Mark Koester

Personal Blog. A Data-Driven Life. Minding the Interstitial Spaces since 2007.

What Am I Meditating for? In Pursuit of a Definition of Meditation

Meditation is one of the most touted habits we are all supposed to do these days. Meditation and mindfulness are lauded for a range of associated benefits from physical and mental health to cognitive improvements and beyond. It’s believed to be beneficial for both healthy and sick people alike. In short, meditation can supposedly make you mentally calmer, physically healthier, and cognitively better.

But can it really? If so, how? And which types?

Personally, I’ve been interested in meditation for awhile. A few years ago, I meditated nearly daily using some of the popular guided meditation and mindfulness apps available. Eventually, my interest and practice wained. I “felt” I had gained a few benefits, but I was a bit disappointed both by the time commitment and by the failure of my meditation practice to bring about more profound changes.

Perhaps I had the wrong expectations, perhaps I wasn’t meditating right, but increasingly I think my struggles around meditation reflect deeper questions about how to define what is meditation and all of the different types of meditations that exist. This difficulty to classify meditation is a sentiment echoed in the research on meditation too.

Infused in local culture and religion and bantered about in popular culture, meditation remains a pretty poorly defined term. In spite of the long tradition and a lot of current research, “there is no consensus on a definition of meditation in the scientific literature” (Ospina et al, 2008). Basically, no standard definition of meditation exists.

There are similar issue with the word “mindfulness” that has long left whatever it meant historically and philosophically and now seems to apply to just about everything including staying in the moment as you wash the dishes or eat a meal.

In all this confusion, I want to know: What is meditation? What are the types? And how do they affect us and our brains?

For our purposes and as I’ll explain in detail below, I define meditation as:

A multi-step process whose two principal components are 1. the methods or cognitive strategies used and 2. the enhanced mental states it brings about.

Defining meditation is a challenge. Basically, I’ve come to realize the importance of distinguishing between different techniques and methods of meditating and their intended goals. There might be benefits that go beyond meditating itself (a claim we will look at elsewhere), but at its origins meditation was intended as a mental practice that brought about a new kind of thinking or a new state of consciousness. Buddha and many others were meditating to reach an understanding of themselves and of the universe.

So, before we can examine the benefits, let’s try to define meditation first.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to walk-through how I came up with this definition and look at the two key parts: methods and enhanced mental states. After settling on a naive definition, we are also going to briefly survey several popular types of mediation and then look at some key features that are common to most meditative experiences. I’ll do my best to include various alternative definitions I found along the way.

Hopefully by the end of the post, we’ll be equipped with not only an operational definition of meditation but we should be able to answer the question why and for what purpose we are meditating for. Furthermore, I think this kind of definition is a good starting point for other technological, biological, or pharmaceutical methods in pursuit of cognitive enhancement or other phenomenological experiences.

A “Naive” Definition of Meditation

The word “meditation” is derived from the Latin “meditari,” which means “to engage in contemplation or reflection.” (Ospina et al, 2008)

In the West a major growth of meditation began in the 1960s, which continues into today. Scientific research on meditation is believed to have started in the early 1930s but gained prominence in 1970s and 1980s and is still trying to understand the mechanisms behind meditation and its benefits.

First off, in a naive sense, what is meditation and what are we doing when we do it?

Generically, meditation is a mental practice where a person trains their attention and awareness. Beyond that, definitions can go in various directions based on the belief system, technique or goal. Often times it involves sitting in one position in quiet but its goal might vary widely. Some might pursue it with focused attention, others with an open awareness, while another group might pursue a null, non-conceptual mental state.

Quite a few attempts have been made to define meditation in the scientific community (Cardoso, 2004; Bond, 2008; Ospina, 2008; Awasthi, 2013; Nash, 2013). One of the challenges is how to distinguish meditation from other stuff. This is referred to as demarkation and for many the best definition of meditation should allow us to operationally separate it from other types of mental and muscle relaxation (Bond, 2008). So, often the question could be put as, what distinguishes meditation from closed eyed relaxation?

