Meditation is an important practice in virtually all schools of Buddhist thought, and in one form or another, most Buddhists practice it. But did you know there are two main types of meditation? From formal Chan practice, such as archery or KungFu practice in Shaolin, to facing the wall meditation, to active mindful chore meditation, to mantra or sutta recitation, to simple things like making offerings—all are methods of practicing meditation — some settling and calming, and some activating. There are many types of meditation, but they could be categorized into two purposes — and two separate and unique benefits:
- Settling and calming the mind: mindfulness (of breathing, of mind, of the present moment, etc) — good for general health and well-being
- Activating the mind: visualizations, including visualizing Buddhas and chanting mantras — good for the mind, cognitive development and prevent cognitive decline.
Benefits of Mindfulness Practice
There are manifold benefits to practice, not least of which are abandoning the clinging to the past and the worry about the future, both of which are the path of suffering. Daily practice, inexorably takes us to a place where lofty ideas like enlightened thinking is actually possible.
Personally, I find mindfulness practice has many other benefits beyond the main purpose of practice. It inspires courage by removing the worry about the future. What is there to be afraid of when you are in the present moment? It improves concentration in all tasks, making you more productive at work or play. It makes you much more attentive, making you a real blessing to your family and friends.
Mindfulness Proven to Reduce Stress
The most commonly mentioned benefit of mindfulness training—the very reason it is studied at every major medical university and used in psychiatry practice—is the known link between mindfulness and benefits to health through reduction of stress. To this, I can personally attest. Increased energy, improved self-esteem, ability to relax and sleep, and a general ability to cope with modern life are also often cited.
Science Proves Mindfulness Positively Alters the Brain
Apparently, it goes beyond all these already extraordinary benefits, by benefiting us in terms of bodily and neurological health. A May 2011 study in Neuroimage, which has been making the rounds of lofty publications and the science community, indicates that mindfulness physically changes the brain for the better. According to an article by Carolyn Schatz, an editor at Harvard Medical School publications:
“all this focusing and refocusing is increasing brain connectivity. Researchers in Los Angeles, California compared the brain activity of volunteers who had finished eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction training with that of volunteers who did not do such training. Functional MRI scans showed stronger connections in several regions of the meditators’ brains—especially those associated with attention and auditory and visual processing.”
Many studies support the supposition—based on extensive evidence—that there are substantive health benefits associated with mindfulness meditation. More importantly, from a Buddhist point of view, the research specifically points to an actual alteration of brain function and also body function at a fundamental level. Dr. Herbert Benson, director of Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital discovered that mindfulness training can actually turn specific sets of genes on and off in people who practice regularly. These genes improve the body’s ability to handle free radicals, inflammation, pain, and even cell death.
Visualization and good “karma” activity: compassion and loving-kindness meditation
On the activity side of the meditation, equations are visualization meditations and mantra. These are well proven to activate the mind, improve the mind and sharpen our faculties — activate more parts of the brain.
One of the most precious of meditations is Tonglen, a visualization meditation in the Tibetan tradition, where we visualize taking in the suffering of others (in the form of black greasy smoke or another metaphor) with each breath, and giving back our positive merits. The act of taking in others suffering and giving them our own strength is a strong “merit” practice that not only makes us psychologically feel good, it has many spiritual benefits, such as “good karma.” It is an act of ultimate giving. Here, Tibetan teacher, H.E. Zasep Rinpoche, explains and guides Tonglen:
Mantra Improves Physical Health
Other studies have shown that mantra meditation improves immune system function, can eliminate food cravings and binge eating, reduce stress and improve cardio-vascular health. This isn’t a “magic formula” — it’s the result of coordinating sound, visualization and activating the brain and the body.
So, when I practice White Tara mantra mindfulness meditation, perhaps I am physically changing my body, probably enhancing my ability to prevent cell death (longer life, which is one of White Tara’s manifold blessings), reducing pain and removing free radicals which cause many diseases (also one of the many benefits of White Tara practice.) In other words, science proves that faith alone is not needed, since regardless of faith, mindfulness simply works.
I can also personally attest to the power of White Tara’s mantra in my own life. It simply has helped me overcome major issues relating to health, where medicine failed. Tara’s root mantra — there is also a full mantra meant for those who have empowerment — is:
Oṃ Tāre Tuttāre Ture Svāhā
A guided White Tara meditation:
Sadhanas unlock and activate our brains fully:
In the ultimate “activity” meditation — formulated Sadhanas — we use multiple skilled methods and all the senses in visualization practice, reinforcing the extraordinary meditational experience, for example:
- sound: words and mantras
- breath: visualizing prana (chi) and the subtle body
- smell: we visualize the scent of wonderful offerings of incense
- taste: we visualize food offerings
- prayers: in psychological terms, affirmations
- offerings: representing our generosity and generating merit
- activity: for example, visualizing purifying light blessing all sentient beings, and other activities.
All of this serves to “activate” our mind, with resulting benefits in cognition, memory recall, and activation of the brain.
A Meditation How-To
At its simplest, meditation is about keeping us in the present, allowing us to shed the clinging to the past and the worries of the future. For this reason, the most common techniques include sitting, standing, or walking meditation involving single-minded focus on either stillness, or activity (depending on your goal):
• the breath
• mantra repetition
• emptiness practice (focusing on nothing—which is an element of all mindfulness practice)
• observing practice — simply observing your own thoughts, your own body, the sounds around you
• focus on any single thought, word or phrase
• martial arts or repetitive physical acts such as archery, Tai Chi, Kung Fu but with single-minded focus.
The key skill, that develops over time—apparently because we are actually altering our neural pathways and brain function, according to these studies—is to allow stray thoughts to happen, observe them, but then refocus on the single-minded focus point. It takes practice. It’s relaxing. It allows you to remove the obstacles to enlightenment. And it’s good for the health.