What is Meditation
A Course in Meditation, 2007

by Theodore K. Phelps © 2007
-from “Chapter 6 “The Nature of Meditation” pp. 175-181
Please note: we offer this text for your information, not as a replacement for a course of instruction. Because the text comes directly from the book, a few references do not make sense without having the rest of the book.

The following text is the opening five pages of the 125-page series of essays in the book that help put meditation in perspective and explain many aspects of the principle of naturalness with respect to meditation and its short-, intermediate- and long-term effects.

What is Meditation?

What is Meditation?

In this series of talks on “Meditation in Perspective,” I seek to put into context a class of meditations I informally call the Naturals. Of course, Natural Meditation is one of these. Whenever we seek to understand a new idea, we need to have more than the description of what it is. We also need a description of what it is not, what its surroundings are, and what its context and environment are. And that is what I will attempt to provide in these talks. This will be like a guided tour in a museum of meditation, spending most of the time with the Naturals. I expect the ideas will be useful both to students of meditation practice and students and teachers of meditation theory.

Naturally, the tour must begin with the question, “What is meditation?” even though we all have some idea about what it is. I do not intend to alter anyone’s deeply held convictions about this. Ultimately, meditation is experience, and experience is personal. But we need some definitions to walk the tour.

Meditation is one of my favorite words. It catches my eye as surely as does my own name. But at a formal level, the word covers a broad range of activities. It’s a category term like sports. It includes essays, poems, short inspirational talks, sermons, and even casual behavior, such as walks in the woods. It can just mean thinking.

So, if meditation means all that, does it really mean much of anything? Not really, as a visit to the dictionary will confirm. Dictionary definitions are brisk and somewhat circular references to parallel words, such as contemplation, reflection, and concentration.

Admirably, some definitions attempt to go further and describe the actions that comprise meditative sittings. But commonly, these descriptions are one-sided. Here are some real examples taken from current entries in reference media:

“A devotional exercise,” “emptying the mind of thoughts,” “continuous contemplation,” “sustained concentration,” “powerfully concentrated state,” “focusing attention on a particular object.”

Help! Which is it, an empty mind or a powerfully loaded one? Maybe we should just dodge the issue, as some dictionaries do, and be content with, “Meditation: the act of meditating.”

Yet, the word catches my eye and imagination because it really does point to something—something I care a lot about. When I see the word used in phrases like learning to meditate, meditation groups, traditions of meditation, Zen meditation, Meditation for Dummies (the book), I have a pretty good idea of what is meant. And I suspect you do, too.

We picture people sitting on mats, chairs, benches, or cushions, with eyes closed or lowered, the body held in a prescribed posture, and most importantly, inside the mind of the meditator, something special going on—maybe something inspiring, cleansing, or healing, and possibly sacred. Can we make a sufficiently broad definition for these meditations, the formal sitting meditations that have long anchored the great religious and spiritual meditative traditions? It is not easy. Here is my attempt:

Meditation: the act of engaging an agenda of mental and bodily actions or postures, usually minimal and repetitive in form, designed to influence the direction of attention, usually inward, or the content of thought and perception, in order to refine subtle functions of body and mind or to express or participate in a subtle reality.

Phew! That’s a mouthful—and a mindful. Clearly, teachers wouldn’t use this definition to teach people how to meditate. It is an academic definition attempting to include a wide range of methods while excluding programs that most of us would not consider meditation. It defines a big tent.

The definition says that meditation is an act that follows an agenda, or set of rules. It has a designed structure and a job to do. It influences the direction of attention, most often shifting it inward, away from its usual outward orientation. That shift might come with observation of thought and feelings, or the appreciation of the inner space that contains and supports thought. And it might also influence the content of attention, sometimes doing so by reducing the volume and intensity of thought and sometimes through the introduction of special thoughts.

Meditation’s purposes match the purposes of the traditions that created the methods and carried them to us across generations and often across oceans. These purposes are spread wide, but I think the definition does them justice. It sets out some common ground. The definition includes the primary purpose of meditation, which is improvement.

It is not improvement at any layer; otherwise, it would include weight training. It improves subtle functions of the mind and body such as observing the mind and expanding consciousness. We must let the word mind be a “variable” standing for a wide range of phenomena at the core of experience, including perception, thought, feeling, heart, soul, and spirit.

The definition recognizes that meditation sometimes is a non-targeted agenda for direct seeing, approaching, or expressing of one’s existence or one’s creature relationship to the Creator or other aspect of the divine.

Recipes of Meditation

Recipes or Ingredients in Meditation Methods

Below is a short list of what many people do, or aspire to, in formal sittings of meditation. The items on this list are not methods, as such, but a class of meditative actions. Let’s just think of them as ingredients in a meditative recipe. Methods often have more than one of these ingredients, with one of them being the primary ingredient. The recipes using these ingredients are not always called meditation. They can sometimes be called prayer, contemplation, or any of a rich variety of terms from the meditative traditions of the East. If you have experience in meditation, see if the ingredients of your sittings are shown here.

If you don’t recognize something, the fault is mine.

  • being: just sitting to express existence
  • being present: being present with something or someone
  • chanting: audibly speaking or singing phrases or names
  • concentration: training awareness on a thought or image
  • contemplation: following a train of thought or sustaining a flow
  • insight: considering the meaning of life, thoughts, or experience
  • listening: following sounds, music, words; hearing inner suggestions
  • mindfulness: noticing or following thoughts, situations, events, sensations
  • praying: offering thoughts to, or receiving from, a higher being
  • problem solving: penetrating a riddle or problem
  • quieting: withdrawing the senses from the environment or resting the mind
  • repetition: recalling a thought, word, phrase, name, observation
  • sounding: generating (silently or audibly) syllables or tones
  • training the heart: repeating a thought or feeling to make it habitual
  • transcending: opening to or absorption in pure consciousness or the divinity
  • visualization: creating, following, or steeping in an image

As I will explain in the next talk [Chapter 7, currently only available in the book], what people do in meditation is deeply rooted in their immediate, moment-by-moment intention, not the verbal definitions, agendas, or recipes we use to talk about meditation outside of meditation. This sometimes involves motivations and habits that are not obvious or chosen, especially in the beginning. 

Before leaving the meaning of meditation, I must note that for some teachers, meditation refers not to an act, as in my definition, but to a condition of awareness. They might call the act “sitting” and the condition of awareness “meditation.” But, that is not how I use the word. When I refer to meditation, I refer to the sitting.


What it’s all about

What It’s All About

Here is another tasty list. It names some of the attributes associated with meditative development. These words evoke the purposes that have supported meditation and kept it living across culture and through time.

  • balanced living
  • compassionate heart and action
  • concentration
  • effective thinking
  • fearlessness
  • happiness
  • health
  • inner power
  • integrity
  • intuitive understanding
  • peace of mind
  • selflessness
  • spiritual formation
  • wisdom

Let’s pause to appreciate the richness of these concepts. If you like, pick one and let it settle in the mind for a few moments. Let it steep like a fragrant dried herb in a teapot. Then pour a cup and sip it… as we walk through the next part of this museum [in the book].