In their meta-analysis, Ospina et al. (2008) call meditation an “umbrella term” and go on to offer a definition of meditation that focuses on shared properties across the different types:

Despite the lack of consensus in the scientific literature on a definition of meditation, most investigators would agree that meditation implies a form of mental training that requires either stilling or emptying the mind, and that has as its goal a state of “detached observation” in which practitioners are aware of their environment, but do not become involved in thinking about it. All types of meditation practices seem to be based on the concept of self-observation of immediate psychic activity, training one’s level of awareness, and cultivating an attitude of acceptance of process rather than content. (Ospina 2008)

They also note that breathing, training, mantas (or their lack) relaxation, spirituality or belief, and attention (and its object) are important aspects of meditation and how to distinguish one type from another.

In line with this idea of mental training and stilling the mind, several researchers propose that what defines meditation is what they call “logic relaxation” (Cardoso, 2004; Bond, 2008). While some might also remark that meditation typically includes physiological relaxation, this term “logic relaxation” is a bit of a neologism intended to covey

  1. Not “to intend” to analyzing (not trying to explain) the possible psychophysical effects;
  2. Not “to intend” to judging (good, bad, right, wrong) the possible psychophysical
  3. Not “to intend” to creating any type of expectation (Cardoso, 2004)

Put more simply, meditation, according to this criteria, involves a mental state of non-judgement and non-analysis, where you disable your logic and reasoning thinking and are just there. At least that’s my understanding. Personally I don’t find this criteria particularly helpful.

In summary, in spite of the long tradition and current wealth of research, terms like “meditation” and “mindfulness” remain ill-defined. Colloquially, meditation can also beyond the practice of silently seated contemplation and often refers to things like relaxing or even analytically thinking about or explaining something in marked detail.

The plethora of meditation practices and lack of a standard definition of meditation as such creates challenges both for the practitioner and for the researcher, because even in everyday conversation, we can’t be sure if we are referring to the same thing when we say someone is meditating or that meditation is good for you.

Let’s start by taking a look at some of the most popular meditation types.

Popular Types of Meditations

The practice of meditation is ancient, even prehistoric. The origins of meditation date at least to India. The first written evidence has been found in the Vedas in India (around 1500 BCE). While its primary site of development and home found in Asia, meditative practices have been a part of numerous cultures and traditions, including India, China and Japan. Early and Middle Ages Jewish, Sufi, and Christians all have both meditative and mystical traditions.

So, before we try to define it better, just how many ways to meditate are there?

This might seem like a trick question. One might argue that everyone meditates differently. Meditation is a unique and personal process. That might be true, but it doesn’t really help us if we want to understand meditation scientifically and if we ever hope to find a repeatable way to meditate with predictable health benefits and shared human experiences.

By my rough count, there are at least a dozen or so well-known meditation types people practice today. There are likely hundreds, if not thousands, more if we look at it from one of the active meditative traditions in Japanese, Chinese or Tibetan Buddhism, as a starting point. According to one major meta-analysis, 32 common meditation practices were identified from the scientific literature and from which, they emerged with 5 broad meditation types: Mantra Meditation, Mindfulness meditation, Qi Gong, Tai Chi and Yoga (Ospina et al, 2008).

In one study focused on Western Buddhist meditators and the variety of experiences, including negative ones, the researchers identified the following types of meditation practices along with the following the distribution among a group of meditators (Lindahl, 2017):

As you can see from this survey, Buddhist meditation includes many of the popular meditation types today. Though they have now been secularized format, mindfulness, body scan, insight, concentration and breath count are all Buddhist types too. For example, most of the mindfulness meditation today is based on samatha concentration meditation, a type of single-pointed mind practice commonly done through attentive mindful breathing.

