The scientific literature generally defines meditation as a form of attentional training, either active or passive in nature. In its active form, meditation concentrates on a single object until the subject-object duality of the observation collapses in on itself, giving rise to nonduality. Meditation can also take on a more passive quality in which, instead of putting forth effort to meditate, one simply allows oneself to be meditated. You could say that the former type of meditation is yang, while the latter is yin. Regardless of whether it’s active or passive in nature, a legitimate meditation practice, as defined in the scientific literature, must involve:
1. Self-induced attentional activity
2. A focal point for anchoring attention
3. A significant minimization of logical processes
4. Muscle relaxation
5. A specific, teachable technique
In essence, meditation involves the way in which we engage attention. Whether we’re practicing Vipassana, shaktipat meditation, Tai Chi, qi gong, yoga or centering prayer, each of these practices involves the development of diffuse modes of attention. In fact, virtually all spiritual practices and teachings are, at their heart, modes of attention. Think about it. When Jesus told the multitude on the mount to “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” he was pointing to a mode of attention in which God and alignment with God were the sole objects of desire and attention. Islam’s emphasis of submission of the will to God is, again, a unique mode of attention. And the Eightfold Path of Buddhism (right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration) is itself a mode of attention made up of sub-modes of attention.
Attention, undergirded by intention, can be imagined as the enlightened drill sergeant that sets the pace for the ordered, synchronous firing of large neuronal networks. To better understand this principle, let’s take this illustration into the realm of experience. What is your attention focused on right now? And what is the quality of that attention at this very moment? Is it stable, erratic, detached? At this very moment, both the object and quality of your attention are activating neurological pathways that will affect your behavior and experience of life in beneficial or adverse ways.
Seen from this perspective, meditation (in some form) is something that is happening all the time, because some form of attention is in constant play, whether consciously or unconsciously. Conscious attention is currency. That’s why we have the expression “paying attention.” Sometimes it flows vigorously, and at other times it seems to be impeded. Some people are more affluent in certain forms of attention than others. And like wealth, attention is something that must be managed if it is to be properly grown, maintained and used for the betterment of society. Through proper cultivation, meditation can in the same manner become a deep reservoir of full-bodied presence from which the opportunities and challenges of daily life are met.