by Jack McLean

Distinguishing Meditation from Prayer

Generally speaking, meditation is more widely practiced in the religions of South Asia (Hinduism and Buddhism), while prayer is more prominent in the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Baha’i Faith). Some religious adherents practice either one, the other or both. In this space, I can’t possibly adequately cover such a complex field. Selective comments on the various types of meditation follow.

If we are speaking of meditation as a specifically religious activity, as distinguished from its poetic sense of deep thought,  meditation, in its most ambitious form, is a journey inward to discover the true self as spiritual self. As outlined below in type 3  of “Three Types of Meditation,” meditation can also be viewed as an instrument serving to make spiritual discoveries, solving problems, or disclosing secrets, bringing to consciousness something that was previously hidden from the understanding or imagination. This form of meditation is a function of the rational and creative faculties and is practiced by both religious and non-religious alike, depending on its focus.

How is prayer to be contrasted with meditation? As communion with God, prayer involves magnetic spiritual passion, expressed as longing, striving and supplication, arguably to a greater extent than meditation. The goal of prayer is communion or conversation with God, that Divine Being who Rumi, the great Persian 13th century Sufi mystic and poet, called “the Beloved.”

However, caution and wisdom are required if we speak too glibly about conversation with God, a Being that is wholly unlike any other, one who transcends human conception. “Talking to God” is a metaphor for a type of communication that is real, but not fully describable: a living relationship between the Creator and the created one.

Prayer, as does meditation, also involves concentrated attention and the surrender of the will, summoning the sacred to bring us into the presence of the mind’s imperfect conception of God. We should never delude ourselves into thinking that in prayer or meditation, we come into the full presence of the Divine Essence, even less becoming one with God.

Would not coming into the presence of the Divine Essence consume our entire being just as a wood chip would be instantly consumed by a blazing inferno? I believe that we achieve communion with God through the intermediary of His Word (Logos), Divine Manifestation or Messenger, according to our spiritual capacity.

Hindu, Buddhist and Christian Meditation

Some popular forms of Hindu meditation that have gained ground in the West are Transcendental Meditation, Yoga (Hatha and Raja) and Vipassana. It is Hatha Yoga, the physical postures, that is known simply as Yoga (“training”/“discipline”) in the West. But in Hinduism, the postures are only preliminary exercises to a higher Yoga, Raja or Royal Meditation, the journey inward. In Hinduism, contemplation of the breath, the divine breath pervading all life, is crucial. Hindu meditation is grounded in a packed theology on the importance of concentrating on the breath.

The different approaches to Buddhist meditation stress that ethical behaviour as right-mindfulness must accompany correct mental perceptions to achieve Enlightenment (Samadhi= spiritual insight, tranquility, full consciousness). The inward state is incomplete without outer right action. One well-known type of Buddhist meditation practiced in the West is the “loving-kindness (compassion) meditation.”

Christian meditation is usually a type of contemplative prayer. It is often based on sacred reflection of scriptural passages in the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, or it involves reflections on the life of Christ. Christian meditation aims to increase the believer’s love for God or Christ. It usually expresses itself as a type of study or reflection to enhance knowledge and devotion. Christian meditation shares a commonality with Bhakti Yoga–the way to God through love.

Three Types of Meditation

1) Transcendental Meditation

TM is “Meditation 101”. It consists of stilling, emptying and refreshing the mind. It was introduced to the West about 50 years ago by the Beatles’ mentor, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Its practioners number in the millions. Many of those who practice TM say that it has nothing to do with religion, although its roots are clearly Hindu. Atheists and agnostics practice TM. Transcendental Meditation is valued for its practical, psycho-physical benefits: reduction of stress, increased energy, enhanced sense of well-being, improved relationships, creativity, etc.

2) Meditation as Raja or Royal Yoga of the Mind

Raja Yoga, lit. “royal training,” is the higher, spiritual counterpart of Hatha Yoga, the muscle-and-joint flexion and extension popular in the studios of the West. In Raja Yoga, usually under the guidance of a guru (Sanskrit=teacher), meditation becomes a long journey into the land of the inner self, where the mysterious, divine ground of our own being resides. Into this great, fathomless, silent hinterland, operating below the conscious mind, few of us dare to venture. But for those who risk the journey, and who will master the discipline, the rewards of making this inner journey can be great, i.e. discovering the unchangeable, eternal self, our oneness with the source of all life.

3) Meditation as the Exercise of the Rational and Creative Faculties in the Baha’i Writings

While the Baha’i Faith encourages meditation, it does not prescribe any specific method. Baha’is are free to choose their own type provided that they do not attempt to impose it on their co-religionists.The rational and/or creative functions constitute less commonly understood meanings of meditation, but they are just as important.

Among its other meanings, the Baha’i sacred writings depict meditation as the systematic and intentional exercise of the rational and creative faculties. This type of deep, concentrated, reflective thinking can be used in the service of the sciences and the arts, just as much as it can serve spirituality. Scientific discoveries are made through meditation as analytical insight, although depending on the science involved, a number of steps, including methodical experimentation, trial and error, come into play.

‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), the son and successor of the Prophet-Founder, Baha’u’llah (1817-1892), said in Paris in 1911:

“The spirit of man is itself informed and strengthened during meditation; through it, affairs of which man knew nothing are unfolded before his view. Through it he receives divine inspiration; through it he receives heavenly food. Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself; in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves…This faculty brings forth from the invisible plane the sciences and arts. (Paris Talks, p. 174)