What Is Meditation? Present Moment Awareness

May 29, 2021

Meditation has grown in popularity in recent years, and many people are becoming aware of the benefits of having a daily meditation practice. Meditation is a practice that is equally available to all people, and anyone can receive benefit from it, no matter what kind of life you lead.

Many people have different ideas about meditation, what meditation is, and how to practice meditation. Some of these ideas are helpful, and some are not so much. If you wish to start a meditation practice, it is important that you have a good understanding of what meditation really is, otherwise you may be wasting your time or causing more stress in your life unnecessarily.

If you'd like to learn more about meditation and develop your own regular practice, Our Introduction to Meditation course is a great place to start.

Common Definitions of Meditation

There are many different definitions and views about meditation. Some define meditation as “a practice where an individual uses a technique to train attention and awareness, or to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state.” Others define meditation as “a method to focus one's mind for a period of time for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.” However, these definitions don't quite capture what meditation really is. At its core, meditation is much more than just a technique or method, it is a way of being.

Common Misconceptions About Meditation

Before discussing what meditation is, it may be helpful to discuss what meditation is not. There are many different views and definitions about meditation, and some popular ideas about meditation are not meditation at all. It is so important to have a good understanding of what meditation is and why to practice it, as this understanding sets the foundation for our practice.

To make sure we’ve got the right view on meditation, let’s take a moment to explore what our current understanding of meditation is, and explore some of the common misunderstandings of meditation.

But first, take a moment to ask yourself, what are your current ideas about meditation?
What is your reason for being interested in learning about it?
Do you feel like you know what meditation is or understand it?

Let’s explore some of the common misconceptions about meditation, and see if any of these matches with your current views about it.

The most common misconceptions about meditation are that:

  • Meditation means to have no thoughts or to stop the mind from thinking.
  • Meditation is a type of relaxation exercise.
  • There is only one type of meditation practice.
  • Meditation is about being still and quiet.
  • Meditation is about reaching some special state of enlightenment.
  • Meditation will put you at ease right away.
  • Meditation is only for spiritual or religious people.
  • Meditation is about emptying your mind, and if you’re not able to do this then you’re doing it wrong.
  • Meditation is something you only do while sitting.
  • Meditation is something you do for 10 or 20 minutes a day and then stop doing once you get up from your seat.

 These are all common views on what meditation is, but fundamentally, meditation is simply focusing our attention on the present moment. It involves being aware of what we are experiencing here and now.

“Meditation is simply focusing our attention on the present moment. It involves being aware of what we are experiencing here and now.”

Without realizing it, many of us spend a significant amount of our daily lives lost in thought. We fantasize about the future, and we reflect on the past. We imagine random scenarios in our heads, stress about things that only exist in our imagination, and often create a world of problems for ourselves from our restless overthinking. The bottom line is, many of us are not really aware of life as it is in the present moment, but are instead distracted by our thinking.

Meditation is a practice in present moment awareness, a way to train ourselves to remain present to the reality of our lives, to find peace in the present moment, and to free ourselves from mental problems in doing so.

Meditation, is not about getting to some special state—of peace, ecstasy, bliss, enlightenment, or any other state. Rather, it is an invitation to be present with whatever state we are experiencing, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Meditation is radical acceptance of the present moment and all that is existing in it.

Through this radical acceptance, meditation helps us be at peace with our experience, even when it is not peaceful, simply because our acceptance of the present moment transforms the unbearable feeling that comes from resisting our present experience.

The essence of meditation is to bring our attention fully into this moment, and to perceive reality clearly by doing so. The basic point is to really be present to life and to see our immediate experience as it is, as so many of us live removed from life’s immediate reality by living in the world of our thinking.

When we are truly present to life as it is, we can see how the reality of life is vastly different than our ideas about it. In fact, every single one of our stories and concepts about life is completely inadequate when it comes to explaining life in its totality. To really experience the beauty and truth of life, we have to surrender our concepts and ideas about it, and experience it openly as it is in each moment.

 Meditation Is Not A Technique, It Is A Way of Being and Perceiving

One of the biggest misconceptions that people hold about meditation is that it is only a technique that you do for a few minutes a day, and that it is about reaching some state of peace or enlightenment. The truth is, however, that meditation is not really a technique, but a way of being and perceiving.

There are, of course, many techniques that help us to experience this way of being, and these techniques are often referred to as meditations, but it is important that you know the essence of meditation is present-moment awareness, not the technique that helps us experience this awareness.

In reality, meditation can happen in any moment of your life, whether you’re sitting down, standing up, lying down, or walking. Whatever you’re doing, if you are truly present and aware of your experience, you are meditating.

That being said, there is still great value in the traditional seated meditation practice, as it allows us to train our awareness in remaining present to our experience, rather than being distracted by thinking. The practice of seated meditation is very valuable, and a great practice for introspection and self-understanding. However, keep in mind that meditation is fundamentally about awareness. It is not something we do to get to some special state, but rather, it is training ourselves to be present and aware of whatever state that we are experiencing.

