What do we mean by “meditation”?

When talking here about meditation, 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 will be 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 “familiarizing oneself”. These notions imply the importance of regular mental exercises that are required for developing mindfulness skills. Thus, we think of meditation as a particular way of mind training. Depending on the philosophical background, a specific form of meditation may for instance aim at developing mental focus, becoming more mindful or on cultivating 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 ultimate qualities of mind that are summarised in the idea of Buddha nature (Gampopa, 1998; Maitreya/Asanga, 2000; Nydahl, 2004). Simply put, the meditation practice would help getting used to or familiarising oneself with one’s own perfect (though currently hidden) qualities.

Let us 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 training, but as the state of mind that is the outcome of such practice: One practices to reach a state of meditation.

In sum, 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. While in the early days of meditation research, authors often did not specify clearly enough which type of meditation they are talking about or even lumped together results from a huge variety of meditation practices in an attempt at making general claims about meditation, meanwhile meditation researchers are quite aware of the problems associated with this approach and tend to describe in more detail, which practices they are talking about.

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