What Is Meditation? (Definition, History, Types, and Styles) • Yoga Basics

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Meditation serves as a powerful tool for self-exploration, personal growth, and spiritual development. It offers a pathway to inner peace, clarity of mind, and connection to the present moment. Whether you’re a curious newcomer or seeking to deepen your existing practice, learning more about meditation—its history, purpose, traditions, styles, and characteristics—can empower you to harness its full potential.

What Is Meditation?

The word “meditation” has roots in Latin (“meditatio”) and Old French (“meditacioun”), meaning “to think, contemplate, devise, ponder.” The practice of meditation originated from the ancient yogic practice of Dhyana in India, which dates back to around 1500 BCE. Meditation is a mental exercise that involves focusing one’s mind on a particular object, thought, or activity to achieve a state of mental clarity, emotional calmness, increased awareness, and spiritual enlightenment. It is a practice that various cultures and religions have embraced for thousands of years, with different traditions and techniques emerging over time.

The term “meditation” serves as an umbrella under which many practices coexist, each offering unique approaches to mental training and altered states of consciousness. In modern culture, the term often encompasses practices aimed at enhancing attention, calmness, or compassion without clear boundaries.

During meditation, you typically sit quietly in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and focus on a single object like your breath, a mantra, or a visual object while letting go of distracting thoughts. This practice helps quiet your mind, go beyond ordinary thoughts, and attain a deep inner peace. This meditative state prepares you for Samadhi, a state of unity with the object of your meditation.

Purpose of meditation

The true purpose of meditation is to establish a connection with one’s deep inner Self. This deep inner Self is described as non-changing pure consciousness, which witnesses the activities of the inner faculty—comprising the mind, intellect, ego, and Chitta (the storehouse of memories and impressions).

The process of meditation aims to move beyond the outer realm of the objective world to the inner realm of the inner faculty and eventually reach the deep inner Self. It is believed that by connecting with this deep inner Self, one can experience inner peace and bliss, leading to the removal of accumulated stresses and overall improvement in health.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali outlines an eight-limbed path that leads to this state of connection with the deep inner Self through the practice of ethical guidelines, sensory withdrawal, concentration, and meditation. This eight-limbed path is a structured and systematic approach to guide individuals towards self-realization and spiritual enlightenment.

History of meditation

The ancient practice of meditation has a fascinating history that goes back thousands of years. One of the earliest mentions of meditation can be traced back to the Vedas, ancient scriptures from India dating around 1500 BCE. In these foundational yogic texts, meditation is described as a means of connecting with the divine and achieving spiritual enlightenment.

In the 6th century BCE, the teachings of the Buddha introduced meditation as a central practice in Buddhism. The Buddha himself is said to have attained enlightenment through meditation under the Bodhi tree after studying with yogic masters for many years.

In the 8th century CE, the Indian sage Patanjali codified the practice of meditation in his Yoga Sutras, outlining a systematic approach to achieving mental and spiritual discipline through meditation.

Over time, meditation techniques traveled across the world thanks to Indian and Chinese traders on the Silk Road. They eventually reached the Middle East and Europe. In the 20th century, meditation became popular in the West as a way to reduce stress and enhance overall well-being. Scientists and researchers have since studied meditation extensively, uncovering many physical and mental health benefits linked to regular practice.

Traditions of meditation

Meditation is a practice that transcends cultural and religious boundaries, with various traditions and techniques being developed throughout history. While specific techniques were created in the context of spiritual and religious practices, most types of meditation can be approached as a secular practice—or a workout for your brain—that can benefit anyone, regardless of their beliefs or background.

Yoga includes meditation as the seventh limb of Patanjali’s eightfold path. Dhyana is a deep state of sustained concentration and focus, where the fluctuations of mental thoughts become still and clear in preparation for achieving Moksha, or liberation.

Jainism practices Samayika, a form of meditation that aims to free the soul. It involves reflecting on universal friendship and the importance of being present.

Buddhism introduces a rich tapestry of meditation techniques, including Vipassana (insight) and Samatha (calm abiding), guiding practitioners toward nirvana or enlightenment.

Sikhism speaks to the importance of meditating on God’s name as a pathway to living a life filled with grace and purpose.

Taoism promotes meditation as a way to harmonize with the fundamental nature of the universe, known as the Tao.

Sufi mystics use techniques such as Zikr (remembrance of God) and Muraqaba (deep contemplation) to deepen their spiritual connection and achieve a state of inner peace.

Even in Abrahamic religions, meditative practices are present. In Christianity, contemplative prayer and Lectio Divina encourage believers to meditate on Scriptures for a closer relationship with God.

Judaism practices hitbodedut, a form of spiritual meditation that encourages a personal connection to the divine. Islam includes a meditative dimension in Salah, involving reciting God’s names and attributes to purify the heart.

Styles of Meditation

Style of MeditationStyle of MeditationMeditation is a multifaceted practice, offering various paths to explore the inner workings of our mind and spirit. These types of meditation cater to different needs and preferences, allowing practitioners to find a method that resonates with their journey toward mindfulness and enlightenment.

