What is Meditation?
The Origins of Meditation
The origins of the word ‘meditation’ come from the Latin word ‘meditari‘ meaning to ‘ponder’. Meditation is also commonly associated with ‘contemplation’. That ‘pondering’ or contemplation is generally performed on an object of attention, which we will discuss in more depth later.
If you notice carefully (which we often don’t), the word ‘meditation’ shares a common ‘part’ with another well known word ‘medicine’. ‘Medi’. As we generally associate ‘medicine’ with healing the ‘body’ from illness or injury, so to with ‘meditation’ insofar as it is considered to be healing the ‘mind’.
Jon Kabat Zinn recently remarked that is through stillness that the opportunity to ‘heal’ begins – The body and mind gets a chance to rest, and tensions and stress dissolve.
Have you ever noticed in your meditation that sensations in the hands change, as if they have evaporated into thin air? It’s quite a surreal feeling when you know your body is still there, but you can no longer feel part of it. The body, the breath and the mind become whole, as if the whole body is breathing, as one.
So if you can generally associate meditation with ‘healing’, what are the tools of meditation that allow such transformation to begin?
The Tools of Meditation
First, as mentioned earlier, it generally involves placing the mind on an object of attention. It could be the breath (as is common in the Buddhist tradition), it might be on a mantra, as in the Vedic tradition, or it might even involve meditating on an idea or question. Today, through the apps that are available online, one can also experience meditations that are guided by a teacher’s voice which may involve some form of visualisation.
I remember fondly spending one weekend on a Buddhist retreat in 2009 meditating on the concept of ‘love’. Needless to say, I was feeling quite amorous afterwards! Whatever object that is, it serves as the ‘anchor’ for the meditation.
Types of Meditation
Attempts have been made to try and categorise meditation into different types – largely distinguished by different actions of the mind. Single pointed, analytical, observation etc…
From this, comes different styles of meditation such as transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, guided meditation through visualisation, open-monitoring meditation etc..The list goes on.
Whilst I think such exercise is useful on one level, I do not believe it directly answers the question what is meditation. Since, whilst there may be many different styles and practices, there needs to be a common underlying theme behind the practice to answer what exactly is meditation.
Meditation through Buddhism & Yoga
Some clues as to what is meditation and it’s underlying basis come from classical yoga and the early yoga texts such as Patanjali’s yoga sutras. The sutras are a systemic practice to experience self-realisation through quietening of the mind:
‘Yogas chitta vritti nirodah’ (Sutra 1.2).
As part of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga, one such limb called ‘Dharana‘ lays the foundation for meditation. Such foundation is based in concentration. When attention remains focused on a particular object over a period of time, spontaneously the quality of one’s consciousness changes. In yoga, this quality is known as ‘dhyana’ or meditation. External stimuli no longer affect the mind and a feeling of calmness and serenity internally results. There may be a continuity of flow of ideas as the consciousness shifts to higher levels.
Similarly in the tradition of mindfulness meditation, as described by the Buddha in the Anapanasati Sutta, we see ‘samadhi‘ as the foundation, which is also generally associated with concentration bringing about calmness, followed by Vipassanā or insight, which is where the awareness of meditation arises.
When the mind becomes still, the true realisations of meditation may materialise. Without stillness, the mind will do what it always does – jump around, all over the place from one thing to the next. Buddhist’s call this phenomenon ‘monkey mind’. In meditation, the object serves as the anchor, keeping the mind at bay.
The Objects of Meditation
What type of objects do we generally see in the most well-known types of meditation? In mindfulness meditation, there is the conscious act of placing the mind most commonly on the breath. It could also be belly, which is another very effective technique. At the end of the day, it’s about paying attention, whilst servicing awareness.
Similarly, the Vedic method involves placing the mind on a divine mantra and repeating it constantly until a feeling of transcendence emerges. Other forms may involve paying attention to particular thoughts, or sounds as they arise in a non-judging way. The object in each case is what is being done to ‘it’, during the meditation.
Even the mind itself may become the object – watching, observing, noticing, the ‘mind’. Who then is doing the ‘witnessing’ you may ask? A good question. The observer ‘self’ perhaps.
To this extent, if one is to concentrate on whatever is the object of the meditation, an initial placement is required. In all instances, there is a direct action taken in order to do ‘something’, generally to ‘sit still’ in order to just ‘be’. Just like when telling a dog to ‘sit’ still.
As we know however, a dog will rarely remain still forever, especially an active one or when food is involved. So too in meditation. Herein then lies the paradox of meditation – whilst the aim is for the body and mind to reach stillness (even momentarily), there is still some conscious effort involved. Effort involved in maintaining a state of contemplation or concentration, on whatever is the object of attention.
Meditation as ‘Mindfulness’
My teacher Cyndi Lee describes mindfulness in a very simplistic way as ‘placing the mind‘. Mindfulness meditation is then all about ‘consciously placing the mind’. To this extent, mindfulness is at the heart of all meditation.
So to answer the question ‘what is meditation’, rather than trying to describe different styles or techniques, rather look at what is meditation really all about. At its heart you will find stillness, and within the stillness you find at its centre, mindfulness.
The story of meditation then is all about healing & self-realisation, performed mindfully.