While not meant to be comprehensive, here is my list of ten common types of meditation:

  1. Concentration (Samatha, mindfulness of breathing, breath counting): Based on Buddhist version, this closed-eyed meditation focuses on training yourself to pay attention to your breathing. When you get distracted, return to the breath. This is called in the academic literature as focused attention meditation
  2. Insight (noting, open monitoring, Vipassana): In contrast to concentrative meditation, this is a non-directive meditation, where your attention is open and you strive to remain aware of everything that is happening.
  3. Body Scan (includes Goenka vispassana): This is a mediation where you focus on your body and scan through different parts of it through a prescribed narrative.
  4. Loving-kindness (Metta, compassion, karuna): A visualization meditation with goal of generating certain emotions.
  5. Zazen (Zen Buddhist tradition of Japanese lineage), including a few types but most notable is koan technique involving introspection on a paradoxical riddle.
  6. Mantra Recitation (“OM” Chanting or Transcendental): A typically closed-eyed meditation using a repeated a mantra with the goal of transcending the self.
  7. Visualization Practices: This is a bit of a grab-bag name for various meditation techniques often done with a guide.
  8. Walking Meditation: Like Tai Chi (Tai Qi Chuan) or Yoga, this meditation includes a kinetic or movement component.
  9. Qigong Breathing: A Taoist breathe-focused meditation aimed at harnessing energy (Qi) in the body through certain energy pathways called meridians.
  10. Nature of Mind Practices (dzogchen, mahamadra): These are meditation styles found in several traditions (Tibetan, Zen) and are focused on non-conceptual side. They strive to look at ones mind and go beyond duality of even existence and non-existence.

Other notable types are Guided Meditation, Neurofeedback (Muse), Analytical Meditation (Tibetan Buddhist type that seems more like reflection than meditation), Sacred Silence, and Tonglen (Tibetan for ‘giving and taking’) among many others. Yoga and Tai Chi are also included in some literature as forms of meditation, though the physical component makes it problematic, since it’s difficult to separate the health benefits of the meditation part from the physical.

So, if we want to come up with a good working definition of meditation, it should at least be capable of include these major types.

Mindfulness and Mindfulness Meditations: An Ambiguous Amalgam

As you might have noticed, I didn’t specifically include mindfulness meditation in the list above. In spite of the popularity of the term in general language and most meditation apps, the current usage of “mindfulness” is quite new, dating from sometimes after 1980s.

The term “mindfulness” is believed to be originally derived from “sati” (“smṛti” in Sanskrit), the Pali word in Indian Buddhism that has to do with a mental quality related to paying attention and staying present. It’s associated with staying curious, present and open.

While it is based on Zen, Vipassanā, and Tibetan meditation techniques from Asian cultures, mindfulness as it is now used is a Western fusion and creation. Several individuals have been heavily involved in its usage and growth. Notable figures include Thích Nhất Hạnh (a Vietnamese Buddhist monk), Jon Kabat-Zinn (creator of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a popularly used medical application of mediation), and Richard J. Davidson (a professor, meditation researcher and writer of a recent book, “Altered Traits”).

As various researchers have noted, mindfulness is not a unitary construct or concept. It describes a few different mental features, like attention, presence and and being open and nonjudgmental. As one group put it:

One of the most thoughtful and frequently invoked definitions states that mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, in the present moment, as nonreactively, nonjudgmentally, and open- heartedly as possible (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, 2011). (Van Dam, 2018)

Similarly, the practice of mindfulness meditation comprises Vipassana, Zen Buddhist meditation, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). The actual practice of mindfulness mediation seems to combine several of the techniques we listed about, including concentrative, insight and others.

Put another way, mindfulness can potentially describe both or either a mental construct or the practices you do. It’s a curious and ambiguous amalgam of both the mental state aimed at (i.e. being in a mindful state) and the practices you pursue (“being mindful” or “minding”).

If this seem slightly confusing, you are not alone. Many researchers rightly argue that, in spite of the popularity of mindfulness in society and scientific literature, it’s a term plagued with semantic and scientific misunderstandings. The confusion around this word and descriptions of meditation practices themselves are one of many concerns among researchers about the wild claims about the benefits of meditation too.

As such, many researchers believe mindfulness is a rather poor or at least limited way to describe meditation and the target mental states. As such, many believe mindfulness shouldn’t be use and instead we should strive to define meditation in a more robust way, namely based on either the features involved (Van Dam, 2018) or as a multiple-step process (Nash, 2013).

