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  • Andrew Lewis

What is Meditation? Where does it come from? Is it a religious practice?

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

Many have noted that the word 'Meditation' is only one letter different from 'Medication'. This is an attractive way to start talking about the benefits of meditation!

Nevertheless, the words are not as closely linked as they may seem. Our use of the word 'medicine' comes from the Latin 'medicina' (verb, 'to heal'). Our use of the word 'meditation' comes from the Latin 'meditatio', (verb, 'meditari', 'to think, to contemplate'). Much as it may disappoint some, the words are not 'joined at the hip' quite as neatly as it appears. This is perhaps a useful reminder that 'to think' isn't always 'to heal'. Certain ways of thinking can make us ill!

What is meditation? We will have to start by acknowledging that there is no precise, universally accepted definition! Let's say it is something to do with how we 'think', 'ponder', 'contemplate', something to do with how we look into ourselves rather than, or as well as, out at the world around us. Our bodily senses are busy keeping us in tune with the external world. We need to be aware of what's going on out there! But we are very largely not 'out there'. Meditation is something to do with taking the focus inward. There is an internal landscape that requires our attention and awareness, and suffers without it.

Where does Meditation practice come from? It is found in every culture, every age, all places where beings have, or have had, the ability to think, contemplate and ponder. There are many rich, ancient traditions of meditation practice. None can, or should claim ownership or overriding authenticity. No one can claim that they know of its origins.

Is it a religious practice? Sometimes it is. It can be woven into a faith, a spirituality, a devotion to a deity. This can be seen in all religious traditions, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Jain, in the 'spiritual paths' of Buddhism, Taoism, and in what is sometimes called 'new age spirituality'. The list could be longer! Meditation is seen in all religious traditions and again, none can claim special ownership. There is more than one way to practice.

Sometimes it isn't a religious practice. Meditation can and often is entirely secular. It can be completely free of bells, gongs, incense, candles, special postures, mantras, rosary, prayer and devotion to gods, gurus, or to the 'universe' . Meditation techniques are used in what may be termed a 'clinical' environment. Approaches to Psychotherapy, Cognitive Therapy, ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), Relaxation therapies, and Stress Relief therapies, more often have a meditation component, firmly supported and reinforced by methodical research. Again, the list could be longer! To consider meditation as something exclusively religious, esoteric, or other worldly is a divisive misunderstanding.

It is often the case that people come to meditation without any interest or knowledge in any of the above traditions and practices. Indeed, this can be welcomed. Meditation often results in 'wiping the slate clean', dropping all expectations and preconceived ideas so that things can be seen more clearly. The Buddha is often quoted as saying, 'Don't follow me. Be your own lamp. Find your own way.' This may remind us of Socrates in ancient Greece urging us to question everything, accept nothing on the authority of someone else but investigate and enquire using your own instinct and reasoning.

The quest is to find out for yourself. Meditation is not 'painting by numbers', or 'joining the dots'. It is a journey, a unique path where the footprints are the ones we make, not the ones we follow.

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