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Meditation: origins and evolution

di Sabrina Mainolfi

Meditation originated in Asia around the sixth century BC. C. Meditation, also known as self-reflex thinking, originated as a central component of various religious practices and is the oldest known relaxation technique. The word meditation comes from the Latin word mederi, which means to heal, heal, heal, help. To define the word "meditation" in Sanskrit the word bhāvanā is used, which means dedicating oneself to spiritual growth and cultivating self-remembering. The purpose of meditation is to regulate the processes that occur within you through conscious attention and awareness.

Meditation is characterized by two dimensions: focused attention (meditation with an object) and open monitoring (meditation without an object). Focused attention requires an object on which to focus attention. After bringing the mind into a neutral state, we enter the phase of meditation proper and we begin to focus on an object (a candle, a mantra, a mandala, etc.), even the attention to the breath can be considered a focused practice.

Open monitoring, also known as mindfulness meditation (sati in pali), involves focusing the attention on the present moment, observing any thought, feeling or sensation without any specific focus. The mind is essentially free to accept all thoughts, free from judgment or emotion; it is a process known as detached observation: “The moment you begin to observe the part of you that thinks, a higher level of awareness is activated. Then you understand that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought and that the latter is only a minor aspect of it. Also understand that the things that really matter (beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace) arise beyond the mind. And you begin to wake up ”, Tolle (2005). But what is the ultimate purpose of mindfulness meditation. The aim is to achieve perfection in all the noble and wholesome qualities that are latent in our subconscious mind. This purpose is made up of five elements: the purification of the mind, the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, the overcoming of pain and affliction, the walking on the right path that leads to the attainment of eternal peace and the deriving happiness from the fact of follow that path, Gunaratana (1992).

The practice of meditation, as suggested by Buddha and the leading masters who succeeded him, can help awaken people to the joys of the present moment and lead to an increase in levels of awareness, which can, in turn, lead to an increase in happiness levels. The Buddha taught that it is possible to undertake an eight-step path (eightfold path) of liberation from suffering (Gunaratana, 2004). Precisely the seventh step of this eightfold path is samma sati, or right awareness. It is through the practice of awareness of the breath (ānāpānasati), contemplation of the body and gentle, non-judgmental observation of the content of the mind (vipassanā), that purification of consciousness and thus liberation (nirvana) can be achieved (Gombrich, 2012).

During the second half of the twentieth century, the spread in the West of Buddhist philosophy and practices of oriental origin paved the way for the integration of meditation techniques in the area of mental health care and, more generally, the promotion of physical well-being. and psychological. We also consider that the definition of mental health redefined by the World Health Organization (1948) conceives health not only as the absence of disease, but as a whole of biological, psychological and social well-being.

About a century ago, the English translator Rhys David, engaged in analyzing Buddhist texts for the Buddhist Text Society, used the word mindfulness to translate the Pali language term sati. In ancient texts, mindfulness can be traced back to a quality of attention that allows one to perceive suffering without being overwhelmed by it, in order to be able to live without harming oneself and harming others (Nhat Han, 1976, 1992).

In order for the cultural integration between Eastern practices and Western culture to be possible, the contribution of the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and the development of his teachings in the context of clinical and experimental psychology by John Kabat-Zinn, molecular biologist, were fundamental. at the UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. It is therefore in the 1970s that, with the formulation of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction - MBSR (Stress Reduction Program) program by Kabat-Zinn himself, we witness the birth of the first structured, lay intervention, based on mindfulness, presented to the scientific community as an effective treatment tool for pain management (Kabat-Zinn, 1982). Mindfulness therefore consists in being perfectly aware of oneself and of what one is doing, in accepting the present moment without evaluations or judgments. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn's definition, “Mindfulness” means: “paying attention in a particular way: intentionally, in the present moment and in a non-judgmental way”, Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994). We are truly aware when we are completely immersed "in the here and now" and when we live the experience by accepting all the emotions present, awareness, therefore, implies the complete "possession" of every moment in our reality, whether it is good or not.

The MBSR protocol consists of an eight-week course on mindfulness and does not require its participants to have any previous experience in the field of meditation. It is composed of a set of instructions aimed at increasing happiness and reducing feelings of negative emotions through meditation (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). The meditation procedures articulated in the protocol aim to help the individual to become more aware and to assume an optimistic attitude towards the human condition and the many stressors of life (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

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