The Place of Meditation in the Dhamma

Feb 04

Not so long ago the practise of meditation was considered something exotic or eccentric. Not anymore. In recent years it has definitely moved into the mainstream of western culture. Everyone from neuro-scientists to sociologists, educators and medical researchers are seriously investigating its effects and benefits.

There is mounting evidence, for instance, that a state of calm focused awareness can assist the healing process. In several places different forms of meditation training are incorporated into the health-care system, with very good results. Perhaps the best known of these projects is Jon Kabatt Zinn's Stress Reduction Clinic, which is based at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. There is also growing interest in using meditative techniques in treating psychiatric problems such as ADD and bi-polar disorder. If these modalities of treatment become established they could revolutionize the mental health field. Not the least of the good effects would be the reduction in use of costly psycho-active drugs, with all their baggage of harmful side-effects.

Another area where meditation practice is making inroads is in prison reform. In several places there are on-going projects to teach meditation to prisoners. One of the oldest and most established of these is that of S.N. Goenka's Vipassana organization which runs programs in India and the United States. There are other prison meditation projects based in various Buddhist traditions; Zen, Theravada and Tibetan, being run in several countries. Wherever it's been tried, teaching meditation to prisoners has had great effect in reducing stress, violence and even recidivism. Often the biggest hurdle to overcome is opposition from conservative authorities to "frills," but when they see that it is a cheap, effective and safe way to ease prison management they can become staunch supporters of the idea.

There are many different schools and techniques of meditation, but most of the methods currently practised in such settings as hospitals, hospices, stress clinics, schools and prisons have their origins in various Buddhist traditions, most often Zen or the Vipassana techniques of Burmese Theravada. Buddhism is more than meditation, but meditation is a crucial part of the Buddhist path. In Buddhism, meditation falls under the heading of Bhavana, or development, meaning mental development. It is considered as essential for the well-being of the mind as exercise is for the body.

The methods of meditation used in all these varied social contexts, although in origin Buddhist, are often highly secularized. Sometimes even the use of the word "meditation" is avoided in favour of "relaxation technique" or "focusing." This is similar to the way western culture has abstracted other eastern disciplines like yoga and the martial arts from their original spiritual context. Teachers like Kabatt Zinn, mentioned above, make this separation as a deliberate policy, to avoid trappings of exoticism that are off-putting to a mainstream clientele.

There is nothing wrong with this in itself, but traditional Buddhists are quick to point out that meditation in the traditional understanding is about much more than stress relief or even healing, valid as these are. In the Buddhist teachings the end of practise is awakening or liberation, which is above the plane of all such limited goals. It is worth-while to remember that any meditation technique abstracted from the original context is only part of the whole, and the results can only be partial. Freud said of psychoanalysis that at best it could bring the patient to a state of "ordinary misery." That might be a blessing for someone mired in extraordinary misery, but why stop there?

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