In classes I do spend a little time (very little) outlining “what is meditation”. And likewise, this wonderfully overused term, “mindfulness”. And the subject comes up when I am asked excellent questions like: “when I get really absorbed in knitting is that my meditation?” or “can I use my exercise on my walking machine as meditation?”.
An accurate, or truly useful definition of meditation is just about impossible. Holes and weaknesses can be found in any attempt that thinkers and writers on meditation produce. Of course it does not mean that the effort is entirely wasted. As the Queen said to Alice, regarding thinking impossible thoughts: “When I was younger I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Meditation is about practice; about application. Thinking, analysing or defining it is very much secondary, and much of it may be wasted effort. We can apply something like the ‘Pareto Principle’ (the 80:20 rule). That is, spend 80% of your time practising, and no more than 20% thinking or reading about it. A 90:10 rule might be even better. In the words of the famous oriental philosopher Ni Ke Shu: “JUST DO IT”.
So, when in classes we come to “what is meditation?” I tend to offer brief descriptions rather than imagine it can be defined. To describe it in varying ways from class to class, or depending upon the questioner. Different descriptions, partial as they are, can approach the essence of meditation from a range of angles – something like the numerous ways of going up a mountain and still arriving at the same peak.
In recent classes we have been looking at the simplicity of meditation. The zen of it. Stripping away the term “meditation” can be useful. It is worth remembering that terms such as meditation and mindfulness are only English language attempts at translation of various terms from the more ancient oriental languages – terms such as samadhi, dhyana, shamatha, sati.
In a very ‘stripped back’ description of the matter we might dispense with “meditation” and just call our practice “sitting”. The instruction might be “adopt a balanced posture and just sit”.
And what do you do while sitting? … Just sit, and then sit some more for a while. And rather than arguing whether that is right or wrong, it is infinitely more effective to DO IT. Just sit. And of course this cannot be a rigid definition. It is just a useful description and instruction, for many practitioners, much of the time. As soon as you start to think it is a definition you will find a person who cannot sit. They must lie, or kneel, or get into some other position due to physical injury, disability or temperament. So the idea of “SIT” has to take on a larger meaning than purely the several ways of sitting upon a cushion or a chair.
To “just sit” is really a psychological state, or posture. In fact, more than “a state” it is a psychological process. There is nothing static about “just sitting”, no matter how still you may remain on some occasions. Just sitting, or meditation, is a pause, or gap in our everyday, habitual functioning. A pause, a gap, a break, a stop, a shift, a space opened up in our habitual thinking and doing.
Let’s leave it at that for now. We will come back to discussion of ‘What is meditation?’ in more posts quite soon. Snippets of description and suggestive ideas are quite possibly more useful in this space than attempts at a comprehensive definition.
Anyway, it is time to DO IT. Keep in mind the 80:20 rule.