Last updated: December 21, 2023

What Does Meditation Mean?

Meditation is a contemplative practice, engaged in across various religious and spiritual traditions as a means of quieting, focussing and transforming the mind. Meditation cultivates self-awareness, and provides the optimum conditions for practicing the skill of mindfulness.

Generally, the goal of meditation is to intensify personal and spiritual growth, in addition to calming the mind and body.

A common misconception of meditation is that its sole purpose is to empty the mind of thoughts. While some traditions such as Zen and Yoga do teach the no-mind state as an ultimate objective, it is widely acknowledged that the practice of meditation itself involves thoughts as the cornerstone.

Each time the mind becomes distracted, the practitioner is encouraged to come back to an object of concentration, such as the breath, a sound, an image or a philosophical or spiritual concept.

Meditation is also referred to as dhyana in Sanskrit.


Yogapedia Explains Meditation

In essence, meditation is attention and awareness training. It is widely used as a spiritual practice in Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and yoga, and is even found in secular contexts such as modern interpretations of mindfulness. Some consider Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayer to be a form of meditation since the mind is focussed on a set of words or concepts.

Due to the wide variety of contexts in which meditation is practiced, there are a huge number of different meditation practices. In general, meditation involves establishing a focal point in order to free oneself from distractions, while finding stillness in a steady and stable posture. However, there are some forms of the practice which involve movement, such as walking meditation.

Popular focal points for meditation include:

  • Sound: Repeating a mantra, phrase or other sound.
  • Visualizing: Picturing an object with eyes closed, such as a lotus flower or the energy points in the body (chakras).
  • Gazing: Looking at an actual object with eyes open. Candles, flowers or pictures are common objects used in gazing.
  • Breathing: Observing the breath and what it feels like – the sensations – as it travels in and out of the body.
  • Philosophical or spiritual concept: such as loving-kindness, acceptance or self-transcendence.

Meditation allows practitioners to observe patterns of the mind and to notice the interrupting thoughts, eventually leading to longer gaps between them over time. Regular practice enables deep concentration to occur naturally and more frequently.

Training the mind in this way dramatically improves mental strength and focus. Additionally, a great deal of research has confirmed that physiological and psychological changes take place in the body during meditation. For example, Herbert Benson’s studies found that meditation counteracts the stress response, in turn improving any health conditions related to chronic stress.

In yoga, the Sanskrit terms from Patanjali’s eight-limbed path separate the state of meditation (dhyana) from the practice of concentration that leads to such a state (dharana).

It takes years of practice, dedication and discipline to reach the truly meditative state known as dhyana, in which it is no longer possible to perceive the act of meditation or separate a sense of self from it.

Generally, what is taught as ‘meditation’ in yoga studios is in fact the practice of dharana; techniques to focus and concentrate the mind in preparation for dhyana. Focus on breath, bodily sensations, mantras, chakras or drishti are all forms of dharana, in which the mind is trained to fix on one particular subject or object.

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