Meditation is the name given to several different practices which aim to bring about a non-typical (and beneficial) mental state. Different forms have been documented by practitioners and teachers throughout history, and several religions promote their forms of meditation (or prayer) as transformative, leading to enlightenment or gnosis. All forms seem to share certain characteristics:
- Object of focus — whether a physical sensation (such as is created by the act of breathing), a word or image, or a positive emotion, meditation generals asks the practitioner to “notice”, and continue noticing, a particular object of focus. In the case of transcendental meditation, the objejct is a “sacred word/phrase” or mantra which the meditator repeats mentally until the mantra seems to be repeating itself. Alternatively, metta meditation may involve focusing and growing a sense of acceptance, good-will and love, from family to friends to neighbours to all living creatures.
- “Effortless effort” — One thing that is stressed is that meditation should not be a strenuous or active practice: if the practitioner finds their focus drifting, they are often counselled to “return attention to (e.g. the breath). Focusing too much on the outcomes or judging ones’ performance is seen as counterproductive; indeed, often part of the practice is a recognition that thoughts (and/or distractions) will arise naturally, but that it is possible to allow them to arise and dissipate without attachment.