A Scientific List of Key Features in Meditation

The health and cognitive benefits of meditation appears to be one of most widely held ideas today. But in one of the largest meta-analyses ever done on meditation and its health benefits (Ospina et al, 2008), researchers reviewed over 800 studies and noted three principal concerns: First, they found “the methodological quality of meditation research to be poor, with significant threats to validity in every major category of quality measured, regardless of study design.” Second, while the most consistent physiological effects were “reduction of heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol” and the “strongest neuropsychological effect…in the increase of verbal creativity,” they concluded:

The field of research on meditation practices and their therapeutic applications is beset with uncertainty. The therapeutic effects of meditation practices cannot be established based on the current literature. (Ospina, 2008)

Third and finally, they remark that more research is needed which must include a “clear conceptual definition of meditation” itself.

These conclusions and the underlying sentiment was confirmed in a recent and aptly titled paper, “Mind the hype,” in which a group of researchers argued not just for skepticism about the benefits and research methodology but the definitions used around meditation too (Van Dam, 2018). Fortunately, the researchers did not just end with a critique but also attempted to classify and define the key features involved in all types of meditation.

Van Dam and others focused their classification on the primary features of meditation practices themselves and those involved (participants and teachers) as well as the secondary characteristics of meditation/mindfulness interventions. This allowed them to come up with the following list:

Primary features:
  • Arousal: how alert/awake (low, medium, high)
  • Orientation (of attention): where is attention directed (inward vs. outward vs. no orientation)
  • Spatial dynamic (of attention): Is it fixed on a single object (like breath or a mantra) or dynamic (like a body scan or visualization practice)?
  • Temporal dynamic (of attention)
  • Object (of attention)
  • Aperture (of attention): Is one’s attention focus narrow, intermediate or diffuse?
  • Effort: How hard are you trying to exert energy to achieve other features?
Secondary features:
  • Complimentary activity (like walking, mantra or recitation)
  • Affective valence: Is your practice positive, neutral or negative?
  • Emotional intention: Is the intention loving-kindness, generosity, etc?
  • Motivation / goal: What reason goes into the practice? Self-improvement, enlightenment, wellness, etc.?
  • Posture (lying down, sitting, standing)

The researchers go on to list various other criteria, like the number of participants and teacher. If this list seems exhaustive, then it’s important to note that the intention is to help guide better researchers in their classifications and defining of the meditation practices being studied. Specifically, they want to provide a way that any meditation benefits that are claimed in a study can be repeated and restudied, a central tenant in scientific method.

Unfortunately, while this list can be helpful in some ways, especially for researchers, I find it a bit limiting personally in our pursuit of what meditation is. It also fails to account for a point brought up by Ospina et al. (2008), namely what are the “criteria of successful meditation practice”? As they put it:

The criteria of successful meditation practice are understood both in terms of the successful practice of a specific technique (i.e., is the technique being practiced properly) and in terms of achieving the aim of the meditation practice (e.g., has practice led to reduced stress, calmness of mind, or spiritual enlightenment). (Ospina, 2008)

Both personally and intellectually I find this question about “successful” meditation to be a challenge one. I often hear that meditation should be about enjoying the process and staying in the moment, which might be true and beneficial, but I find the lack of criteria that defines the quality and success of meditation to be problematic.

Personally, how can I know if my meditation practice went well in a single session? How can avoid wasting hours meditating in a way that doesn’t work?

Furthermore, if we want meditation have a positive health and societal impact, how to determine whether the meditation practice was done right or wrong and whether it worked or didn’t?

With these questions in mind, let’s turn to a definition of meditation as a multi-step process.

The Science of Ancient Methods In Pursuit of Enhanced Mental States: Defining Meditation

Academic papers on meditation often define meditation from either the perspective of the subject (meaning the cognitive state they are in their mind) or in terms of the methods used (chanting, breath counting, etc.). Both have their merits. For example, by listing the features in detail you can better define what is happening. Similarly, by pointing to a meditative state, you might be able to causally argue that benefits come from reach and staying in a certain mental state.

