What is meditation?

Old Phrenology IllustrationThe term is currently used to refer to a range of practices that offer methods to still, observe, and train the mind to achieve a certain state of awareness. The literal definition comes from the Latin verb “meditari” meaning “to think, contemplate, devise, ponder”, but this should be considered with caution, as many of the methods focus on moving apart from, observing, and determining one’s relation to their thoughts rather than “thinking”.

David Fontana’s chapter on meditation in “The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness” has an excellent summary of the common elements of most traditions of meditation, namely:

  1. concentration – bringing a sustained, relaxed attention to a particular point of focus
  2. tranquility – the practice of sustained attention brings an altered, deeply relaxed state of consciousness
  3. insight – when the mind is at a particular meditative state, a type of insight can arise spontaneously; a direct knowing of some truth.

Dogen, a Zen master from the 13th century said that “enlightenment is intimacy with all things”. Mike Finch, a physicist, philosopher and writer, adapts this nicely to define meditation:

“Meditation is intimacy with all things.”


From Eastern religions to Western science

Records of meditation date back to ancient religious practices of Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, but subsequent religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have strands of meditative practices.

There are many types of meditation. Some of the ones most commonly practiced in the West are:Old room, grunge  interior with frames in style baroque

Since the 1960s, Western adoption of meditation remained largely within the domain of the “hippies” who embraced its link to Eastern spirituality. It wasn’t until some key figures from medical backgrounds saw its therapeutic potential that a real enquiry began from a scientific basis about how it works and how it could be applied apart from a religious context.

In 1970, the journal Scientific American published a study by UCLA on the effects of Transcendental Meditation, which was followed by another study by Herbert Benson of Harvard University that showed its positive effect against stress.

In 1979 Jon-Kabat Zinn, an MIT-trained molecular biologist started a Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where he began teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) based on mindfulness meditation. The American doctor had trained with prominent Zen Buddhist monks, and decided to adapt the principles of mindfulness meditation into a structured eight-week MBSR program that is now widely adopted by Western healthcare organisations.

The types of meditation listed here are all being researched by leading academic institutions. Mindfulness meditation in particular has captured the attention of secular, scientific and medical communities for the last 30 years, specifically for use in treatment of particular illnesses and palliative care.


Where does it all lead?

Prevailing literature agrees: it is difficult to describe. As meditation is a “practical discipline”, exactly where long-term meditation leads is really only known to those who do it. Although self-reports by such meditators are used to fathom it theoretically, the nature and content of the awareness reached after years of looking inwards remains elusive in description and understanding.

Religious teachings point to the attainment of nirvana, a state of complete bliss, or the possibility of enlightenment, the nature of which can only be known through direct experience.

Today brain-scanning technology is starting to show how the brain structure of long-term meditators is different from non-meditators. Even short-term meditation is being shown to change the structure of our brains. While the ultimate destination remains elusive, what we do have evidence for is the variety of positive effects it has on our mental and physical lives. These are the effects that are discussed on bidushi.

As science continues to probe and religion is not to everyone’s taste, the only way to find out where it all leads for those who are curious, may be to start the process and see where it leads. Meditation is after all an enquiry – into the internal workings of our minds, and the nature of our selves.

The following quote from Dogen, taken from David Fontana’s above mentioned chapter, shows a Zen master’s point of view:

” …’one does not meditate in order to become enlightened, one meditates because that is what enlightened people do’…”