Those unfamiliar with meditation sometimes believe that the practice only exists within Eastern traditions, with the symbol of the Buddha standing (or rather, sitting) as a universal representation of meditative absorption and enlightenment. The word “meditation,” however, can refer to any of the thousands of mental approaches used to obtain various objectives within many philosophical and religious frameworks: such as taming the mind, making space for the divine, and harmonizing with nature. The objectives of practice differ across traditions, but the process of attention training is an obvious point of overlap, not only within Eastern forms of contemplative practice but also within the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Independent of religious, spiritual, or secular outlook, the method for attaining calmness, clarity, and kindness is largely the same. Learning how to settle the mind single-pointedly on a given “object” helps develop stability. Through a brief look at one Buddhist method for developing stable ground, we can create a point of comparison for looking at meditation within other traditions.
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When we say a stable mind in Buddhism, we mean a state of wakefulness that does not flit from thought to thought, a mind that is disciplined in the pursuit of virtue, that is malleable—capable of giving rise to the positive mental states of loving-kindness and compassion with ease. The object used to develop stability can be a stone, a painting, or a statue. It can also be subtle: the breath, a sound, a visualization. Eventually the stability that is inherent in awareness emerges on its own. But by sitting and returning our attention again and again to an object of focus, we can train the mind to become calm, clear, and alert. Meditation master Phakchok Rinpoche says, “Gently bringing attention to the object of the breath is very important. By practicing like this, we can gain stability, and stability helps us with all other practices.” Similar methods of stilling the mind exist in other traditions.
Taoist practitioners, for example, use what is traditionally called the lower “dan t’ian,” or “elixir field,” as an object of focus. By directing attention to that spot (three inches below the navel), the Taoist settles deeply into his or her body. “Even if you use other objects of focus, like the breath, light, etc., there is always a part of the practice when you connect back with the lower dan tian,” says William Kaplanidis, a T’ai Chi and Qigong master. “In Taoist thought, the lower dan t’ian is the foundation for all other energies in the body.” Experienced Taoist practitioners can often be identified by their grounded presence—when they walk, they sometimes appear to have an extremely low center of gravity. This padded, stable gait is called Tiger Walk and can become a further object of stability. “After working with the lower dan t’ian for many years, many martial artists sometimes have difficulty practicing the more flighty forms of movement, like Wushu, because they become so stabilized,” says Kaplinidis.
There are Jewish instructional texts that could fit comfortably alongside many ancient Buddhist mind-training manuals. One such text, attributed to Rav Kalonymous Kalmish Shapira, a turn-of-the-century mystic, gives instruction on the initial steps one must take to access the aspect of divinity that lives within oneself. Rav Shapira says, “And if a person were to pause and cease for an hour the flow of his thoughts and desires, the portion of divinity would be revealed to him unclothed. But because a person chases after his thoughts, what he will do tomorrow…, how he will be honored…, his thoughts therefore flow unceasingly.” Rav Shapira then gives instruction on how the disciple should “gaze inward” and remain attentive to the way in which “consciousness is engaging in the sensation.” Here, the process of engaging sensation is itself a subtle object of attention. Rav Shapira further expounds on the practice of mentally developing an object of visualization within the mind, such as the image of a loving friend, and then holding that visualization one-pointedly. A similar technique is employed in Tibetan Buddhist traditions as a method for developing acrobatic mental skill—expansiveness, clarity, and control. There are other objects of one-pointed attention within the Kabbalistic traditions of Judaism, such as meditation on the various names of God, that facilitate a still mind.
The benefits of this method of “stilling” are similarly articulated in traditional Christian mysticism. The Prayer of Quiet—a state bequeathed to the practitioner and arising from one-pointed genuflection to God—is said to produce supreme peace, humility, a disposition toward goodness, and a heavenly light in the intellect. All such effects parallel the results of continuous training in the traditional Buddhist practices of calm-abiding or “shamatha.” Though the language might be slightly different (swap heavenly light in the intellect for luminosity of mind, for example), experiences appear to be similar.
In Sufism, a mystical aspect of Islam, the stages of meditation, or “muraqba,” use various objects of attention, from visualizations of colored light, to one-pointed concentration on Allah, to repeated recitation of scriptural phrases. Within the Quran, the following verse is traditionally tied to a form of devotional practice: “And remember the name of your Lord. Cut your attachments and devote yourselves entirely to Him.” Contemplative Sufi commentary praises the benefits that arise from this single-pointed devotion to God as an expression of attention, supplemented with the emotional tints that accompany surrender.
The methods of meditation within a single tradition are vast, and this commonality of attention training across religions is certainly not the only example of overlap between traditions. For people interested in meditation, though, a brief look at this commonality can help reveal unique aspects of their own tradition and illustrates points of universality within contemplative practice.