In “Toward a unifying taxonomy and definition for meditation” published in 2013 in Frontiers in Psychology, Nash and Newberg provide one of the best formulations I’ve read on what is meditation and how to define different practices using a taxonomy. They argue that meditation should not be defined by either a meditative state nor a particular method, but instead a model of meditation should encompass both. For them, meditation should be conceptualized as “a dynamic process which is inclusive of six related but distinct stages” (Nash, 2013).

Leaving aside the full six stages in their workflow, two key components in their taxonomy stand out: enhanced mental state (EMS) and the method.

Meditative Methods: Our Cognitive, Attention Strategies

When we think about meditation we often focus on the how-to. We want to focus on what we are supposed to do. Some examples might be being mindful and attentive to our breathing, body scan, breath counting or chanting. These are all different techniques and methods.

Methods generically stand for the steps we do to accomplish something. When applied to meditation, methods are the “a family of complex emotional and attentional regulatory training regimes developed for various ends, including the cultivation of well-being and emotional balance” (Lutz et al., 2008b, p. 163, quoted in Nash, 2013).

Simply put, methods are the mental practices we undertake and cognitive strategies we deploy while meditating. From that point on, the researchers argue that meditation practices stipulate a causal link between the method and the outcome of that method.

Meditative Mental States: The Cognitive Mental State of Our Practice

Each type of meditation has a goal. While often forgotten and rarely mentioned in many mindfulness apps and guided meditations tools today, each meditative practice intends to bring you to a certain meditative state, altered state of consciousness, or mental state. This mental state should be viewed as separate from the potential health and cognitive benefits of meditation.

Each method and meditation type is different, but for every single one, the successful application of its meditation method should help you reach an intended mental state that Nash and Newberg call the enhanced mental state (EMS).

Returning briefly to the stages, Nash and Newberg provide the following working definition of meditation:

A given meditation session is defined as the time allocated by the meditator to the engagement of the process; whereby the meditator starts from a mundane state of alert/waking consciousness, moves through the specific stages of the process over time, and then returns to that same state of waking consciousness. (Nash, 2013)

As we all know, meditation starts with your intention to meditate. You then make certain preparations and rituals (seated position, turn on app, candles, music, etc.).

Once you start meditating, you deploy attention and self-regulatory mental activities and strategies for that type of meditation. These cognitive strategies are provided by a teacher or didactic material, like a book, audio file or even app. A few that Nash and Newberg mention include concentration, mindfulness, open-monitoring, breathing, chanting and many others. These are the methods we refer as mental training but really they are just subjective ways to monitor and manage our mental happenings.

Even though there is a lot of interest today around the health and medical benefits of meditation, especially for stress, we mustn’t forget that original and historical intent of most meditation was a spiritual one. For example, the Buddha and others were seeking spiritual awakening and enlightenment.

In this same spirit it is important to remember that each meditative practice has an intended mental state it seeks to achieve using its method. For Nash and Newberg, the enhanced mental state (EMS) is the meditative state where the “subjective first-person reports of a shift in consciousness to a different and more “profound” state such as: an enhanced sense of well-being, focus, calm, detachment, insight, affect, bliss, emptiness, etc.”

Essentially, while it might be fleeting and even non-existent in a new practitioner or sustained for an advanced/experience meditator, the purpose of meditating is to bring you into a different, non-normal state of mind or consciousness.

In their attempt to classify meditation types, the researchers explicitly mentioned three broad states:

  1. Enhanced affective state (EAS): In this type of meditation your goal is reach a state of compassionate awareness tied to you and your social world. Metta, compassion and loving-kindness meditations from Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism would be a few good examples.
  2. Enhanced cognitive state (ECS): A type of meditation that purports to engender mindfulness and insight, this is arguably the most common type of meditation methods practiced by most people in the West today. The religion tradition in samatha and vipassana are two examples of this a general purpose mindfulness meditation in which you cognitively pushed you towards a deeper religious or spiritual point of understanding.
  3. Enhanced non-cognitive/Non-affective state (NC/NA): This type of meditation strives to bring you into an enhanced “empty” or “null” state, one that is devoid contents. This is the no-mind that some mystics might call God Consciousness among other terms. Poorly translated in most Western languages, this includes words like nirodha-sama ̄patti (Pali), samadhi (Sanskrit), satori (Japanese), dzogchen (Tibetan). It is meant to convey an ineffable and non-conceptual state of consciousness.

