What is Meditation?

The essence of meditation is awake non-striving.

As such, in its most basic form, it constitutes one of the four natural states of the mind, the other three of which are waking, dreaming and deep sleeping.

Briefly explained, waking is our “everyday” awake state of mind, what you are in right now. Dreaming occurs during a light stage of sleep, which is different from the dreamless state of deep sleeping. And meditating begins in the relaxed state of mind we experience between full waking and dreaming.

First though, note the word “natural” in the sentence, “Meditation constitutes one of the four natural states of mind.” This word suggests a couple of things, like the possibility that there are other states that could be considered unnatural – such as hallucinating or lucid dreaming, for example. But more importantly it suggests that along with waking, dreaming and deep sleeping, meditating is an activity so natural to us we don’t really need to be taught how to do it.

It suggests the possibility that we all already know how to meditate, or at least that we don’t need to be taught how to begin meditating.

Of course, that’s absurd! Don’t we pay good money, sometimes even thousands of dollars, in order to learn from expert teachers how to meditate? Isn’t it common knowledge that mastering even the basics of meditation requires many hours of dedicated practice? And how about people who say they’ve tried to learn meditation only to find they just couldn’t do it, it wasn’t for them and, after all, they really don’t like to meditate?

Well, just because it’s natural and we already basically know how to do it doesn’t necessarily mean we know how to do it well, in the same way that many of us are unable to sleep well. Nevertheless, the truth is, we all already do meditate, and likely every day, just like we sleep, dream and are awake every day.

The following suggestions will raise the hackles of meditation teachers and practitioners everywhere but activities like listening to music and (horrors!) watching TV constitute the state of awake non-striving that is characteristic of the meditative state of mind. That’s not to say that the teenager plugged into her airPods or the house-husband glued to the tube for hours on end are experiencing anything at all close to what could be called a “high-quality” or deeply meditative state.

In the same way that it’s possible to eat low quality food with little or no nutritional value, it’s similarly possible to practice a very low quality form of meditation that provides little or none of the benefits of high quality meditation and that could in fact be deleterious in the long run to your mental well-being.

Most TV and many kinds of music are, to put it bluntly, like the McDonalds of meditation…. 

How about watching a sunset? Or sitting by a pool enjoying a glass of wine? Or taking a walk in a quiet forest? Or sitting in a cave chanting ommmmm? Yes, all of these could provide contexts within which a meditative state of mind can arise (well, maybe it’s better to save the wine for afterwards). It largely depends on what’s happening in your mind while you’re there.

Let’s return to our definition of meditation for a moment, that the essence of this state of mind is awake non-striving. This can be opposed to the state of mind called waking, which we’ll sum up as awake striving. When we are in the state of waking, we are always striving to do something, no matter how insignificant it may seem. There is something we want to do, and we are trying to do it. Typically it’s something like earning a living, getting somewhere, learning something, acquiring something, or even something simple like washing the dishes. We are striving, which basically means we’re trying to do something according to a belief or set of beliefs about how we think things are and how we think they should be. And also about the way we think we should accomplish what we want. This is crucial for the understanding not only of the waking state but also of the meditative state. Because at the heart of every true meditative state exists a relative absence of beliefs. This is crucial to understand for a couple of reasons: one having to do with how we meditate and the other with why we meditate.

Let’s deal with this question of how first, taking the example of watching a sunset. We don’t have a lot of beliefs about how to watch a sunset. It sounds absurd, in fact. In order to watch a sunset, you don’t have to sit in a certain way, feel a certain way, act a certain way. It’s not like washing dishes, for example, where we each have our own particular set of beliefs about the best way to do it, even if we hardly take any notice of those beliefs. The sink full of water? A pot full of water? Rinse first, then wash, then rinse? Just wash without rinsing first? Scalding hot water? Luke warm water? Got to use gloves? Gloves not important? And so on and so forth.

Marital dramas are built out of this kind of stuff!

But no-one can say you’re watching that sunset in the wrong way, simply because, if you’re doing it in a fairly meditative, non-striving state of mind, there is no right or wrong way to do it.

You are simply there. The sun is setting and you are watching it do its thing. You might have some thoughts float through your mind – about the office or your spouse or that jerk who did whatever he did to you the other day – but those thoughts don’t really take hold. Each one just sort of comes along and then passes by and you return to watching the sunset. Perhaps a particular thought comes along and you follow that one for a while. But eventually, after awhile, you return to watching the sunset, and you’re simply there, and the sun is setting, and all you’re doing is watching it.

