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To most people meditation implies emptying the mind, bringing the mind into focus, stillness. Emulation of happy monks seated on meditation cushions, perfectly still for hours, seems to be the version of this ancient art that we are all aspiring to—which, if we’re entirely honest, leads many of us to beating ourselves up with black zendo slippers for our underachievement.
What most people don’t realize is that there are two distinctly separate forms of meditation: Western and Eastern. Eastern meditation, to simplify the equation, has its aim toward emptiness—pure realized consciousness. One watches her thoughts while sitting still and attempts to free herself from the attachment of them in order to discover her underlying nature.
Eastern meditation also comes with an appealing little promise embroidered on her lapel—the orgasmic Holy Grail of outcomes: Satori, Samadhi, Nirvana, Moksha… Enlightenment. Anyway you cut the cosmic cupcake, it sounds like you’re in for an eternity of bliss if you could simply sit still and empty your brain for a few minutes a day.
The challenge here is that this often doesn’t work for Westerners. We don’t live in ashrams: We’re battling traffic on the freeways, and elbowing through crowds on subways to get to work. We aren’t eating our meals in blessed silence surrounded by fellow practitioners: We’re scarfing down a salad at our desks to get to those last few emails in our inbox before the meeting. By the time we get to meditation it’s like we’ve pulled a sweaty racehorse straight off the track and tried to make it stand still as a statue. Unlikely.
The best place to look for solutions is at the beginning. In the beginning there was the void, and from the void came everything, including crowded freeways and overflowing inboxes. Eastern meditation says, “Let’s go home to the void.” Western meditation says, “Let’s hail a cab and see the nightlife while we’re here.”
One of the first practitioners to nail down a way to bring the positive effects of meditation to the Western psyche was Shakti Gawain, in her seminal 1978 tome Creative Visualization, now one of the classics of conscious living literature with over 3 million copies sold.
The precept of Western meditation is simple: Don’t empty your mind, instead, fill it up with something wonderful. The mind is like a dog, it needs a bone to chew. Rather than yanking away the concerns it’s gnawing away on, replace those concerns with affirmations, images, and even friendly, wise imaginary friends like your inner guide, your animal totem, and your higher self.
Two equally valid forms of meditation; two completely different techniques.
A History of Meditation
Some of the earliest records of Eastern meditation comes from the Hindu traditions of Vedantism around 1500 BCE. Many Eastern methods of meditation were popularized by the Buddha in the 5th century BCE.
By contrast, Western meditation made its first appearance in 100 CE with the ancient Hermeticists in an Egyptian manuscript called the Corpus Hermeticum—an esoteric stallion of a text that by some accounts single-handedly inseminated the Renaissance. It continued to evolve in the 19th and 20th centuries, written about by philosophers such as Madame Blavatsky (the very thinker who founded the Theosophical Society and coined the new-thought term “Law of Attraction”) and Napoleon Hill, who recognized the importance that our mind and imagination play in our lives, from our health to our vocation and life purpose.
Yet perhaps nowhere is Western meditation as eloquently summarized as with the term creative visualization, coined by author Shakti Gawain.
We use this technique all the time in everyday life. Take, for instance, making a simple decision of what to get for lunch. We summon our meals: Hmmm, I feel like oysters Rockefeller, a peanut butter sandwich, or a kale and hummus wrap. Then we proceed to go out and manifest the picture we just conjured.
Shakti Gawain takes the natural process of imagination that we all use to a place of higher consciousness. She even takes a liberating leap off the meditation cushion and invites you to lie down and relax before you get started.
How To Do It
To utilize creative visualization, one technique she suggests is to imagine in your mind an inner sanctuary for yourself: A place in nature, in a church or a temple, or somewhere that holds special meaning for you.
Once there you can invite your higher self to appear in any form, and bring you whatever guidance it is you most need to hear. Instead of a guru, this technique puts the power back inside you. You have all the answers you need. You can summon them at any moment.
Shakti Gawain teaches that some people don’t see images as much as feel pleasant sensations, or they may hear an inner voice. It’s all still valid creative visualization.
Here is an example from her book Creative Visualization that you can try:
Sit or lie in a comfortable position. Relax completely… let all tension drain out of your body and mind… breathe deeply and slowly… relax more and more deeply.
Visualize a light within your heart—glowing radiant and warm. Feel it spreading and growing—shining out from you farther and farther until you are like a golden sun, radiating loving energy on everything and everyone around you.
Say to yourself silently and with conviction, “Divine light and divine love are flowing through me and radiating from me to everything around me.
At the core of creative visualization is a playful engagement with meditation that offers Westerners some spice on the tatami, some frolic in the sermon. For many of us, it’s a lot easier than Eastern styles. Go forth and find peace—and let yourself have fun with it.
The Bodhi Tree metaphysical bookstore for spiritual seekers was founded in 1970 in LA, and many considered it to be the birthplace of the modern conscious lifestyle movement. Some of the world’s best-known authors, musicians, artists, visionaries, and wisdom teachers browsed and taught at the iconic store. Bodhi Tree is expanding with an online presence in early 2016.
To celebrate the imminent return of the Bodhi Tree in 2016, and in celebration of an ongoing partnership with Wanderlust, further explore and expand your consciousness with this free Bodhi Tree mini-reader download. You can also free audio talks with Bodhi Tree speakers, including this one, “The Path of Transformation” by Shakti Gawain, recorded live at the Bodhi Tree Annex.
Kaia Van Zandt is the author of Written in the Ashes, an esoteric novel about who burned the Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt. She is currently the marketing goddess for the Bodhi Tree, leads yoga retreats in Europe, and wild dolphin trips in the Bahamas. Her beloved writing mentor is bestselling novelist/humorist, Tom Robbins. Check out www.kaiavanzandt.com for more information.