Meditation is ultimately nothing more than the end-stage of a contemplation, concentration and then meditation continuum. Paramahamsa Ramakrishna, an Indian Saint in the eighteen hundreds, described is as being the thought-equivalent of pouring oil in a thin, unbroken stream, from one container to another. So there's a flow. Not a 'blankness' or 'emptying of the mind', which is what some people think it is, or should be.
Is it religious? It can be. People of all religions, including Muslim Sufis, Judaic rabbis, Roman Catholic mystics, Christian saints, Buddhist and Hindu monks and nuns have all engaged in meditation of the highest order over the millennia. Yet meditation doesn't have to be religious at all. It may be spiritual (which is good) or even used purely as a psychological tool to reduce stress, calm the mind and lower the heart rate.
When we contemplate on an ordinary word, a holy word, a mantra (sacred sound syllable) or one of the many names of 'God' - Allah, AUM, Buddha, Hashem, Jesus, Krishna, Love, Mother Mary, Peace, Rama. Vishnu etc. - our concentration deepens. When the concentration deepens a little, our breathing rhythm slows down and becomes more regular. This in turn creates concentration. Each feeds off the other until a deeper and more restful state is achieved. Neurologically, the mind, instead of hopping impulsively and at random from one thought to another, often in a state of considerable agitation, is invited (rather than compelled) to focus on fewer thoughts or indeed just one, thought or image. You can start contemplating by looking at a beautiful picture. Or a religious icon. Or a candle flame. Or at a spot on a blank wall. If you're a visually dominant person, this might work better than just shutting your eyes and trying to calm the mind.
Here's how the meditation process works: If a torch has an adjustable lens, you can twist the front so the beam is wide and diffuse – rather like a mind all over the place. As you turn the lens in the opposite direction, the beam will become narrower, more concentrated and more sharply focused. That's exactly what happens in the early stages of contemplation, then into concentration which leads to meditation. The number of thoughts or stimuli are reduced and the mind will focus on fewer and less until ultimately it focuses on one. At the highest stages of meditation proper, it will merge with that one thought. So subject and object then become one. Meditator and that on which the meditation is focused, will unite, we are told by the Wise Ones.
You can quite frankly sit and repeat 'teaspoon' with some degree of focus and the same effect will occur. It's simply a question of reducing the waves and impulses in the mind to a selective and repetitive few thoughts - or optimally, one. The idea behind using a religious, holy, uplifting or sacred name is that your thoughts will be tuned to a higher intention.
The idea is not to bully the mind or drag it kicking and screaming into submission That's functionally impossible anyhow. It's spent many years doing its own thing, so you're not going to get its co-operation, much less its compliance, overnight. Such an expectation will simply lead to disappointment. In the same way that the mind has gotten into the habit of firing off random thoughts and meandering in a chaotic fashion, so it will have to learn a new habit, through gentle repetition – in which it will ultimately do what you wish and not what it wishes. I hope that makes some sense?
As you attempt the process you'll almost certainly become conscious that your mind has wandered off the desired course into all sorts of little alleyways. That's fine. Gently bring it back to your initially intended thought, image or word repetition and continue repeating or visualising. Start off with five minutes a day. Do this for two weeks or so. Then increase the time to ten minutes. Do that for two weeks or so. You may even use some gentle background music in the early stages to help calm and focus the mind. This is not a war! J This is a gentle re-persuasion of your thoughts. Violence and vigour is not the way to go. Subtlety and calmness is.
The effect of focusing the mind through such gentle repetition is that it will typically start to produce an Alpha brain wave of between 8 and 12 Hertz or cycle per second. That brainwave has been scientifically demonstrated over many studies to have a calming, restorative and therapeutic effect on both the brain and body of the practitioner. Blood pressure falls, the breathing rate becomes calm and deep and energy is stored.
Make a pact with yourself today. Invest in your future calm and find just five minutes a day. Make sure it's somewhere that you're likely to be uninterrupted by a person, animal or mobile phone call. Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair where you feel secure. Wear easy-fitting clothing. Doing it on a full tummy isn't great – but neither is trying it on a starving one. A cup of sweetened non-caffeinated tea or a piece a fruit before you start the process will even out blood sugar and keep your mind away from the larder.
Give this easy approach a try and as you evolve so subsequent articles on the topic will make a whole lot of sense. Remember, the secret to success lies in your consistency. It's like taking medication for a chronic condition. You have to take it every day for it to properly work its healing magic.
Feel free to share this with anyone who you think might benefit from this or be interested.