Clarifying the terms "meditation" and "practice"

One of the issues this volume will no doubt grapple with is the wide-ranging uses of the term “meditation” and their associated connotations. In both popular and scholarly literature these extend from evoking the supernatural, spiritual, mystical, and exotic, to the more mundane experience of a quiet moment listening to music or taking in a landscape, or quietly thinking about something. Each of these uses of the term attracts some people.

As a jumping off point I use the Wikipedia definition of meditation: “a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a state of consciousness either to realize some benefit, or as an end in itself.” It is a useful starting point because it is bare and unadorned and does not attempt to describe and define the possible benefits or states of consciousness. I like it also because it places

“practice” upfront and artfully goes on to describe two different meanings of practice that can be used in reference to meditation.

In the first meaning, meditation practice is used in the sense of “I’m practicing my jump-shot to get better at it during a real game” In the other it is used in the sense of “I’m practicing my profession, having preceded this with an apprenticeship during which I gained competence in the skills it entails and which I now execute with expertise”

While these two meanings of practice overlap and intertwine, either explicitly or implicitly, both academic and popular writing and instruction on meditation refer to practice in both senses and in ways that are not often made clear. Sometimes also they are conflated, with an apparent or stated assumption that the meanings are not in fact different or fruitfully distinguished between, invoking catchphrases such as “not doing” “no effort” or “just being” But invoking paradox to explain away the apparent and sometimes obvious contradictions in these ways of approaching meditation is not helpful to those first approaching the field, even in the interest of pre-empting a beginner’s tendency to separate “life” from “practice” Rather, making the distinction clear in instructions can be useful for beginners, especially in clinical settings. For, as I discuss below, the psychological processes involved in each sense of the word are different in important ways, and competent instruction can fruitfully support the development of each.

I focus initially on the first sense of meditation practice as “practicing my jump-shot to get better at it during a real game”. I describe the psychological processes activated by the attending skills embedded in the beginning instructions commonly used in a variety of meditation traditions, and the connection they have with the experience of distress and well-being. I then go on to discuss the second sense in which meditation practice is used, as in “practicing my profession with expertise, having gained competence in the skills it entails,” by describing the recognitions that can be established as a result of this kind of attending and the effects these too can have in everyday life.

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