The rest of the paper, which I highly recommend for anyone wishing to get an even more technical survey, goes into the neurological components. By framing meditation as a multiple-step process, it’s possible to point to neurological correlates for each of the meditative stages and different mental states too. This quest for the neurology of meditation is critical if we hope to fully understand meditation and the human mind as such (Awasthi, 2013).

One unfortunate thing missing in the Nash and Newberg paper is a final general definition of meditation. Admittedly, they do provide detailed classifications of some of the popular types of meditation and organize them according to their methods and their intended mental states, which is quite useful.

Fortunately, based on what I hope is a faithful reading of their research, we can venture a pretty solid definition of meditation now ourselves:

Meditation is a multi-step process whose two principal components are the methods or cognitive strategies used and the enhanced mental states it brings about.

By formulating meditation in this way, we can operationally ask and answer two things about different meditations types we might try: the how and the why.

First, on the question of how to meditate, this depends on the particular type but we now can point to the methods and techniques used in different meditation types. Open-monitoring or focused attention would be two options in a long array of cognitive strategies used.

Second, on the question of why meditate (or, as I put it, what am I meditating for?), by our definition, we are meditating to reach a certain meditative state or, as the researchers put it, an Enhanced Mental State. They mention mental states like a calm, relaxed state of open awareness, a focused attention on your breath and body, or a null state of non-conceptuality, but they also indicate the possibility of many others.

Additionally, we might claim we meditate for the benefits, which interestingly might be due to either the method or the mental state. Researchers sometimes refer to these as altered states and altered traits. Altered states have been what we commonly think about as the purpose of meditation (as well as other psychotropic methods). We meditate for a mental state. Increasingly, many researchers seem to believe meditation brings with it “altered traits,” which is also the title of a recent book on meditation by well-known researchers. For them, altered traits are the health, emotional and cognitive changes people can get from meditating. These are bold claims that we will need to explore elsewhere.

Conclusion: Meditation as Methods Towards Cognitive Enhancement

I’ll admit to a long-time fascination with the human mind and how to improve it. I’ve applied this to various endeavors, like learning languages, writing, and creativity. In Learning How to Learn I explored how our brains learn and noted a few areas that can help us learn better, like exercise, taking breaks and sleeping. This lead to my own efforts to sleep and exercise more, since it improved my mind!

Understanding and improving my mind is one of the reasons I started meditating in the first place. But after meditating regularly for a few years, I stopped. Had I improved my mind? Had meditation brought me the benefits I had hoped?

Honestly, I’m still not entirely sure. Cognitive enhancement is a term often used to describe the conscious attempt to improve one’s mind, thinking, creativity, and more. There are several lifestyle approaches that can improve your learning and mind, like sleep, exercise, a conductive environment, certain habits, and even music. Many transhumanists and biohackers use nootropics or “smart drugs” to pursue mental acuity too.

Besides the reported health benefits, meditation seems to offer an interesting route towards cognitive enhancement too. This might include both the benefits of leveraging certain mental states during actual meditation, but it might also have neuropsychological advantages too that transfer from meditation itself to our non-meditation activities.

Does meditation improve our health? Does it improve our thinking and cognitive functions? Does the improvements in our meditation practice itself transfer to our work and learning?

Now that we have a definition of what is meditation, we can start to think and examine these questions in more detail. Many of these question I hope to follow up on more soon, especially since I started meditating again and am now using a brainwave monitor to help me quantify my practice.

In this post, we ventured through a series of questions on what is meditation. Starting with a pretty naive definition of meditation, we looked at some popular types and typical features, before reaching our final working definition of meditation as a multi-step process primarily involving different mental practice (methods) that are intended to engender certain cognitive states (enhanced mental states).

In short, you might define meditation as methods used towards cognitive enhancement, a definition might make it attractive to biohacker and data-driven self-improvers too. Obviously this definition leaves some parts out, but I think it works well for my purposes of thinking about meditation in terms of methods, mental states and benefits.

