What is Meditation?

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What is Meditation?

by Gordon Coates

Revised April 2012

 

The word "meditation" has various meanings, one which is quite specific and at least two which are virtually impossible to define. I am much more interested in the latter than the former, which I suppose does not augur very well for my chances of making much sense when writing on this topic. Never mind. After all, the main purpose of the "Philosophical Musings" series is to muse about things which cannot really be expressed in words in any case.

I will use three headings on this page:

  • Meditation as a type of thinking
  • Meditation as a formal practice
  • Meditation as a way of life

In other words, I will start with the smallest meaning of the word meditation, which is also the easiest to define, and work towards the largest, which is about as easy to define as life itself. As you will soon see, there will be no need to devote much time to the first of these three headings. However, I hope at least to mention the defining characteristics of the other two on this page, and perhaps I will say a little more about them in future musings.

Meditation as a type of thinking

The word meditation is often used to denote the act of thinking carefully and deeply about something. Indeed, until literature about various eastern philosophies and religions became more widely accessible in English speaking countries during the twentieth century, this was really the only meaning in common usage. Interestingly, this meaning is fundamentally different from those which are briefly introduced below, simply because it consists of thinking, whereas both the others depend on something which is quite different from thinking. Indeed, perhaps their most significant characteristic is the deliberate choice to remain attentive while not thinking.

Meditation as a formal practice

The formal practice of meditation includes any of a multitude of techniques, all of which have the same aim. This aim is simply to bring about a mental state in which the usual activities of the "everyday mind" (mainly remembering and rearranging thoughts, sensations and emotions) gradually subside, even though the practitioner remains wide awake and intensely attentive. Such techniques constitute a major feature of many (especially, but by no means uniquely, eastern) religions and philosophies.

Some of these techniques are very simple, the commonest by far being a deliberately narrow (or "one-pointed") act of concentration. This simply means focussing one's attention as completely as possible on something such as the breath (especially, at least initially, the sensation it creates as it passes in and out through the nostrils) or a mantra (a word or phrase chosen for the purpose and repeated over and over, usually silently). Various other objects are sometimes suggested as a focus for one-pointed concentration (such as a candle flame, or a particular part of the practitioner's own body). Then, whenever the mind wanders (which, initially, it invariably does) the attention is returned, patiently but firmly, and as often as necessary, to the chosen object of concentration. (In some disciplines, once the "everyday mind" is quiet, the field of attention is deliberately broadened. In other disciplines, one-pointed concentration is continued throughout each practice session.)

Other practices which might be considered part of the spectrum of meditation techniques sometimes involve quite complex mental and physical "recipes", as prescribed by disciplines such as tai chi, qi gong and yoga. Usually, though, these practices are referred to by names specific to the discipline involved, such as the individual names given to different yoga postures and breathing exercises, or particular qi gong or tai chi exercises, rather than simply being called meditation.

Whatever technique is used, its first important effect is the quietening of the usual "chatter" of the "everyday mind". As all meditators soon learn by experience, this chatter can vary from a barely perceptible background state to a veritable torrent of powerful thoughts, sensations and emotions. Allowing the mind to take a break from this restless state is not only beneficial in itself, but also makes it possible to notice "things" which would otherwise be "lost in the background noise".

Attempts to describe such "things" are generally doomed to failure, as description is a function of the "everyday mind", whereas such things can only be experienced "within and beyond" that "everyday mind". Various obscure phrases, such as "the Silence beyond silence", "the Peace that passes understanding" and "Joy without a cause", are sometimes used in attempts at description, but most of the time these attempts only serve to illustrate the ancient truism that "the word is not the thing".

Sometimes, incidentally, there is another, narrower, meaning of the word "meditation", which is included within the broader meaning of formal meditation practice discussed above. In this narrower meaning, meditation just refers to "observing thoughts" (as distinct from actually thinking about them). This process is then distinguished from a number of other phenomena which may be noticed during formal meditation practice, the main ones being the "one-pointed concentration" previously mentioned, and a related state referred to as "receptive awareness", which has a broader focus than one-pointed concentration but still remains distinct from the usual chatter of the everyday mind. Also, the deliberate "cultivation" of states such as acceptance or forgiveness is included as a discrete element of practice in some disciplines. Finally, receptive awareness, if it becomes progressively broader in scope, may gradually merge into a state referred to as "contemplation", in which an inner (but indescribable) environment is choicelessly observed. I will not discuss these distinctions any further here, but perhaps I will say a little about some of them in a future musing.

Meditation as a way of life

When the word meditation is used in this way, it refers to a way of life in which the ability of the mind to be aware of (or to pay attention to) itself and its surroundings is deliberately included as an essential part of every waking moment (and sometimes, though not necessarily deliberately, also during sleep). Especially in the various Buddhist traditions, though not exclusive to them, this is alternatively referred to as Mindfulness.

The concept of mindfulness is variously defined by different authors, but its essence is the deliberate choice to pay careful but non-judgmental attention to everything that can be noticed in each present moment (and especially to the activity of the mind itself). I have discussed some aspects of mindfulness previously in the book "Wanterfall", under the heading Constant, non-judgmental self-awareness. Perhaps I will also devote a future musing to it.

(Incidentally, this same mindfulness, under the slightly different name of "Mindfulness Therapy", is becoming increasingly popular as the basis of a form of psychotherapy. In this guise, it often seems to be included under the ever-expanding umbrella of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. However, on other occasions it is referred to as a distinct form of therapy in its own right.)

Other Definitions of Meditation

I am sure there are plenty of other possible ways to define the word "meditation", but I think most of them would fit into one of the three broad categories described above. If not, I would be delighted to hear about them at the email address mentioned below.

More Information

For a comprehensive treatment of a wide variety of approaches to meditation, I can heartily recommend "Meditation For Dummies" by Stephan Bodian. Despite the restriction implied by its title, I think it deserves the attention of any serious student of meditation. (The second edition of this book was published by Wiley Publishing, Inc., New Jersey, in 2006.)

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