What do we mean by “meditation”?

When referring to meditation on these pages, we mainly focus on practices that are loosely related to Buddhist types of mind training – although, where relevant, we also consider other forms of practice.

To understand what we mean when talking about meditation it is useful to consider the original terminology used within the Buddhist context of mind training. Although commonly translated as “meditation”, the Pāli and Sanskrit term bhāvanā more literally means “to cultivate”. Similarly, the Tibetan equivalent sgom (pronounced “gom”) may be translated as “getting used to” or “familiarising oneself”. These notions imply the importance of regular mental exercises that are required for development.

Thus, we think of meditation as a particular way of mind training, with the aim of developing certain mental qualities or skills. Depending on the philosophical background or ones intention, a specific form of meditation may for example aim to develop mental focus, to become more mindful or aim to cultivate kindness and compassion. A slightly different picture emerges when seen from the Vajrayana or Diamond Way perspective of Buddhism where meditation can be understood as the process of familiarising oneself with the ever-present but usually unnoticed  qualities of mind that are summarised in the idea of Buddha nature (Gampopa, 1998; Maitreya/Asanga, 2000; Nydahl, 2004). Simply put, the Diamond Way meditation practice would help getting used to or familiarising oneself with one’s own perfect (though currently hidden) qualities.

Let us also consider a definition given by the Buddhist meditation master Lama Ole Nydahl. He explains: “In the state of meditation one does not produce anything but instead rests consciously in the perception of what is. Thus one […] remains without stress in the multiplicity of what is going on, and feels joyful and conscious during the moment of experience.” (Nydahl, 2004, p. 121) Here, meditation is not understood as a form of practice or mind training, but as a state of mind that is the outcome of such practice: One practices to reach a state of meditation.

In conclusion, when talking about meditation we have to keep in mind that we are confronted with a large variety of methods, while equipped with a psychological vocabulary that has not yet sufficiently evolved to capture the richness of these methods and the variety of states of minds and aspects of psychological, social and spiritual functioning they are thought to bring about.

In the early days of meditation research, authors often did not specify which type of meditation they are talking about or investigating. Often,  results from a huge variety of different meditation practices were lumped together, trying to make general claims about meditation. Fortunately, more and more meditation researchers are becoming aware of the problems associated with this approach and tend to describe in more detail, which practices they are talking about. For instance, in the widely read article Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research
on Mindfulness and Meditation” a group of meditation researchers criticised the current use of meditation and mindfulness as broad umbrella terms, saying that researchers needs to “take proper account of exactly what types of mindfulness and meditation are involved. With current use of umbrella terms, a 5-minute meditation exercise from a popular phone application might be treated the same as a 3-month meditation retreat (both labeled as meditation)” (Van Dam, et al 2018, p. 36)

Gampopa (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings (K. R. Khenpo Könchog Gyaltsen, Trans.). Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.

Maitreya/Asanga (2000). Maitreya on Buddha Nature: A New Translation of Asanga’s “Mahayana Uttara Tantra Sastra”, with a Comprehensive Commentary (K. Holmes & K. Holmes, Trans.). Forres, UK: Altea Publishing.

Nydahl , O. (2004). The Great Seal — Limitless space & joy: The Mahamudra view of Diamond Way Buddhism. San Francisco, CA: Fire Wheel Publishing

Van Dam, N. T., van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., … & Fox, K. C. (2018). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(1), 36-61.