In some respects, every method of meditation is like all others, like some others, and like no other. The first level is that of the most general commonalities, disregarding the idiosyncratic variations of technique, emphasis, or belief of any one system. At this most universal level, all meditation systems are variations on a single process for transforming consciousness. The core elements of this process are found in every system, and its specifics undercut ostensible differences among the various schools of meditation.

Preparation for meditation

There is the least common ground among meditation systems on the preparatory groundwork the meditator requires. The systems surveyed here represent the full spectrum of attitudes towards the meditator’s need to prepare himself through some kind of purification. They range from the emphatic insistence on purification as a prelude to meditation voiced in the Bhakti, Kabbalist, Christian, and Sufi traditions to the notion among, for example, Zen schools, that genuine purity arises spontaneously as a by-product of meditation itself. Tantrics of the Bon Marg mark an extreme attitude toward purity in advocating the violation of sexual and other proprieties as part of spiritual practice.

Ideas about the best setting for meditation likewise cover a full spectrum. The Desert Fathers withdrew into the Egyptian wilderness to avoid the marketplace and worldly company; hermetic solitude was essential to their program of severe self-discipline. Modern Indian yogis seek out isolated mountains and jungle retreats for the same reasons. Westernized versions of Indian yoga, however, oppose any forced change in the meditator’s living habits; instead, meditation is simply inserted into an otherwise normal daily agenda. Intensive Zen practice is done ideally in a monastic setting, but it can be part of a meditator’s normal daily round.

In most classical meditation systems, however, a monastery or ashram is the optimal environment for meditation, monks or yogis the ideal companions, the role of the renunciate the highest calling, and scriptures the best reading. Modern systems direct the student to organizational ties and activities while he lives his ordinary lifestyle without imposing any major change.

Though other schools such as Zen de-emphasize intellectual study, they all have both formal and informal teachings that students assimilate. In some traditions, formal study is a major emphasis: The Benedictine monk, for example, is to spend one-third of his day in study, the other two-thirds in prayer (or meditation) and manual labour.


The strongest agreement among meditation schools is on the importance of retraining attention. All these systems can be broadly categorized in terms of the major strategies for retraining attention described in the Visuddhimagga: concentration or mindfulness. By using the Visuddhimagga map as an example, we can see similarities of technique obscured by the overlay of jargon and ideology.

The differing names used among meditation systems to describe one and the same way and destination are legion. Sometimes the same term is used in special but very different technical senses by various schools. What translates into the English word “void,” for example, is used by Indian yogis to refer to jhana states and by Mahayana Buddhists to signify the realization of the essential emptiness of all phenomenon. The former usage denotes a mental state devoid of contents (e.g., the formless jhanas); the latter refers to the voidness of phenomenon. Another example: Phillip Kapleau (1967) distinguishes between zazen and meditation, saying that the two “are not to be confused.”

Table 2 classifies techniques from each meditation system according to the Visuddhimagga typology. The criterion for classification is the mechanics of technique: (a) concentration, in which mind focuses on a fixed mental object; (b) mindfulness, in which mind observes itself; or (c) both operations present in integrated combination.

A second prerequisite for classification is internal consistency in descriptions. If it is a concentration technique, other characteristics of the jhana path are mentioned—for example, increasingly subtle bliss accompanying deepened concentration or loss of sense-consciousness. If it is an insight technique, other characteristics of insight practices, such as the realization of the impersonality of mental processes, must be present. If a combined technique, both concentration techniques as well as insight must be mixed and integrated, as in Theravadan vipassana.

In concentration, the meditator’s attentional strategy is to fix his focus on a single percept, constantly bringing back his wandering mind to this object. Some instructions for doing so emphasize an active assertion of the meditator’s will to stick with the target percept and resist any wandering. Others suggest a passive mode of simply regenerating the target percept when it is lost in the flow of awareness. Thus, an ancient Theravadan text exhorts the meditator to grit his teeth, clench his fists, and work up a sweat, struggling to keep his mind fixed on the movements of his respiration; a modern vipassana meditator, on the other hand, is told “simply begin again” each time he notices his mind has wandered. Though these approaches are opposite on a continuum of activity-passivity, they are equivalent means to constantly reorient to a single object of concentration and so develop one-pointedness. With mindfulness techniques the attentional fundamentals are identical: They all entail continuous, full watchfulness of each successive moment, a global vigilance to the meditator’s chain of awareness.

There are perhaps few pure types among meditation schools, save for those systems centred around a single technique. Most schools are eclectic, using a variety of techniques from both approaches. They make allowances for individual needs, tailoring techniques to the student’s progress. Sufis, for example, mainly use the zikr, a concentration practice, but also at times employ insight techniques like Muragaha, which is attention to the flow of one’s own awareness. For simplicity, in the preceding sections a specific technique has been emphasized, generally the main one.

Different meditation systems may espouse wholly contradictory views from one another on the necessity for virtually every preparatory act, be it a specific environment, the need for a teacher, or prior knowledge of what to expect from meditation. But the need for the meditator to retrain his attention, whether through concentration or mindfulness, is the single invariant ingredient in the recipe for altering consciousness of every meditation system.

Seeing what you believe

The meditator’s beliefs determine how he interprets and labels his meditation experiences. When a Sufi enters a state in which he is no longer aware of his senses, and his only thought is that of Allah, he knows this to be fana; when a yogi is no longer aware of his senses, and his mind is totally focused on his deity, then he will say he has entered samadhi. Many different names are used to describe one and the same experience: jhana, samyana or samadhi, fana, Daat, turiya, and the great fixation. All seem to refer to a single state with identical characteristics. These many terms for a single state come from Theravadan Buddhism, raja yoga, Sufism, Kabbalah, kundalini yoga, and Zen, respectively.

