This is an interesting topic that I have thought about for many years. Today I happened to see a post about this very topic by George Hoffman (click here, to read George’s post.)
George discusses the use of a mainstream meditation and how it was anything but mindful. George wrote:
“…Dr. Chopra added new age music, birdsongs, and a mantra to his narration. The periods of silence were anything but. I found the whole experience too full of noise to be an exercise in mindfulness.”
My First Introduction to Meditation
My first introduction to meditation was in High School (20ish years ago.) My english teacher (Mr. Root) played some weird ominous soundtrack, turned out the lights in the class room and instructed the class to write down any visions they saw. The music by the way was the intro to Funeral for a Friend by Elton John… it was a tapestry of bird caws, dark synths, howling wind and bell tolls.
I smile now that I’m writing this. The description of my first jaunt into meditation was quite non traditional.
When I was older, and in college, I took some study into Sufi mysticism and meditation. The Sufi style I was learning from was very visual. It was guided in a way. Basically the meditations were structured with visual cues… visuals that made use of imagination.
Later in life, I became a Buddhist and learned a meditation practice from a traditional Tibetan group. Again the practice was not stilling the mind to no surface thought… but guiding the thought to manifest mental images to engage with.
Examples of this are in the Lamrim and Tonglen (links are to the Mahasukha Center) of Buddhism. The Lamrim is really a meditation that takes the user through a Mandala (the 2d artwork turned to a 3d mental space, and walking through it like a maze – to discover the paths towards enlightenment.)
During that time, I heard some detractors push the no-thought schools of meditation (such as Zen and Mindfulness), suggesting that it’s better to empty all thought, rather then play in the theater of the mind. Zen is a newer school of the Mahayana group of Buddhist philosophy. As being newer, some of the traditionalists would argue that they are not focusing on the right aspect in meditation.
The “non Zen” Mahayana and the Theravadin paths of Buddhism, while they have a meditation preliminary stage of being mindful – stick to using the workings of the mind to reach realizations – through the use of mental visualizations.
After Buddhism, I tried some mystic societies in the West… and in their schools they had their own form of meditation. Again – very visual but with the advent of music. Unlike the traditional East, the West brought music and media into the meditation practice.
‘No Thought’ Meditation
Afterwards I moved on to other religions and spiritual groups – Guru based Hinduism again was visual and might have or might not have music. It was Zen Buddhism and the Mindfulness teachings of people like Bhante Gunaratama that put emphasis on ‘no thought.’ Or focused thought on the NOW moment… rather like Eckhart Tolle.
The Zen author Katsuki Sekida that taught physical postures and breathing exercises to stop thought. The use of halting the breathing process (similar to pranayama) is an example. This was very different to me then the past meditation styles. Whether traditional or modern the past meditation styles often made use of visual cues to move the thought process along.
But Zen and Mindfulness meditations were different. They put the mind either on ‘no mind’ or on the present action to the degree of forcing out any other thought.
Some erroneously believe that it is the “New Age” movement that added the visualizations, but as we can see traditional Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism make good use of mental visualizations. This put the meditator in a series of steps that had meaning. But why use mental visualization?
In Tibetan meditation, this was useful for rehabituating the mind. Say for example, you had a problem with anger. You get angry. You want the antidote. The antidote is to meditate in such a way that the mind rethinks how to respond to situations that trigger anger. One such meditation is Compassion meditation (which often involves the use of ‘mother recognition’ – that is, to see and know that all beings were your beloved mother in a past life.)
Other reasons were to ingrain in the mind of the meditator various teachings (karma, impermanence, stages of the spiritual path…)
Still more reasons were related to purely mystical aspects… Colors, smells (incense), and symbols being used to create mystical and magical induction.
The value of no mind is in the stilling of the mind and dissolution of the ego. Then in the stillness… speaks truth. That flash of light in the darkness of night, as Shantideva I believe spoke about.
Which is Best?
There’s the individual assertion. While it’s easy to take shots at modern approaches to meditation… and while some call these approaches “fluff” or “new age clap trap,” these approaches actually go back thousands of years.
The only new invention is the use of music in meditation. I don’t believe this was done in the past, but it could have been. The Sitar is an ancient instrument and seen as useful in Holy workings in India. It is entirely possible that the Sitar was used as background music to meditative circles and Kirtans.
So which is best?
It depends on YOU!
By meditating in any way, you will spark intuition. That intuition will guide you. Just be open to change and following the inner guidance that is always present.