Join the movement and discover what is meditation. Read on to debunk some myths, and explore its history, benefits, and more!
Gone are the days when meditation was this mysterious thing reserved for Buddhist monks and Yogis in the Himalayas. Now -luckily- the practice has extended all over the globe and, even if they’ve never practiced it, most people have heard about it.
With big celebrities and sports figures (from Oprah to Novak Djokovic) raving about its benefits and life-changing potential, the popularity of meditation continues to be on the rise.
And that brings a lot of talk – and confusion. Everyone seems to know about it, but few would be able to explain what meditation is.
So what is meditation?
First, let’s debunk some myths.
What Meditation is Not
Chances are meditation is not what you think.
First of all, it’s not a religious practice. I mean, yes, different forms of meditation appear in many religions around the world, and the practice is particularly associated with some Eastern religions, but it’s not a religious practice in itself – the same way that chanting or singing is also practiced in many religions (from mantras to gospel choirs) but you wouldn’t consider singing a religious practice, right?
However, the main myth or misunderstanding about meditation is this idea that the goal is to completely quiet or empty the mind. Perfect stillness and clarity.
No wonder so many are discouraged from even trying. It seems like an impossible achievement, one only reserved for, well, Buddhist monks and Yogis in the Himalayas.
Many people try meditating and when they can’t quiet the mind, they get frustrated and think it was a bad meditation. But there is no good or bad meditation. The only bad meditation is the one you didn’t do. As Andy Puddicomb reminds us: it’s meditation practice, not meditation perfect.
Meditation is not about emptying the mind. So what is meditation then?
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a practice that allows us to become familiar with and aware of what already is: the sensations in our bodies, the thoughts in the back of our minds, the worries, the fears… whatever is there for us to see.
Through meditation, we also develop the ability to be present in the moment, leading to a heightened state of awareness and attention.
When we meditate, we take a step back from the cascade of thoughts we’re usually under to become a bystander and merely observe what’s going on without judgment and without trying to change it.
So, essentially, what you do is meet reality. You meet yourself. That is the purpose of meditation: not to get rid of thoughts but to become an observer of your thoughts, so you’re not controlled by them.
In the words of Sam Harris, meditation is a path to gain “insight into the fundamental nature of consciousness” and the mind, to understand the self, and to cultivate “the capacity to accept the present moment exactly as it is.”
Meditation is to get to know oneself.
A Brief History of Meditation
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of meditation, but to keep things simple, the term comes from the Latin word meditatio, meaning to “think over, ponder, reflect, consider”.
The origin of meditation practice goes back to… we don’t really know. Not exactly, at least.
A precise timeline of meditation history is hard to establish for many reasons, starting with the fact that there are so many different types of practices that can fall under the umbrella term “meditation”.
The earliest records of meditation practice come from Vedic schools in India around 1500 BCE, with later records from Taoist and Buddhist traditions (600-500 BCE), and meditation-like practices making their way to religions like Judaism, Islam, or even Christianity in subsequent centuries.
However, experts agree that meditation probably began to be practiced thousands of years before that, when traditions were passed orally. In fact, early forms of meditation might have already been practiced by the shamans of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that meditation became popular in the West, following the arrival of meditation masters from the East, and after westerners traveled to Asia to study with meditation masters, later bringing their learnings back home.
Nowadays, for the most part, meditation has lost its religious overtones and it’s not only spiritual teachers who extol its benefits but also doctors and scientists.
Types of Meditation
There are different types of meditation and ways to meditate, and we’ll discuss them more in detail in a separate article. Some of them include breath awareness meditation, Vipassana meditation, Zen meditation, mindfulness meditation, and even walking meditation.
But essentially, we can separate meditation into two approaches, based on what you do when meditating. These are focus meditation (aka concentration meditation) and open awareness meditation (aka mindfulness meditation).
Focus meditation is about practicing the skill of placing your attention on one single thing (usually the breath, but it can also be a mantra, an image, etc.) without letting yourself be carried away by the stream of thoughts. When you get distracted, you go back to the object of attention, over and over again.
Mindfulness meditation is about becoming aware of whatever you notice. If your attention flips from one thought, object, emotion or sound to another, you simply follow it and observe it. It’s about observing without trying to control or block your thoughts at all, so you can become aware of what they are, as opposed to being lost in them.
How does Meditation Work?
Let me know if this sounds familiar: you sit down to meditate, hoping for some peace and quiet, and the second you close your eyes, your mind becomes full of noise, as if a group of monkeys had suddenly taken control of your head and were dancing the conga all over the place.
Where did all those thoughts, all those voices even come from?!
Most of the time, we are so lost in and controlled by our thoughts that we don’t even realize they’re separate from us. We are not our thoughts. Failure to realize this is at the root of a lot of our suffering.
The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts. But here’s the not-so-good news: we can’t really control our thoughts. Thinking is the brain’s job, not ours. What we CAN do, however, is choose where we place our attention. That’s our job.
What meditation does is train your awareness so you can observe your thoughts, accept them, and then choose which ones you want to believe and focus on, and which ones you don’t.
As Eckhart Tolle beautifully explains: “Meditation is about getting still enough to know the difference between the voice [in your head] and you,” because, “when you lose touch with inner stillness, you lose touch with yourself,” and “when you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world.”
Benefits of Meditation
We will delve into the science behind meditation and its vast array of benefits (seriously, get meditating) in later articles.
As an overview, though, here are some of the main benefits of meditation for mind, body, and soul (this is by no means an exhaustive list).
Whatever the reason that drives you to practice, the benefits of meditation are sure to follow.
In the end, all the masters from every school and approach (from neuroscientists to monks) agree on one thing: whatever your journey, start with meditation. It all comes back to it.