Focusing Attention

In our culture, many of us are taught that to focus means to strain ourselves. We squint our eyes and furrow our brows to see better, even though these muscular movements have nothing to do with the functioning of our optic nerve. We tilt our heads to listen better, even though this does not make our ears function any better or worse. When we’ve been told to pay attention, we often tense up, and many of us subconsciously associate focus with tension. The truth is, however, that muscular tension has nothing to do with the functioning of our nervous system.

To focus is not something we need to do that requires strain and effort. It is something that happens naturally when we relax and open up to whatever we are experiencing. This is important to know for meditation.

You don’t have to strain, struggle, or exert great effort. Just relax your muscles and open your attention to what your body and mind are experiencing. In meditation, we take on the attitude of the witness, the one that observes experience without judging it, controlling it, or resisting it.

So many of our mental and emotional problems are caused by resisting the reality of our present moment experience. We often seek to experience more pleasure and comfort, and seek to push away pain and discomfort. This constant push and pull is really just a resistance to life in the moment, and a desire to change our present moment experience.

Have you ever noticed that the mind is always preparing itself for the next moment? Preparing for what is going to happen next? Preparing for something later in the day, for something tomorrow, or some future down the line?

There is nothing wrong with having goals or planning for the future, but as the great philosopher Alan Watts pointed out:

No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now. For unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax. There is no point whatever in making plans for a future which you will never be able to enjoy. When your plans mature, you will still be living for some other future beyond. You will never, never be able to sit back with full contentment and say, "Now, I've arrived!"

Meditation is all about arriving here and now in the present moment, and accepting this moment just as it is. As simple as this sounds, it creates a drastic shift in our life, for most of us are not oriented to life in the present, but are instead consumed by our own mental fantasies, and are consequently, completely out of touch with life in the now.

Meditation & Mindfulness

The traditional practice of seated meditation is one of the foundational practices for returning our minds to the present moment and helping us to experience life in a more meditative way. However, it is not something we do for a few minutes each day, and then stop practicing when we get up from our seat. The purpose of meditation is to become mindful throughout all parts of our life, so that we’re awake, present and openhearted in everything we do.

Meditation is not about trying to turn off your thoughts and emotions. It is about training in awareness and learning to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Meditation is about bringing awareness to life. This is also what the term “mindfulness” refers to.

To be mindful, is to be aware of life in the present moment. It is to be present and aware of life, without judging it or attempting to describe it in any way. It is just to experience things as they are, as opposed to how we think they are. Essentially, meditation and mindfulness are the same thing. However, the word meditation often refers to a technique or practice, while mindfulness usually refers to simply being present in our everyday experience.

The word “mindfulness” is a translation of the Sanskrit word smriti, which means “to remember.” Mindfulness is remembering to come home to the present moment whenever our attention is lost in thought. As our minds are habitually distracted by thinking, it requires some effort and practice to return our attention to the moment and to live life with more awareness, but the more we practice, the more present we become, and the more present we become, the more happiness, joy and fulfillment we experience, as so much of our dissatisfaction comes from a feeling of disconnection and separation from life in the moment.


 To summarize, meditation is not about getting to some special state of enlightenment. It is not about experiencing peace all the time. It is not even about becoming a better person. Meditation is all about awareness. It is about getting in touch with our life experience as it actually is, rather than how we have been conditioned to see it. It is about opening ourselves to the reality of our experience, outside of any of our thoughts, beliefs, and opinions about our experience. In essence, meditation is the practice of present-moment awareness.

As simple as this sounds, it is incredibly liberating, for the more present we become to the reality of life, the more we find joy and peace in our everyday experience, and the less we suffer from the many illusions, stories, and projections of our thinking mind.

Don’t expect to experience a special state, to become a better person, to reduce some stress or pain, to break out of old patterns or habits, or to become free or enlightened just because you start meditating. While all of these may happen through the practice of meditation, all are equally filled with problems if you are expecting them to come. Rather than meditating, you will be caught up in wanting to have a special experience or in looking for signs of progress. If the experience of practice doesn’t meet your expectations, you may start to doubt it and give it up altogether.

Typically, we measure progress as a successful confirmation that we are doing something right. In nearly every domain of learning this is completely valid and reasonable, but meditation is different. In the practice of meditation, we let go of wanting something special to happen, and this allows us to actually experience the reality of what is happening here and now—beyond all of our ideas, opinions, beliefs, thoughts, and expectations.

Ultimately, that is the aim of meditation practice: to awaken to the reality of the present moment, and to free our minds from the stress and misery that comes from constantly dwelling in our thoughts.

Check out our Introduction to Meditation course for more information on how to start and maintain a regular meditation practice.


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