What Meditation Is and Isn’t

In This topic we will learn about the following topics:

  • Climbing the mountain of
  • Finding picnic spots and lesser peaks along the way
  • Checking out the major meditation techniques
  •  Knowing what you’ll see when you get to the top
  • Developing concentration, receptive awareness, , and cultivation

The great thing about meditation is that it’s actually quite simple. Just sit down, be quiet, turn your attention inward, and focus your . That’s all there is to it, really. Then why, you may be wondering, do people write so many books and articles about meditation — including detailed books?

Why not just offer a few brief instructions and forget about all the verbiage? Say that you’re planning to take a long trip by car to some picturesque location. You could just jot down the directions and follow them one by one. After a few days, you’d probably get where you want to go. But you’ll enjoy the trip more if you have a travel guide to point out the sights along the way — and you may feel more secure if you carry a troubleshooting manual to tell you what to do when you have problems with your car. Perhaps you’d like to take some side trips to scenic spots or even change your itinerary entirely and get there by a different route — or a different vehicle! In the same way, you can consider the practice of meditation to be a journey of sorts — and the book you hold in your hands to be a travel guide. This topic provides an overview of your trip, offers some alternative routes to your destination, explains the basic skills you need to know to get you there — and points to some detours that may advertise the same benefits but that doesn’t really deliver.


It’s easier than you think Meditation is simply the practice of focusing your attention on a particular object — generally something simple, like a word or phrase, a candle flame or geometrical figure, or the coming and going of your breath. In everyday life, your mind is constantly processing a barrage of sensations, visual impressions, emotions, and thoughts. When you meditate, you narrow your focus, limit the stimuli bombarding your nervous system — and your mind in the process. To get a quick taste of meditation, follow these instructions.

  1. Find a quiet place and sit comfortably with your back relatively straight. If you tend to disappear into your favorite chair, find something a bit more supportive.
  2. Take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, and relax your as much as you can.
  3. Choose a word or phrase that has special personal or spiritual meaning for you. Here are some examples: “There’s only love,” “Don’t worry, be happy,” “Trust in .”
  4. Begin to breathe through your nose (if you can), and as you breathe, repeat the word or phrase quietly to yourself. You can whisper the word or phrase, subvocalize it (that is, move your tongue as though saying it, but not allowed), or just repeat it in your mind. If you get distracted, come back to the repetition of the word or phrase. As an alternative, you can follow your breath as it comes and goes through your nostrils, returning to your breathing when you get distracted.
  5. Keep the meditation going for five minutes or more; then slowly get up and go about your day.

How did you feel? Did it seem weird to say the same thing or follow your breath over and over? Did you find it difficult to stay focused? Did you keep changing the phrase? If so, don’t worry. With regular practice and the guidance, you’ll gradually get the knack.

Of course, you could easily spend many fruitful and enjoyable years mastering the subtleties and complexities of meditation. But the good news is, the basic practice is actually quite simple, and you don’t have to be an expert to do it — or to enjoy its extraordinary benefits.

Being an adventurous sort, I like to think of it as a climb up a mountain. You’ve seen snapshots of the summit, and from the bottom, you can barely glimpse the summit through the clouds. But the only way to get there is up — one, step at a time.

Different paths up the same mountain

Imagine that you’re getting ready to climb this mountain. (If you live in the Netherlands or the midwestern United States, get out your National Geographic for this one!) How are you going to get to the top? You could take some climbing lessons, buy the right gear, and inch your way up one of the rocky faces. Or you could choose one of the many trails that meander up the mountain and take a leisurely hike to the summit.

Although they all end up at the same place, every trail has its unique characteristics. One may take you on a gradual ascent through forests and meadows, whereas another may head steeply uphill over dry, rocky terrain. From one, you may have vistas of lush valleys filled with flowers; from another, you may see farmland or desert.

