Jennifer Warren

Chillin’ at the Zendo, by Jennifer Warren


I think most of us can agree that meditation is not a religion nor is it necessarily Buddhist. Many have tried to define meditation and unfortunately have, imho, introduced some erroneous ideas in the attempt. For example, people in the mental health field may choose to define all meditation in terms of mindfulness, when in fact there was a rich tradition of meditation that existed before it. Those in education may find the word ‘meditation’ unpalatable and for whatever reason choose instead the word ‘relaxation’ as if they were synonymous terms. Disclaimer: what follows is my own personal understanding of what meditation is and what it does, based on my own experience and research. In the interest of simplicity I have divided the practice of meditation, which takes myriad forms, into three basic groups…


Bhavana-Guided imagery. The (usually) positive and relaxing use of one’s mind and imagination. I say usually, because there is a specific meditation practiced by Buddhists where one imagines oneself as a corpse, i. e. the skin turning black, the flesh falling off, etc. (I am not joking here- any body want to give it a shot? Let me know how it goes, okay?) There are literally hundreds of studies on bhavana and its effectiveness in treating various mental, emotional and physical ailments (check out for details). The goal of practicing bhavana is to generate some type of feeling being healed, cleansed of mental defilements, being protected, generating loving kindness, etc.

Vipassana-Insight. A combination of concentration and awareness along with vigilance and observation. It is considered an analytical method, the goal being to understand the workings of one’s mind. Vipassana, or “Mindfulness”, is unique in that one is encouraged to maintain awareness of external stimuli (as opposed to bhavana and samatha). Another unusual property of vipassana is that it can be utilized while performing just about any normal waking activity (walking, driving a car, cleaning, having an arguement, etc.) which is probably responsible in part for the explosion in popularity of mindfulness in recent years. The silent Zen technique of zazen, or “just sitting”, is included in vipassana.

Samatha-Profound concentration or one-pointed focus. Uses an object as one’s focus, such as a candle flame, or repetition of a mantra, or perhaps certain sounds. One of its effects is a deep state of relaxation. Relaxation of course has numerous documented health benefits, but should not be confused with the goal of samatha. The goal is to achieve a higher state of consciousness (or awareness). Other things that can occur during samatha meditation include experiencing different planes of existence, perhaps celestial beings, the blissful integration of subject and object known as samadhi, past or future lives, etc. TM (Transcendental Meditation) is included here, and is associated with yogic powers such as levitation.

Yogis avoid taking pride in such powers, which is considered a hindrance to the practice. I have also read that while the Buddha himself studied with yogis, he was actually quite critical of samatha, dismissing it as only capable of producing “mind-based” mystical states that have no basis in truth or reality. If this is the case, this is where the Buddha and I part ways. I have come to believe that occasionally challenging one’s ordinary perception of reality through the practice of samatha can bring much needed perspective and clarity. In fact, I site the Zen technique of repeating a koan (the goal of which is to thrust a person into sudden awakening) as a perfect example. It amuses me to think that perhaps on some other plane of existence, Sakyamuni is at this moment smiling and wagging his finger at me from his Buddha paradise. Anyway, let’s move on to…


First, meditation is not mental blankness. The goal is not to completely eradicate thought. If someone ever tells you that, you can safely assume that he or she does not know what they are talking about. Meditators work with the mind rather than against it. Second, although those with mental illnesses sometimes have negative experiences, meditation is not harmful for the average person. Like I said, vipassana in particular can be safely practiced in just about any situation. (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you not to attempt to operate heavy machinery while in samadhi, right?). Lastly, although wonderful things can be experienced in meditation, it is not practiced as a way to get high. Interestingly enough, the reverse is sometimes true. Such was the case with Ram Dass who dropped acid (pun intended) in favor of meditation. Now, don’t that beat all?

You have probably noticed that most guided meditations are a combination of two or more of the above basic types. Whatever methods are employed, the meditation experience can range from the superficial(a way to “relax”, improve one’s golf game, develop cool powers, or temporarily escape one’s problems) to the deep (a total transformation of one’s consciousness and a glimpse into the true nature of the Self and the universe). It’s simply a matter of personal preferrence which you want to go for.

Well, that was a mouthful, wasn’t it? I promise I’m not this much of a blabbermouth in person. I’m going to return now to my normal state of witness awareness while I await your comments…in other words I’ll be here, as always, chillin’ at the zendo…

Jennifer Warren
DOC #WF1092

Categories: Jennifer Warren

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