Classifications categorize meditation methods broadly into focused (concentrative) and open monitoring (mindfulness) practices. Focused techniques involve intense concentration on specific objects like breath or mantras. On the other hand, open monitoring includes observing all mental events without any judgment or attachment.

Moreover, diverse typologies further classify meditation approaches based on their nature—concentrative (focused attention), generative (developing qualities like compassion), receptive (open monitoring), and reflective (contemplation). These classifications reflect the rich tapestry of meditative practices aimed at achieving different outcomes within individuals’ spiritual or personal growth journeys.

By exploring these diverse forms of meditation, individuals can discover a practice that aligns with their path toward inner peace and spiritual growth.

Concentration: Focused Attention Meditation

Focused attention meditation involves pinpointing your mind on a single reference point, such as your breath or a specific object. This technique helps train your mind, enhance concentration, reduce distractions, and gradually lead to a profound state of tranquility and focus. It is a valuable tool for beginners and experienced practitioners alike.

Observation: Open Monitoring Meditation

Open monitoring meditation involves observing aspects of your experience without reacting or becoming attached. This practice develops your ability to be a detached observer of your internal and external experiences, increasing clarity and stability in your mind.

Awareness: The Practice of Continuous Awareness

Continuous awareness meditation aims to cultivate a heightened state of mindfulness and presence in every moment throughout your day. It involves paying attention to your thoughts, emotions, and sensations without getting caught up in them, leading to a more peaceful and fulfilling existence.

Generative: Loving Kindness and Compassion

Generative meditation focuses on cultivating positive states of mind, such as love, kindness, compassion, and empathy. Practices like Metta (loving-kindness meditation) involve sending well-wishes to oneself and others, fostering a sense of connection and goodwill.

Reflective: Systematic Investigation, Contemplation

Reflective meditation involves deep contemplation and a systematic investigation of certain themes, questions, or concepts. This practice can lead to insights and a deeper understanding of yourself and the world around you.

Samatha and Vipassana Practices in Buddhism

Buddhism offers two primary meditation practices: Samatha (calm abiding) and Vipassana (insight). Samatha focuses on calming the mind and developing concentration, serving as a foundation for Vipassana, which entails profound insight into the nature of reality. Together, these mindfulness practices lead to a deeper understanding and enlightenment experience.

Mantra Meditation

Mantra meditation involves the repetition of sacred syllables, words, or phrases known as mantras. Mantras have spiritual significance and are believed to have a calming and transformative effect on the mind. By focusing on the sound of the mantra, either silently repeating it in your mind or chanting it aloud, you can quiet the chatter of your thoughts and distractions.

Movement meditation

Movement meditation incorporates physical movement into your practice, such as walking meditation, yoga, tai chi, or qigong. This style combines the benefits of mindfulness with physical activity, allowing you to cultivate a sense of presence and awareness in motion. For example, walking meditation involves walking slowly and deliberately, paying attention to each step and the sensations in your body. Similarly, yoga combines breath work, physical postures, awareness, and meditation to promote relaxation, flexibility, and overall well-being.

Characteristics of Meditation

While meditation practices differ in techniques and approaches, they all share common characteristics that define the essence of the practice. By incorporating these elements based on your preferences and chosen meditation technique, you can create a practice that nurtures your spiritual awareness, improves your physical health, and increases your overall quality of life.

Individual Practice

When you meditate, you have the freedom to customize your practice to suit your preferences and goals. This personalization leads to a variety of experiences. Several key elements influence your meditation experience, such as whether you choose to keep your eyes closed or open, opt for bodily stillness or movement, select a specific posture, and use supporting aids.

Eyes Closed or Open

meditation with eyes closedmeditation with eyes closedDeciding whether to meditate with your eyes closed or open depends on the technique you are using and what feels comfortable for you. Closing your eyes can help minimize distractions from the outside world, allowing you to focus inward and concentrate better.

Some traditions, like Zen Buddhism, suggest meditating with slightly open eyes, softly focusing on a fixed point or object. This approach helps you stay alert and connected to your surroundings while in a meditative state.

Bodily Stillness and Movement

While meditation often brings to mind images of complete stillness, it can also involve movement. Practices like Qigong, Tai Chi, and walking meditation combine mindful movements with breath awareness and specific breathing patterns. These techniques enhance the flow of energy (Qi or prana) in your body, promoting physical and mental balance. On the other hand, stillness-focused practices cultivate deep relaxation, concentration, and inner peace by minimizing external distractions and bodily movement.

Posture in Meditation

The posture you choose during meditation is essential for staying focused and comfortable. You can sit cross-legged on the floor, on a chair with your feet flat, lie down, or even stand. The key is to find a posture that keeps you alert and maintains a straight spine for easy breathing.

Supporting Aids

Many practitioners use supporting aids to enrich their meditation practice. Cushions or benches can provide comfort and help you maintain proper posture during seated meditation. Prayer beads are utilized in some traditions to count mantras or prayers, aiding concentration. Additionally, incense, bells, and calming music can create a peaceful atmosphere. Apps and guided audio meditations offer structured support for those seeking guidance.