Depending on your energy and your motivation, you may choose to stop at a picnic spot en route and while away a few hours (or a few days) enjoying the peace and quiet. Hey, you might enjoy it so much that you decide not to climb any farther. Perhaps you’d rather climb one of the smaller peaks along the way instead of going the distance to the top.

Or you may prefer to charge to the summit as quickly as you can without bothering to linger anywhere. Well, the journey of meditation has a great deal in common with climbing a mountain. You can aim for the top, or you can just set your sights on some grassy knoll or lesser peak halfway up the slope. Whatever your destination, you can have fun and reap the benefits of just breathing deeply and exercising muscles you didn’t even know you had. People have been climbing the mountain of meditation for thousands of years in different parts of the world.

As a result, topographic maps and guidebooks abound, each with its own unique version of how to make your way up the mountain — and its own recommendations for how to hike and what to carry.

Traditionally, the guidebooks describe a spiritual path involving a set of beliefs and practices, often secret, that has been passed down from one generation to the next. In recent decades, however, Western researchers and teachers have distilled meditation from its spiritual origins and now offer it as a remedy for a variety of 21st-century ills.

Although the maps and books may describe the summit differently — some emphasize the vast open spaces, others pay more attention to the peace or exhilaration you feel when you get there, and some even claim that there’s more than one peak — I happen to agree with the sage who said:

“Meditation techniques are just different paths up the same mountain.”

Here are a few of the many techniques that have been developed over the centuries:

  • Repetition of a meaningful word or phrase, known as a
  • Mindful awareness of the present moment
  • Following or counting your breath
  • Paying attention to the flow of sensations in your body
  • Cultivation of lovingkindness, compassion, forgiveness, and other healing emotions
  • Concentration on a geometric shape or other simple visual objects
  • Visualization of a place or a healing energy or entity
  • Reading and reflecting upon inspirational or sacred writings
  • Gazing at a picture of a holy being or saint
  • Contemplation of nature
  • Chanting praises to the Divine

Throughout this meditation related topic, you find opportunities to experiment with many of these techniques, as well as detailed guidance in the practice of one in particular — mindfulness — beginning with your breath and then extending your meditation to every moment of your life.

The view from the summit The view from the summit and from other peaks along the way

When you reach the summit of the meditation mountain, what do you see? If we can trust the reports of the meditators and mystics who have climbed the mountain before us, we can declare with some confidence that the top of the mountain harbors the source of all love, , , and . Some people call it or soul, true nature or true self, the ultimate truth or the ground of being (or just being itself). Others call it God or the Divine or the Holy Mystery, or simply the One. There are nearly as many names for it as people who experience it. And some spiritual traditions consider it so sacred and powerful that they hesitate to give it a name. As for the experience of reaching the summit, seasoned meditators use words like

  • Enlightenment (from )
  • (from a dream)
  • liberation (from bondage)
  • (from limitation)
  • Union (with God or being).

An old saying likens all these words and names to pointing at the moon. If you pay too much attention to the finger, you risk missing the beautiful moon, which is the reason for pointing the finger in the first place.

Ultimately, you need to experience the moon — or in this case the summit — for yourself. Of course, you may have no interest in lofty states and experiences like enlightenment or union.

Perhaps you bought this book simply because of you want to reduce your stress or enhance your healing process or deal with your emotions. Forget about the Holy Mystery — a little more clarity and peace of mind would suit you just fine, thank you very much!

  • Well, the truth is, you’re going to follow the same path no matter how high up the mountain you want to go. The basic instructions remain the same — but you get to choose your destination. Among the most popular stopping places and promontories en route to the summit are the following:
  • Stronger focus and concentration
  • Reduced tension, anxiety, and stress
  • Clearer thinking and less emotional turmoil
  • Lower blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Support in kicking addictions and other self-defeating behaviors
  • Greater creativity and enhanced performance in and play
  • Increased self-understanding and
  • More joy, love, and spontaneity
  • Greater intimacy with friends and family member
  • The deeper sense of meaning and purpose
  • Glimpses of a spiritual dimension of being

As you can see, these way stations are actually major destinations in their own right, and all of them are well worth reaching. You may be quite content to stop halfway up the mountain after you’ve reduced your stress, improved your health, and experienced greater overall well-being. Or you may feel inspired to push on for the higher altitudes that the great meditators describe.

