What Is Meditation? (O1)

You are thinking about taking up meditation because you have heard that it can enable people to manage stress, aggression and pain more easily; or because you believe it can deepen your understanding of yourself and life; or because you desire to gain access to a realm of “extra-sensory” experience and altered states of consciousness; or because you wish to become a better person; or because according to esoteric tradition the practice of meditation confers paranormal powers. Or, perhaps, you are one of a very small number of human beings who genuinely aspire to attain nirvana, the condition of being free from all attachments whatsoever. And those are only the more respectable reasons for meditating.


A plethora of motives for beginning the practice of meditation has, over the centuries, generated a diversity of methods. Each of the goals listed above requires a slightly different approach. Yet the means employed to reach them share certain common features. They all require a modicum of sustained attention, the ability to stay on task, and a clear understanding of the particular project in which the trainee is engaged. Developing each of those capacities to the requisite degree is a preliminary discipline in itself.

Because the word “meditation” has come to designate all such activities, including methods whose practitioners insist that they are not practices, it is a term both convenient and dangerous. As it happens, the differences among the various kinds of meditation are as important as the similarities. To remain ignorant of them is to risk following a path that cannot take you to your chosen destination. That is true even if you have no destination in mind.

Therefore, the first task is to get an overview of the terrain. Of necessity I will have to define a lot of words, in part because ordinary language tends to obscure rather than illuminate this field, and in part because clear writing on the subject in English is as yet relatively scant. We are only just beginning to develop a vocabulary specific to the description of self-reflexive mental processes. There is bound to be a lot of groping for words, and it may even be necessary to make up a term or two along the way.

The Indic word used by Buddhists when they are talking about “meditation” is bhāvanā. It means roughly the same as the English words “development” and “cultivation.” It applies to the whole panoply of mental faculties, in all possible combinations, from the most ordinary to those that are rarely exercised in the course of daily life. As we shall see, a great many things fall under that rubric. We will make a start at sorting them out in a future entry.

Published by

Richard Kollmar

Buddhist minister & trail guide. Leads contemplative hikes & pilgrimages in the mountains of California's central coast.

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