A very suitable way to develop or train the mind is the practice of meditation. Although this form of mental training can be found in all world religions, it seems that in many cultures is has (unfortunately) been a buried and undervalued medium to achieve relaxation and self-knowledge. Fortunately in Buddhism the practice of meditation has not been lost; through the centuries it has been extended, deepened and refined.

Meditation in Buddhism is viewed as the most effective way to come to rest, relaxation, insight and the ending of human suffering. We can see it as a physical, sensory, mental and emotional process of awakening; a training in which the mind returns to its original flexibility and malleability. Just as an old and creaking door opens more easily and less noisily when we oil the hinges every so often, in the same way our lives can be oiled with the wholesome and healing powers of concentration and mindfulness.
If we want to learn to meditate, it does not matter whether we are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or atheist. In general, meditation can be distinguished into two main types, namely (1) tranquillity or relaxation meditation and (2) insight or awareness meditation. In both these forms of meditation there is a soft, voluntary discipline and mindfulness as well as concentration are developed; there is only a difference in emphasis.


Tranquillity or Relaxation Meditation

In tranquillity or relaxation meditation one basic object is used and all other experiences are excluded. This basic object can be of different kinds: a flame, a sound (mantra) we repeat in our mind, water, a form we’re observing, and so on. In the Buddhist texts on meditation more than forty different objects of concentration are mentioned where we can anchor our attention. When we are distracted by thoughts, emotions, sounds or other experiences, we might just lightly acknowledge that this is the case but otherwise we ignore them. We return immediately to the original object of meditation. Through this narrowed and one-pointed and focused attention, quite soon we get concentrated and feel a deep sense of peace. We become one with the object of meditation and after long practice we can eventually experience total bliss and mental absorption.

Nearly everybody knows moments of ‘being fully focused’. This can happen while practising a sport, while studying, working, making love, creating art and the like. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has introduced the term flow or ‘optimum experience’ into current psychology. Flow can be described as a healthy peak experience, where we are fully concentrated on the activity we are carrying out at that moment. Through effortless effort, the pleasure and the full attention, we forget the time; we are not hindered by all kinds of every day anxieties, and we are totally absorbed in our activity.
From this optimum experience the blissful concentration which is developed by means of tranquillity or relaxation meditation can be understood as a deeper form of flow. During the practice of meditation there is no (coarser) activity, so that the one-pointedness of the mind becomes much sharper and deeper. At a certain moment we can enter a state of deep concentration where gradually different levels of mental absorption can be realised. These levels of absorption are very gratifying and refreshing, but they are temporary states, and it can be compared to taking a cool bath on a hot day.

As a side effect of concentration some people (who seem to be susceptible to it) easily acquire paranormal powers, such as clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathic powers, healing powers and the ability to manifest oneself elsewhere. The Buddha too, and many of his followers, are said to have had these powers. According to the scriptures the Buddha was always very careful in this matter, however, and he was not at all proud of his supernormal powers. He always emphasised the limitations of these kinds of attainments. They are impermanent; they disappear again once the concentration becomes less deep. Furthermore one needs to be able to deal with these powers. We might be able to read all thoughts in the world, but if we cannot deal wisely with aggression, jealousy and other emotions in ourselves, these powers do not bring more harmony and inner freedom.
The practice of tranquillity meditation can, however, result in a very refreshing, temporary calmness in a hectic, stressful life. Almost every religion knows a form of tranquillity meditation. A popular type of tranquillity meditation in the West is Transcendental Meditation (TM). The technique of TM, which starts by repeating a mantra, was formulated by the Indian meditation master Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Another valuable form of tranquillity meditation is the development of lovingkindness.

Many people with a busy job and many responsibilities benefit from practising a form of tranquillity meditation. Often the principles of this meditation are incorporated in popular relaxation exercises. We made a CD for workers at the University Hospital in Groningen, the Netherlands, with relaxation exercises according to the Progressive Relaxation Method of Dr. Edmund Jacobson. In this method we learn to relax muscles in our body by first tightening one by one different groups of muscles, in a firm manner but without force. Subsequently we take a deep breath, hold our breath and the keep the muscles tensed for a while, and then we release the muscles on the out breath, meanwhile saying to ourselves: ‘Relax.’
After we have become familiar with this technique, in the second phase we relax the muscles without first tensing them, by just saying to ourselves: ‘Relax’. Practising this second part is still happening consciously in a relaxed situation. The third step is that we eventually apply this in stressful (work) situations. The focused concentration and the conscious relaxation contain elements of tranquillity meditation. It is a tried and tested method that can quickly result in a greater ability to relax.
The principles of tranquillity meditation can also be used successfully with people who have difficulties around fear, suffer from lack of concentration or sleeping disorders. In my work in psychiatry for instance, I have given relaxation exercises to young clients with these difficulties. These exercises, too, were derived from the practice of tranquillity meditation and it was beautiful to watch how quickly these techniques resulted in greater calmness and relaxation.

Tranquillity meditation could be described as a beneficial and healthy method for stress reduction and as a subjective form of awareness, for as a meditator we are fully identifying with the object of meditation and with the forms of concentrated absorption of the mind.