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As philosophers, can we provide a compelling definition of “meditation” (as in, the mental practice, originating from certain Asian cultures and traditions).

I have personally begun to speculate about it in the following way:

First, let us take as a primary assumption, “I am conscious.” This seems to imply, that I not only have a sense of an experiential self, but also, some kind of acting or deciding self, a self that does (certain things).

Second, let us observe “I can do certain things with my consciousness.” Now the question is, what kinds of things can you do? Here are some that I feel are relatively distinguishable from each other:

  • I can think. Thinking is some sort of consciously, mentally controllable mental phenomenon which involves contemplating, analyzing, etc., things like facts, considerations, propositions, beliefs about the world, etc.
  • I can imagine. Imagining is when the mind consciously activates its inner sensory-modality-representation abilities (systems, faculties), to generate what the mind already generates, in daily life: images, smells, sounds, feelings, and so on.
  • I can remember. Remembering seems distinctively different from imagining. It is a highly particular mental action in which we access or retrieve memories in our brain/mind - what we intuitively understand to be things which occurred in our subjective self’s past.
  • I can enact. This one is a bit more subtle, but I think is a pretty central one (at least to my current point of view). Enactment is the mind’s ability to consciously change its state, at will. Although it does not have unlimited capability, an example would be that I may be able to summon a feeling or disposition of relaxation, just by commanding myself, or deciding or intending, to relax. Enactment is the mind’s ability to directly force or engage states which are otherwise consequences or responses to something else (a feeling in response to an experience, or something). You could maybe also call this “autogenesis” or something.
  • I can choose what to focus on. This is simply that I clearly, upon checking internally in my consciousness, find that I can choose to direct my attention at different things, in the greater sphere of things I can be aware of.

I think enactment might be a special case of imagination, but I’m not sure. Also, choosing what to focus on could be seen as a special type of enactment.

I think that meditation is primarily “choosing where to focus attention”, followed by “enactment” to a large degree, with some imagining, and some thinking, in certain styles; “remembering” is not common in most meditation styles I know of.

When you do these things, consciousness begins to change its quality/character/state.

One of the most important changes is that consciousness becomes unmeshed, for lack of a better term. We may ordinarily experience our consciousness as a single integrated thing, or have some ability to differentiate between some things which are present in consciousness (like that feeling, that thought, that thing in my visual field). Somehow, meditation may increase the extent to which consciousness is directed at consciousness, or, neurally, that there is some particular way in which the brain is looping its own signals back into itself.

By being aware of one’s visual field, one may become aware of their own visual field as a phenomenon of consciousness unto itself; not just the contents of the visual field. One may become aware of their own mental capacity for awareness; aware of their mind’s decision to be aware of this or that thing, in a given moment.

I haven’t analyzed this part too well yet, but it is like meta-awareness, the mind’s ability to be aware of any and all elements within reach in consciousness, even submersed ones in subconsciousness, allows the mind to slowly separate elements of consciousness from each other, so that we begin to perceive more readily, for example, how a particular thought or memory is strongly connected to a particular feeling; or how a particular emotion is actually comprised of a particular bodily sensation, an emotion, and certain associated thoughts; and so on.

Somehow, I believe this aspect of meditation has the potential to be profoundly therapeutic, because this kind of extensive mental, phenomenological self-introspection and self-discovery is necessary for self-change. I can only justify that claim with a weak (and sub-optimal) analogy to the idea in quantum mechanics where measurement on a system affects that system’s state. Since consciousness has some kind of circularity as a system, in which it is able to perceive or experience aspects of itself as objects of perception or awareness, while at the same time feeling itself to be in part an immanent construction (a “self”) which is manifested as a result of ingredients of consciousness (feelings, thoughts, etc.), the mind dynamically changes itself merely by discovering something new about itself. If you become aware that the underlying reason you feel a certain way about something is due to some other factor relating to that thing, in some ways, the state of the mind has already changed, because it acquired hidden, latent knowledge, about itself.

