That Word “Meditation:” What Does it Mean?

(Following is adapted from an item I wrote for the interesting new blog  I think it will be of interest here)

When I become the Czar of Worldwide Words, I’m going to abolish the word “meditation.”

Isn’t that an odd way to start a blog on meditation?  Gets your attention, though.

I will write mainly from my role as a scientist, as a psychologist, as one of the founders of a relatively new branch of psychology, Transpersonal Psychology, although as a student of meditation and spiritual paths all my life, my perspective is “inside” and well as “outside.”

As a field, mainstream psychology pretty much accepts the materialistic assumptions that dominate in most fields of science today, that only what is material is real, matter and physical energy.  The physical matter and electrical and chemical processes of your brain are real, consciousness is nothing but a secondary derivative of those physical processes.  From this perspective, all those things called “meditation” are indirect ways of controlling your physical brain’s functioning, and so someday you won’t have to spend all those (too often boring) hours sitting, because science will develop a pill that directly puts the brain in the best “meditative” state.  “Spirit” or “spirituality,” from the materialistic perspective, is simply old fashioned nonsense, superstition, and best dispensed with, as it interferes with our rational functioning.

There certainly is a lot of nonsense associated with the spiritual, as there is with all fields of life, but in Transpersonal Psychology we think, to use that powerful old image, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water.  We believe that there is something real to the spiritual, and that its recognition and development are vital to individual and societal welfare.  Denying this hurts people.  If we totally accept materialism, there is no inherent meaning to life, and the only “sensible” thing to do is get as much of riches and resources for yourself as you can to maximize your pleasure and minimize your pain.  Then we all die anyway, and it means nothing.  (See my recent The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together for elaboration and evidence about this, and why genuine science actually shows the spiritual has reality to it.)  Where is culture going, when greed is a primary motive and nothing really means anything?  If we are really some sort of spiritual beings, though, and mystical experiences of, say, our inherent unity, the power of love, etc. are about realities, our relations to our fellow beings are quite different.  As just one example, what hurts you hurts me in some real sense, and cooperation and kindness are natural things to do, not some “should” imposed from outside.

Transpersonal Psychology is not a religion which thinks it knows the answers to all of this, but believes that applying the tools of (a more enlightened) science and scholarship to the spiritual can result not only in a better understanding of what’s real and what’s not, and how we can evolve, but in more effective ways to help people have genuine spiritual experiences and integrate them into their lives in a healthy way.  Yes, this is a noble goal, and yes, my life has been and is dedicated to promoting it.  Too, in contrast to a common belief in some spiritual systems that we were once much more spiritually evolved, I believe in and try to promote progress: we can evolve forward, not just hope to go back to what it was like in some more enlightened past time.  Who knows, perhaps there are even more spiritually evolved states than “old-time enlightenment?”

So what does all this have to do with my opening statement that I’d like to abolish the word “meditation?”

One of the questions I like to ask my friends and colleagues in various religions and spiritual traditions – and I must admit there’s a certain impish quality behind it – is “Has there been any progress in spirituality in the last couple of centuries?”  There’s been enormous progress in the various sciences.  In areas like physics, chemistry, medicine, we know enormously more, and can do enormously more than we could a couple of centuries ago.  So, are more people who enter a particular spiritual path today getting “enlightened,” “saved,” or whatever?  There is usually an embarrassed silence in reaction to my question.

One of the primary ways that has allowed scientific pursuits to progress so much has been clear communication.  In chemistry, biology or physics, for example, whenever the word “water” is used, it is quite clear that what is specifically meant is a molecular compound made up of two atoms of hydrogen to one of oxygen, which is liquid in a certain temperature range, vaporous in another temperature range, turns to ice in  another temperature range etc.  Nobody confuses coffee, tea, battery fluid, brandy, or anything else with water simply because they are liquids.  But, when somebody uses the word “meditation,” what do they mean?

Within the particular teachings of the Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Buddhist Rigpa organization, for example, there will be a relatively specific meaning attached to words like “meditation,” “consciousness,” “attention,” “mindfulness,” “awareness,” etc.  But as soon as you go outside that particular teaching, all these words may carry different explicit and implicit meanings.  Now if we knew that all the time, it would not be too much of a problem – “Ah, we are talking about type 3 attention now as a basis for type 5 meditation” – but most of the time people are not too sensitive to the different meanings of the same word within different traditions.  But we think we know what is meant because the words are familiar.

Thus when someone tells me, for example, “I meditate each day,” I really have almost no idea of what they actually do or mean.  At a minimum, it probably means that it is something they consider different from their ordinary life activities, but that’s about it.

