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There are a lot of misconceptions about meditation. Lots and lots of them. Meditation is found throughout the world in many forms. Most of them involve sitting or standing and working on a state of mental focus. The word itself comes from the Latin "meditatio", and originally indicated most types of physical or scholarly exercise before becoming simply contemplation. Usually the modern variety is considered a descendant of the ancient Asian cultures.

What exactly goes on during meditation can take up volumes of text. I tend to stick to the strictly pragmatic definitions, and the "spiritual" definitions are a matter for an entirely different text. What virtually all forms of meditation involve is some kind of mental relaxation or focus. The benefits of exactly what happens during meditation are also highly debatable. Again, I won't go into too much detail here. It's just not worth the effort because there is entirely too much breadth on the subject. I do have one thing to note, though. A quick search on the Internet for meditation will quickly yield volumes of pages. Finding the secrets to meditation seems to only be one fairly substantial credit card swipe away, apparently. Hmm. Interesting. 1

So what I will do is give you an explanation of what meditation really is, and why it can be helpful. I'm not even going to use any science, because none is required. You don't have to use any notions of spirituality, or follow any customs, nor is there any religious philosophy, because meditation is a lot simpler than that. It is an exercise, and a difficult one if done correctly. It's an exercise for the mind, though, not the body.

The most basic idea behind meditation is relaxation. This is almost universal. Relaxation is achieved in many different ways, but essentially the body is kept motionless and the mind is calmed. Some forms of meditation involve more difficult positions or specific types of mental exercises, but really the key is to be (relatively; I'll explain in a minute) comfortable and motionless. What exactly is supposed to calm the mind is all over the map. Some forms of meditation involve attempting to clear the mind of all conscious thought. Some forms involve using mental exercises that keep the mind focused. I'm not entirely sure how important it is to focus on the how, because the conscious mind is one of the most personal, variable things about us humans. How I relax may be different than how you do, but for suggestions the popular literature on meditation will not disappoint. Most certainly, it is not easy to do.

There isn't much beyond this, at least in any tangible, measurable sense. Remain motionless and calm the mind. It sounds simple, but really it isn't. Most people have many things going on in their daily lives, from problems to distractions that are always tugging at the back of their mind. How often does the average person actually pause at some time during the day and really try to calm their mind? Emotions like worry and anxiety constantly take their toll on people, and what do people do when faced with these emotions? They try to forget about what's causing them, usually with some form of distraction. While this line of argument isn't really scientific, there is an experiment anyone can try. Meditation is a great way to confront these problems. The mind really does work better when clear and calm. Try it! (I can say that meditation works at least as well on me as some medicines for simple things like headaches.)

The way my school practices meditation is a little harsher than the general notion. Quite a few martial arts do it this way, and while not as touchy-feely as the more esoteric ways, it has immediate, tangible benefits. Instead of sitting in the "traditional" cross-legged position, we sit on our knees. For people from western cultures, this is not a natural position. In fact, after a few minutes (twenty or so, depending on the person's build and age) it is extremely painful. As the time increases, so does the pain. It's not just uncomfortable, but the kind of pain that you can't ignore. There is quite a bit of variability, though. Larger people have a harder time of it. Kids almost never find it as bad as adults.

The point of this meditation is to force the practitioner to calm their mind. It is an exercise in discipline and focus. Discipline comes from not getting up in spite of the pain, and focus is to make the pain bearable by thinking about something (or nothing) to the exclusion of the external distraction - the pain. You have to overcome your instinctive need to react to the physical sensation you are experiencing. If you don't focus your mind and relax, you will not succeed in meditating for the required time. For my school, that's about 80 minutes, which is a really long 80 minutes for those not mentally prepared.

So how do you focus? That's a difficult thing to provide an answer for, because how you focus is really dependant on the person. Focus is the ability to concentrate on one thing. If you are focused on a task, you can think about it more clearly. You are not bothered by distractions. There really isn't a binary condition that states that you are either focused or not, though. There is always a threshold where some distractions have to come through, but the more you concentrate on the one thing, the better you will be able to consider it. This is where most of the claims of meditation come in. Someone that is really meditating, completely relaxed, with all external distractions largely ignored, could be very focused. The mind could theoretically concentrate the fullest on any subject the meditation practitioner wishes, and from this is where the deeper knowledge is supposed to come from.

How much you want to explore that side of meditation is up to you, but knowing the basic premise is definitely the best place to start. It's about relaxation and focus, which are definitely helpful things to be able to do. The deeper you delve into the metaphysical aspects, the less substantive the measurable benefits. I'm not saying that there is no value to the more metaphysical aspects (OK, I'm hinting it, but the subject is too vast and too varied to even try), but the benefits you can gain from deeper relaxation and focus are tangible and practical. Once you have mastered this, more "advanced" techniques can be practiced if you're interested.

Mid-Air Meditation
Famous Omahau-style upsidedown levitational meditation

Some of the more metaphysical aspects of meditation should be approached with caution. Take for instance "Transcendental Meditation," with its most famous "technique" of "yogic flying." Supposedly this is the initial stage of some kind of levitation. There is film of this happening, and it looks exactly like someone sitting in the lotus (cross legged) position hopping around. Though strange, this doesn't appear to be any form of levitation, as these people obey the same 9.8m/s2 downward acceleration as everyone else. Despite what some of the practitioners say, the evidence for a "pre-levitational state" is lacking. More troubling, the final product, the levitation itself, has never been observed. Either it is so rare only a few could ever hope to do it, or maybe it just doesn't work when skeptics and cameras are around. While there is no proof that this isn't possible, there isn't any proof that it is, either. An extraordinary claim is not something you should accept until disproved, but something that you should demand validation before accepting. Take the image above, for instance. You probably concluded correctly that the image is just someone doing a backflip (no mean feat, by itself!). For an instant, though, there is always a point where the mind tries to accept the fact that the image is showing what the caption says it is showing, i.e. levitation. This has to do with the way we process our visual signals, (imperfectly) and the desire to see and believe extraordinary things. Wouldn't it be good to know for sure that you could levitate if you really wanted to? I wouldn't get my hopes up until I've seen some evidence.




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