Nope! There are numerous styles of meditation, including some that represent quite a stretch in the traditional meaning of the term. I suspect that folks new to meditation would do well to begin with a rather broad definition, trusting that refinement will naturally occur as practice deepens.
The broadest view I can conceive is this: meditation is the conscious gift of one’s complete attention to an activity. In this sweeping notion, any activity can be done meditatively. This is, in fact, a view shared by many schools of meditation and gives rise to various manifestations of the adage, ‘When you walk, walk; when you sit, sit; when you eat, eat’--and so on. To engage in the act before you with complete focus brings an immediacy to any experience. It also runs counter to the way many of us spend our lives--multitasking, rushing from one thing to another, never fully here since so much of our attention is held by the past or called to the future. We all too frequently are divided within ourselves, and thus separated from an authentic and intimate experience of the world.
With this broad view of meditation, anyone can begin right now to deepen their experience of life. It doesn’t require fancy technique, special training, or specific commitments of time. I once read of a woman lamenting to her mentor that, as a single mother of young children, she just couldn’t find the time to meditate. Her teacher asked what one activity she did most frequently. They then went to the sink and together washed each dish and utensil with full attention. Diapering, playing, rocking, feeding, even limit-setting--all the activities of parenting can be done more fully or less fully, with more or less awareness and presence. Likewise, one can drive, converse, work, walk the dog, make love, read, plan for the future or reminisce about the past with a meditative awareness.
But many of us find that a specific meditation practice allows us to best develop the skill to engage all areas of our lives with more immediacy. And so, the beginning broad definition seeks refinement. While we begin with the giving of our complete focus, to what do we give it in order to best cultivate this aptitude? And precisely how?
There are several answers to this question offered by the various schools of meditation, with many subsets within each one, and quite a bit of overlap between them. You may be encouraged to focus on one or more of the following: your breath, either natural or controlled; a sacred word, phrase, text, idea, object, or image; energy centers within the body; simple or complex visualizations; sounds; observing thoughts and sensations that arise. Some schools take a decidedly devotional bent while others may seem rather cerebral. Technique can be complex or simple. One may walk, sit, take particular postures, or dance; chant or be silent; use prayer beads or rosaries; practice alone or in groups. You may be encouraged toward total absorption or complete detachment. There are forms that rely on a deep bond between teacher and student, and ones that downplay such relationships, encouraging individuals to experiment with teachings to find what works for them. In other words, there is something for us all.
I think this last point is essential. We are not all the same, so why should the style of meditation that works for one person be a perfect fit for another? I suspect many folks find a first attempt ill-fitting and, not realizing the plethora of meditation flavors available, abandon the practice all together. This common misconception of a one-size-fits-all meditative approach is, I think, unwittingly furthered by meditation teachers who speak or write as though their own teaching is the only one, when it is simply what has worked for them.
There is, indeed, a style of meditation for any temperament, as well as modifications of each that can tailor it further to a particular nature. If you are interested in pursuing meditation, investigate various schools. Take classes, read books, listen to tapes, search the web, go on retreat. Notice when something resonates. Then, experiment.
And relax! Cultivate a spirit of curiosity. Follow your own intuitive urgings. This is your life, your journey. Trust that if you feel called to meditation, a fruitful direction will appear. When something resonates, cultivate it so that it will bear a luscious fruit.
The simple truth I find in this particular myth is that, ultimately, any meditative approach will bring us the same gifts: a loving acceptance of what is, a connection to all that is, and an awareness of the sacred within both the small and large moments of our lives.
I am reminded of somthing I heard the Dalai Lama say in an interview years ago. “If it brings good heart, is good religion; if it does not bring good heart, is not good religion.” For the purpose of our discussion here, I think the following modification works well: “If it brings good heart, is good meditation.” In that way, there is only one correct way to meditate--the way that brings you good heart.
May you find your own good heart throughout the coming week.
PS. For other Meditation Myths and Half-Truths in this series, please click on Myth #1, Myth #2, and Myth #3. I'd love to hear about your experiences!