What is Meditation?

Swami Sannyasananda Saraswati, Australia (Swami Sannyasananda BSc [Psych, Physiol]; BSc [hons] [Physiol] is a yoga teacher and research scientist in the neurophysiology of yoga and meditation and is conducting research into pranayama as a PhD candidate at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia).

Meditation is often thought of as sitting quietly and stilling all the thoughts or contemplating the navel while keeping the spine erect and hands placed firmly in the lap in any number of classical mudras. But what is actually going on inside? Is it sufficient to just sit there and do nothing? Is it important to recite a mantra to keep the mind occupied or is it better to empty the mind of all thoughts?

Passive meditation

According to Swami Satyananda (1974) there are two types of meditation: active and passive. Passive meditation is where you sit for some time and practise some form of contemplation for introspection, such as any one of the many meditational practices commonly known these days. The aim in passive meditation is to help still the mind and to make it one pointed. There are four stages of proficiency:

  • Stage 1 – Pratyahara: This is where the mind is fixed on a meditational practice or technique such as a sound, a mantra, a visual picture etc. It can even involve an asana or a movement. This process is designed to occupy and calm the mind, and to make it more introverted, rather than constantly distracted by external events and signals coming in all the time.
  • Stage 2 – Dharana: The free flow of thoughts, visions, memories etc. from the unconscious is the hallmark of this stage of meditation and the purpose is to rid the mind of the subconscious clutter. The idea is to simply observe the thoughts and impressions, but at the same time subtly detach yourself from the machinations and goings on inside. It is like waiting at a bus stop for your bus to come along. Many cars and trucks pass by, they are noticed but not acted upon. This traffic scenario in a way represents the very real and constant flow of thoughts, impressions and feelings that are often blurring a clear flow of conscious awareness.
  • Stage 3 – Dhyana: Real meditation only really begins when the mental clutter is no longer in constant focus or a source of distraction and the mind can start to focus on and contemplate the higher aspects of consciousness. It never actually goes away. The mind does not actually become empty or silent. One simply ignores the clutter and ongoing noise of life and ‘tunes in’ to the cosmos or collective consciousness, and then you start to have a spontaneous awareness of the higher aspects of self and knowledge of a higher order. A sense of connectedness to all life and all things unfolds and this connectedness allows for the possibility of absorption into the whole.
  • Stage 4 – Samadhi: When the mind is totally transcended, one can, theoretically, achieve supreme consciousness and what is often known as enlightenment. This is when the person is totally immersed or absorbed in the meditation state at all times and is beyond ‘normal’ everyday awareness. All things eventually become one. It is a very high state of being and not that easy to obtain but we can sometimes have glimpses and short experiences of this state from time to time if we persist.

Active meditation

Eventually ‘passive meditation’, i.e. the sitting and trying part, is meant to fall away and ‘active meditation’ takes over as a natural progression. This active meditation is where the participant continues in their daily activities and begins co-developing their self-identity as well as practising some form of passive meditation from time to time. There evolves a continuous state of meditation on one’s life that stems from a realisation of higher consciousness; a knowing that we are all connected and that we all play a part in each other’s reality. Active meditation then includes such things as walking, breathing, working, sitting, eating, learning and even includes longer term actions such as obtaining various qualifications over several years to achieve a higher purpose in life or to bring about change in the collective consciousness that can only be done by applying constant effort over time. As we all belong to this collective consciousness, any awareness that we enhance (or pollute) in ourselves also eventually affects the whole in some way. Consciousness is more than the sum of its parts, however, despite some philosophers branding it as merely an epiphenomenon, the noise that comes from the machinations of the mind.


The word ‘consciousness’ has different meanings to different people. Dictionaries often define it as ‘knowing of external circumstances’. A person in a dream, coma or under anaesthetic may appear ‘unconscious’, yet on waking or under hypnosis may later report events and conversations that occurred during their ‘unconsciousness’ (Russell 1983). According to Johnstone (1973, pp. 79), “All consciousness is conscious of something. But this is not the only priory principle of specifying the scope of consciousness. There is also the principle of ownership: all consciousness is somebody’s consciousness.” It is intentionality that makes us human and gives us choice. Consciousness by itself is essentially impotent. It cannot act upon or impinge itself in matter without energy. That’s how we get the Shiva-Shakti dance of consciousness and energy to materialise and manifest intention via duality.

