What Exactly is Meditation Anyway?

Mention the word meditation, and many people think of trying to make their minds blank or stopping their thoughts.

No wonder they believe meditation must be so difficult! Our minds are wired to think, feel, imagine, and dream every moment of every day. Telling yourself to sit down for half an hour and not think is like telling your ears not to hear anything, or your open eyes not to see. These body-mind processes are completely automatic and we cannot switch them off.

The other dominant misconception is that meditation is just relaxation. Some people seek out meditation videos and classes expecting to be lulled to sleep. But although the body and mind are in a relaxed state during meditation, what we’re actually trying to cultivate is a kind of active, attentive focus on the moment. Rather than being a sleep-inducing activity, it’s more useful to think of meditation as gentle exercise for your mind.

Rather than being a sleep-inducing activity, it’s more useful to think of meditation as gentle exercise for your mind.

So, what is meditation then? Well, it sits somewhere between the extreme effort of ceasing to think, and the inactivity of simple relaxation. Meditation involves being simultaneously alert and calm. The best explanation I’ve come across for what meditation is comes from meditation teacher and author, Susan Piver. In a podcast hosted by the The Shambhala Meditation Center of New York, Piver uses the following demonstration to help her audience actively understand meditation (and I’d encourage you to try following her directions):

“If I ask you right now, without moving or doing anything… to please put your attention, right now, on your left index finger. You don’t have to look at it, just put your attention on it. [Pause] And now put your attention on your right ear. [Pause] And now put it on the person in front of you, or the floor … [Pause] And now put it on my voice. And now put it above my head. And now put it back on your left index finger. Everybody could do that, right?
So, something moves between those points. That something is your attention. And that something is the alpha and the omega of the practice. That is what we’re working with.”

When I first listened to Piver’s explanation I had a kind of “aha!” moment. This is why meditation teachers, recordings, and books instruct us to focus on the breath, or repeat a mantra. Because what we aim to do when we meditate is to practice focusing our attention on the present moment. We do not have to cease to think — your mind didn’t suddenly shut down when you followed Piver’s directions above — but when thoughts do arise during meditation, the goal is to simply witness those thoughts, acknowledge them without judgement, and then come back to a focus, whether that be the breath, a mantra, or the left index finger.

Another word for this exercise that’s increasingly popular in wellness these days is “mindfulness.” In our day to day lives our minds are immersed in a river of thoughts, worries, decisions and emotions. When we meditate — or become mindful — we step out of the river so that we may pause and observe it rushing by. We witness our thoughts and sensations without swimming in amongst them. And the beauty of mindfulness is that we can take it with us into our entire lives beyond structured meditation “sessions.” I’ve written before about Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who says: “Chopping wood is meditation. Carrying water is meditation. The practitioner must be mindful all through the day.”

A more modern take on this concept comes from Dan Harris, journalist and author of recent self-help book 10% Happier. Harris discusses the idea of integrating “purposeful pauses” into our everyday lives in this short video with Big Think:

Meditation practice traditionally takes the form of sitting quietly and witnessing the present moment, but what Thich Nhat Hanh and Dan Harris are teaching is a continuous, living practice. Just as our yoga extends beyond the mat, meditation is a state of being that we can carry with us throughout our lives. And when we realise this, meditation can become less like an arduous chore (or a chance for a nap!), and instead can be an easily adoptable daily habit, and a vehicle to living our lives with peace and integrity.

Kate Minckler
Originally published at