Why do Buddhists meditate?

1. What is meditation?

Buddhism asks its followers to understand the world and themselves in a deep and transforming way. If they succeed, they are ‘awakened’ or buddha. Meditation is one of the tools that Buddhism employs to bring this about. It already existed in the Hindu tradition, and the Buddha himself used meditation as a means to enlightenment.

Over the centuries Buddhism has evolved many different techniques: for example, mindfulness; loving-kindness and visualisation. A skilled meditation teacher can pass on specific techniques according to individual needs.

Various schools of Buddhism use meditation in different ways. In a Tibetan tradition, meditators might use a mantra which is repeated to help focus their mind and which embodies the truth of Buddhist teaching. In a Theravada tradition, mindfulness might be developed by paying attention to the breath, or to body and feelings, or the current of ideas and images that moves through the mind as meditators sit and observe themselves. But what Buddhists get from meditation is more than just calm.

2. Meditation, step by step

3. Mastering the basics: Breathing and posture

You must be comfortable to meditate; if it helps use a cushion or a chair. The natural curve to your spine should allow your diaphragm to move freely as you breath in and out. Allow your attention to focus on the sensation of the air moving in and out of your body. As you become more concentrated you can experience a refreshing state of natural clarity and concentration. That’s how the path to enlightenment started for Siddhartha himself.

4. Finding nirvana

Bettany Hughes explains how the Buddha used meditation to find enlightenment.

Bettany Hughes explains how the Buddha used meditation to find enlightenment.

5. The difference between prayer and meditation

From the outside some people think that meditation looks like prayer. Prayer is about petitioning a higher power, usually a deity and worshipping them. People pray for different reasons, sometimes to serve a deity, sometimes to express their beliefs or sometimes to ask for help.

Meditation is about the guided transformation of the practitioner through their own effort. This is easy to see with mindfulness: you simply pay attention to your own body and mind.

But even in Tibetan Buddhism, where the meditator might visualise a Buddha or lives liberated from suffering, there is still an understanding that that picture is created by the imagination, and that ultimately the meditator is appealing to their own higher potential for assistance. A Buddha seen in meditation is understood to be transient, just like everything else in human experience.

A Tibetan pilgrim in Lhasa using a prayer wheel.

6. How can we meditate in our everyday lives?

Here are a few examples of how meditation is being used in the secular world.

Education and meditation

Dr Anthony Seldon head of Wellington College introduced mindfulness to his school: "It has made the students calmer and more self-possessed. Teachers notice the difference when they have had stillness sessions. Classes are more harmonious and productive. So too are meetings with adults when meetings begin with a mindfulness session."

Stress and meditation

Jenny Edwards CBE, Mental Health Foundation: "Mindfulness meditation helps people change the way they think and feel about their experiences, especially stressful ones. By paying attention to your thoughts and feelings you become more aware of them and better able to manage them. Mindfulness helps induce relaxation, which is a physiological response that slows heart rate, drops blood pressure, and decreases the levels of stress hormones."

Prison and meditation

A prisoner at HMP Wymott: "Meditation practice is working for me. It helps me to be calm, relaxed and not get angry and irritated. It helps me not react to people in a bad way and to take people’s opinion on board. Recently, when someone went a bit too far, instead of reacting to it I just walked away."

Later life and meditation

Paul Wride, 64 year-old retiree: "I’ve been meditating for 15 years but not continuously. I think it helps you to calm down, appreciate things around you and deal with life’s tribulations. To anyone thinking about meditating, I’d say try it, particularly mindfulness because its not difficult, you’ve got nothing to lose."

Dr Anthony Seldon, Jenny Edwards CBE and Paul Wride

Learn more about this topic:

A Question of Faith
A-Z of Religion and Beliefs
Are we wired to believe in a higher power?