Unfortunately, there is an ongoing and inherent problem with the English language having essentially only one word to convey so many different meanings. Maslow thought there was just one mystical experience, he described it as ‘unitive consciousness’ or cosmic consciousness. According to Rowan (1983) however, there are at least seven distinct mystical experiences. These are the peak experience, pure energy, real self, higher self, deity as substance, deity as process, and the ultimate consciousness. In Sanskrit, though, there are some twenty different words for consciousness, each with a specific meaning representing many concepts, which in the West are often barely heard of let alone familiar and in common use. For example, chitta is the mind stuff or the experiencing medium of the individual; chit is the eternal consciousness of which the individual mind stuff is a manifestation; turiya is the experience of pure consciousness without an object; dhyana is consciousness focused on an idea; purusha, the essence of consciousness (Russell 1983). Whether the process of objectifying consciousness is more properly in the realm of physiology, psychology or philosophy is open, but the specific phenomenological method required for the study of consciousness is introspection (Dennett 1978) and introspection is the first stage of passive meditation.

Different types of meditation

This process of introspection is utilised in the same manner as that used by practitioners of Transcendental Meditation™(TM). TM consists of mental recitation of a mantra, given according to one’s age (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). This mantra is then used from then on until one reaches an advanced state when the addition of the mantra ‘nama’ is added to the end of one’s ‘personal’ mantra, and is meant to be kept secret from others. The process of using a simple mantra allows the conscious mind to become sufficiently distracted and occupied so that stillness and quietude can ensue. There are many such simple introspections with and without mantras in many different lineages of yoga.

Woolfolk (1975) and Corby et al. (1978) cite many therapeutic benefits of a TM style of meditation practice such as lowered blood pressure, greater relaxation response etc., and look at EEG and other correlates of TM and other yogic meditation practices. They both essentially found that there are two distinct responses to meditation techniques that seem opposite in effect. TM and other similar contemplative meditation techniques such as Zen, Zazen produce a similar relaxation response with EEGs of subjects showing increased alpha activity that was usually blocked or interrupted by introducing an auditory or visual stimuli as an external distracter. Occasionally, theta waves were also found in the deeper states of meditation.

However, in studies of other meditation styles such as a tantric yoga meditation practised by the Ananda Margas, which is similar in substance to certain of the kundalini kriyas of Swami Satyananda, Corby et al. (1978) found the opposite effect, i.e. one of cortical or higher-brain arousal. They found that experimental subjects became more cortically aroused than their control counterparts as well as having a marked decrease in responsiveness from external stimuli. This means that they were not so easily distracted from their meditative state by external sights or sounds introduced specifically to test them. This style of meditation then was very different from the TM style of simple contemplation and mental recitation of a mantra. Ananda Marga meditation is based on witnessing the breath and consciously ‘following’ the breath up and down the spine whilst reciting a mantra with each breath.

It would seem, therefore, quite inadequate to describe meditation simply in terms analogous to the TM style of meditation only. In fact, it seems very important to be aware of the effects of different styles and types of meditation practices and to choose one according to the desired physiological and/or psychological outcome. It is no good going to a shop to buy a hammer when what you need is a pair of scissors. They are both tools and very effective at what they do best, but each has different actions and should be chosen according to the required outcome. Meditation is similar. It is a word that is often used in simplistic terms to describe generalised activities that look similar from the outside.

TM style meditation also has similar attributes in common with prayer yet differs in quality from prayer as discussed by Surwillo and Hobson (1978). In prayer, subjects are certainly introspective, often repeating a verse or short collection of words with a focused attention and intention. TM, though similar to introspection, is less directed and less focused on the content and or meaning of the words used. People engaged in prayer have EEG patterns more similar to the tantric Ananda Marga style of meditation, showing higher cortical arousal, than that of the TM practitioners. The faster EEGs during prayer were associated with deeper states of introspection and were not considered to be the result of cognitive activity or due to muscle activity either. It would seem then that there are two distinct effects of meditation, one of arousal and one of alpha style relaxation.

