Meditation, or cultivation of the mind, is very important in Buddhism, as a mind that is deluded and unable to see clearly or think straight is a major part of the human problem. Three elements of the eightfold path are concerned with meditation – right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Right effort is the conscious working on one’s own good and bad mental habits. Right mindfulness refers to the cultivation of awareness, of the body, feelings, mind and mental states, the attempt to calm down the usual distracting chatter and lack of concentration that goes on in our heads. A starting point might be mindfulness of breathing, concentrating just on the breath going in and out and letting other thoughts and emotions fade away. Mindfulness, often detached from its origins in Buddhism, has become a fashionable method of addressing mental health issues such as anxiety. Right concentration refers to deeper states of meditation, known in Theravada as samatha or calm and vipassana or insight which can achieve higher states of consciousness like those reached by the Buddha during his enlightenment experience, such as completely clear, pure consciousness. There is also meditation which focuses on developing the four types of love (friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and evenmindedness) for oneself and all others.
Further forms of meditation are found in Mahayana Buddhism, which blend into devotional practices, such as visualisations of particular Buddhas and bodhisattvas, which may at deeper levels lead to visions or mystical experiences. There is the ‘just sitting’ meditation of Zen (which means meditation). Meditation is traditionally undertaken in a quiet place, either alone or in a group, sitting crosslegged in the ‘lotus’ position, but it can also be done sitting in a chair. Apart from such formal meditation, which monastics have more time for than laypeople, mindfulness can be applied to everyday activities, such as sweeping or washing up. For more advanced meditation, Buddhists recommend that you have a teacher, as practices are customised for individual personalities, and can be dangerous if inappropriate (such as an already depressed person meditating on death, or someone with body-image problems meditating on the disgusting aspects of the physical body).