When someone says ”I am meditating”, this can mean a lot of different things to different people.
Some people, for example, believe they are meditating when they go running, others believe the same when they are dancing to trance at a party, others chant mantras to meditate, and others gaze into candles. In this way the word meditation is vague and doesn’t really explain what a person is actually doing.
So what is meditation?
The term meditation refers to a variety of mental experiences – visualizations, chanting mantras, cultivating certain emotional qualities. Meditation has been practised since antiquity as a component of numerous religious traditions and belief systems. It’s not something new.
All these systems use meditation as a key tool for inner transformation. However, the understanding of it, the approach to it and general goals do differ a lot.
What is meditation in Buddhism?
In the Buddhist sense, the term ‘meditation’ is not quite right – it comes from Latin meditatio, ‘to think, contemplate, devise, ponder’.
Buddhism generally uses the term bhavana – developing, cultivating, producing, in the sense of ‘calling into existence’.
The word bhavana normally appears in conjunction with another word, forming a compound phrase such as citta-bhavana (the development or cultivation of the heart/mind) or metta-bhavana (the development/cultivation of loving kindness).
When used on its own, bhavana generally signifies ‘spiritual cultivation’.
This cultivation has two main aspects: calming (shamatha) and insight (vipassana).
Once we calm the mind, we are able to look deeper into ourselves and understand what is going on. Seeing reality for ourselves is insight.
We watch our inner landscapes unfolding, relaxing into whatever mind/body experiences while maintaining clarity. Eventually, all distinctions between the inner and the outer drop away and all there is a spacious presence. Dropping the self-centredness that narrows my world into I/me/mine and which generates opposition between the mind and the body and “me” versus “others”. Buddha called this dukkha, or suffering.
How to practice meditation?
There are 3 main types of practice
1. Formal/ informal practice
Formal practice: Mindfulness is the practice of being attentively present. It is a practice in the same way that people practice the piano. Being attentive is a skill that grows with practice. It develops best if we let go of self-conscious judgements and expectations of how our meditation is developing. The practice is simply to relax and be aware of what is happening in the present. In order to develop this skill and experience the joys of non-reactive presence, a daily meditation practice is helpful – practised at a designated time, in which we don’t do anything else.
Informal practice: whatever we do, we turn it into a practice of cultivating the mind. How do we do that? By letting go of the thinking processes surrounding what we are doing. There is no difference between life and practice – no separation between holy and mundane. Our whole life becomes our practice.
2. Individual/ group practice
A daily, individual practice forms the foundation. Without it, it’s like cooking with smoke; you might get there one day, but it will take a while. A strong personal practice really gets things cooking, like frying something on an open fire – the juices start coming out!
We can take this personal practice, and get a big boost in effort, concentration and encouragement by practicing in a group setting. We learn and grow through relationship, and applying mindfulness to them, as much, if not more, than anything else.
3. Regular/ intensive practice
We can have our daily and weekly practice times, both formal and informal, individual and group, which can be called regular practice. This keeps the fire under the frying pan. But occasional, once, twice or thrice yearly, intensive meditation retreats increase the flame’s intensity, creating the condition for deeper insights that can change our lives.
You can listen to a live recording on this topic here:
This podcast about mindfulness meditation is recorded at the Mindfulness Meditation Course taught by Tatjana Mesar in April 2016.