 The taste of pure mountain

To elaborate on this mountain metaphor a bit, imagine that there’s a spring at the summit that gushes forth the pure water of being and never runs dry. Those who make it to the top get to dive into the pool that surrounds the spring and immerse themselves completely in the water. In fact, some even merge with the water and become identical with being itself. (Don’t worry, you won’t merge if you don’t want to!)

But you don’t have to climb all the way to the top to enjoy the pure taste of being. The water flows down the mountain in streams and rivulets and nourishes the fields and towns below. In other words, you can taste being everywhere, in everything, because being is the that keeps life going at every level. Until you start meditating, though, you may not know what being tastes like.

When you meditate, you get closer to the source of the water and learn how to recognize its taste. (Depending on their personalities and where they are on the mountain, people use different terms to describe the water’s taste, such as calm, peace, well-being, wholeness, clarity, and compassion.) It doesn’t matter where you’re headed or where you stop on your way up the mountain; you still get to dip your hands in the water of being and taste it for yourself. Then you can begin to find the taste of being wherever you go!

There’s no place like home — and you’re already there!

Now that I’ve constructed the metaphor of the mountain, I’m going to knock it down with one sweep of my hand — like a wave washing away a castle in the sand. Yes, the journey of meditation requires steady effort and application like a climb up a mountain. But that metaphor hides some important paradoxes:

  • The summit doesn’t exist in some faraway place outside you; it exists in the depths of your being — some traditions say in the heart — and awaits your discovery.
  • You can approach the summit in an instant; it doesn’t necessarily take years of practice. While meditating, for example, when your mind settles down and you experience a deep peace or tranquility, sense your interconnectedness with all beings, or feel an upsurge of peace or love, you’re tasting the sweet water of being right from the source inside you. And these moments inform and nourish you in ways you can’t possibly measure.
  • The mountain metaphor suggests a progressive, goal-oriented journey, whereas, in fact, the point of meditation is to set aside all goals and striving and just be. As the title of the bestseller by stress-reduction expert puts it, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Or as Dorothy says in The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home” — and the truth is, like Dorothy, you’re always already there!

Of course, you’re not going to give up all your doing and striving instantaneously and just be, even when you meditate. That’s something you work up to slowly by practicing your meditation and gradually focusing and simplifying until you’re doing less and less while you meditate — and being more and more.

The following are a few of the stages you may pass through on the path to just being:

  • Getting used to sitting still
  • Developing the ability to turn your attention inward
  • Struggling to focus your attention
  • Being distracted again and again
  • Becoming more focused
  • Feeling more relaxed as you meditate
  • Noticing fleeting moments when your mind settles down
  • Experiencing brief glimpses of stillness and peace

Developing and Directing Awareness

If, as the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then the journey of meditation begins with the cultivation of awareness, or attention. In fact, awareness is the mental muscle that carries you along and sustains you on your journey, not only at the start but every step of the way. No matter which path or technique you choose, the secret of meditation lies in developing, focusing, and directing your awareness. (Incidentally, attention is just slightly focused awareness, and I use the two terms more or less interchangeably throughout this book. See the sidebar “Becoming aware of your awareness.”)

To get a better sense of how awareness operates, consider another natural metaphor: light. You may take light for granted, but unless you’ve developed the special skills and heightened sensitivity of the blind, you can barely function without it. (Have you ever tried to find something in a pitch-dark room?) The same is true for awareness: You may not be aware that you’re aware, but you need awareness to perform even the simplest tasks.

