What is meditation?
A simple enough question, yes?
Here’s something strange but true: I’ve read hundreds of books on meditation (and attended dozens of courses, classes and retreats) and every single author (or teacher) has defined meditation in a different way.
My guess is that when you think of meditation you have a fairly clear idea of what it’s about. If you meditate, you probably think of meditation as the specific technique(s) or practices you do. And if you are new to meditation, you too, will have our own views — including your hopes about what you might achieve through meditation, as well as a variety of perceptions colored by what you’ve read and heard.
Meditation, I’d suggest, is actually a generic term for a great variety of practices, strategies and techniques; many of which have quite different objectives.
In this sense, speaking of meditation (and assuming the listener knows what you are talking about) would be like speaking of sport, but without indicating whether you were referring to wrestling or croquet.
In other words, meditation is different things to different people.
Meditation also comes in a huge variety of flavors and styles. It’s practiced within the worlds major religions and it’s studied by neuroscientists, doctors and psychologists. For some it’s a sacred or spiritual practice, or part of a personal development program. For others it’s a way of getting through the day with a little less anxiety or stress. In sport and business, people use it to help them excel, and at home people use it to sleep better, improve their health and manage stress. There are even those who take up meditation in the hope of developing or enhancing psychic abilities, or chasing out-of-body experiences. With so many different purposes, it’s not surprising that people think about meditation in all kinds of ways.
Even when people are meditating for the same purpose, they still might choose different meditation techniques or methods. For example, some practitioners associate meditation with breathing techniques, others with chanting. Still others might associate it with a certain posture, with guided visualization or relaxing the body part by part. There are a multitude choices: eyes open or closed, guided or silent, controlled or natural breathing, standing or sitting, moving or still, insight or tranquility, and so on.
And not only are there various techniques, there are also various recommendations about where, when and how long you should meditate for. Some schools suggest that you should meditate for twenty minutes twice a day. Others insist that you’ll need to do two hourly ‘sittings’ daily in order to make progress. Still others suggest that you can meditate in 30 seconds flat; as you walk, or talk, or as you wash the dishes.
And then there are those that insist that meditation is not a practice or technique at all; rather, it’s a state of mind, or consciousness.
The point is that meditation is not necessarily one single technique or even a ‘state’ you reach. There is no ‘best’ or ‘true’ way to meditate, no form of meditation that is superior to others. What works for one person, can be next to useless, or even counterproductive for another.
The roots of meditation
Dictionary definitions of meditation vary greatly and are often not applicable to the practise of meditation. However, we’ll briefly explore how the word came into being.
Meditation is derived from the Indo-European root med, meaning to take appropriate measures.
In Latin, meder means to look after, heal, cure, and meditar means to think about, consider, reflect.
It’s interesting to note that meditation is derived from the same root from which we get medicine. Indeed, the similarity between meditate and medicate is obvious.
We can see from these derivations that meditation suggests concepts such as balance, health and healing, as well as reflection and contemplation.
A working definition
Examining the derivations of our subject helps to clarify our understanding of meditation, but we still need a working definition. Meditation can seem complicated. The more mystical approaches can lead us to wonder what on earth we’re trying to do.
To get the most out of meditation we need a definition that will help us to understand what it is and what we will be doing when we meditate. For this purpose a useful definition might be:
The “Active Ingredients”
Like all definitions, this one has pros and cons.
Here are a couple of the advantages.
It’s simple, practical and easy to understand. We aren’t left shaking our heads in confusion and we get an immediate sense of what we are trying to do. Furthermore, the definition gives us a means to evaluate our practice. At the end of a meditation you just ask yourself Am I a little more relaxed, or aware of my body? and Does my mind feel calmer? or Am I more aware of what I was thinking or feeling?
In this way you can clearly determine for yourself whether the meditation has been effective. This is much better than wondering whether you’ve discovered your true self, shifted from the head to the heart, altered your consciousness or dropped into theta. You don’t need to rely on such vague and esoteric means in order to determine whether you are meditating or not.
By using this definition you’ll also have a good clear idea of what you are aiming for in meditation. You’ll be able to say Yes, I’m meditating – I’m deliberately engaged in the process of relaxing my body and calming my mind.
Secondly, it’s worth noting that physical relaxation and mental clarity are the active ingredients in meditation. These are the elements that make meditation work — they are the basic building blocks of meditation. By understanding and developing your ability to relax the body and calm the mind you’ll be ensuring that you get some benefit out of meditation.
Ultimately, you’ll probably want to decide for yourself how to define the practice. I have a number of my own personal definitions — that suit and reflect my own understanding of and reasons for meditating.
Relaxing the body and calming the mind, for the reasons stated above, is just a useful starting point. Keep in mind that any definition is in some ways limiting. Meditation is not all about relaxation and calm. There will also likely be agitation, confusion, boredom and restlessness. Although we might aim for a peaceful state of mind, this doesn’t mean we try to reject or prohibit the full gamut of physical, mental and emotional experiences from arising during meditation. They will, and we can learn from them all.