Clearing the Mind, Focusing on an Object or Contemplation? Can Someone Tell Me What Meditation Really Means?

Woman practicing yoga on the ocean beach at sunset.

TLDR: Meditation means training or developing the mind. There is a gradual process of doing so. It doesn’t start with emptying the mind. It can also mean contemplation.

“Clearing the mind or emptying the mind”

“Thoughtlessness” or “Resting in the space between the thoughts!”

“Focusing or concentrating the mind on a single object”

“Contemplation on a subject”

And the list goes on. You may have come across several definitions of mediation.

Are you wondering, what in the world, it really means? Let’s give it a shot!

There are several different dimensions to comprehending the meaning of the word ‘meditation’.

We are used to dealing with concepts that can be defined simply and accurately.  Einstein said that “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well.” With meditation, it is extremely difficult to explain it in a single sentence. Although not impossible.

It’s just that it is a special case where one word is trying to capture quite a few processes. It may not be very simple to grasp meditation, but at the same time, it’s not rocket science either.

As we use the word ‘meditation’ in English language and in the western countries, it originally came from the Latin and the Old French.

It has a particular meaning as derived from the Latin or the Old French.  But then, the word ‘meditation’ is also used to describe a set of oriental phenomena.

And the two meanings of meditation, one being the meaning as derived from the Latin or Old French and the other one that tries to capture the essence of a whole bunch of oriental or eastern phenomena, are different.

Let’s first focus on the original meaning of meditation as derived from the old European languages.

You can start with the dictionary definition of the word ‘meditation’. If you scan across most popular dictionaries, the most common definition of the word ‘meditate’ is:

  • Think deeply or carefully about something.
  • Plan mentally or consider.

Many dictionaries will also list following definition:

  • Engage in a mental exercise like concentrating on one’s breathing or on repetition of a mantra for reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.

It is an allusion to the second meaning we talked earlier. We will get to this second meaning later.

To Meditate Means to Measure

If you were to look at the etymology of the word ‘meditate’, it is derived from the Latin noun ’meditationem’ or ‘meditation’ which means ‘thinking over’ or ‘contemplating’.

This noun in itself is derived from root verb ‘meditari’, which means to think over, reflect, consider or contemplate. The root verb ‘meditari’ is formed by the Proto-Indo-Eurasian (PIE) root ‘med’, which means to measure, limit, consider, advice or take appropriate measures.

Deep or Careful Thinking or Analyzing or Contemplation as a Measurement

Going back to the conventional English definition of meditation, it is deep or careful thinking or analyzing. You also call this contemplation.

But based on the etymology, meditation seems to reflect a kind of measurement. Aren’t those two different things? Measurement and thinking of contemplation?

If you look at the meaning of PIE root ‘med’, it means not only to measure, but also to limit, consider or even advice.

And it is this sense of measurement as careful consideration that is captured by the word ‘meditation’. In order to measure an object accurately one has to carefully and deeply observe or consider the object!

We also refer this careful observation or a kind of measurement as contemplation.

As you can see etymologically meditation is closely related to other familiar words like medication and medicine as they all are derived from the same PIE root.

Focus or Concentration as a Measurement

Also, because meditation means to deeply or carefully think about something or carefully plan something, it also implies focused thinking or focused planning. The notion of care or depth implies focus as well. In this regard one can argue that meditation also means a particular kind of focus.

Right Inward Measure?

There is yet another take on the meaning of meditation in the context of the root meaning of measure. And this elaboration is from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.

You normally use ‘measure’ to imply a measuring device and obtaining specific dimensions of an object using the measuring device. But there is yet another meaning of measure. This is an ancient meaning, thanks to Plato.

According to Plato, things have their own ‘right inward measure’. This is the intrinsic nature of things, or the completeness or the wholeness of things. It is the what gives objects their innate properties. In other words, things have to have right inward measure in order to exist as intrinsic entities.

As the word medicine means ‘to cure’, it can be thought of as something that restores the right inward measure of humans, if the right inward measure goes off balance, for example due to disease.

And here, meditation can be thought of as the direct experience of the right inward measure. Which is nothing else but the direct experience of our innate wholeness or the completeness.

To Heal or to Make Whole?

