What is meditation?
Meditation generally is any practice of the mind. Most people use the practices to derive some specific results, like enhanced concentration, happiness, well-being, etc. Because the field of meditation is so massive, however, it may take some experimentation to find what is right for you.
I tend to think of meditation as an umbrella term for a truly massive field. Maybe a better word would be canopy term because of just how large the field of meditation is. There are endless practices that could fit under this heading. All would be different in their scope, intensity, and of course, results.
You could think about it in terms of sports. There are hundreds, if not thousands of different sports. Some are played with equipment like rackets or bats, while in others you may ride a motorcycle or stand on your head. Basically, even though they all fall under the term sports, they could not be more different from one another. If you were proficient at tennis, you would not expect those skills to transfer over to motocross or gymnastics. The definition of sports is “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment."
Our definition of meditation is any practice of the mind.
Beyond that, each practice is different and offers different results. You might try mindfulness-based stress reduction, Vipassana, Transcendental, mantra, prayer, or kirtan. If you’re anything like me, when you first encounter meditation you may have your own idea of what you think it's supposed to be. You may think it is all about quieting your mind or stopping your thoughts. In my humble opinion, these definitions do not offer enough room for growth, expansion, or personal inquiry. You wouldn’t expect all the people in the world to enjoy playing or watching the same sports. In much the same way, you shouldn’t expect everyone to enjoy the same form (or any form) of meditation. People are different. We all require different practices to live in harmony with ourselves and the world around us.
When I first started meditating, I was fascinated with Vipassana meditation and monks. I began to set up my life in a very structured and disciplined way. I would meditate every morning, I ate a strict vegetarian diet, and did my best to control all my desires (monetary, material, sexual, and otherwise). After a few months of living in this way, I definitely noticed a change in my life. My awareness was certainly heightened, but there was also a sense of apathy that I was developing to the world around me. I was confused, and my meditation practice didn't seem to be offering me any clarity.
Now, some might argue this is just the beginning of the practice and you need to keep going. It will get better. I’m not going to knock that logic. I had experienced these types of growing pains in other areas of my life. An easy example would be working out. The beginning was torture, but slowly my body became stronger and eventually began to genuinely enjoy the movement. I became a stronger, happier, and healthier version of myself. So if you find yourself in a similar conundrum, just keep playing around.
As it happened, I ended up meeting my current meditation teacher during this confusion. He seemed so… normal. He didn't wear robes or burn incense. He owned a house, had a family, and lived a seemingly normal life. There was one rather large exception, however. He had been meditating consistently for almost 40 years. This really got me thinking. Despite my romantic view of living a monk's life, maybe not all meditation practices are for all people and/or circumstances. His sense of normalcy completely resonated with me. Even though I was hesitant I thought, "I should give that practice a try."
Now, please don't misunderstand me here. I am definitely not knocking Vipassana meditation or a monk’s practice. In my experimentation, however, it seemed that this practice did not offer me what I needed in my life. This may be too broad a generalization, but I may even venture to say that Vipassana may not be made for lay-people generally. Perhaps, with the simplicity of a monk's life, that meditation technique would be just right. It helps remove the desire for worldly pleasures and may be just the ticket to deepen one's practice and understanding. The piece missing for many lay-people, however, is the sangha, or community of like-minded supporters and practitioners.
I wanted to live a relatively normal life, but still enjoy the benefits of meditation practice. I mean, who wouldn’t love increased energy, focus, and concentration with less worry, fear, and doubt? The problem was... how do I find that? The answer was easy. Try something new. What was really nice, was those 3-4 years of learning to focus on my breath and body had greatly enhanced my concentration and awareness in general. There were a few hiccups as I transitioned my practice to something new, but it translated beautifully into my new practice of mantra meditation.
As we drift back to our original topic... what is meditation?
Meditation generally is any practice of the mind. Most people use the practices to derive some specific results, like enhanced concentration, happiness, well-being, etc. Because the field of meditation is so massive, however, it may take some experimentation to find what is right for you. Play around a little. See what you enjoy. And also remember that meditation should be enjoyable. It will draw you in. It really is the path of curiosity and discovery. Enjoy the process and let it continually guide and inspire you.