You can use light in a number of ways. You can create ambient lighting that illuminates a room softly and diffusely. You can focus light into a flashlight beam to help you find things when the room is dark. Or you can take the very same light and concentrate it into a laser beam so powerful that it can cut through steel or send messages to the stars.

Likewise, in meditation, you can use awareness in different ways. To begin with, you can increase your powers of awareness by developing concentration on a particular object.

Then, when you’ve stabilized your concentration, you can, through the practice of receptive awareness, expand your awareness — like ambient light — to illuminate the full range of your experience. Next, you can concentrate even further in order to cultivate positive emotions and mind-states. Or you can use awareness to investigate your inner experience and contemplate the nature of existence itself. These four — concentration, receptive awareness, cultivation, and contemplation — constitute the major uses of awareness throughout the world’s great meditative traditions.

Building concentration

To do just about anything well, you need to focus your awareness. The most creative and productive people in every profession — for example, great athletes, performers, businessmen, scientists, , and writers — have the ability to block out distractions and completely immerse themselves in their work. If you’ve ever watched Tiger Woods hit a drive or Nicole Kidman transforms herself into the character she’s portraying, you’ve witnessed the fruits of total concentration.

Some people have an innate ability to concentrate, but most of us need to practice to develop it. Buddhists like to compare the mind to a monkey — constantly chattering and hopping about from branch to branch, topic to topic. Did you ever notice that most of the time, you have scant control over the whims and vacillations of your , which may space out one moment and obsess the next? When you meditate, you calm your monkey mind by making it one-pointed rather than scattered and distracted.

Many spiritual traditions teach their students concentration as the primary meditation practice. Just keep focusing your mind on the mantra or the symbol or the visualization, they advise, and eventually, you will attain what is called absorption, or .

In absorption, the sense of being a separate “me” disappears, and only the object of your attention remains. Followed to its natural conclusion, the practice of concentration can lead to an experience of union with the object of your meditation. If you’re a sports enthusiast, this object could be your tennis racket or your golf club; if you’re an aspiring mystic, the object could be God or being or the absolute.

Even though you may not yet know how to meditate, you’ve no doubt had moments of total absorption, when the sense of separation disappears: gazing at a sunset, listening to music, creating a work of art, looking into the eyes of your beloved. When you’re so completely involved in an activity, whether work or play, that time stops, and self- drops away, you enter into what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi claims that activities that promote flow epitomize what most of us mean by enjoyment. Flow can be extraordinarily refreshing, enlivening, and even deeply meaningful — and it is the inevitable result of unbroken concentration.

Opening to receptive awareness

The great sages of China say that all things comprise the constant interplay of yin and yang — the feminine and masculine forces of the . Well, if the concentration is the yang of meditation (focused, powerful, penetrating), then receptive awareness is the yin (open, expansive, welcoming). Where concentration disciplines, stabilizes and grounds the mind, receptive awareness loosens and extends the mind’s boundaries and creates more interior space, enabling you to familiarize yourself with the mind’s contents. Where concentration blocks extra stimuli as distractions to the focus at hand, receptive awareness embraces and assimilates every experience that presents itself. Most meditations involve the interplay of concentration and receptive awareness, although some more-advanced techniques teach the practice of receptive awareness alone. Just be open and aware and welcome to whatever arises, they teach, and ultimately you will be “taken by the truth.” Followed to its conclusion, receptive awareness guides you in shifting your identity from your thoughts, emotions, and the stories your mind tells you to your true identity, which is being itself.

Of course, if you don’t know how to work with attention, these instructions are impossible to follow. That’s why most traditions prescribe practicing concentration first. Concentration, by quieting and grounding the mind (enough so that it can open without being swept away by a deluge of irrelevant feelings and thoughts), provides a solid foundation on which the practice of meditation can flourish.

