what is meditation

What is meditation?

Julia Ridsha

Julia Ridsha

Wellness coach, yoga instructor, author, founder of "Wellness Hub"

A word "meditation" became very popular recently. But what it actually is and how to meditate correctly?

Meditation as a state is a trance state of peace and relaxation of the body while maintaining full awareness. This is the cessation of mental work and mental movements that carry negativity and tension. Because most people are in constant internal dialogue with negative thoughts, meditation is often defined as stopping thoughts.

When practicing meditation, many find it difficult to give this occupation any concrete definition. From some acquaintances I had to hear, for example, this: “well, this is, in short, when you sit on the rug in the lotus position with your eyes closed and say all sorts of mantras to the music.”

Or maybe you don’t get a response at all. Once I asked a friend what meditation is, and in response – a minute of silence before a yoga class. A tense silence, accompanied by tapping his foot on the floor and a slight yawn.

I think it is the inability to answer this question that lies at the basis of all unsuccessful attempts to start meditating. Why? Because meditation is not an end in itself, but a process leading to a goal.

The origins of the word

The origin of the word “meditation” “Meditatio” in Latin – “create ideas”, “mentally contemplate”, “contemplate”. In turn, the progenitor language of the Latin word is Hebrew. In the holy book of the Jews, the Torah, there is the concept of “haga” – “whisper”, “sigh”, “meditate”. When the book was translated into Greek, the word “haga” became “melete” and then into the Latin “meditatio”. Despite the centuries-old history, in the meaning known to us, the word “meditation” first appears in European culture only in the XII century.

Meditation was also used to call the spiritual practices of the East – “dhyana”. In Buddhism, “dhyana” was transformed into 4 main directions: Vietnamese “thien”, Korean “son”, Japanese “zen” and Chinese “chan”. Meditation is attributed not only to Eastern teachings, but also to the practices of Islamic Sufism, Jewish Kabbalah and Christian hesychasm. Many linguists note that the concept of “meditation” in the modern sense is equivalent to the concept of “contemplation” in Christianity. So, many religious and spiritual movements claim to be the founders of meditation.

What is meditation? 

Most often, by the term “meditation” we mean a special kind of exercises that are part of spiritual, religious or health practices, as well as an unusual mental state that occurs in the process of their implementation. The second meaning of meditation is a special type of in-depth reflection on something. They are accompanied by a conscious withdrawal from any external circumstances and stimuli.

We often see the use of meditation techniques or its elements in psychotherapy and various trainings. In this case, it acts as a psychological practice that helps people gain both spiritual and physical health. The third meaning of meditation is a complex of psychophysical exercises of alternative medicine. What is meditation for? What is the main purpose of meditation? Undoubtedly, in knowing oneself, finding inner harmony. But there are two approaches: Classical meditation, on a “spiritual” level. It allows you to discover new levels of consciousness, thereby determining your true values, setting new goals and unlocking potentials, saturating life with new meanings. A person learns to look for a solution not in the outside world and circumstances, but within himself. This is not a way to relax, but often a difficult path that requires a person to get out of their comfort zone. If we consider meditation as mindfulness, that is, “secular” meditation, without any religious or esoteric subtext, then the main goal of the practice will be to improve the quality of life in all senses: mental, psychological, physical. Here, the development of neuroplasticity is at the forefront – the brain faces new challenges and quickly learns useful experience.

What meditation is confused with The concept of “meditation” is not the same as “concentration”. Concentration is familiar to our daily life, when we direct all our attention to some object or task. Meditation is the highest form of concentration, the next, higher stage in the development of our consciousness.

Meditation should also be distinguished from contemplation, which is a broader concept and includes not only meditation techniques, but also other spiritual practices. Probably, it is the diversity of existing practices that is the reason for the several interpretations of the term “meditation”. True, such a variety does not lead linguists, historians and psychologists to a consensus, but, on the contrary, gives rise to disputes about which practices should be considered meditative.

History of Meditation 

The history of meditation is inextricably linked with the development of certain religious trends. Many rightly believe that the Hindus were the first to practice it. However, even in ancient times, people used chants with multiple repetitions of words and phrases as a way of talking with higher powers. Ancient shamans, while meditating, contacted the spirits to ask them for protection and good luck for their tribe. So, the earliest mention of meditation as a technique occurs around the 15th century BC. in Sanskrit in the Hindu tradition of Vedantism. The Vedas are one of the most ancient books in the world devoted to the structure of the universe. A little later, from the 6th to the 5th centuries BC. in Chinese Taoism – “the doctrine of the way of things” – and Indian Buddhism appear their own forms of meditation. Thus, the historical homeland of this spiritual practice is considered to be India and, to a lesser extent, China.

