What is Meditation? Everybody’s talking about it!
Okay, but what is the definition of meditation?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary online, the meaning of meditation is either:
• the act of giving your attention to only one thing, either as a religious activity or as a way of becoming calm and relaxed, or
• serious thought or study, or the product of this activity.
Let’s unpack that.
The first thing we notice is that most meditation practices have to do with paying attention to one thing. That one thing could be a reflection we’re focusing on, or a meditation object such as the breath, a phrase or mantra, physical sensations, a sense of communion, etc. Which leads us to the second thing.
The second thing we notice is that meditation can be spiritual, religious or secular. So meditation, which is often thought of as an Eastern discipline, is not defined as such. Different forms of meditation exercises are traditionally practiced in many religious and spiritual paths. For example, one eminent Christian “meditation manual” is Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (16th century), a series of contemplations designed to bring the reader to a direct experience of God.
When they’re practiced to help individuals relax and unwind, meditation exercises are considered therapeutic. Lately, much has been made of the science of meditation–especially mindfulness and transcendental meditation–and applications in today’s stressful world.
Finally, the word “meditation” is also defined as giving serious thought to a topic, and possibly the expression of one’s thoughts, as in the Meditations of 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal or by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor in 161 AD.
What is meditation? A closer look
Here let’s stick to the first definition, which refers to the practice of meditation. Whether centered on the process of breathing, reading and reflecting, spiritual contemplations or other meditation exercises, the core practice is about paying attention. This may seem like child’s play, but when we set out to deliberately pay attention to something, very likely we are going to find that the mind has no intention of staying put.
If you’re not familiar with meditation, you may try it on for size: for the next three minutes, sit up straight, be still and concentrate on the sensations in your toes. It’s an experiment – set your timer for three minutes, sit still and notice what’s going on with your toes.
Ding! Done? Okay – did your mind wander? Were you able to catch the wandering just as it began or were you already back in the office or halfway to Hawaii in a daydream before you noticed? With the classic mindfulness/awareness meditation methods, this is exactly how you start meditating: by training the mind to focus on a meditation object, noticing when it wanders and bringing it back to the focal point. That, in a nutshell, is mindfulness.
Note the word training. By meditating regularly, you develop your capacity to pay attention. By the same token, you muscle the ability to let go of thoughts that are outside the scope of your focus. Meditation is what allows you to notice, remain present, acknowledge the thoughts and emotions that arise with benevolent detachment, and let them go. It’s training because it runs counter to the usual process of following thoughts and emotions pell-mell. Meditation, like exercise, requires a minimum of discipline and dedication to yield results.
Like many people, you may find that this method gives you a feeling of calm and agency. It’s not that you’re controlling your thought processes, it’s more that you’re not all wrapped up in mind’s endless and seemingly random productions. Once you’ve decided how long you’ll be practicing—from a few minutes to a half hour or more—you can sit back and relax.
For many people, that sense of calm and agency is why they practice one of the many forms of meditation. According to studies, meditation is good for both physical and mental health. It gives the mind a breather, and it replenishes the soul.
For others, the purpose of meditation is more about investigating how the mind functions. Once some stability has been reached through mindfulness, you can choose to take it a step further and practice awareness meditation. Like mindfulness, awareness meditation requires dedication and focus. Here, though, on top of training in letting go of thoughts and emotions as they arise, you use your awareness of them to explore their substance. Where do thoughts come from? Where do they go? How would you describe them? Etc. In this way, the purpose of meditation is more scientific, and the practice itself is a tool used to explore that intangible basis of every form of knowing: the mind.