking and feeling at that specific moment. In some New Age philosophies, it is described as being ‘in the now.’
In many of the religious disciplines that regularly utilize meditation – and particularly in Buddhism – achieving mindfulness and then remaining mindful is one of the first steps on the path to Enlightenment and is crucial in establishing a closer connection with a higher power or deity. In more practical and everyday applications, utilizing mindfulness as a part of even a limited meditation practice often helps a person to understand themselves – and, by extension, their connection to the world around them – in a deeper and better way. This will often lead to an increased acceptance of other people and specific situations and can help avoid the kinds of snap (and in many cases incorrect) judgments we all make from time to time. For many, the mindfulness they practice during meditation spills out into their normal lives and the non-judgmental way of viewing and interacting with the world helps to decrease anger, frustration, and tension and helps them to live happier lives.
Inner Peace / Inner Silence
For the last 20 years or so, people have been living in what has been termed by many as the ‘Information Age’ – and this is particularly true of those of us living in the Western world. For many of us, the assault of information on our minds and consciousness is continual and unceasing: it comes from our computers and smartphones; televisions and radios; friends, family and coworkers; and even when we disconnect our electronic devices and get away from other people, the massive amounts of new information that we have been exposed to during the course of the day is rattling around in our brains as it is absorbed and processed.
In virtually all popular forms of meditation, the mind is trained to turn inward, away from external stimuli – essentially providing it with a break during which the focus is not on everything that is happening around an individual, but on that person themselves. The chaos, clutter and spiritual noise caused by constant information overload are at least temporarily cleared away, and the mind is able to settle down and regroup. While for most of us the peaceful and silent period of meditation will be relatively short, many people find that they are able to carry at least some of the tranquility they experience during their session with them through the rest of their day which serves to reduce the stressful nature of their lives and helps to increase their emotional and spiritual stability.
Acceptance / Letting Go
For many people, regrets or guilt about past actions or decisions and worry about how things over which they have limited or no control will affect their future create inner confusion and spiritual unbalance that can significantly negatively impact the quality of their life. While regret and worry are, for most people, natural – and in some cases quite useful and important – parts of their consciousness, for some they can become dominant emotions that can lead to increased levels of stress, depression, and unhappiness.
Meditation – and particularly the mindfulness component of it discussed above – helps many people turn their focus away from the past and the future and concentrate more on the present. By understanding and internalizing the importance of thoughts and feelings in the present, many people are able to begin to let go of the negativity associated with their past and accept those things they cannot control. Rather than second-guessing previous actions, meditation helps the individual better understand how what they are thinking and feeling now is affecting them, identify areas of stress and negatively, and help develop internal strategies for eliminating them. In many cases developing and cultivating a clearer understanding of where they are emotionally and spiritually in the present helps an individual to accept and deal with those things that may happen in the future, taking things as they come mindfully.
Better Understanding of Who We Are
Many of the monks and gurus who spend their entire lives studying and practicing meditation are seeking a state of Self-realization, which can be defined as a complete and total understanding of what and who they really are. Although this lofty goal of complete understanding will be pretty much unattainable for most of us who have to live and function in the real world, one of the often unintended spiritual benefits of meditation is a better understanding not only of who we really are but what it is that makes us that way, and how to change those parts of ourselves that we are dissatisfied with.
Most forms of meditation help us to look more deeply into ourselves than many of us have ever looked before, with an understanding that what we wear, how we speak and act, and often even what we think and feel are not our ‘true’ selves; rather, they are choices we make and things we experience. Our true self, some belief, is something totally different and is, essentially, what we are left with when everything else is stripped away. Some people believe that by getting in touch with and better understanding who we really are, we are better able to understand and positively interact with other people and the world around us. And this better understanding of who we truly want – or are ‘meant’ – to be can allow us to change certain thoughts, actions, and behaviors that get in the way of our embracing the better person our true self is capable of becoming.
Deeper Awareness / Open Mind
In much the same way as it allows some people to better understand their true self, meditation also helps many people achieve a deeper awareness and understanding of the world around them. Some people believe that an increased level of Self-realization allows an individual to see and experience things – and other people – as they truly are, without all of the artificial filters and barriers our minds are continually creating. While this might sound like some kind of a superpower, in fact, it is simply an extension of mindfulness; remaining in the present, and being consciously aware – without judgment – of what we perceive and how we feel.
The ability to curtail judgmental thinking that is cultivated in meditation also allows many individuals to approach people and situations with a more open mind which, in turn, helps lead to better understanding. The acceptance of ourselves as we are gained through meditation allows for a better acceptance of others as they are which can lead to less conflict (and therefore less stress), a deeper emotional and spiritual connection, and better relationships in our day to day lives.