Sometimes it is said that meditation is derived from the Latin verb ‘mederi’, which means ‘to heal’. Also root meaning of the word ‘to heal’ means ‘to make whole’. One important dimension of meditation is the mind body connection.

It is believed that the mind and body are intricately connected. Given this meditation really means restoring the overall health of the mind body continuum.  Or in other words, mediation is really about making you whole or healing you.

Meditation is about healing or making whole. But it may not a very accurate to say that the word meditation is derived from the Latin very ‘mederi’, which means to heal. It is just that both Latin verbs ‘mederi’ and ‘meditari’ are derived from the PIE root ‘med’.

If you were to summarize the original meaning of meditation.

Mediation as Derived from Latin and Old French

  • It means deep and careful thinking, analyzing or consideration or contemplation.
  • Meditation as careful analysis or consideration can be taken as focused analysis or concentrated analysis.
  • Meditation also means to measure. But more likely it means the experience of the right inward measure as per the Platonic notion of measure.
  • Meditation could also mean the experience of the intrinsic wholeness or completeness as right inward measure is what makes us complete or whole.

Now let’s consider the other or more recent meaning of meditation.

This recent meaning of meditation tries to capture a practice that originated from some of the eastern wisdom traditions, mainly Hinduism and Buddhism.

Although in some form these practices were known to the Greeks and Romans since circa 10 BCE. It was really during the 19th century that the west came to know about these practices.

This practice came originally from ancient Vedic traditions, which were adopted by Buddhism.

Let’s first go over what this practice really means in the context of Buddhism. That’s where these practices seem to have flowered the most. In Buddhism, meditation is used to describe a variety of activities, the goal of pretty much all of them is a common one.

Throughout the Buddhist texts, there are multiple words that have been used to describe meditation. Although actually there are more, we will cover the following words.

Meditation as Cultivation of the Mind

The word most widely used to describe meditation in the Buddhism is ‘Bhavana’. It is a Sanskrit and a Pali word and it really means cultivation.  But cultivation of what? It really means the cultivation of the mind. Or in other words, it means training the mind.

This is perhaps the key meaning of meditation when it comes to eastern traditions. For them, meditation always meant processes that trained or cultivated the mind. And that is the common goal that I referred to earlier.

Meditation as Cleansing or Purification of the Mind

Citta Visuddhi: Both words have the same meaning in Sanskrit as well as Pali (An ancient Indian language). Citta means mind-heart composite and visuddhi means purification. As it implies, it means purification of the mind and the heart.

Meditation is training the mind-heart to purify it or make it more wholesome. In Buddhism, it is believed that by default the mind has defilements. These are nothing but the tendencies of the mind that lead to suffering and problems.

Fortunately, the mind is flexible and trainable and it is possible to train the mind to get rid of the defilements. This means training the mind to remove its tendencies and habits that create stress, anxiety, depression and so forth.

Meditation as Calming the Mind

Samatha: This is a Pali word, the Sanskrit counterpart is Samata. It means tranquility, equanimity or calming down. This draws out the aspect of meditation where the mind first has to be suitable for the training or the development or the cultivation.

As it is, the mind-heart composite can be difficult to train. It requires some amount of prep work in the form of calming down the mind so that it’s trainable. Often it is also referred to as settling the mind in its natural state. Although we can argue what really is the natural state of the mind.

The fact is that in the default state, the mind is always buzzing with so many thoughts. We usually fully identify with them and hence don’t even know that so much of thought activity is going on.

Often our busy mind is compared to a monkey that got drunk and while it was drunk it was stung by the scorpion!! As it is, monkeys tend to be very active.

You can imagine what would happen to a normally active monkey who gets drunk. Now on top of that a scorpion bite. You may not be that familiar with the scorpion bite, depending on what part of the world you live in.

In ancient India, the scorpion bite was known to be the worst for the amount of pain it caused. It induces immensely agonizing restlessness because of the pain. Now imagine the condition of the drunk monkey.

That’s how busy our minds normally are. It’s just that because that’s what happens all the time and by default we almost always identify with our thoughts. We are always so much buried into the thoughts, we don’t even realize it.

This agitated mind has to be calmed down to a certain degree, for there to be any hope of training it. And that essence of calming down is captured by this word samatha.

