It may be learning (by heart) passages from the Bible or the Koran that serve to focus the mind and heart on the sacred word.
The intent is not for the mind to grasp the meaning of the passage but for the text to grasp the inner being of the meditator. In both Eastern and Western traditions, the practice of visualizing – that is, picturing something in one’s mind – may be aided by works of art. The icon (sacred image) in the Orthodox Church and the mandala (cosmic diagram) in Tibetan Buddhism serve this purpose. In the Roman Catholic Church, saying the Rosary, with its meditation on the events of the life of Christ as seen through the contemplation of his mother, Mary, has inspired works of visionary art. Although some of the visualizations in esoteric Buddhism, especially in the Tibetan schools, dwell on tenderness, compassion, and devotional love, as does the Rosary, there are also vivid encounters with images of violence and destructive force. Such direct experience of the Buddhist teachings on impermanence and suffering purifies the meditator and conquers his egoism. The practice of visualization in the West was developed to a high degree in the late Middle Ages and during the Renaissance. The practice known as “mental prayer” allowed every event in the lives of Christ, Mary and the saints to become the objects of prayerful reflection.
In the 16th century, Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross perfected visualization by entering into devout conversation with Christ, in which there was complete candor and trust in revealing emotions, feelings, thoughts and aspirations. Emphasizing meditation without content cultivates total openness for receiving the cosmic vision of the ideal order of things. Contentless meditation, in which the meditator transcends thought entirely, is generally identified with Zen Buddhism. However, some Western practices move in a similar direction, such as the mystical prayer of The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous English work of the 14th century. The Cloud of Unknowing and similar works cultivate limitless receptivity, or an emptying of the mind, as it is described. Even where a koan (meditative paradox) is used as a focal point, as in Zen, its function is to wear out the reasoning and grasping mind and so to empty it.
“No- mind” is the goal, but this is not mindlessness but a form of the realism and integrity common to all spiritual practice. In Zen, the student of meditation is led through stages of practice and deepening insight. Attention to breathing (.
shamatha practice) is the most common method for beginners. Another step is intense meditation on a non- rational koan (for example, What is the sound of one hand clasping?). A master, the roshi, frequently interviews students to assess and guide their progress. The familiar sitting meditation, or zazen, is the posture taught in Zen. Putting the meditative vision into action is integral to any tradition of meditation. It may be asked how a person can live an ordinary life and yet be faithful to the vision of cosmic harmony. Among American Indian tribes and similar cultures many everyday activities, such as striking fire or planting seeds, are recognized as genuinely meditative practices, deliberately performed to cultivate personal, communal and environmental (cosmic) well- being. Various traditions have perfected bodily postures that produce effects on the mind conducive to meditative concentration within the demands of daily life.
(They also are generally recognized as helping to promote mental and physical health.) The yogic asanas constitute the most elaborate system of these postures. Taoist tai-chi (literally, “grand ultimate”) discipline engages the whole body in carefully designed and rhythmically precise movements that intensify and refine natural vital energy. After the beginning stages, in which postures and movements seem artificial, the student becomes proficient in integrating the practices with daily activities.
Sounds are also used in meditation to harmonize the movements of the cosmos with the vibrations of the body. One such is the mantra (a symbolic formula in a sacred language) in Hinduism and esoteric Buddhism that creates highly focused mental states by enveloping the meditator in primal sound. In Christianity, Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises deliberately and methodically orient mental prayer and meditation toward the world of action, leading the meditator to a state of spiritual proficiency in which he is totally open to God’s Will. In such a stage there is no division between so called sacred thoughts and actions and ordinary ones. All are of God, and God is in all things.