What is Meditation, Anyway?


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Just breathe.

Relax.

Close your eyes.

Slow Down.

You should meditate!


We’ve all heard these phrases before. Maybe you read them on your favorite wellness instagram. Maybe they were uttered by a well meaning friend. Or maybe they were suggested by a therapist. Some people love using meditation to let off steam. Others (including myself) approach meditation with anxiety, frustration, or dread. We sit on a mat, bored out of our minds, watching the back of our eyelids as we critique our breathing. I have often heard clients say they worry about doing meditation correctly, and it led me to wonder if there is a correct or incorrect way to meditate. With no answers in sight, I realized that I’m not even sure how to define meditation, much less state parameters for “correct” meditation.


Over the past two decades, meditation and mindfulness have exploded in popularity (Van Dam et al., 2018), with meditation cited as a helpful tool for relaxation, improving work performance, anxiety reduction, increased self control, and more. With this expansion, a key component in Buddhist philosophy has become almost synonymous with relaxation and self improvement. But with so many different uses, practitioners, and styles of meditation (guided meditation, walking meditation, transcendental meditation, Chakra meditation, and movement meditation, to name a few.), it is difficult to determine what it actually is.


First, an important distinction between meditation and mindfulness is necessary, as these terms are often conflated (Van Dam et al., 2018). Buddhist scholars suggest that mindfulness often entails attention, awareness, memory/retention and discernment (Bodhi, 2011; Dreyfus, 2011; Dunne, 2011; Gethin, 2011), while Westerners typically associate mindfulness with intentional, nonjudgmental attention to the present moment (Van Dam et al., 2018). In essence, mindfulness is a cognitive framework, while meditation is an activity. The National Institute of Health (NIH) suggests that meditation often involves four key components: a quiet location with few distractions, a comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, walking), focused attention (on one’s breath, a mental image, or passing thoughts) and an open/mindful attitude (NIH, 2014).


When considering these options, there are many ways to “correctly” meditate in a way that does not make one feel inadequate or bored. Tired of hearing your thoughts? Meditate to some tantric music. Hate sitting still? Take a walking meditation. In general, as long as one is intentionally focused on the activity and maintaining a mindful attitude, it can count as meditation. These two components of meditation are the most crucial, as experienced meditators may be able to cultivate a focused, mindful state while in an uncomfortable position or loud arena. On the other hand, a person can sit in a quiet area, with perfect posture, and fail to meditate if they are criticizing themselves (not keeping a mindful attitude) or checking their phone frequently (not maintaining focused attention).


If you struggle to meet all four criteria for meditation, you may fall into a category that I call “meditrying.” This is okay! There are many relaxation activities and coping skills we may use to manage life stress or increase personal growth. We do not need to be perfect in implementing them - all we need to do is try our best. You may not heal from a single, perfect meditation, but you can absolutely grow by imperfectly showing up for yourself, one difficult day at a time.


References:

Bodhi, B. (2011). What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective. Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 12(1), 19–39.


Dreyfus, G. (2011). Is mindfulness present-centered and non-judgmental? A discussion of the cognitive dimensions of mindfulness. Contemporary Buddhism, 12, 41–54.


Dunne J. (2011). Toward an understanding of non-dual mindfulness. Contemporary Buddhism, 12, 71–88.


Gethin, R. (2011). On some definitions of mindfulness. Contemporary Buddhism, 12, 263–279.


National Institute of Health. (2014). Meditation: In depth. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-in-depth. Retrieved 9/9/21.


Van Dam, N. et al., (2018). Mind The Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation. Perspectives of Psychological Science, 13(1), 36—61.




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