Meditation is absorption in a chosen object or subject. It happens when the practitioner develops a high state of concentration. Basically, concentration requires effort to stay in that state while no effort is required in meditation. The important point is that meditation cannot occur without exceptional concentration which in turn requires higher mental development and the ability to withdraw from the distraction of the five senses. Meditation can occur only when the mind is controlled. Those with an uncontrolled mind cannot meditate – they are in the practice phase of controlling the mind.
There are other mental functions and practices which are often confused by the uninitiated seeker as meditation. It will be helpful to remove such confusions from our minds in order for us to make progress to reach the state of meditation. As always, the word in spiritual context refers to both the path and state of consciousness.
The process of thinking is not meditation. Whether it is the usual stream of thoughts or a directed problem solving mode of thought, the effort required, the energy expanded, the fatigue that sets in and the confusion that normally results differentiate this mental mode from meditation. Only when a person has achieved a high state of concentration that problem solving becomes fully directed and not meandering.
Another mental mode that we slip into easily is day-dreaming where we try to escape from the pressures and conflicts in our lives and reproduce some comforting or enjoyable alternate reality. This fantasy mode of thought enmeshes us more in our own confusion and does not provide the mental clarity that is a mark of meditation. During the process of day-dreaming, we sometimes momentarily lose awareness of our consciousness or space-out. This has no benefit and is not a mark of higher consciousness or the state of meditation, but only a relapse into the unconscious state.
The practice of repeating affirmations can be helpful in overcoming some superficial or simple mental blocks. When this is supplemented with the relaxation techniques from self-hypnosis, deeper mental problems can be tackled. However helpful these are, neither can provide the insights of meditation.
Another practice that is helpful is the use of prayers in trying to focus our needs and intentions. We invoke a higher order of being to help us in prayers. Praying is a spiritual practice but is not meditation. Praying should not be confused with the use of mantras or Sanskrit power sounds. Certain mantras can be used in the path of Mantra Yoga to achieve a concentrated and absorbed mind leading to meditation.
Finally, the use of mind altering drugs is not meditation. Such substances can stimulate different states of consciousness but they are hardly under any kind of control as the subconscious may be given free reign of the mind. There is some confusion as drugs are used sometimes as the main focus of a spiritual path or as a supplement to certain techniques, but in all cases, they are substitutes to meditation.
It is unwise to use the word meditation without a precise understanding of what it means and what it doesn’t mean. This will prevent us from falling into mental traps that will delay our spiritual progress.