Mediation as Concentrating or Focusing the Mind

Ekaggata: This is a Pali word. Sanskrit counterpart is Ekagrata. This literally means concentration or focus. What kind of concentration? It is the concentration or the focus of attention in general. It is not a specific type of intellectual concentration. But the concentration of attention.

How do you calm down the mind? By training it to concentration in a single object. One can actually use ekaggata to achieve samatha. As concentrating the mind on a single object helps reduce amount of the thoughts that the mind generates.

Meditation as Unification of Mind with Its Object

Samadhi: It is the same word both in Pali and Sanskrit. It means intense concentration. To the point  of complete absorption. It also has a meaning of unification or the synthesis of otherwise separate parts into a new coherent and whole entity.

Samadhi is actually the highest spiritual goal. Not everyone meditates for spiritual goals. That means one doesn’t have to necessarily worry about samadhi. One can just practice samatha, which is calming down and ekaggata, which is attention training through concentration.

And probably it is the complete absorption during samadhi that gives rise to the notion of meditation as clearing the mind of any thoughts. As when the mind is completely absorbed, there is no thought activity. In this regard it really is the ultimate goal of any meditation to not have any thoughts.

But guess what, there is always a progression to the samadhi. It is not a state that one can achieve right away. In fact it is supposed to be the culmination of a long and enduring journey. And samadhi is almost always preceded by samatha or some other form of mind training.

If you were to summarize the meanings of these diverse set of words in the Buddhist context, they serve following functions.

  • Cultivation of the mind or the faculties of the mind or the mind-heart complex.
  • Calming down the mind in preparation of cultivating the mind or training the mind.
  • Purification of the mind or the mind-heart complex.
  • Training the mind or the attention faculty to focus or concentrate.
  • Training the mind and leading it to the complete absorption or the unification of the mind with the object of its attention or the subject object unification through absorption.
  • Meditation is a progressive activity. It starts with preparing or calming down the mind through samatha. One actually uses ekaggata, which is concentration of attention to achieve the calming down and in doing so one charts the path of knowing and developing the mind. This progression culminates in samadhi, the ultimate spiritual goal.

In the context of Hinduism, there is a triad of words that predominate the literature when it comes to mediation.

Meditation as Sustaining of Attention

Dharana: It means to ‘to bind’ or ‘to hold’ or ‘to sustain’ at one point. It implies sound basis or foundation. It is meant to hold mind’s attention on an object and sustain it and to get the mind to a sounder basis, rather than it being all over the place.

During dharana mind has an object of attention to focus on, but mind is not expected to be sharply focused just on the object. During dharana mind can wander within the periphery of the object of attention. But it is not expected to wander all over the place.

Meditation as Deep or Focused Attention

Dhyana: The origins of ‘dhyana’ are disputed. It literally means attention or concentration. Compared to dharana, dhyana indicates a deeper state of focus or concentration.

Usually dharana precedes dhyana, as we first need to get your mind on the sound basis before it can dive into deeper concentration or attention. In dharana mind starts stabilizing and doesn’t wander all over the places, but it still can skirt the peripheral field of the object of attention.

Samadhi: The meaning of which is similar to what we discussed in the Buddhist context, the one of unification or culmination of the mind training.

According to the Patanjali who authored Yoga Sutra, the definition of meditation is: The alert state of mind which remains the same from one moment to the next moment.

Chinese Chan Buddhist sect derives its name from the Sanskrit word dhyana. Japanese Zen derives its name from Chinese Chan. In this sense Zen comes from the Sanskrit Dhyana.

Summarizing the meanings of these words as used by the Hindu traditions, they serve following functions.

  • Getting the mind to the sound footing for the preparation of further training.
  • Training the mind or the attention faculty to focus or concentration at a very deep level.
  • Ultimately reach to the level of complete absorption between the Atman and the Brahman.

Conclusion

As it can be seen meditation is not that complex. It has two meanings.

  1. The old meaning of meditation as contemplation or deep and careful thinking or analysis of something.
  2. The new meaning of meditation is the cultivation of mind or mind training, which is carried out by first calming the mind, and training the mind in paying attention, sustaining the attention or getting the mind to a sound basis for cultivation and subsequently refining attention to be deeper and ultimately leading to a synthesis or the unification of the mind with its object.

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