Modes of consciousness

There are also two distinctly separate modes of awareness thought to be comprised of simultaneously existing functional modes (outer and inner) that are involved in and are necessary for perception. Sperry (1984) considered whether split-brain patients possess these two separately co-conscious selves sharing the one cranium. He found that both hemispheres in commissurotomy patients (those who had the corpus callosum in their brain cut out, often to stop uncontrollable epileptic seizures migrating from one side of the brain to the other) still retain high levels of distinct mental functioning with the mute right hemisphere having an inner experience of much the same order as the speaking left hemisphere. The experience differs in quality, process and cognitive faculties, however, despite utilising different cognitive strategies to do so. The right side ‘knows’ but cannot ‘speak’, while the left can ‘speak’ but does not ‘know’ (it just thinks it knows).

The process of contemplation and meditation then allows us to explore the nature and substance of consciousness itself by turning consciousness inward upon itself. TM and mantra meditation tends to occupy the generally stronger and more dominant conscious mind with a mental sound or ‘mantra’ so that the gentler and more passive subconscious mind can unfold and give up its secrets. The conscious mind is so strong in analytical powers and so often absorbed in maintaining the cognitive status quo that it cannot see behind the veil of illusion that it builds for itself in order to make sense of this material world we live in. The more subtle things in life go unnoticed or overlooked in favour of an established reality that is re-created and sustained by endless thoughts and actions each waking day.

Consciousness in Western thought generally signifies a state of the mind or brain activity and as such appears in the world only when the mind is functioning in a certain way or is in a certain state. A person is either conscious or unconscious and consciousness is either there or not there. In Eastern thought, however, consciousness constitutes a self-existent and autonomous principle of awareness itself as an entity or form that is self-luminous and self-transparent. Transpersonal experiences, rather than necessarily being illusory, can thus be valid insights into the nature of human consciousness. Meditation is the process of self witnessing, whether simply on a session by session basis that comes and goes or on a more stable and permanent basis that can only come from an increased and expanded awareness over time and with practice.


Yoga is an intricately detailed science that expounds both in theoretical and philosophical detail, and also in practical, physical methods, ways in which a person can become more aware of the true nature of the self. Yoga provides the groundwork and the basis for beginning the process of expanding awareness. The Vedantic philosophy upon which yogic science is based treats the mind-body dynamic as an inseparable whole where the mental and the physical are regarded as illusory reflections of an implicit, transcendent, structural unity of consciousness binding all that exists. Transcendence implies an intuitive realm that cannot be known intellectually, but can only ‘be’ (Paranjpe 1985; Castillo 1985).

The Eastern yogic perspective is also supported by Quantum Theory and Particle Physics: “The soul is that cause, the presence of which keeps one alive and its absence reduces an animate being into an inanimate object . . . Though the presence of the soul is evident, it cannot be directly perceived by the usual five senses. The soul’s manifestation is through a conscious mechanism . . . known as consciousness. The operational procedure of consciousness is through desire, (i.e. motivation) . . . the motor action of the body starts and the mechanical work is done. Thus we see that desire (manifest) in a physical entity which, when it triggers the brain, electrochemico-physiological and other physical processes start operating . . . Desire is not essential for the demonstration of consciousness although consciousness operates in the physical world through desire.” (Mitra 1993)

Consciousness is definitely a prerequisite for all perceived experience. We not only experience the world around and within us, by a process of observation, we are also conscious of ourselves in that world, whether it’s the inner world or the outer world that we are aware of, and we are also conscious that we are conscious. We can contemplate and even discuss the various states of consciousness with other conscious beings.

You cannot get the qualitative aspects of consciousness though, such as the experience of the colour red, subjective feelings of pain or intention, from the quantitative computations of the brain and nervous system or electronic circuitry of a computer. Consciousness depends on the complexities of the brain and nervous system to express itself but not to exist. Computations do not explain consciousness (McGinn 1991). If consciousness was dependent on computations, how then would TM and other styles of meditation and introspective analysis work, by witnessing the computations and machinations of the mind? And could we, even theoretically, construct a machine that would have ‘mental’ states that could equate with human consciousness? Could it choose to meditate or to contemplate: “I think, therefore I am”? I think not! Could such a machine practice any form of meaningful contemplative meditation? I think not!

Meditation then, either active or passive, is a process whereby consciousness looks in and acts upon itself.


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