Using contemplation for greater insight Although concentration and receptive awareness provide enormous benefits, ultimately it’s insight and understanding — of how the mind works, how you perpetuate your own suffering, how attached you are to the outcome of events, and how uncontrollable and fleeting these events are — that offer freedom from suffering. And in your everyday life, it’s creative thinking — free from the usual limited, repetitive patterns of thought — that offers solutions to problems. That’s why contemplation is the third key component that transforms meditation from a calming, relaxing exercise to a vehicle for freedom and creative expression.

After you’ve developed your concentration and expanded your awareness, you eventually find that you have access to a more penetrating insight into the nature of your experience. You can use this faculty to explore your inner terrain and gradually understand and undermine your mind’s tendency to cause you suffering and stress. If you’re a spiritual seeker, you can use this faculty to inquire into the nature of the self or to reflect upon the mystery of God and creation. And if you’re a person with more practical concerns, you may ponder the next step in your career or relationship or contemplate some seemingly irresolvable problem in your life.

Cultivating positive, healing states of mind

Some meditations aim to open the heart and develop certain life-affirming qualities like compassion, loving kindness, , joy, or forgiveness. On a more practical level, you can use meditation to cultivate a proactive, healthy or to develop poise and precision in a particular sport. For example, you can visualize killer T cells attacking your cancer or imagine yourself executing a dive without a single mistake. These are the kinds of meditations I’ve chosen to call cultivation. Where contemplation aims to investigate, inquire, and ultimately see deeply into the nature of things, cultivation can help you transform your inner life by directing the concentration you develop to strengthen positive, healthy mindstates and withdraw energy from those that are more reactive and self-defeating. Making Meditation Your Own Developing and directing your awareness may be the foundation of effective meditation — but like any good foundation, it’s only the beginning. The next step is to build your house brick by brick, meditation session by meditation session, discovering what works for you and what doesn’t, until your practice is grounded and stable. Or, to harken back to the journey metaphor, awareness is the muscle that propels you up the mountain. But you need to choose your route, find your pace, and navigate the obstacles that get in your way. In other words, you need to fashion and maintain your own practice and troubleshoot the difficulties that arise.

Designing your own practice

When you begin to develop and direct your awareness in meditation, you’re faced with the challenge of putting all the pieces together into an integrated practice that’s uniquely suited to your needs. For example, you may find yourself drawn to forms of meditation that emphasize focused concentration and have only minimal interest in the more open, allowing quality of receptive awareness. Or you may cherish the peace and relaxation you experience when you simply sit quietly without any effort or focus, not even the effort to be aware. Or you may have a specific purpose for meditating, such as healing an illness or resolving a disturbing psychological issue and only feel drawn to approaches that help you meet your goals.

The key is to experiment with different forms of meditation and trust your intuition to tell you which ones are best suited for you at this particular point on your journey up the mountain. Inevitably, yin and yang tend to balance each other out; that is, you may start out with intense concentration and end up with more relaxed, receptive awareness — or begin in a more receptive mode and gradually discover the virtues of focus. The journey of meditation has its own lessons to teach, and no matter what your intentions may be, you’ll generally end up encountering those lessons that you were destined to learn.

Of course, if you intend to maintain your practice from week to week and month to month, which is the only way to reap the benefits of meditation, you’ll probably need to draw on some of those time-honored qualities that every sustained enterprise requires: motivation, discipline, and commitment. Though they’ve gotten a bad rap in Western culture, where people generally expect to have their needs met right now, if not sooner, these qualities are actually not difficult to cultivate and in fact arise naturally when you’re engaged in and — dare I say it — passionate about what you’re doing.

