What happens when you type the word meditation in a search bar? A million hits pop up, each with a promise that theirs is the best description of this popular practice. So, where should you begin?
Is meditation a technique or a practice? Is it something you do to the mind? Or is it something you don’t do? Is it a practice or a path recommended by gurus? A few say meditation is easy, others say it takes dedication. Many say meditation cannot be taught. It can only be practiced. If you ask gurus whether your definition of meditation is the right one, they may answer yes and no, or not answer at all like Sri Ramana Maharishi, the silent sage.
Then, what is meditation? Instead of deciding whether one definition is right and the other is wrong, spend a few minutes reading some views on what meditation is not to see if it leads you to what meditation is.
Meditation is Not
Meditation is not thinking. If you are thinking, then, you are either preoccupied, planning or judging. Or worse – day dreaming. Remember, the nature of the mind is to think, to produce all sorts of thoughts, incessantly. When you attempt this practice called meditation, it may very well be the first time that you have been introduced to your own thoughts. The practice may show all the habituated patterns that exist in your mind. This can be very unnerving. You wonder or worry about what to do next, or get excited that the practice may help to change your thoughts. Or you just sit there letting the mind wander and fall into a fantasy. But remember, thinking as introspection or contemplation, with a resolve to improve yourself is a necessary part of personal and spiritual growth. But thinking is not meditation.
Meditation is not self-hypnosis or induced. A person does not enter into a trance during this practice. In hypnosis, a person is guided into a state of semi-conscious trance and becomes unaware of the present moment. In meditation, however, one is considered to be alert and conscious of the present moment. Gurus like Paramahamsa Yógānanda and Svāmi Ādhiśvarānanda discuss three levels of consciousness to help seekers understand perceived divisions within the mind. They explain how these levels relate to meditation, but do not speak of deeper levels as a trance. Being in an induced trance then, is not meditation.
Meditation is not concentration. But, the ability to concentrate is needed to succeed in meditation. When you concentrate, you are placing your attention on a focal point. This is important for learning how to concentrate to arrive at single pointedness, which leads to meditation. In the beginning stages of practice having a focal point greatly helps to strengthen concentration. However, concentration is not meditation.
Meditation is not relaxation. The practice can surely relax you, make you calm, and help you feel rejuvenated. State of relaxation is needed for the mind to focus and go deeper. But relaxation is not meditation.
Meditation is not mindfulness. These two terms are not interchangeable. Often they are used in related contexts creating confusion. Mindfulness is simply the act of observing and being present in whatever you are doing. By paying close attention to each action, thought and emotion that arise moment to moment, you are being actively mindful. While you can learn to be mindful anytime, anywhere, meditation typically refers to a formal seated practice. Mindfulness can be a stepping stone to meditation, however, mindfulness is not meditation.
Meditation is not visualization. Visualization is a dynamic practice, while meditation is restful and calming.Visualization is sometimes called mental imagery, process of rehearsal frequently used by athletes, therapists, musicians and others to help create an experience in the mind of doing something of transformation or excellence. The process may involve themes to guide the breath and mind in a certain direction in order to achieve a specific state of mind. Visualization is also effective in training the senses to turn inward in preparation for concentration. But visualization is not meditation.
Meditation is not watching the breath. Prāṇāyāma is the practice of training the mind through the regulation of the breath. Breathing exercises act as a focal point for the mind to direct its attention. Watching the breath is very effective in producing calmness and improving concentration, but it is not meditation.
Meditation is not a religious practice, however, the practice appears to exist in one form or another in most religions. It has been portrayed as a ritual of sitting in a certain posture, repeating spiritual formulas called mantras. This process of repetition called japa is to enhance the ability of concentration, which can be practiced by anybody, irrespective of her background, religion, caste, creed or nationality. Repetition of a mantra becomes the focus of concentration, but it is not meditation.
Meditation is not a state of mind, rather some suggest it is a state of no mind. This statement warrants a lot of discussion and continues to be a subject of ongoing research. Scientists have witnessed four basic states of mind which depend upon the frequency of mind waves. These states are called alpha, beta, gamma and theta. Alpha is frequently identified as the state of meditation. Here, one experiences no stressful thoughts and becomes still and peaceful. However, if you are experiencing the state of peacefulness, shouldn’t there be an entity called the mind to experience it? If there is no mind, where and how can one experience peacefulness? While the state of peacefulness is an outcome of meditation, it is not meditation.
Meditation is not a technique nor an exercise. Still, a technique or a process is recommended or taught to strengthen concentration required for meditation. The above mentioned practices such as mindfulness, repetition of mantra, visualization, prāṇāyāma, can be looked upon as various techniques to enhance concentration. But the technique in itself is not meditation.
If meditation is not concentration, not a particular breathing practice, not a state of mind, nothing to discover, nothing to succeed into, nothing to repeat, then, we are back to the initial question of what is meditation. Is the ability to define meditation beyond the power of reason and the intellect? A forgone conclusion that words fail to capture the core of meditation.
Yoga philosophy asserts when you are aware of your true ‘Self’ and exist with complete awareness, it becomes meditation. This state of existence or pure awareness is accessible to us, anywhere, anytime. Svāmi Vivèkānanda calls this an open secret. While any of the above mentioned techniques may be used to uncover the open secret, this pure awareness cannot be captured in words no matter how hard the ancient seers have tried. Perhaps that is why Patańjali decided to use the shortest sentence consisting of only three words to indicate existence of pure focused awareness as meditation in the text, Yoga Sutra.
This practice has been a humbling experience for me. As soon as my mind alerts my ego to pat myself on the back that ‘meditation’ is going well (not sure what that means), almost instantly the practice develops a hitch. Hitch – I know too well what that means. It takes me a long time to get back on the saddle of concentration and arrive at some sort of discipline. This yo-yoing between discipline and disruption has been the story of my practice. But there is always an inner pull to stay with the technique and practice. For that I am extremely grateful.
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