Meditation: What it is and what it is not

There are many misconceptions surrounding meditation. But what exactly is meditation? And more importantly, what is it not? Let's find out...

Man standing on rock alone

Meditation is one of the most misunderstood ideas. The word ‘meditate’ is a verb implying that meditation needs something to be done. Perhaps that is why so many people get turned off when asked to practise meditation—their understanding of meditation is that it is an act. In other words, there is something to be done.

Evidence of this misunderstanding abounds. At the time of writing this, Wikipedia explains meditation as “a practice in which an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state.” Notice the action words ‘practice’, ‘technique’, ‘train’ and ‘achieve’?

Is meditation simply a state of trance?

Among the most common advice given to those learning to meditate is to try and control the flow of your thoughts or to empty your mind. Anyone who has tried doing this knows that it is virtually impossible.

The other erroneous belief about meditation is the idea of narrowing your focus. Some mediation techniques recommend concentrating on a single thought or idea, or even chanting a mantra, for instance, until you find yourself in a trance-like state. But in a trance we are not really aware; on the contrary we block the world around us and our senses too. The result can be deep relaxation, which has its own benefits for sure, but to call it meditation isn’t accurate.

So what is meditation, after all?

As I have come to understand it, meditation is a state of pure, effortless awareness, where thoughts are not viewed as intruders or enemies and hence not resisted.

Certainly meditation does not involve stopping the flow of thoughts. On the contrary it is about allowing the free flow of thoughts without resistance. The key is to not get attached to, or carried away by, any of them. When thoughts enter the mind, you remain aware of them sans any judgement or action. You become an uninvolved observer, who passively watches the thoughts and the world go by. The distinction between good or bad, right or wrong and other such polarities of judgement dissolves and you see everything just as it is. In due course, we drift deeper and deeper into silence and what is left is only unadulterated awareness.

In this sense, meditation is an inclusive phenomenon where nothing is blocked from our awareness: we are highly alert of everything and our perception is heightened.

No method, no place, no time

Another misconception about meditation is that it requires you to sit in one place for a specified amount of time. But if it is inclusive, then meditation must not be restricted to any specific place and time. Meditation is a phenomenon that transcends space and time and therefore can occur anywhere, anytime. And you don’t need you to follow any method or technique as such. In fact, there is nothing to be done because it is a state of being.

This means that you can drift into the meditative state while cooking or doing dishes, commuting to or from work, working out or simply walking. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn popularised the idea of walking meditation. Its essence is that when we walk without thinking of arriving anywhere, we are communing with the entire existence — living and non-living. The feeling of peace and joy that results from such motiveless walking belongs to everyone on Earth.

Meditation is about being, not doing

So meditation is really the opposite of all doing; it’s a state of non-doing. In other words, you don’t meditate—meditation happens to you. The most you can do is prepare the ground for it to take place.

And how do you prepare the ground for it? By letting go of any preconceived notions of the world and the self. There are no special requirements other than that. Although, there seems to be some effort required in the initial stages, it is only an illusion. The effort comes from our own resistance which is a result of our deep conditioning, our lifelong attachment to our pet biases and prejudices.

So if you want to experience authentic meditation, all you need to do is to allow it to happen. As you stop resisting, you will find yourself in a state of effortlessness, which is the “meditative state”.

No agenda, no motive

The experience of such agenda-less meditation is that it leaves you feeling absolutely new. Indeed, in the meditative state, the “self” that we identify with at other times fades away and what remains is pure sensitivity, something that connects you with all that is living and as such makes you feel 100% alive. The happenings around you do not affect you as badly as before, and you find yourself becoming more tolerant—not just of others but also of yourself.

But beware! The feeling of peace and contentment that results from experiencing the authentic meditative state often compels the mind to shape it into a practice. But the moment you want control, the moment you decide to cultivate meditation as a habit, you get entangled in mind games. It is a paradox that we can never experience the meditative state with effort—we are transported to that state only when we stop doing and start being. And that, I believe, is the point of meditation.


An older version of this article first appeared in the October 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing magazine.

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Manoj Khatri
Manoj Khatri is a highly experienced wellbeing consultant. He is also a writer-editor and has written on topics ranging from strategic marketing and business management to art, culture and even philosophy. His more than 1250 published stories—articles, interviews, full-length features—have appeared in some of the leading newspapers and magazines of India. A certified cognitive behavioural therapist, he works as a personal counsellor too. He is the author of What a thought!, a critically acclaimed self-improvement book based on powerful ideas of some of the greatest thought leaders. Manoj runs Complete Wellbeing and believes that "peace begins with me".

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