Troubleshooting the challenges

As your meditation practice deepens and evolves, you may find yourself encountering unexpected challenges that you don’t quite know how to handle. Here again, the mountain metaphor comes in handy. Say you’re halfway up the trail and you hit a patch of icy terrain, or boulders block your path, or a thunderstorm sends you scurrying for cover. What do you do now? Do you pull out your special equipment and consult preestablished guidelines for dealing with the difficulties? Or do you just have to improvise as best you can? The good news, as I mentioned earlier in this topic, is that people have been climbing this mountain for thousands of years, and they’ve crafted tools and fashioned maps for traversing the terrain as smoothly and painlessly as possible.

For example, if powerful emotions like , fear, sadness, or grief sweep through your meditation and make it difficult for you to stay present, you can draw on techniques for loosening their grip. Or if you encounter some of the common obstacles and roadside distractions on the path of meditation, such as sleepiness, restlessness, rapture, or doubt, you can count on time-honored methods for moving beyond them so you can continue on your way.

Whatever you experience on your journey, you’re likely to find expert guidance in the pages of this book, drawn not only from my own experience as a practitioner and teacher but also from the accumulated wisdom of the world’s meditative traditions. It covers all the basic approaches and potential issues — and refer you to other resources for further investigation and if you’re so inclined.

Other Journeys That Masquerade as Meditation

Now that you have an overview of the meditative journey, take a look at some paths that superficially resemble meditation but lead you in an altogether different direction.

Of course, every activity can become a meditation if you do it with awareness or concentration. For example, you can wash the dishes or drive the car or talk on the phone meditatively.

But certain activities become confused with meditation in the popular imagination, whereas they may have a totally different intent. Some people claim that reading the newspaper or watching their favorite sitcom qualifies as meditation — well, who am I to ?

Here are some ersatz meditations that certainly have their place in the repertory of leisure pursuits but don’t generally offer the benefits of meditation:


In the West, the term meditation has frequently been used to refer to a kind of focused reflection on a particular theme, as when you say, “I’m going to meditate on this problem for a while.” Although higher-order contemplation or inquiry plays a part in some meditation techniques, it bears little resemblance to the often tortured, conflicted process that usually passes for thinking. Besides, thinking tires you out, whereas meditation refreshes you and perks you up.


Daydreaming and fantasy offer their own unique pleasures and rewards, including occasional problem-solving and a momentary escape from difficult or tedious circumstances. But rather than leaving you feeling more spacious and more connected with being, as meditation does, daydreaming often embroils you more actively in the drama of your life.

Spacing out

Sometimes spacing out involves a momentary gap in the unbroken stream of thoughts and feelings that flood your awareness, a kind of empty space in which nothing seems to be happening except being itself. Such genuine “spacing out” lies at the heart of meditation and can be deliberately cultivated and extended. Alas, most spacing out is just another form of daydreaming!

Repeating affirmations

This common new-age practice — a contemporary version of what used to be called positive thinking — purports to provide an to your negative beliefs by replacing them with positive alternatives. Generally, however, the negativity is so deeply rooted that the affirmations merely skim the surface like froth on the ocean and never really penetrate to the depths, where your core beliefs reside.


By progressively relaxing your body and imagining a safe, protected place, you can lull yourself into an open, suggestible state known as a light . Here you can rehearse upcoming performances, rerun past events to get a more positive outcome and reprogram your brain using affirmations. Although self-hypnosis differs from — the primary approach taught in this book, emphasizing ongoing attention to the present moment.

Ordinary or petitionary prayer, which calls on God for help or asks for something, can be performed meditatively but has little in common with meditation as I’ve been describing it. However, contemplative prayer, also known as orison (the yearning of the soul for union with the Divine) is actually a form of concentrated contemplation whose focus is God.


Refreshing though it may be, sleep is not meditation — unless you happen to be an expert who meditates in your sleep. Research shows that the brain waves generated during sleep are significantly different from those generated during meditation. Of course, meditators often find themselves falling asleep — and then, as one of my teachers used to say, sleep well!

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About sadiksha

Namaste! I am a Nepali Art Dealer specialized in Mandala and Thangka paintings. I love to write articles about the monastic culture of the Himalayas.

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