The teaching and philosophy of Buddha is a mental pathway that leads humanity from darkness and suffering in to light and happiness. Meditation is an integral part of Buddhism. Meditation is simply the act of learning to control ones thoughts in order to concentrate so that one might progress along that mental pathway.
Buddha has been quoted as saying, All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
The goal or final destination of this mental pathway is enlightenment or Nirvana. To reach Nirvana one must take one step at a time. Each step transforms the mind a little bit more and leads the individual a little bit closer to enlightenment. According to Buddhist
philosophy, achieving this goal will take many lifetimes of practice. Therefore, there is no pressure to reach the final destination in this life. The goal of this life is to simply practice and improve the skills and techniques of meditation in order to move a little bit further along the pathway to enlightenment. The reward for practicing is to achieve a higher awareness, find inner peace, and learn to live in the present moment, therefore attaining freedom from the stresses of this life.
While Buddhism is an ancient practice, it is enjoying a resurgence in popularity today, ironically in the west. This resurgence is mainly due to scientific and medical communities recognizing the health benefits of meditation. There is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that regular meditation improves skeletal health, helps the body fight off illness such as cancer, and allows individuals who have been plagued by incapacitation stress and anxiety to return to normal function. These scientific discoveries have brought the practice of meditation into the mainstream society. As individuals experience for themselves the personal benefits that come from meditation, they begin to be curious about the Buddhist foundation. That curiosity often leads to a longing for the peace and contentment offered to those who follow the teaching of Buddha.
Buddha taught many different types of meditation, each one designed to overcome a particular problem or to achieve a particular state of mind. In the centuries that have passed, many different Buddhist schools of thoughts have evolved. Each school practices meditation differently. Though there are differences between the different schools, there are also similarities. The ultimate goal of Enlightenment or achieving Nirvana remains the same. It is the approach that is varied.
One of the similarities that remains consistent no matter which school is being followed is the steps or levels of meditation. The first level of meditation is tranquility. The purpose of this step is to still the mind and to develop the ability to concentrate. The most commonly practiced meditation in this level is called mindfulness of breathing. In order to practice mindfulness of breathing one must sit in a comfortable, yet upright position with the back straight. Once the individual sits in this position the exercise is focusing the mind onto the action of breathing. By deeply concentrating on breathing in and breathing out while clearing the mind of distracting thoughts, one is exercising and building strength of concentration. Eventually, all this practicing will lead to concentration that is strong and a sense of mental calm and inner peace. This type of meditation is often taught by psychologists and mental health professionals to help individuals plagued by stress, anxiety and even depression. The physical and mental benefits of practicing this type of meditation are immense. People seeking relief from mental stress achieve their reward just by practicing the first level of meditation. Therefore, many do not go beyond this step.
The next step in meditation is insight. The techniques of concentration are similar to tranquility meditation, but the goal is different. Instead of merely achieving a state of focused concentration, one looks for insight and understanding of the great truths and how they relate to oneself. This knowledge and understanding of truth goes beyond merely knowing to actually being at one with that truth. An example of a Buddhist truth is the idea that to live is to suffer. Taking this truth beyond simple knowledge to acceptance and then integration is the purpose of insight meditation.
Meditation and Buddhism go together hand in hand. It was Buddha who taught how to harness the mind and direct it in ways that lead to happiness and contentment. While it is not necessary to be a practicing Buddhist in order to enjoy the benefits of meditation, having an understanding of the philosophy and purpose of Buddhist meditation will add meaning and increase the benefits of regular meditation.