Much of the research I’ve looked at on meditation tends to be at either extreme. Some argue for a plethora of benefits and are able to find some degree of science to support it. Similarly, as we looked at here, quite few researchers, including some substantial reviews, have found the research and health claims on meditation to be suspect. There is also a few research efforts show casing some of the negative side effects and experiences in meditation too (Lindahl, 2017; Kornfield, 1979).

While we will need to look at health and cognitive benefits of meditation separately, Ospina et al. (2008) in their detailed review of 800 meditation studies offer the following summary:

Our meta-analysis revealed that the most consistent and strongest physiological effects of meditation practices in healthy populations occur in the reduction of heart rate, blood pressure, and LDL-C. The strongest neuropsychological effect is in the increase of verbal creativity. There is also some evidence from before-and-after studies to support the hypothesis that certain meditation techniques decrease visual reaction time, intraocular pressure, and increase breath holding time. Though over half of the combined effect estimates are not statistically significant, the potential clinical significance of these estimates must be carefully considered. However, all of the studies included in the meta-analyses were of low methodological quality and, for this reason, the results should be interpreted cautiously. (Ospina, 2008)

I’d say the evidence is still out on the benefits of meditation as such. We do not yet know if or how meditation changes us for better (or worse). But in thinking about these questions, I’ve come to realize that it’s not just about the benefits themselves. We might hope there are benefits and that they are transferrable outside of our practice, but we shouldn’t forget that part of meditation’s importance is in the experiences and mental states it brings. In fact, meditation is one of the longest on-going human traditions and practices in existence whose purpose was and is to bring us into certain mental states.

Personally, one thing I have learned in researching meditation and trying to define it is that there are a lot more techniques to meditation than just setting quietly and trying to be mindful. That is definitely one way but not the only way to meditate.

Moreover, if you look at meditation holistically in terms of methods and induced mental states, you realize there are potentially endless way to train, practice, induce or guide a mind. I definitely plan to explore and try some of this other meditative methods.

Finally, when I look again at our definition (a multiple step process of methods that brings about new mental states and experiences) and think about it more broadly, I realize that it applies beyond just meditation. It applies to any practice that changes us. In fact, it can apply to a whole host of approaches: biological, goal-driven, experiential, pharmaceutical, data-driven, or even technological.

In my opinion, we should embrace this and pursue the wealth of human experiences possible both in meditation and in life in general.

Best of luck and happy meditating!



References:
  • Awasthi, B. (2013). Issues and perspectives in meditation research: in search for a definition. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 613.
  • Bond, K., Ospina, M. B., Hooton, N., Bialy, L., Dryden, D. M., Buscemi, N. et al. (2009). Defining a complex intervention: The development of demarcation criteria for “meditation”. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 1(2), 129.
  • Cardoso, R., Souza, E. D., Camano, L., & Leite, J. R. (2004). Meditation in health: an operational definition. Brain research protocols.
  • Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2014). Are mindfulness-based interventions effective for substance use disorders? A systematic review of the evidence. Substance use & misuse, 49(5), 492-512.
  • Goleman, D., & Davidson, R. J. (2017). Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Brain, Mind, and Body. Penguin.
  • Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M. S., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R. et al. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA internal medicine, 174(3), 357-368.
  • Kornfield, J. (1979). Intensive insight meditation: A phenomenological study. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 11(1), 41.
  • Lindahl, J. R., Fisher, N. E., Cooper, D. J., Rosen, R. K., & Britton, W. B. (2017). The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PloS one, 12(5).
  • Nash, J. D., & Newberg, A. (2013). Toward a unifying taxonomy and definition for meditation. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 806.
  • Ospina, M. B., Bond, K., Karkhaneh, M., Tjosvold, L., Vandermeer, B., Liang, Y. et al. (2008). Meditation Practices for Health: State of the Research. Evidence Reports/Technology Assessments, No. 155. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US). Available Online a https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/n/erta155/.
  • Van Dam, N. T., van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A. et al. (2018). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(1), 36-61.

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