What is meditation?

Meditation has been practiced across the globe by people of many different faiths for thousands of years. Yet, meditation is still difficult for people to define. Usually, people are referring to a spiritual discipline that involves intentionally dedicating time for reflection or contemplation. This may or may not be part of a specific religious tradition. A more universal explanation is that meditation is a way of seeking peace with oneself and with the world. No single religious tradition has exclusive ownership of the practice of meditation. As people have sought personal and corporate peace, meditation has taken various forms throughout time.

For many people, meditation brings to mind a Buddhist monk sitting for hours in silence trying to achieve enlightenment. Certainly, meditation is central to Buddhist practice. However, meditation is not a practice relegated to a select few on a mountaintop, removed from our modern experience. Buddhist meditation is just one example of meditation. The discipline is a practice that people of various faiths can approach as a novice, an expert, or anywhere in between.

Meditation in Buddhism

When Buddhists talk about achieving enlightenment, they mean an escape from worldly and bodily troubles. For them, it represents oneness with the flow of the universe. They are seeking peace by quieting the mind, and ultimately letting go of the self. They seek a connection with something greater, a source of that peace.

Within Buddhism, there are many different types of meditation. Each has slightly different goals. Some Buddhists practice metta, or loving-kindness meditation, which focuses the mind on sending loving energy to the self, to others, and to the world as a whole. The goal is to create more peace and harmony in the world and in a person’s own life. Those who practice Nichiren Buddhism focus their meditation on a mantra (brief saying) such as Nam myoho renge kyo, which translates roughly as, ‘Let me be one with the stream.’ This type of meditation seeks to bring peace, calmness, and clarity to the practitioner. The practitioner then seeks to bring these gifts to those around them.

Embodied Meditation Practices in Buddhist Traditions

Buddhist traditions also incorporate embodied meditation practices such as yoga, T’ai Chi, and walking meditation. All of these aim to create internal peace by engaging the entire body and breathing. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj meaning ‘to unite.’ Yuj signifies being joined with the oneness or flow of the universe. By moving the body and using breath in intentional ways, yoga practitioners seek to create a feeling of peace and well-being that follows into the rest of the day.

Practitioners of T’ai Chi seek to improve the flow of qi or life force energy. This energy is believed to already exist in human bodies. By moving and breathing intentionally, practitioners experience this flowing or unified force within, and surrounding them. Walking meditation can be done in a temple, a walking labyrinth, or in nature. It allows people to access a sense of inner peace by focusing the physical body on the repetitive mechanics of intentional walking and breathing.

Meditation does not belong solely to Buddhism, or other Eastern traditions, however. Many cultures and religions incorporate meditative practices in their spiritual disciplines.

The Islamic tradition

The daily prayers (salaat) required of Muslims are themselves an act of meditation. The practicing Muslim takes an intentional break in the activities of the day to quiet the mind and focus their thoughts, breath, and body on Allah, surrendering their human stresses to a greater power, one that holds us all. Some may not think of Muslim prayer as an act of meditation. However, it is an example of pausing throughout the day to be mindful of one’s source and to connect to a greater force.

Some Muslims and Sufis practice dhikr, the ongoing repetition of words or phrases that invoke Allah. It is similar to mystical Jewish meditation and the use of mantras in Buddhism. Dhikr allows a person to use words, phrases, and tones to occupy the busy mind and thus transcend everyday busyness to access a space of inner calm and connected peace. This may or may not be accompanied by physical movements or postures that engage the entire body in meditative practice.

The Jewish tradition

Some Jewish mystics suggest that we may find that oneness with God or join the universal stream of consciousness and “God-knowing” by using different combinations of Hebrew letters as mantras to invoke the names of God. Jewish meditation can also involve recitation of the Sh’ma or other daily prayers with attention to breath, tone, and posture. A practitioner uses familiar words and prayers to anchor one’s thoughts and to clear “mind noise.” This aids one in reaching a sense of peace in mind, body, and spirit. Jewish practitioners simply use the repertoire of Jewish prayer and tradition to enter a meditative state.

In the Christian tradition

In Christianity, worshipers practice forms of meditation during some types of prayer, in song, in the verbal recitation of sacred texts, in the focused contemplation of scripture passages, or in a personal conversation with Jesus, Mary, or any of the saints. Some sects of Christianity view meditation with suspicion. Its connection to Buddhism and New Age spirituality is seen as problematic. Still, meditation has a long history in contemplative Christian traditions.

In recent decades, some prominent Christian teachers such as Richard Foster and Dallas Willard have reintroduced practices associated with the desert fathers and monastic orders and have written volumes on spiritual formation and the practice of spiritual disciplines. Meditation is listed as one of the “inward disciplines,” along with prayer, fasting, and Bible study.