And that is all there is to it.

Because the fact is, you are not really doing anything. No one can write a How To book on doing nothing because there’s no way to say how to do nothing. About the best one can do is give some suggestions about ways to set yourself up that are conducive to doing nothing and maybe a few more words about what it means to do nothing and how when you think you’re doing nothing, you may actually be doing quite a bit still. In the end, all one can do is point to instances of doing and say, “That’s not doing nothing!”

Okay, now the question is likely coming up: “But why ever would I want to sit around while I’m wide awake and just do nothing? I can understand deep sleep – that’s doing nothing, but at least I’m asleep and my body is getting its needed rest. And I can also understand dreaming – that’s a kind of doing something while I’m asleep and it usually feels right to do it. And of course I can understand doing things while I’m awake, because it’s the only way I’ll get food on the table and have fun with the family. But doing nothing? While I’m awake? What’s the use? What’s the sense?”

All of which, of course, is to ask why we meditate, which was the second question raised above.

There are two ways to answer this question, the simple way and the complex way. The simple way is to point to all the obvious benefits one gets from deep relaxation as in the article on this website, What are the Benefits of Meditation?”

The complex answer (which we’ll just outline here) begins with the admission that much mystery surrounds the mind and its various states. For example, we don’t yet really know why we dream. Many suggestions center upon the notion of the subconscious mind in some way reorganizing itself. This notion of reorganization can be usefully applied to all the mind’s states. When we sleep deeply, for instance, the body and its unconscious processes can be said to be reorganizing their energies so that we wake up feeling healed and refreshed. Similarly, while we are in the waking state of mind, we are actively reorganizing our environment in various ways, shaping it into forms that we hope will fulfill our needs and desires. So we see a clear progression from deep sleep, to dream, to waking:

  • Deep sleep => reorganization of the body/unconscious mind 
  • Dreaming => reorganization of the subconscious mind 
  • Waking => reorganization of the environment 

What, then, is left out of the above schematic? Consciousness, of course. And that’s precisely where meditation comes in. Through the practice of meditation, consciousness is reorganized in such a way that it can more adequately reflect reality, which effectively comprises all the material of consciousness (if that seems like a circular argument, it is). What this largely boils down to is the reorganization of our belief structures so they not only more adequately reflect reality but also eventually interfere less and less with our mind’s ability to directly reflect reality.

In any case, for most of us a large portion of the time during which we are awake is spent in this state of awake striving we are here calling “waking”. And a far less portion of that time is spent on this thing we’re calling meditating, a state of mind characterized by awake non-striving. And that, of course, is how it should be. You’d eventually starve if you did nothing but watch sunsets all day long – even if you watched them in a profoundly deep state of meditation!

Joking aside, because we spend most of our awake time striving, it’s only natural that when we turn to meditating, we carry with us that element of striving – especially if we’re doing something called “learning how to meditate”. This simple fact explains nearly all the difficulty people report when they try to learn how to meditate. As long as we are striving to learn how to meditate, our minds will be in direct opposition to that which is supposedly being learned: awake non-striving.

Taking it further, any method that places the mind in a striving mode in order to acquire or develop the state of mind called meditation will fail to successfully teach meditation. Many methods do just that:

  • “Now concentrate unwaveringly on the space between your eyes.” 
  • “Now repeat the mantra 1008 times.” 
  • “Now visualize a six-pointed azure star rising out of a lotus flower with one million multi-colored petals.” 
  • “Now spend the next hour focusing on your breath. And don’t move a muscle either, no matter how much pain you’re in.” 

The student may discover how to meditate more effectively, but it will be despite methods such as these. It won’t be the method itself that teaches effective meditation.

This notion of effectiveness explains the difference between a so-called “experienced” meditator and a “beginner”, in the same way that a “successful” deep sleeper is able to sleep much more effectively than someone who can’t, and in the same way that some strivers are able to strive for and accomplish what they strive for more effectively than those who can’t.

So what we’re going to do here is learn how to do what we already know how to do but to do it more effectively, more deeply and with a profound increase in its quality. And the crucial two words we’ll be taking with us as we begin that journey of learning are “awake” and “non-striving”.