This is a rough sketch of a reflection on what meditation is, ideally from the perspective of consciousness itself, and from “first principles”, if possible. I am curious if my thought touches on some work in phenomenology, and how my attempt at a classification of mental “actions” lines up with or conflicts with any other established theories of the “elements of consciousness”.

Phenomenologically, what is meditation?

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    Related, on our Psychology & Neuroscience site: What is the difference between hypnosis and meditation? and an interesting only partially related one: What are the negative effects of meditation?. Dec 26, 2023 at 4:26
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    It may help to frame this in the context of an eastern text. Eg in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras there are terms (a) pratyahara (b) dharana (c) dhyana (4) samadhi (5) kaivalya. Any/all could be classed meditation in the looser western sense
    – Rushi
    Dec 26, 2023 at 5:46
  • Might want to do some research on the history and prehistory of religion. I'm pretty sure that meditation was ancient by the time they came out with Homo sapiens. You could make an argument that modern meditative practice is almost all Asian, since Christianity and Islam are Asian religions, but I don't think that's what you meant.
    – g s
    Dec 26, 2023 at 7:22
  • Meditation is when your mana is regenerated. Dec 27, 2023 at 8:57
  • The Abhidharma would be a great resource for your investigation.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 27, 2023 at 13:27

2 Answers 2

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  1. There are many tracts on meditation in the context of different Hindu or Buddhist schools. These schools favour different styles of meditation. IMO all schools subscribe to Patañjali’s definition at the beginning of his Yoga sutras as the common denominator of meditation:

    "Yogaś citta-vritti-nirodhaḥ" (Yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind)

    The Sanskrit योग (= yoga) in its broad sense means “any simple act or rite conducive to Yoga or abstract meditation” (Monier-Williams)

  2. From the viewpoint of psychology meditation is a method to induce an altered state of consciousness. The latter is an umbrella term covering in a neutral way a variety of mental states. For an introduction and pointer to the specialist literature see altered state of consciousness.

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Meditation is practiced in many ways. In Hindu religion there are many Gurus who teach meditation. Some examples are Sri Sri Ravishankar, Sadguru, Deepak Chopra etc .

Essentially most Hindu gurus teach about the nature of Self or Atman. You “think” about the question “Who Am I ?”. You understand and realise that you are not body , you are not mind etc. And finally as you let go of all things you are not ,you end up understanding that you are Shiva or Krishna or Vishnu or Atman or Universe or consciousness etc.

However in Buddhism the meditation involves meditating on Love or Compassion or Joy or Equanimity or Ugliness. Essentially Buddhism also teaches that renunciation of things that are not you. But it doesn’t say that you are Shiva or Vishnu or Krishna or Jesus or consciousness etc. Most Buddhist meditate on three marks of existence.

Three marks of existence are the following :

  1. All conditioned phenomena are impermanent.
  2. All conditioned phenomena are suffering.
  3. All conditioned and unconditioned phenomena are not-Self.

There are many many more ways to meditate but the most important way to meditate is to meditate on Self or meditate on the nature of existence. The result of such a meditation is that you give up things which are not you , yours or yourself.

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  • I never understood what "understanding that you are Shiva or Krishna or Vishnu or Atman or Universe or consciousness etc." means. Is this a kind of megalomania?
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 28, 2023 at 8:34
  • @JoWehler You transcend your identity to merge with the new identity of Shiva,Krishna,Vishnu or Atman or Universe or Consciousness etc. Essentially it says that there is an immortal identity of which we are part of. We leave our present identity to merge with grand identity. Dec 28, 2023 at 8:52
  • A person who makes such a claim, how does he know that he/she is right? - By the way, what is the identity of the Universe, alias "grand identity"?
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 28, 2023 at 8:59
  • @JoWehler Deepak Chopra says you are the Universe. I can not explain everything here but essentially he says everything is entangled into one awareness. Dec 28, 2023 at 11:08
  • Deepak Chopra might be right or wrong. How does he know whether he is right? Does he present any argument for his statements which can be discussed on this philosophical platform? Without arguments such claims were just empty talking.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 28, 2023 at 15:36

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