Meditation is a term with a wide variety of meanings, each relating to a particular approach influenced by a given psychological, religious, philosophical or spiritual belief system.
So when someone says, “I meditate,” it can mean almost anything. The late rapper Guru (1961 – 2010) for instance, once said in “Living in this World”:
I’m growin’ tired of the trickery
And the misery, it’s makin’ me kinda sick you see
But now I meditate, so I can get it straight
My thoughts penetrate, so I control my fate.¹
For René Descartes, meditation involved thinking, as evident in the title of his Meditations on First Philosophy, a philosophical method of doubt containing six meditations, and the famous line “cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am,” originally “Je pense, donc je suis”). Descartes’ meditations, however, did not preclude the idea of faith because it was his belief in God’s goodness that bailed him out of some of the sticky philosophical problems that he got himself into.
Meditation also refers to some kind of practice leading to experiential peace or an enhanced perspective on life, for here and perhaps the hereafter. This kind of meditation may involve bodily movement (e.g. Tai chi), postures (e.g. hatha yoga) or stillness; and it may or may not require a religious component.
Clinical psychology studies found that meditators report similar feelings of stillness, peace and oneness when repeating a mantra with or without religious connotations. Apparently any monosyllabic word (e.g. “tin, tap”) produces the same empirical results as a religious word (e.g. AUM).
But before we get too excited about these results we’d do well to remember that research scientists observe from the outside and have no reliable way of ascertaining the quality and character of subjects’ internal experience. Subjects may report experiences with similar sounding words but those words may point to radically different forms of consciousness and perhaps numinosity.
While some researchers have tried to pin down specific brainwave activity to precise meditational states, the same theoretical limitations arise.
Alpha wave activity is associated with relaxation and is thought to be a beneficial state. In fact alpha activity has been observed in a number of different forms of meditation. The remarkable thing, however, is that as the meditators signalled that they had entered into the state of mental silence, or “thoughtless awareness”, another form of brain wave activity emerged which involved “theta waves” focused specifically in the front and top of the brain in the midline (Knowledge of Reality Magazine, Issue 21, 1996-2006).
Clinical studies point out that religious belief has little effect on empirical results–that is, scientists see more or less the same brain activity regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs. But that’s about all they can say. Any scientist who then suggests that this finding proves all religious experience is qualitatively the same is stepping out of science and into the realm of speculation.
In Christian mysticism, meditation is generally regarded as a less elevated prerequisite for contemplation. As Evelyn Underhill puts it in Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (1914):
Now meditation is a half-way house between thinking and contemplating: and as a discipline, it derives its chief value from this transitional character (p. 46).
The strength of this definition is that it doesn’t advocate a ‘this or that’ scenario, as so many fundamentalists and conservatives tend to depict the world and religious practice. Instead, it represents a developmental approach where a seeker proceeds through meditation to eventually encounter contemplation. And one likely moves back and forth between the two in varying degrees during a lifetime.
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¹ Guru, “Living in this World,” Jazzmatazz Volume II.
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