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In the English language, meditation refers to an extended discourse, or to a concentrated state of mind, usually one that is absorbed in thought. It’s a rather antiquated term. Although it’s perfectly correct to make a statement such as “one is meditating upon a subject of great importance,” in modern speech it would be more common to say that one is thinking a lot about something.


During the Victorian age, meditation was still a common word used to describe introspection or private thought. Since this was the period in which western scholarship was starting to open up to Asian religions, this was the word used to describe contemplative practices found in the East, the sorts of religious practice which were largely discarded in Europe after the Reformation. Of course, contemplation didn’t fully disappear in Western religion. Life in Christian monasteries include periods of deep meditation on Christ, Bible passages, saints, as well as long, repetitive prayers. 


Nowadays, meditation is only used in regular conversation when referring to spiritual contemplation, as the older meaning of “deep thought” is not used as frequently. Meditation is also a blanket term for specific practices used in Buddha-Dharma and Hindu Yoga that actually transcend thought itself, or at least ordinary forms of cognition. The initial stage of absorption in Buddhism does involve in-depth analysis and conscious reflection, but that's only at the beginning. 

The eightfold path in Buddhism and (Ashtanga/Raja) Yoga are very similar, though not identical. It’s helpful to be familiar with some of the details in order to understand what is involved in the process of yogic/Buddhist contemplation.


In Buddhism, the word “bhavana” is the closest term to contemplation. It means “cultivation” or “development,” in keeping with an agricultural metaphor of the mind in Buddhism that assumes that one can, with diligent application, harness it like a farmer tilling soil. If the soil has nutrients, the correct seeds are planted, and the conditions are right, it will yield a good harvest. This is why, on the eightfold path, the section dealing with contemplation begins with right effort. By paying attention to what we say, what we do, what we think, and the consequences, we are preparing the soil. Once we remove impediments from the soil, we plant seeds and tend to them. Shamatha is the technique. This is a focus on a kasina (object). There are 10 traditional kasinas, as well as 30 other subjects used in bhavana, such as: the natural elements (sensation of heat, cold, smoothness, hardness, etc.) colors and sights, objects of fear and disgust, reflecting on the eightfold path and its virtues, etc. By focusing the mind singularly, without distractions, we gaze deeper than we do in normal daily life. The breath is the most well-known, and is also used for insight (vipassana) during the form and formless absorptions, in respect to the frames of body, feelings, mind, and mental qualities.


The germination of the planted seeds happens while in “dhyana” (jhana). This is mental absorption, or meditation proper. In Buddhism, advanced states of mind are called “samadhi” (in nondual Hinduism, samadhi is  synonymous enlightenment defined as the yogi being absorbed in Atman/Brahman, the inner most Self that is the source of all that exists, which is a different concept from Buddhist teaching). This is not meditation in the sense that one is engaged in a chain of thoughts and associations, as in normal day-dreaming. Samadhi is absorption in only one thought, or one object, and then precedes to more subtle states of awareness.

In shamatha one learns to still the body and mind. With the flow of the breath, for example, and its energizing effects (prana/pana), one can focus on the four elements (earth = solidity, fire = heat/metabolism, water = fluids/moisture, air = coolness/lightness). This is why anapanasati – mindfulness of the breath as it comes in and out of our body – is a useful gateway to both concentration and insight, as this singular focus will enable one to be able to widen the stream of attention to all experienced phenomena. Breathing is neutral, so it tends not to stir up emotions, memories, or other distractions (in fact, slowing down the breathing rate induces calmness). This prepares us for “sati” - mindfulness of mental activity. From this base one can witness how perceptions are formed by the interaction of various sense organs (touch, taste, smell, hearing, seeing). And the meditator can also watch thoughts arise and fall as a disinterested observer. The goal is to continually watch all processes as they occur moment-to-moment.

As S.N. Goenka puts it, through this practice one is able to notice all of the vibrations of the body, how they rise, and how they pass, whether they be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Eventually this leads to a feeling of lightness, a sense that one is not really solid, but just a field of energy. From this, the trick is to be able to let go.


With continued mindfulness one attains “vipassana,” direct insight into phenomena - ceaseless rise & fall and cause & effect. Even the beautiful plants that can be cultivated (enjoyable states) in meditation are not constant. Ultimately, one stops creating karma, even good karma. In states of jhana, karma is temporarily suspended as there is a a reduction of mental activity, but only with vipassana can one maintain pure nonattachment.

The paradox of desiring a state beyond desire has been resolved in different ways in Buddhism, but even “sudden enlightenment” sects include some form of preparatory ritual, with varying degrees of gradation. To switch metaphors, it has been compared to travel. First we make preparations to set sail. During the trip we need a map. Finally, we reach an island on another shore. Say we then decide to climb a mountain on the island. At the top, we can see how these notions of here and there, which were so useful on our trip, are only relative. The shore that divides the water and the land is the same one that connects them. 


Instead of relying on the term “meditation,” perhaps it’s better to be familiar with each term in Buddhism as it is used:


Bhavana: Cultivation, development; the techniques and abilities used to attain Nirvana (different types of meditation)

Shamatha: Calm abiding, concentration on a single object; tranquility during jhana

Jhana (dhyana): States of absorption

Samadhi: In Hindu philosophies this term has various meanings, but is generally connected to the idea of ecstasy or absorption

Sati: Skillful attentiveness

Vipassana: Reflection, or insight [into impermanence]

Bodhi: Wisdom/awakening


Sanskrit dictionary:

Further: How to Meditate