What is Meditation?
Meditation is loosely defined as a practice used to both train attention and
awareness and achieve mental clarity and emotional stability. The practice
includes a number of techniques, such as breathing or moving, in order to
achieve the goal of heightened attention and emotional stability.
Beyond this loose definition, many scholars have struggled to define the
phenomenon more precisely. The reason for this is that it comes
in several forms and is incorporated differently into religious and nonreligious
settings. Let’s look at what meditation is more closely.
Meditation has been practiced since 1500 BCE. The earliest records of
meditation are seen in the Hindu traditions of Vendantism, which is a form
of Hinduism that still utilizes meditation today. Other forms of early
meditation were developed by Taoists in China and Buddhists in India.
Early Jews and Christians also tried meditative practices. Philo of
Alexandria and Plotinus are two Jewish and Christian thinkers who
specifically wrote about meditation around 20 BCE, but their views were not
fully accepted into their respective religions until the Middle Ages.
During the Middle Ages, meditation became more integrated with Western
religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Lectio Divina, Kabbalistic practices, and Sufism are just three examples of meditation becoming more intertwined with Western religious faith during the Middle Ages. At the same time, meditative practices were brought to Japan, where they further developed and were integrated into other forms of Buddhism.
It was not until the 19th century that meditation began to transform from a
religious ritual to a non-spiritual and health-centred practice. This transition
occurred whenever Asian techniques spread to the West.
Once they spread, Western meditators found alternative applications causing the already difficult to define practice to be even more difficult to define.
Today, meditation is practiced in both spiritual and non-spiritual settings.
People of Indian, East Asian, and Abrahamic faiths, for example, often
practice spiritual meditation, while business people and Yoga-class
attendees often practice non-spiritual meditation.
In both scenarios, though, it is treated as a practice that is used to
sharpen the brain’s ability to focus and add clarity and stability to the mind
Focused vs. Open Monitoring
Since the 19th century, meditation has been divided into two broad
categories: focused (or concentrative) meditation and open monitoring (or
mindfulness) meditation. Each category has its own benefits and
Focused is when you concentrate on a single thing. Paying
attention to the breath, a feeling, a koan, or an affirmation are all
concentrative techniques. The benefit of this category is that it
sharpens your mind and builds your ability to focus on a single thing.
Open monitoring is when you are mindful of your state and
surroundings. The benefit of this category is that you are brought to the
present as your senses are sharpened and made aware of the states
Some meditative practices use both concentrative and openmonitoring. Such practices include vipassana and samatha in their meditations. It is important to emphasize that focused and open monitoring are just categories of meditation. Within both categories, there are countless styles and techniques.
Meditation includes a number of elements. Though these elements need
not be used in every form, they tend to make practicing more effective and helpful, especially for beginners or busy people.
The most important element of meditation is focused attention. Without this element, it is impossible to practice meditation. Focusing your attention
allows you to train your mind and escape from distractions. You can focus
your attention by closing your eyes, focusing on an object, or reciting an
Another important element of meditation is relaxed breathing. Relaxed
breathing includes deep, even-paced, and intentional breathing. The
purpose of this element is to take in more oxygen, reduce muscle tension,
and experience the benefits of enhanced breathing.
Find a Quiet Place
Unless you are practicing a rigorous form of meditation, finding a quiet
setting is another powerful element of meditation. Quiet settings will allow
you to better escape from the distractions and focus your mind. Some
experienced meditators intentionally skip this element so that they can
challenge their minds and bodies.
Another optional element is a comfortable position. Whether
you are walking, sitting, or laying down, you should feel comfortable in
order to get the most out of your practice. You should never meditate in a
position that feels painful, unsafe, or dangerous.
Keep an Open Mind
Finally, the last element is an open attitude. Like the focused
attention element, it is impossible to meditate without an open attitude. This
element will allow you to practice, challenge yourself, and grow without
self-judgment and ridicule.
As we have learned, there are different types of meditation. One way to
distinguish these many techniques is through the use of tools.
The most popularly known meditation tool is postures or asanas. Asanas
are used in both spiritual and non-spiritual meditations. They can include
yoga postures, walking, or mindfully doing a task. Yoga classes, for
example, use asanas as part of their meditative practices.
Another popular meditation tool is prayer beads. Prayer beads are used as
tools of devotional meditation in spiritual settings such as Christianity,
Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The meditator recites a
mantra as each bead is counted and continues this until the entire mala or
beaded chain is finished.
Meditation in the modern world
Since its conception in 150 BCE, meditation has changed drastically.
It was originally associated with religious thought in India and
China, but it eventually spread to Eastern Asian, Middle Eastern, and
European religious practices too.
Once Asian meditative practices were shared with the West, Western
traditions began to use meditation for non-religious purposes. As a result
many meditators today are non-religious and practice for only health benefits. Still, a large number of people meditate for religious or spiritual purposes.
No matter the category or type, though, meditation is viewed as
a practice to deepen your mind’s ability to focus and cause emotional
stability and clarity. It incorporates elements like focused attention and an
open mind for the betterment of the meditator.