The history of religion is rife with instances of a transcendental experience interpreted in terms of assumptions specific to time, place, and belief. The Indian saint Ramana Maharshi saw his own transcendental states in terms of Advaita philosophy. He conjectures that during Saul’s great experience on the Damascus road, when he returned to normal consciousness, he interpreted what happened in terms of Christ and the Christians because at the time he was preoccupied with them (Chadwick, 1966). A person’s reference group gives him a gloss on his inner realities; Berger and Luckmann (1967) point out that while “Saul may have become Paul in the aloneness of religious ecstasy… he could remain Paul only in the context of the Christian community that recognized him as such and confirmed the ‘new being’ in which he now located this identity.”

While a set of beliefs about altered states in meditation may render them safe, the meditator does not need specific foreknowledge of these states to experience them. Sri Aurobindo’s biographer, Satprem (1970: pg 256), likewise describes the unusual states Aurobindo experienced in the course of his spiritual development but notes:

Sri Aurobindo was the first to be baffled by his own experience and… it took him some years to understand exactly what had happened. We have described the… experience… as though the stages had been linked very carefully, each with its explanatory label, but the explanations came long afterwards, at that moment he had no guiding landmarks.

Altered states in meditation

In meditation, method is the seed of the goal: The contours of the state the meditator reaches depend on how he arrived. The concentrative path leads the meditator to merge with his meditation object in jhana and then to transcend it. As he reaches deeper levels, the bliss becomes more compelling, yet more subtle. In the way of mindfulness, the meditator’s mind witnesses its own workings, and he comes to perceive increasingly finer segments of his stream of thought. As his perception sharpens, he becomes increasingly detached from what he witnesses, finally turning away from all awareness in the nirvanic state. In this state, there is no experience whatever.

Every system that uses concentration describes the same journey into jhana, though different schools cast the descriptions in differing terms. The key attributes of this state are always the same: loss of sense awareness, one-pointed attention to one object to the exclusion of all other thoughts, and sublimely rapturous feelings. Systems that use mindfulness describe the path of insight: increasingly finer perception of the meditator’s mind, detachment from these events, and a compelling focus on the present moment. The nirvanic state, per se, is not necessarily cited as the end point of this progression.

These two altered states are the prototypical altered states in meditation. They do not, however, exhaust all the possible changes in consciousness that meditation brings. Attention is extremely flexible and can change awareness in many more ways than the two major ones described here. Attentional retraining can also be linked with exercises in other biosystems, for example, with movement in Sufi dancing. Additional practices such as controlled respiration, fasting, visualizations, or adopting strong beliefs all contribute to the final shape of the altered state, over and above the effects of the meditator’s attentional exercises.

Attention is the key to meditative altered states, but the addition of other practices compounds the complexity of the calculus of the resulting changes in awareness. One example of a more complex altered state is that produced by the kundalini yoga technique of shaktipat diksha, the direct transmission of a meditative altered state from teacher to student through look or touch. The seizure-like activity in this state may be due to breath-control exercises as well as to expectations arising from the intense guru-student relationship, and perhaps in part to modeling—all in addition to the basic effects of concentration. The more means used to alter consciousness, the more intricate the topography of the resulting state.

The literature of every meditation system describes an altered state. Jhana is the prototype of one variety, in which the altered state is a neatly delimited enclave of awareness set off from other states. Jhanic states are mutually exclusive of the normal major states: waking, sleeping, and dreaming. Another type of altered state, however, merges with these major states. This merger appends new functions on the normal states, changing their character. This meets Tart’s (1971) criterion for “higher states of consciousness”: (1) all functions of “lower” states are available, that is, waking, sleeping, and dreaming; and (2) some new aspects, derivative of an altered state, are present in addition. This kind of transmutation of awareness is an altered trait of consciousness, an enduring change transforming the meditator’s every moment. The “awakened” state is the ideal type of an altered trait of consciousness. Virtually every system of meditation recognizes the awakened state as the ultimate goal of meditation (Table 3).

Most systems agree that such altered traits occur gradually and to differing degrees. In the Visuddhimagga, for example, there is a similar gradient in the four levels of purification arising from increasingly deep penetration of the nirvanic state.

The goal of all meditation paths, whatever their ideology, source, or methods, is to transform the meditator’s consciousness. In the process, the meditator dies to his past self and is reborn to a new level of experience. Whether through concentration in jhana or through insight in nirvana, the altered states the meditator gains are dramatic in their discontinuity with his normal states. But the ultimate transformation for the meditator is a newer state still: the awakened state, which mixes with and re-creates his normal consciousness.

Each path labels this end state differently. But no matter how diverse the names, these paths all propose the same basic formula in an alchemy of the self: the diffusion of the effects of meditation into the meditator’s waking, dreaming, and sleep states. At the outset, this diffusion requires the meditator’s effort. As he progresses, it becomes easier for him to maintain prolonged meditative awareness in the midst of his other activities. As the states produced by his meditation meld with his waking activity, the awakened state ripens. When it reaches full maturity, it lastingly changes his consciousness, transforming his experience of himself and of his universe.

Though sources like the Visuddhimagga draw distinctions according to the angle of entrance to this transformation (concentration or insight), it is likely that at this point all paths merge. Or, more to the point, from our perspective the similarities may far outweigh the differences. An awakened being transcends his own origins; persons of any faith can recognize him as exceptional or “perfect,” or—if so inclined—revere him as a saint.

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