Mind-full Meditation

Meditation isn’t what it used to be. The word itself traces back to Indo-European languages as old as 3,500 years, and its meaning has evolved over time. Originally it meant “to judge or estimate.” And much later in Greek, it meant “to be mindful of,” and in Latin, “to think over or reflect on.” In other words, meditation has long been a thought-full practice.

In the 12th century, Christian mystics were using the Latin word meditationem to refer to the practice of spiritual contemplation, private devotions, and reverent prayer. In this mindful context, meditation had more to do with spiritual musings, thought, reflection, and study—or simply thinking things over from a spiritual perspective.

In 1924, Webster’s New International Dictionary, defined “to meditate”as “to be mindful of, to contemplate, to keep the mind or attention fixed upon, to watch, to study, to muse upon, to ponder.” At the time, this was the classical definition of meditation, an interpretation influenced by ancient Greek, Roman, Judaic, and Middle Eastern philosophies and religious practices. However, since 1924, Eastern religious concepts and practices have transformed our understanding of meditation.

One hundred years later, in 2024, the Merriam-Webster dictionary still includes some definitions similar to the above. However, an added definition is “to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.”

This latter definition, which is relatively new, is duplicated word for word in hundreds of websites, magazines, and books, and is often presented as the only definition, ignoring its long association with Christian mystics, deep thought, study, reverence, and contemplation.  

However, like Merriam-Webster, original definitions of meditation still appear in the Macmillan, Cambridge, and Oxford dictionaries. Some of these are:

  • The practice of focusing your mind in silence, especially for religious reasons or to make your mind calm.
  • Quiet thought that helps you to relax or that is intended as a spiritual or religious exercise.
  • A contemplative discourse, often on a religious or philosophical subject.
  • A devotional exercise of, or leading to, contemplation.
  • To think deeply about something.

In this list, the first meaning stems more from Eastern philosophies, although it is conditioned somewhat by current social trends. But the next four are concepts of meditation derived from Greco-Roman and Middle Eastern philosophies, such as deep thinking and contemplation.

This change, or addition, to meaning can be traced back to European translators who ascribed the English word meditation to both the Hindu practice of dhyana and the Buddhist practice of bhavana, although neither of these were entirely similar in concept or practice. Nevertheless, within a few decades, ideas about meditation shifted to an Eastern focus, and the original Latin meanings so prevalent in Western society, particularly Christian mysticism, were gradually displaced.

The more healthful attitude of spiritual meditation is to be found in reflective worship and in the prayer of thanksgiving. 100:5.10

– The Urantia Book

What was lost in this unintended conversion of meaning, was the original emphasis on profound spiritual reflection, worship, problem solving, and thinking things through. And while many practitioners today still think of meditation as a spiritual exercise, the critical difference is that, in almost all current models of meditation, God no longer plays a role.

Meditation, rather than being a powerful and rewarding technique for genuine spiritual progress, has been gradually transformed into a secular, physical and mental exercise intended to calm frayed nerves.

Mystic Contemplation

Contemplation is synonymous with meditation. Christians once used the two terms interchangeably, both in thought and practice. But unlike meditation, the act of contemplation has retained an association with Christian, Greek, and Middle Eastern mysticism.

The word contemplation has deep historical roots in Judeo-Christian thought as well as in the mystical practices of the 4th century AD. Even then, we can trace similar principles back another 700 years to Greek philosophers of the 3rd century BC, as in the writings of Plotinus.

Religionists originally used contemplation to refer to the practice of pondering religious concepts carefully and thoroughly. In principle, it is an attempt to reach more perceptive levels of moral and spiritual insight, especially in terms of spiritual meanings and values. In some traditions, contemplation is the act or state of beholding God, or coming into union with God.

By meditation on God, by union with him, there comes deliverance from the illusions of evil and ultimate salvation from all material fetters. 131:4.7

– The Urantia Book

In the 16th century, living a contemplative life of prayer received considerable attention through the works of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. In more recent times, contemplation was popularized through the work of Thomas Merton (1915-1968), an American Trappist monk who wrote extensively on the topic.