In the collection of Buddhist scriptures, created in the 1st century BC, we find the statement: “Indian Buddhist meditation is a step on the path to liberation.” At that time, its appearance and development outside of India was facilitated by caravans marching along the Great Silk Road. It was the main trade channel, consisting of several roads linking East Asia and the Mediterranean. Meditation also affected Ancient Greece. True, here its development is much slower. So, in the 20th year BC. the religious thinker Philo of Alexandria in his notes mentions some “spiritual exercises” based on the utmost concentration of attention on an object or thought. Four centuries later, the philosopher Plotinus develops his own meditation techniques.

In 653, the first public meditation hall was opened in Japan. In 1227, the Japanese thinker Dogen, returning from China, wrote instructions for the meditative practice of zazen. Further, meditation is spreading faster and faster to different countries of the world. Since the 1960s, meditation has been actively gaining popularity in the West, and has also become the object of various scientific research. Scientists are studying the relationship of meditation with metabolism, brain activity, blood pressure and other processes occurring in the human body.

Meditation and science: what do the scientists say? 

Meditation is a tool for improving the quality of life, strengthening physical and mental health, and an effective brain trainer. It is available to everyone, regardless of their religious worldview, and does not require special training, which used to take years and was available only to monks and ascetics. We have already mentioned one of the well-known techniques in the West – transcendental meditation. It was invented by the spiritual teacher and yogi Maharishi. The second well-known practice of modern times – the mindfulness approach – was proposed by the scientist John Kabat-Zinn in 1979. A biologist, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, he created a concept based on the maximum awareness of each person, which leads to the qualitative development of the whole society. The mindfulness approach is based on being present in the present moment and is not related to mantras or chakra knowledge. Adhering to this concept, a person consciously fully concentrates on each business, feeling a connection with himself and the world around him.

All it takes to apply the mindfulness approach is 10 minutes to 1 hour daily. As Jon Kabat-Zinn himself said: “The real practice of meditation is your life. One practice per month is not enough. It’s about letting meditation fill every waking moment. Feel your body and connection with nature, other people, with your own heart – this is what builds the foundation of awareness, supports your formal practice. You don’t practice technique, you turn it into a form of being.” Note that John Kabat-Zinn did not study in temples, but conducted research to substantiate his approach in a scientific way. He became one of the first, but by no means the only scientist who became interested in meditation and began to study its effect on the human body.

Today, meditation has been scientifically proven to help fight depression and get rid of addictions, as well as reduce chronic pain. In Altered Traits, psychologist Daniel Goleman and professor of psychiatry Richard Davidson write that meditation enhances empathy and activates the areas of the brain responsible for love. In 2002, with the approval of the Dalai Lama, renowned practitioner Mingyur Rinpoche and other experienced Buddhist meditation mentors participated in research at the Weisman Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Brain Behavior. So religion, yoga and spiritual practices were combined with science. In the course of long-term experiments, a strong relationship has been established between meditation and positive human brain processes.

Thanks to neuroscience, we know that the brain is like plasticine: it changes frequently. This manifests itself at all levels – from the connections between neurons to entire areas that shrink and grow under the influence of life experience. This property of the brain is called neuroplasticity. Thoughts and feelings are fickle: meditation practices help develop the habit of being aware of the moment they arise, stopping in time and not reacting toxicly.

Also, neuroscience studies at Harvard University have shown that the gray matter of the brain, associated with learning, memory and emotions, becomes denser in the process of meditation. Human productivity directly depends on its density. People who meditate regularly have higher levels of “alpha brain waves” that are responsible for positive emotions, feelings of calmness and harmony, and help fight stress.

The practical benefits of meditation 

Consider the process of meditation in terms of physiology. The hemispheres of the brain share powers. The right one is responsible for imaginative thinking, attention, creative activity, emotional perception of the world. The left is responsible for logic and analytical thinking. Depending on the situation, the hemispheres can dominate each other, but most of the time the left one dominates. Too much distortion leads to the fact that a person begins to approach everything from a purely rational point of view, guided by the principles of benefit, ignoring emotional needs and creative impulses. Which eventually leads to chronic stress, depression.

