There are words in our vocabulary which are precise when it comes to meaning. Most words do not need to be explained as there is not much gray area for what someone means when they say something. Expressions such as “I’m reading,” “I took the dog out for a walk,” or “I need to do the dishes” do not leave much room for interpretation. Then there are words which are not so clearly defined. Words like “God,” spirit,” or “love.” Meditation falls into this second category of words. Consistently when discussing meditation with another, there are questions about how to do it, what it is, or what happens when it is done. Just like in various schools of theology they define God differently, the same is true for meditation. Depending on where you come from or who you study with, meditation from the outside looks different. Some include sounds, smells, certain sights such as an altar table, and there are at times objectives such as concentrating on a single object or sending loving-kindness to others.
To clarify this it can be useful to relate it to another practice which is similarly vague in definition and also has many forms. Art is a form of expression which is constantly changing. What is considered art today, was simply a urinal yesterday, yet today in a museum it is considered art. There is art of sound, sight, literature, and it will continue to evolve as new art forms are developed. Meditation is like this, similarly there was a time when specific forms of meditation hadn’t yet been developed. Likewise with meditation, the relationship to the word evolves as the practitioner develops and matures with the practice. For practical purposes however, I find it relevant to notice as with different forms of art, the common denominator of artistic practices is the meaning of art. Whether it is playing in a heavy metal band or painting a landscape, what makes them art is synonymous. This is the same for meditation.
The best way to know what meditation is, is to try it out. Not just to sit and aimlessly wonder what meditation is, but to experiment with it. The aim is to know what meditation is. Do different types of meditation, read about it from different sources and see how others have defined it, gain some exposure to meditative culture. Most importantly, do not take anybody’s word for what meditation is. If anyone is serious about knowing what meditation is, hearsay may help you get an idea, but you will constantly be reminded that the words are not the thing. It’s practically a cliché it is said so often. Be like a scientist looking for the cure to a disease which hasn’t been discovered yet. For all you know, nobody knows what meditation is. This is just one of those things ultimately we have to do for ourselves. Luckily though, there are companions along the way who also are on this quest.
Due to the popularity of the topic there is a major influx of information on meditation in the 21st century, practically an overload of information. You will read things that are supposed to happen, absolutely the most fantastic things you can imagine, that may never happen. It is important to at once stay open minded to new experiences, as well as never doubt your own as the primary evidence for consideration. If you have or desire a teacher, that’s quite alright. Just remember it is you who makes them a teacher. There are no teachers without students, and their authority is your gift to them. Just because someone claims to have had such and such experience of some level of meditative attainment, there is no reason for you to accept it even exists unless you know it by fact. The hard reality of meditation is that it is subjective. Although a valuable lesson, anticipation of something imagined which never arrives is a common humbling frustration in meditation. It is a waste of energy to expect someone else’s experience, and it is possible even already that what you will be met with when you take time to meditate is a whole lot of thoughts and expectations. Don’t worry though, this is a perfect start.
Don’t be depressed when your experience of meditation is alarmingly human. You’d might be surprised by the amount of individuals I discuss meditation with that are confronted with anxiety because of various things they’ve heard that ‘can’ happen in meditation. Ranging from traveling out of body to other places, encountering spooky entities, all the way to literally disappearing into a black hole never to be found again. The amount of testimony on these kinds of experiences is of course limited to those that have spoken about them, and worthy of note, those that have spoken about them often have an audience which values someone that claims to have had this type of experience. Do these kinds of things happen? The jury is still out on the topic. Which is good news for anyone interested in meditation, because you yourself are the jury.
Do not be discouraged if you find yourself not understanding what meditation is while you are practicing. Simply stop trying to match experience with a definition, what meditation ‘should be’ if what is said about it is correct. If you can be open to the idea that anything anyone has said or ever will say about meditation is not what meditation is. Congratulate yourself, because this is the beginning of meditation.