It’s difficult to know exactly what meditation is. If you ask 100 people, you’ll probably get 100 different answers. Some will try to oversimplify it, while others will totally overcomplicate it. So, we thought we’d put together a quick summary.
What Is Mediation?
There’s a reason why meditation is so hard to nail down. It’s an umbrella term that encompasses many different practices. As one researcher said, ” practices as diverse as the ritual dances of some African tribes, the spiritual exercises of the desert fathers, and the tantric practices of a Tibetan adept are all forms of meditation.”
However, there are commonalities that can be seen between the branches of mediation. One of the main commonalities is samatha, translated as “quiescence.” It is a state where the practitioner can hold single pointed focus on an object for a theoretically unlimited period of time. It can involve focusing on the breath, an external object, a word, or virtually anything else. The main task is to train the mind to maintain focus.
The attention inevitably wanders, and the usual instruction is to recognize that the mind has wandered – for example, to see that it is now focused on the pain in one’s knee, rather than on one’s breath – and then to “drop” or “release” the distraction (the knee pain) and return to the breath. Part of the aim is not only to develop focused attention on the breath but also to develop…a meta-awareness that recognizes when one’s attention is no longer on the breath and an ability to redirect the attention without allowing the meta-awareness to become a new source of distraction, as when one berates oneself for allowing the mind to wander.”
As we just touched on, samatha is only one half of the coin. Vipsyana is the meta-awareness where the mind monitors itself. Most theorists would say that samatha and vipasyana are actually “two aspects of the same meditative state.” Samatha is concerned with the stability of the mediative state, while vipasyana has to do with its clarity or intensity.
To state these features more precisely, in meditations that involve an object, stability refers to the degree to which the practitioner is able to retain focus on the object without interruption. In such meditations, clarity refers to the sharpness or vividness of the appearance of the object in awareness.
These two states can actually be at odds with one another, especially in novices. The novice might be able to retain focus on an object, but without the experience becoming intense. Or he/she might have an intense experience that he/she is unable to maintain. An ideal meditative state is one that balances both stability and clarity, samatha and vipasyana.
Over time, vipasyana can be emphasized to the point that the meditation becomes objectless. Eventually, the vipasyana meta-awareness can lead to a place where the mind comes to an understanding of itself.
[It] enables the practitioner to gain insight into one’s habits and assumptions about identity and emotions. In general, this insight includes especially the realization of ‘selflessness’ – that is, realizing that one’s belief in a fixed, essential identity is mistaken and hence that the emotional habits that reflect that belief are baseless.
So if you want to meditate, pick an object and practice focusing on it. Meanwhile, become aware of this process and simply bring your mind back to the object of focus whenever you become distracted. Over time, this heightened focus could lead to insight and should give you greater control over your mind and your life.
Lutz, Antoine, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson. “Meditation and the neuroscience of consciousness: An introduction.” The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness 19 (2006).