Throughout the Christian mystical tradition, there are various interpretations of contemplation but, in general, the act puts emphasis on an awareness of the presence of God in association with the use of prayer (communion). Hence, contemplation is coupled with the act of listening, of being receptive to divine guidance. It is also a form of worship because it redirects the mind from the self to the contemplation of divinity.

While contemplation is often thought of as a monastic discipline, it is not necessary to practice it in isolation. Some practitioners prefer to think of contemplation as a daily state of mind in which they are aware of the presence of God and, at the same time, respond to the outside world with love and compassion.

In the classical sense, contemplation is a meditation technique, although it is not necessarily a Buddhist or Yoga meditation technique. Along with other meanings, Thomas Merton defines contemplation as the “vivid realization” that life proceeds from an “invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source.”

Sandra Anderson (2023) of Yoga International distinguishes between contemplation and meditation by taking the view that contemplation is “a train of thought about something,” whereas meditation is said to have more to do with “training the mind to rest in a particular focus, a practice that leads to a connection to the source of all consciousness.” As you can see, Anderson’s definition of contemplation is somewhat cursory while her definition of meditation is derived from Buddhist philosophy—a view that, for the most part, excludes spiritual reflection, the inner Spirit, or God.

On the same website, Pandit Rajmani (2023) defines meditation as a science rather than a religious practice—a science used for the purpose of “experiencing the center of consciousness within.” While Rajmani does not specify the nature of this center, other than it being simply consciousness, the notion of a “consciousness within” agrees with the idea that the inner Spirit is the center of God consciousness.

Meditation, however, is more than a train of thought about something. And it is not a science, unless we are conducting a professional psychological study of meditation. Meditation is a psychological process and it may loosely conform to the so-called “science of mind” approach promoted by New Thought authors. But many of the authors who championed this approach were not attempting to distance themselves from God. In fact, they actively embraced God and spirituality in their philosophies.

I believe in God, the Living Spirit Almighty—one, indestructible, absolute, and self-existent Cause.

—Ernest Holmes

To be clear, pure science is the study of material reality and requires factual evidence, as do the social sciences in their study of human behavior. Nonetheless, while contemplation and meditation are not scientific pursuits per se, they are effective psychological techniques for changing our way of thinking. Meditation has proven to be an effective way to relax, even to change thought patterns and brain structure when used in specific ways (Your Mind – Make it Spiritually Receptive).

As a psychological method, and from the New Age or Western Buddhist perspective, meditation has an intellectual goal, which is connecting oneself to the “source of all consciousness.” But once again, proponents of this approach do not make it entirely clear what that source is supposed to be.

Other teachers of yoga and meditation have not been so vague about it. Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) claimed that human consciousness descends from cosmic consciousness, which is the consciousness of God that is beyond all creation.

God is consciousness.

– Yogananda

Without a doubt, God is consciousness, just as God is love and God is energy, but we should realize this does not logically imply that consciousness is God, as some maintain. And this is true because the Divine Creator is the Divine Source of all things, including consciousness.

While consciousness itself is not spirit, it is a spiritual endowment that allows us to identify and appreciate spiritual values and meanings. In this regard, Eastern meditation techniques are especially useful for reaching the superconscious level on which we make contact with our inner Spirit and thereby reach a heightened state of God consciousness.

The most significant conceptual difference between the Western philosophy of contemplation and that of Eastern meditation is the former’s acceptance of a Spirit of God living within us as well as a personal Deity with whom we can interact—a God who will lovingly guide us.

Whether meditation or contemplation, the ultimate objectives of spiritual enhancement and universal wisdom are not so different in either the Western or Eastern traditions, although the mental exercises and concepts are. Several ideas overlap and some techniques found in Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Islamic practices are shared, including creative visualization and mindfulness. To sum up, the most rewarding approach is to take the best of all worlds, combining spiritual ideas and methods in a syncretic and effective way in order to greatly enhance our ongoing spiritual growth.

Let experience teach you the value of meditation and the power of intelligent reflection. 192:2.2

– The Urantia Book