What Westerners can learn from Eastern meditation

13/06/2017 at 10:00 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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When meditation goes well, it’s brilliant. Blissful. Calming. However, many people, especially beginners, struggle to reach that point. They talk about ‘failing’ and ‘not being able to meditate’, as though it’s an exam they’ve somehow flunked.

I’ve heard this despondent comment many times over the nine years that I’ve been running meditation groups in the UK. When newcomers turn up, they often say, “I can’t meditate, but I want to try and give it another go”. Or “I tried meditation once before, and I couldn’t do it.”

And, of course, I regularly meet people who wouldn’t go anywhere near a meditation group, believing that they are doomed to failure so it’s not even worth ‘trying’. But there’s something wistful in the way they tell me this. It’s as if they suspect they’re missing something, and they just don’t know what to do about it.

There is an interesting reason why Westerners may sometimes find it more difficult to meditate than their Eastern counterparts. It all comes down to the name itself: ‘meditation’. Or, to be exact, the origins of the name.

The Western approach

We can trace the verb ‘to meditate’ back to Latin. It meant: to ponder, reflect, consider, devise. In the old European languages it also meant: ‘to measure’, ‘to judge’, ‘to protect’, ‘to provide for’ and ‘to deliberate’. Go further back in time, to the original ‘seed’ language that early humanity shared, and it meant ‘to take appropriate measures’, ‘to give advice’ and ‘to heal’.  This was the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) seed word, ‘med’, which also evolved into ‘mediate’ and medicine among other words.

The historical Western approach to meditation is therefore driven by a well-intentioned desire for results: the solving of a problem, the righting of a wrong, the mending of an ill.

The Eastern approach

In the East, the Sanskrit for meditation is ‘dhyana’. Other Eastern languages have variants on this. The PIE seed word for dhyana is ‘dheie’ meaning ‘to see, to look’. The word ‘Zen’, signifying an aspect of Buddhism with a deeply contemplative approach to life, shares the same seed word.

So in the East, ‘dhyana’ is the practice of simply being, simply witnessing without judgement.

Western meditators broadly follow the Eastern tradition. We sit in silence, simply being… but we also have a cultural legacy which whispers to us that we need to get results from our quiet time.

A happy fusion

Of course, we can’t really divide the world into neat East-West packages. Wherever you live, whatever your origins, you’re pretty well guaranteed to experience the ‘monkey chatter’ of your mind during meditation. And this can do a great job of distracting you with wide-ranging thoughts.

But your approach to the monkey chatter can make the difference between frustration and happiness during your practice – and that’s where an awareness of meditation’s ancient definitions can be helpful.

If we accept that we have chosen to sit in silence, focusing on a particular word, or concept, or image, or sound, simply to witness without trying to change anything, then we are much more likely to enjoy our meditation sessions. Each time we notice that our thoughts have strayed, we calmly remind ourselves that we are here to meditate, and we return to our point of focus.

No judgement. Just practice.

To summarise, we meditate simply to meditate. There is no end result we are looking for.  So we cannot ‘fail’. We are simply being conscious witnesses of the moment.

And yet, when we make a regular practice of meditating in this way, with no expectation of reward, the insights and inspiration do come. Meditation focuses and refreshes the mind like nothing else.

So if you really struggle to meditate, take heart. You are not alone. Now that you know the ancient secret buried in the very name of meditation, you can choose to let go of the striving and, instead, embrace the serenity.


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