Common Misunderstandings

There are several common misunderstandings that can deter individuals from trying it or committing to a regular meditation practice. By understanding these common misconceptions, you can feel more confident and motivated to give it a try.

It Requires Emptying the Mind

One prevalent misunderstanding is that meditation requires the complete emptying of the mind or achieving a state of total thoughtlessness. The aim is to cultivate awareness and presence, acknowledging thoughts and emotions while gently guiding the focus back to the point of concentration, such as deep breaths or a mantra.

Only for Religious or Spiritual People

While meditation does form a core part of many spiritual traditions, the benefits of meditation—such as reduced stress, improved concentration, and enhanced well-being—are universal and backed by scientific research. Meditation is often be practiced in a purely secular way, focusing on its psychological and physiological benefits without any religious or spiritual connotations.

Needs Hours of Commitment Daily

You might think that you need to dedicate hours every day to meditation, but even just 10-20 minutes can make a big difference. Consistency is more important than duration, so fitting short meditation sessions into your daily routine can be really effective.

Immediate Results vs. Gradual Progress

Many people approach meditation with the expectation of immediate, transformative effects. While some individuals may experience notable changes in stress levels or mood shortly after beginning their practice, meditation often yields its most profound benefits over time.

Regular, sustained practice helps to cultivate a deeper sense of peace, heightened self-awareness, and improved emotional resilience. Therefore, practitioners need to temper their expectations and view meditation as a gradual growth process rather than a quick fix for life’s challenges.

Flexibility in Posture

Though traditional meditation often emphasizes certain seated postures, it is essential to recognize the importance of your own flexibility and comfort. Adhering strictly to postures that cause discomfort can distract from the meditative process and hinder the experience. Experimenting with various positions to discover what works best for one’s body and practice of meditation is beneficial.

For instance, if sitting on the floor is uncomfortable, sitting in a chair or practicing meditation while lying down may provide a more constructive and enjoyable experience. The fundamental goal is to ensure the body does not become a distraction but rather supports a focused, serene mind.

Beyond Stress Reduction

While meditation is widely celebrated for its ability to reduce stress, its scope of benefits extends far beyond this. Regular meditation can enhance cognitive functions like memory, attention, and creativity. While meditation is widely known for its positive psychophysical effects, neglecting proper technique may occasionally lead to adverse effects, including heightened anxiety or focus disruption.

It also bolsters mental health by improving empathy, resilience, and emotional regulation, fostering a greater sense of harmony within oneself and in relationships with others. Furthermore, meditation can be a gateway to exploring deeper philosophical or spiritual questions, enriching one’s sense of purpose and connection to the broader universe.

Aimed at Achieving a Special State

A common misunderstanding about meditation is that its ultimate goal is to reach a specific state, such as enlightenment or a profound mystical experience. The essence of meditation lies in cultivating a mindful awareness of the present moment–fully engaging with the here and now, observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judgment.

It’s Complicated

Many people hesitate to try meditation, believing it requires special knowledge, training, or even a guru to guide the way. This perception can make meditation seem inaccessible or daunting to the uninitiated. In reality, the basics of meditation are quite straightforward and can be practised by anyone, regardless of their background or experience.

Numerous resources, including apps, online tutorials, and community classes, offer simple, step-by-step instructions for beginners to start their meditation journey. The simplicity of starting with just a few minutes of mindfulness or focused breathing each day can open the door to the profound benefits of meditation.

You Must Be Calm to Start

The belief that one needs to be naturally calm or find a perfectly serene setting to begin meditating is widespread and misleading. Many think they must already be in tranquillity to meditate successfully, but this is not the case. Meditation is a powerful tool intended to cultivate calmness, not a practice reserved for those who are already peaceful.

It is designed to bring tranquility to the mind, especially when it is turbulent. Whether one is experiencing stress, agitation, or simply a busy mind, meditation can serve as a pathway to achieving a state of calm.

Not Suitable for Active Minds

A common misconception is that meditation is not suitable for individuals with active or anxious minds, that somehow a continuous stream of thoughts disqualifies one from practicing. On the contrary, a meditation program is especially beneficial for those who find their minds frequently racing or overwhelmed with thoughts.

The daily practice offers techniques for observing thoughts without attachment and gradually learning to manage mental activity. This can be particularly liberating for individuals struggling with anxiety or constant mental chatter, providing them with tools to establish a more peaceful and focused state of mind.

Final thoughts

By understanding the history, purpose, traditions, styles, and characteristics of meditation, you can appreciate the profound impact it can have on your daily life. Meditation is not just a practice; it is a way of life that can lead us to greater self-awareness, inner peace, and spiritual growth. From improving your sleep quality and reducing stress to boosting your overall well-being and enhancing your focus and productivity, the positive effects of meditation offers a multitude of benefits for both the mind and body.

As you embark on your journey, remember that there is no right or wrong way to meditate. Whether you choose to practice mindfulness, loving-kindness, transcendental meditation, or any other technique, the key is to find what resonates with you and commit to making it a regular part of your routine.



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