The definition of meditation (and it’s not sitting still)
I might define meditation as the search for an inner peace so deep and enduring that one remains at peace in the deepest hurricanes of life and in the moment of death itself. But that could as well apply to religious belief, and meditation certainly is not that.
So here is a more practical, experiential definition. It is a fairly standard definition. The links on the page however branch off in some less-standard directions.
A moment of meditation is a moment (minute, hour, week) in your life where you are
- (a) relaxed
- (b) present and alert to your experiences inner and outer
- (c) no judgements or preferences about your experiences. This means: no judgement that some experience ( eg anger) is “bad” and you want it to go away, while some other experience (eg joy) is “good” and you want to have more of it. It is a kind of relaxed friendliness with experience.
The definition contains no reference to sitting still (Meditation is not stop-action), and no reference to “focussing” your awareness. In particular sitting silently is a meditation exercise, it is not synonymously “meditation”. On its own, sitting silently can be hard or counter-productive for meditation. Thoughts are physical not mental.
- The above three-part definition is complete. But it presupposes that you have in addition a system of understanding that supports and illuminates your experience. That might Buddhism, Sufism, Osho’s system, Raman Marharshi’s system, Eckhart Tolle’s, or many others. Running, for example, can be a beautiful meditation activity, provided you have a system of understanding which makes it such. And this system needs to be sufficiently vital and alive, and embodied in people, not just in words. And you need by experience to develop enough trust that the system works for you. Only then will you be convinced that you really can mindfully detach from difficult experiences.
- For the purposes of this blog, I’ve also defined what I term a school of radical meditation.
I will use the ancient term “witnessing” to describe this kind of neutral, aware, relaxed allowing of experience. Gautam Buddha used the word “mindfulness” and it means the same. But mindfulness has a lot of baggage, so I prefer witnessing. People also use language like neutral awareness, non-judgemental awareness, meditative awareness, being present with your experience or just presence, choiceless awareness, consciousness, conscious awareness, or doing something consciously for the same thing.
This definition may look milk-and-water. Yet it includes a relaxed friendliness with even the darkest inner places and heaviest outside events. You’re relaxed, aware, you don’t require the experience to go away in grief, in rage, in failure, in defeat. It includes a relaxed neutrality with the brightest joys, ecstasies and orgasms. They come, they will go, you are relaxed, aware, you live the moment, you love the moment, you let it go. You don’t clutch the experience to you. Quite clearly, you can only do this if you come to have a sense of yourself as larger, greater, vaster, unshakable, a willow tree rooted in the ground of existence and relaxed in every storm. This sense of vastness is not part of the personality.
The term radical acceptance is often used for the transforming power of meditatively making friends with dark and heavy facts and feelings. The definition of a moment of meditation includes a witnessing neutrality towards beautiful experiences also, that they too are birds in the sky of the consciousness. I can’t emphasise too much that the intention of the definition is not anti-life or quietistical. It means to fully, gladly joyfully embrace experiences both good and bad, with at the same time a quality of “this too will pass.” (An example: Friday from heaven, Friday from hell.)
It is as if each and every experience in each and every moment is the most wonderful gift given to you by existence. Not just orgasmic moments of beauty and joy and fulfilment, but equally the moments of despair, anguish, self-hatred; existence means every experience as a gift. Some emotional experiences, the death of a beloved for example, are shattering to embrace: still, existence means that shattering grief as a gift. To judge the experience is to reject the gift: you want beauty but you don’t want grief. Meditation is a kind of bliss, vast and spacious and serene, though which all the experiences float in, and out, of your experiencing. Embrace the moment, love the experience, live it, let it go.
It is too rarely admitted, but in practical reality:
- Many people find it difficult, often impossible, to achieve this state of meditation simply by silent sitting. It’s meant to be easy. But just by sitting, sitting, sitting, many people find it hard.
- A small number of people find meditation frightening and overwhleming; basically, they need one-to-one help.
Those wonderful Buddhist monks and nuns who got enlightened with Buddha were living in quieter times. Techniques that worked for them, do not necessarily work for us. It is simply not true that “These methods [of Buddhism] work for anyone, in any country, in any age.” I’ll later discuss body-oriented meditation methods that help when sitting alone is hard, and also the ways that therapy-style personal development often makes all the difference. Many mindfulness books seriously underestimate the task of meditation. Letting go of core thoughts is life-changing and takes considerable trust.