Meditation in the Bible

Many Christians contrast their understanding of Eastern meditation as seeking oneness or striving to empty the mind, with meditation as deep contemplation in pursuit of greater understanding, especially of God. Christians of this mindset would consider pursuing a greater understanding of God to be the biblical approach to meditation. Biblical verses such as Psalms 104:34 indicate that meditation can be pleasing to God and Psalms 49:3 connects meditation to wisdom and understanding. The Bible has many references to meditation. Both Joshua and David meditate on the law (Joshua 1:8 & Psalm 119:97) Psalms has many references to meditating on the words, works, and character of God (Psalm 143:5, Psalm 119:27, Psalm 119:148, and Psalm 48:9).

In the New Testament, Paul in 1 Timothy 4:15 admonishes Timothy to “not neglect” or in the KJV “meditate” on his teachings. Similarly, in Philippians 4:8 Christians are instructed to “think on” things that are good. These passages fit well with the conception of meditation and deep contemplation in pursuit of God.

Some sects of Christianity believe that Jesus taught that we all have the kingdom of God within us which some contemplatives interpret to mean that humans are all one with the connected stream of the universe and may access that stream at any time tapping into the teaching of Luke 17:.21, “the Kingdom of God is among you,” seeking peace not in the world, or even in heaven, but within ourselves.

Corporate Meditation

In these traditions, chanting, praying, or intoning words and sounds in a communal setting can focus and intensify the practice. The atmosphere in a mosque during dhikr, a synagogue during the recitation of the kol nidre on Yom Kippur, a Buddhist temple where dozens are chanting the Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, or a church service while the Lord’s Prayer is being recited in unison are powerful expressions of unity. The intentions and practices of a group can enhance the spiritual experience for all those in the group.

Mindfulness Movement

Meditation is not always connected to a religious tradition. In recent decades the Mindfulness movement has grown in popularity and accessibility. It encompasses the practices of traditional religions without specifying any of them. This brings meditation and peace-seeking practices to everyone, regardless of their religious or spiritual identities. The mindfulness movement is a secular model that seeks to train both individuals and groups to intentionally quiet the mind, focus on the breath, and perceive one’s thoughts without judgment or engagement.

Hundreds of mindfulness teachers, leaders, authors, and apps offer guidance in daily meditation practice, which can last anywhere from a minute to hours on end. CEOs, project managers, and teachers are being trained in mindfulness, with courses available for companies, teams, and students. The prevailing American cultural model of work that prizes efficiency and productivity is leaving people stressed, upset, and unfulfilled. The mindfulness movement seeks to slow down the constant hustle and bustle to focus inward. It seeks to find internal peace amidst the constant stressors of modern life. Most people cannot retire from life to seek enlightenment on a mountaintop or practice hours of meditation each day. Everyone, however, can carve out a few minutes of daily mindfulness practice which allows them to step away from the stress and burdens of life, and then carry that sense of peace as they re-enter their fast-paced day.

Accessible to Everyone, Anytime, Anywhere

Regardless of whether people relegate meditation to solitary monks, or locate meditation outside of their preferred religious or spiritual practice, there is a growing understanding that meditation is accessible to everyone. When someone is intentionally focusing attention on a thought, a word, a movement, or a peaceful activity, they are meditating. A person can meditate sitting down, while walking or moving, while painting, cooking, playing music, holding children, or doing any activity that brings awareness to their breath, to their connection with others, and to the universe as a whole. Whenever someone taps their source of inner peace, they are engaging in a form of meditation.


What do you think? Please share your thoughts below.

Too often, people answer faith questions with dogmatic certitude and neglect the historic diversity and complexity of Christian ideas. The Questions Project is a resource that responds to questions about faith, history, and scripture in a way that honors the historic diversity and complexity of Christian thought. But, this is a work in process and we need your help. Please provide feedback. We are particularly interested in knowing what we have missed and how we can improve our responses. Please keep all comments kind or risk deletion.

About Post Author

More Questions

  • Learning to listen to God requires some form of centering prayer. Learning to slow down our pace and stop talking is almost foreign to American culture. I’ve never cared for loud churches for this reason. Some say something is so loud they can’t think…but I think it’s so loud, I cannot listen.

    • Agreed. You make an excellent point about the value of stillness and quiet. Neither seem to characterize much of American culture. This pull toward a more quiet and contemplative worship style has led my spouse and me to a different denomination from the ones we were raised in, a denomination that is more participatory and where we can take comfort in the calm and thereby listen more deeply. We appreciate your comment.

  • >