Meditation helps eliminate this functional imbalance by briefly “turning off” the left hemisphere activity. When we meditate, we do not think or move, we do not use the left hemisphere, we plunge into a state that is neither like sleep nor wakefulness. Regular meditation allows you to restore the balance of control between the right and left hemispheres and relieve stress. The benefits in practice are felt for the psyche, and for the mind, and for the body. First, a person begins to feel calm. There is a clear feeling of being here and now, in a particular moment, and with it satisfaction with life.

During meditation, we get rid of the negativity accumulated during the day, including informational garbage that inevitably sticks to the psyche, even if you do not watch TV and rarely go to social networks. There is an opportunity to look at problem situations that are frightening and stressful with a fresh look, rethink them and find solutions. So a person gets used to thinking optimistically, self-confidence grows. Optimists are less prone to psychosomatic illnesses caused by stress. There is an opinion that 85% of diseases are caused by psychosomatics. So, meditation will make you a much healthier person. By the way, meditation is advised as an additional (but not the main) treatment of psychosomatic and cancerous diseases. Meditation helps to “absorb” pain in chronic pain, pulls the patient out of the vicious circle of negative thoughts centered around the disease. There are statistics on slowing down the spread of metastases with regular practice. Internal changes lead to external changes. Getting rid of stress, the brain normalizes hormonal balance. A person easily falls asleep and gets enough sleep in the prescribed 7-8 hours, he has enough energy for productive activities. Excess weight goes away, the general tone of the body increases. The influence of meditation on cognitive abilities and creative thinking has been proven. The mind becomes flexible: a person learns not only to concentrate on the problem, but also to look for unconventional ways to solve it.

Types of Meditation 

All types of meditation are divided into two large groups: concentration of attention and open attention.

Concentration of attention

Focusing attention on one object during the entire meditation session. This object can be breath, mantra, visualization, body parts, external objects, etc. For those who practice this technique, the ability to keep the flow of attention on the chosen object becomes stronger, and distraction occurs less often and for a short time. The depth and stability of attention develops.

Examples of this are: Samatha (Buddhist meditation), some forms of Zazen, “Meta” – loving-kindness meditation, “Kundalini” meditation, Sound meditation, mantras, pranayama, some forms of Qigong and many others.

Open attention

Instead of focusing on any object, we keep it open, controlling every aspect of our experience, without judgment or attachment. All sensations, whether internal (thoughts, feelings, memory, etc.) or external (sound, smell, etc.), are recognized and observed as they are. It is a process of inactive observation of what is happening from moment to moment. Examples are: mindfulness meditation, Vipassana, and some types of Taoist meditation.

Myths About Meditation

“Meditation is a Religious Practice” 

Although meditation is associated with Asian culture, primarily Buddhism, and indeed was invented in the context of religious practice, you don’t have to be of any religion to meditate. Christians, Muslims, atheists, and agnostics can meditate without compromising faith or lack thereof.

“Meditation Requires Rituals” 

Meditation does not require wearing any other clothes, looking for a secluded place, or even burning incense. Small rituals help beginners develop a habit faster, but do not become necessary attributes. 

“Before you meditate, you need to clear the mind” 

Few people can clear the mind “on the click” without experience in meditation. We think about something all the time – such is the nature of the human mind. In the process, intrusive thoughts may appear in your head, and this is normal. You must catch yourself in these thoughts and stop them. This is what is called practice. 

“During meditation, you need to sit in the lotus position” 

Surprisingly, this myth about meditation is perhaps the most common. It is difficult and even painful for people with poor stretching to sit in the lotus position (padmasana). Well, should they forget about meditation for the time being? Not at all necessary. There are many variations of postures, the main thing is to keep your back straight so as not to pinch your lungs and not make it difficult to breathe. At least, this is what functionalist yogis think, i.e. focusing on the physical aspects of meditation. 

“It takes years to learn” 

This is not strength training where constant progress is required. One of the most important principles of meditation is: “Do not judge yourself for the thoughts and feelings that arise in the process.” Even if you did not manage to sit in the ideal lotus position or drive all thoughts out of your head. 

“Meditation makes me better than others” 

“Better, calmer, more enlightened…”. Meditation can bring the quality of life to a new level, teach you not to waste your time on trifles, not to cling to unnecessary people, and much more. But this does not mean that a practicing person automatically gets rid of egoism, stops lying and hypocrisy, never gets into stupid and awkward situations and begins to preach the path of love and kindness.

what is meditation





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