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An Introduction to Meditation

An introduction to meditation, containing a summary of different types of meditation, the aims of meditation and so on.

Meditation is simply the art of controlling and exploring your mind. It therefore encompasses a great deal – just thinking about a specific subject rather than allowing the mind to wander is a kind of meditation. Meditation can be used to achieve many purposes – understanding a specific subject; increasing relaxation and combating stress; improving a particular function of the mind, such as increasing clarity or improving the memory; achieving an absolute understanding of all thing, referred to as a state of enlightenment; overcoming negative habits; and so on. Different kind of meditation are appropriate for different purposes. On this page I aim to give a brief summary of the different types of meditation, whilst trying to express something of the nature of meditation itself.

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            The most basic kind of meditation is simply the art of relaxation.  In this kind of practice the student seeks to enter a deeply relaxed state which corresponds to the alpha, or even the theta bands of brainwave activity rather than the beta state of ordinary consciousness. Although there is a finite change in consciousness from this practice the main focus is usually on the body rather than the mind. The purpose here is to let go of the tension built up in the muscles and other areas, whilst simultaneously letting go of all the stresses, fears, and other negative emotions that we habitually carry around with us. This kind of meditation has health benefits for both the mind and the body, and is often pleasurable to perform, but has little or no relation to enlightenment practices or other spiritual purposes.

            Going beyond simple relaxation exercises requires an object of meditation. The vast majority of meditative practices fall under the category of meditation on an object. In many systems inexperienced students begin by making their own breathing the object of meditation. This is both because it is one of the easiest objects of meditation and also because of the link between breath and life force in many such systems of thought.

            There are, however, many other objects which are frequently used in meditation. But before going into what these are it is useful to recognize that there are a number of different forms of ‘meditation on an object’, each with different methods and aims. The main distinction to be made is between meditating on a fixed and known object (usually quiescent meditation) and meditating on a fluid and / or partially known or unknown object (usually revelatory meditation). Although not all meditative practices fit neatly into one or the other of these categories it is nevertheless a useful distinction to make in considering the nature of meditation itself.

            The classic example of meditation on a fixed object would be meditation on the breath; another example would be to meditate on a particular material object, colour, or image. The aim of this kind of meditation is to attain a state of quiescence, which can be loosely defined as a state of singular attention and concentration. In our ordinary state of mind thought is never static – it follows an endless train of cause and effect with one thought leading inextricably on to the next. In quiescent meditation a single object is abstracted from the endless flow and held steadily in the mind; the aim is to rid the mind of all other thought processes other than the singular point of attention focused on the object of meditation. The purpose of this kind of meditation is often phrased in the eastern format of achieving ‘samsara’, a kind of spiritual union with the object of meditation. In the western philosophical tradition one might use this form of meditation to achieve an understanding of the ‘thing-in-itself’ of your chosen object of meditation; this stands opposed to the ordinary method of studying an object according to its relationships and interactions with other objects rather than its inner essence which stands alone, independent of all other objects. It is also the first stage in Buddhist enlightenment practices where, having learned to silence the chatter of the mind, the student seeks to become aware of the pure nature of mind itself as distinct from the contents of the mind, and thus understand the fundamental nature of all things. This kind of meditation may involve the quiescent concentration on the concept of emptiness, or may involve a more passive form of ‘non-attachment’ meditation in which the practitioner seeks to simply ignore anything which enters their mind.

            And this brings us onto the grey area between the two categories given above. It is common for an object of meditation to be chosen which is a fixed and finite representation of a deeper reality; thus the student may meditation upon a symbol or mandala, a words or chant, the image of a deity, or a concept such as compassion. The purpose in these kinds of meditation is not to attain union with or understanding of the fixed object which is known and chosen in advance, but to attain union with or understanding of a deeper reality to which the known object is considered to be a gateway. There is therefore an element of revelation in this kind of meditation which is not present in the purely quiescent meditation practices described above.

            There are also many other forms of revelatory meditation which fall into the second of the two categories under consideration here. The main one, and the only one I have the space to look at here, is the exploratory visual meditations which are almost exclusively the preserve of western traditions. This may take the form of ‘astral projection’, ‘active imagination’, or the various application of lucid dreaming. In this kind of meditation a very general an ill-defined object is chosen and its many facets explored through the visual imagination.

            The penultimate form of meditation I would like to mention here is discursive meditation. This is, in a way, the opposite of quiescent meditations. In discursive meditation the object is usually an intellectual concept, or it may be a particular area of a person life, or a problem that they are experiencing. The aim here is to enter a deeply relaxed state and use the heightened powers of concentration, an the inspiration that can often be communicated from the unconscious mind in a trance state, to simply think something through, trying to see it from every possible perspective or to solidify you understanding of something. A classic example of this kind of meditation would be the Buddhist who meditates on the futility of material desires, thinking through all the reasons he has been taught and relating them to his own experience, in an attempt to strengthen the resolve to work towards spiritual rather than material goals.

            And the final kind of meditation is what I call active / material meditation; that is, meditation designed to help a person attain a specific goal, often material in nature. The two main examples of this would be hypnotherapy which uses the power of words to influence people in trance states,  aiming to ‘reprogram’ the mind (similar in nature to some magical practices of using spells or chants – a magical book is often called a grimoire, or grammar) and creative visualization in which the person visualises themselves attaining their goal in order to help manifest this eventuality (this kind of meditation is often used by athletes).

            This mini-essay is in no way meant to be a comprehensive guide to meditation, and there is much that has necessarily been left unsaid; but I do hope that it has been of some use to you, perhaps pointing you in the right direction for future study.

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