As a transpersonal psychologist and scientist, looking at how “meditation” is taught and practiced across many traditions, there are many, many definitions of what it means, and often no clear definition at all of what it means.  Further, the actual techniques for particular forms of meditation may be described in certain words, but any practice is learned within a context, and the subtle hints and cues and expectations in that context may greatly change the meaning of the particular words for a learner.  So the same set of instructions in terms of words, in different contexts, may mean people do entirely different things.

Another of the main reasons science progresses is that it looks at data about things from a wide variety of perspectives, then looks for essential commonalities to get at the essence of things.  But if you look at “meditation” to try to find such commonalities, you may find a few – sitting still, e.g. is quite common – but probably almost none that are universal -some “meditations” involve standing and movement – and many that have concepts and practices that are contradictory to other traditions.  You can’t, to go back to our example, make a lot of progress in understanding the chemistry of water if some people who report the results of their study of “water” are using battery fluid, others are using coffee, and others are using brandy.

Now, fortunately for the world, I will never be appointed as czar of anything!  That’s good, giving me too much authority tends to go to my ego, and I use authority badly.  Practically, I have gone on what I call “semantic crusades” several times in my career, trying to introduce more precise terms in psychology and parapsychology, and only occasionally been successful.  So I know that, realistically, nobody’s going to stop using the word “meditation.”  And usually using it to mean what they want it to mean!  So what I’m advocating, is that if you want to learn something about meditation in a particular tradition, try to get clear what’s meant by the terms within that particular tradition, and try to put that meaning aside when you study in a different tradition.

The situation is further complicated because meditation is often defined in terms of words like “attention,” “mindfulness,” “concentration,” etc., yet while these words are in common use, they often mean different things to different people.

If this is starting to make your head hurt to think about how complex this gets, I’m with you!  The important thing is not the words per se but learning how to direct your attention in specific ways, and what you see as a result of that, but, as in so many areas of life, words can help us begin to use our attention in the desired way.

The things these words refer to are important and vital realities, and it helps us if we can have clear definitions of what we’re doing or trying to do, but I suspect with some of these very basic things like “mindfulness,” are never going to be able to totally defined in logical and grammatical terms.  The old Zen saying, “The finger pointing at the moon is not the Moon,” is so true!  But the finger pointing at the moon may be helpful.  If the moon is in the west and we’re looking toward the east, the finger pointing toward the west may get us turn around, and that certainly increases our chances of seeing the moon.  Or we may stare at the finger……

Here’s an example where I have particular problems with words.  This problem may be more acute with me because, as a transpersonal psychologist, I have to look at a lot of different spiritual traditions and techniques, but many people may have a similar problem.

Sogyal Rinpoche teaches about three components of meditation.  The terms he uses are “mindfulness,” “awareness,” and “remaining spaciously.”  He’s talking about three aspects of your mental functioning in trying to do the Rigpa system of meditation.  He is giving them specific definitions in terms of the Rigpa process of meditation, which is very good.  But I get “mindfulness” and “awareness” confused all the time unless I make a special effort to get them straight, because I hear these same words used with different meanings in other contexts.  Indeed, unless I go back to my notes, I may make a mistake in the next sentence about what he means by “mindfulness” or “awareness.”  But one of them means “What is the meditation object that is focused on?”  That might be an external object, such as a picture of a spiritual master, or an internal visualization, but it’s the focus point you try to keep in mind.  In my own mind I translate it as the “focus point.”  Another part of your mental process, which may be what he calls “awareness,” is a monitoring of the process:  “How am I doing?  Am I actually paying attention to the focus point, or has my mind wandered off on something else?  Am I successful in bringing it back to the focus point, or do I have to do it again?”  Rinpoche speaks of about 25% of your attention being on process monitoring, about 25% on the focus point, and the balance restfully remaining open.

I had been trying to meditate in various ways for many years before hearing this particular way of describing how to meditate, and I find it very helpful, and use it when I teach basic meditation.  But, as I said, given my background, I have to translate the terms he uses into “process awareness” and “focus point” in order for them to make sense for me, and to not get confused by the many other meanings of these words in both ordinary and psychological use.

So perhaps the moral of this post is as you begin to read any particular post or article or book about “meditation,” figure out as soon as possible what the author means by key terms like “meditation,” and it’s probably a good idea to write those definitions down right away and keep them in front of you as you read on.  This won’t guarantee that you become extremely good meditator, but will certainly avoid a lot of wasted time brought about simply through unnecessary confusion.

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