When I talk to people about meditation, a question that many people seem to have is “What is meditation?”. We all have a general sense of what the word means. But the word “meditation” is also used many different ways by different people. So – what does the word actually mean, precisely? What are the signs of a real, actual, and useful meditation?
In an effort to answer those questions, my first response is that people sometimes use the word to mean all sorts of visualizations and inner explorations, for example using crystals or tarot cards or “contacting angels and spirit guides”, that may be fine things to do, but that do not for me fit my technical definition of the word “meditation”. For me, specifically, meditation breaks down to two main practices.
The great psychologist Abraham Maslow said that healthy psycho-spiritual growth involves both deciding on who we want to be, and working and growing towards that, and discovering who we already are, and allowing, celebrating, and loving that. The two main types of meditation mirror those two directions of growth.
The first type of meditation is to use a repeated phrase, an image held in the mind, the deep contemplation of a text, or other such tools to intentionally cultivate a desired positive state in oneself. In the Buddhist tradition, a few classic forms of cultivation meditation are:
(1) repeating the phrase “May all beings happy” to help develop an open, loving heart
(2) pondering the constant nearness of death to help nurture a sense of the preciousness of being alive as a human who is capable of spiritual growth
(3) doing other practices to help grow a sense of gratitude, an experience of the interconnectedness of all life, or a perception of a dream-like insubstantiality to all things.
In the Western world, of course, psychotherapists and self-help books often assign inner cultivation practices, for example using positive affirmations to increase self-esteem and self-confidence. A life coach may sit a person down and have them visualize what it would be like to accomplish a cherished goal, or to deeply feel that they deserve it. Sports coaches sometimes assign athletes to visualize victory or success, and medical doctors sometimes have patients visualize white blood cells eating up all the cancer cells in their body.
When I teach meditation, I sometimes introduce cultivation practices like this to people, most often loving-kindness meditation. But, mostly, I try to let people have their own beliefs about the world, and their own goals for what type of person they want to be.
The other main form of what I consider true meditation is practicing “mindfulness”. We could define mindfulness simply as using various techniques to tune into what is really, deeply happening in our inner and outer worlds. This kind of meditation is what people most often think of when they hear the word “meditation”. These practices are more what I teach people.
One may ask then, on a deeper level, how can “mindfulness meditation” be defined? My long-time meditation teacher Shinzen Young often says, “All deeply liberating techniques of [mindfulness] meditation involve taking an aspect of experience and infusing it with three qualities”. In other words, we can recognize a deeply effective mindfulness technique by noticing that it usually has three aspects to it.
The first quality of full mindfulness meditation is “Concentration”. Concentration power, as Shinzen defines it, is “the ability to attend to what is deemed relevant at a given time”, and to let go of everything else, at any time that we want, for as long as we want. If a meditation helps us to focus, and keep our minds stable and settled on what we chose them to be attending to, then it passes the test.
An example of that is classic breath meditation. We set an intention to focus our attention on the breath, and our awareness merges with the texture of the inhalation and exhalation for a while. Typically, our mind then wanders away to a thought, or to an itch. We notice and accept this distraction, and gently bring our attention back to the feeling of our breathing. After years of practicing this, our attention rests lightly on the experience of our breathing without wandering off. Not just breath meditation, but most mindfulness techniques cultivate intentional concentrative focus, to greater or lesser extents.
The second quality of mindfulness meditation is “Sensory Clarity”. Shinzen defines this as “the ability to untangle and track the strands or aspects of the individual components of your experience in real time”. We could call this having a deep exploration of some aspect of our inner or outer world, and having fine grained, deeply rich and vivid perception of it exactly as it is. It’s having our perception be like having a modern computer monitor or TV that has high resolution and high definition, as opposed to the comparatively low resolution of decades ago.
An example of this would be noticing that we are thinking, when we are thinking. Doing this, our experience of being ourselves is “untangled”, in that we are noticing the difference between our thinking, on the one hand, and our emotions, our body sensations, and our experience of the outside world, on the other. And our experience is richer, more vivid, and higher resolution in that we are noticing the “shape” of our thoughts, we are aware of the way and rate that our thoughts expand and contract, we track their intensity levels, and we watch how they interact with the other aspects of our being (again, emotions, body sensations, and external senses).
The final quality of mindfulness meditation is “Inner Equanimity”. Shinzen defines this as, “the ability to allow sensory experience to come and go, with radical non-interference and openness”. This means being having no push or pull on our experience, no unnecessary fixating or friction. We could also say, this means being welcoming, allowing, peaceful, spacious, relaxed, open, and loving to however we find ourselves to be, without clinging or grabbing on to it.
An example of equanimity would be having a disturbing thought, and simply and graciously allowing the thought, with its attendant uncomfortable body sensations, to arise and depart. Another example would be to have the same allowing experience with a pleasant fantasy or plan for the future, remaining aware and clear that we are buzzing along in a happy reverie without getting unconscious and lost in the seductive pleasure of it, and letting the fantasy go without grabbing on when it is time for it to end.
If a technique of meditation cultivates those concentration, clarity, and equanimity, and we do our best to practice it regularly, then it is likely that it will help us over time to purify, untangle, calm, clarify, deepen, and liberate.
[Graphic by Janusz Welin of the Deep Mindfulness Collective]
It is important that stability [concentration] is not gained at the expense of relaxation [equanimity], and that the increase of vividness [sensory clarity] does not coincide with a decrease of stability [concentration]. The relationship among these three qualities can be likened to the roots, trunk, and foliage of a tree. As your practice grows, the roots of relaxation go deeper, the trunk of stability gets stronger, and the foliage of vividness reaches higher. You can shift the emphasis to vividness by elevating the focus of attention, and directing it to a subtler objects.
— Alan Wallace, in “The Attention Revolution”
(You can read an excellent article by Shinzen Young called “What is Mindfulness” here)