Rediscovering meditation's roots
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Google the word ‘meditation’ and you’ll find sites about health care, stress management and neuroscience. Meditation is everywhere: doctors’ surgeries, school classrooms, gyms and workplaces. And while it goes through ‘fad’ phases – meditation is an ancient practice, with significant religious roots.
The ancient meditation techniques of mindfulness, stillness and concentration have been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce post-traumatic stress and alleviate anxiety and depression. Prestigious private school Geelong Grammar teaches mindfulness, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre runs meditation groups, and even the US Department of Defence is researching the use of meditation to help veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflict.
Successful people from business to sport cite meditation as key to their mental health, among them actor Clint Eastwood, AFL star Adam Goodes and HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington. Even Rupert Murdoch has taken up the practice.
But long before meditation became fashionable self-care, it was discovered and refined by religious traditions. In fact, every religion across the globe has meditation practices from the yoga postures developed in Hindu tradition to the Roman Catholic practice of counting the rosary.
From ancient religion to new age medicine
Religion is the source of many of the techniques of meditation, which are now being studied and adopted by health practitioners and workplace gurus.
When psychologists teach breathing patterns to anxious or depressed patients, they draw on techniques which have been practiced by Buddhist monks for thousands of years.
When dieticians advocate mindful eating, they use the ancient Buddhist concept of sati, which for thousands of years has encouraged followers to watch their sensory experience in order to prevent cravings for the future or regrets about the past.
When gyms offer body balance and relaxation classes, they appropriate the postures of yoga, a Hindu practice which integrates body, breath and mind to achieve a sense of calm and focus.
The origins of meditation
ACU researcher in comparative theology, Dr Anita Ray, believes understanding the origins of meditation and the variety of practices across religious traditions deepens both the way meditation can be applied and our understanding of religious traditions.
“Meditation is an attempt to find calm in the sea of disquiet which is life. For some people it’s purely pragmatic. It’s been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce post-traumatic stress disorder. You can certainly meditate successfully without a religious tradition.
“But it’s human nature to search for deeper meaning and if you want that, you can find it in meditation within your own religious tradition, whatever that may be.”
Eastern religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Jainism have the best known and strongest traditions of meditation but the practice also exists in Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
The whirling dervishes of Sufi Islam practice a form of physical meditation, spinning in repetitive circles while focusing on God. Early Eastern Christians practiced hesychasm (stillness) a monastic practice of retiring inwards in order to seek God, which was often combined with breathing techniques. Early Jewish mystics created Kabbalistic practices such as devukut (cleaving) where they contemplated different aspects of God in order to unite their souls with the divine.
For spiritual seekers, meditation is often seen as a path to truth through inward reflection, solitude and contemplation. It may also be used as a discipline, for reflection and penitence, or to remove oneself from the pernicious influences of the material world.
Connections between traditions
Dr Ray said comparing the different practices of meditation across different religions was an excellent way to find connections between traditions of vastly different origins.
“Comparative theology helps us understand others, it promotes peace and harmony, and it also helps us understand ourselves.
“You might be raised, for example, as a Catholic and do certain things because that is the way you were brought up; but there may come a time when you want to learn what other religions do, and begin to see your own faith in a new light,” said Dr Ray.
In the case of meditation, there are some strong commonalities between practices in different traditions. Almost every tradition uses some kind of prayer bead or knotted rope which meditators can finger or count, as an aid to concentration. The Catholic rosary, Islamic misbaḥah and Buddhist malas are all used to keep count of prayers and help focus the meditator’s mind. While the number of beads or materials used vary, the practice is remarkably similar.
Repetitive mantras or choruses are also widespread mechanisms to help meditators focus. Buddhists, Hindus and Jains all use the sacred sound “Om”. While it is imbued with various meanings in different traditions, the key in meditative terms is the simplicity and singularity of the sound which narrows focus and frees the meditator from extraneous thoughts.
Christianity has a similar tradition of monologistic prayer – prayer that employs one sacred word recited continuously in the heart and mind in faith, often using the word “Jesus”, and the Muslim statement of faith, Allah hu Akbar (God is Great) is used not only as a call to prayer but also as a mantra in prayer or meditation.
But these practices have not always been universally embraced. Early Calvinist writers translated mantra as “babble” and defined it as proscribed meaningless speech, initiating a discomfort with meditation that is only now being overcome in some western traditions.
Meditation has profound effects
Contemporary science draws on the deep experience of religion to develop robust evidence that meditation has profound physiological effects. Neuroscientists use brain scans of Buddhist monks to learn how meditation changes the brain. They have found the monks have high-amplitude gamma-oscillations in the brain, which are indicative of plasticity. That suggests people who meditate may be more able to change their behaviour and learn new skills. The researchers also found greater activity in the anterior insula, a part of the brain that coordinates mind and body and is associated with immune health.
The monks’ brain changes are based on thousands of meditation sessions, but other studies have shown measurable benefits after only eight weeks of regular meditation. But regularity is the key – something else meditators can learn from religion. Most religions have set times for prayer – often several times a day. The Christian liturgy of the hours prescribes eight prayer times, Muslims pray five times a day and Jews pray three times daily. Studies of meditation benefits depend on daily meditation, typically of around half an hour a day to reap the benefits in terms of stress reduction.
Increasing understanding and compassion
Another benefit of meditation is increased empathy due to a thickening of the temporo parietal junction (TPJ), a region of the brain associated with perspective-taking, empathy and compassion.
The need for such empathy and perspective-taking is evident in the study of comparative theology itself. Unlike the study of comparative religion, in which the observer remains an outsider to all perspectives, in comparative theology participants are required to simultaneously maintain their commitment to their own faith and listen attentively and respectfully to the beliefs and practices of others.
The Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, where Dr Ray is a researcher, holds a monthly comparative theology group, which invites speakers and shares ideas among the participants who come from a range of religious faiths and traditions.
While some may be surprised to find such a commitment to interfaith activity at a Catholic university, Dr Ray – herself a non-Catholic Christian and a scholar of Hinduism – said comparative theology was entirely consistent with the University’s Mission.
“We are not seeking to get rid of differences between religions. We are not seeking to change or convert anybody. Comparative theology is not about syncretism or relativism. We are finding both similarities and differences for a better understanding of each other.”
ACU’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry promotes interdisciplinary and collaborative research on religion and philosophy internationally. The institute brings together scholars from multiple disciplinary perspectives including philosophy, theology, history, and literature to advance understanding of our world and to imagine ways to improve it.