What exactly are people doing when they meditate?

You have probably seen someone meditating. Perhaps in real life or in a movie. And you have probably wondered to yourself…well I can see them sitting/lying/standing there, but what exactly are they doing?

That is a good question.

In a recent podcast interview Tim Ferris speaking to his own experiences with meditation said: “well I think there are benefits to meditating….but I think most people are thinking about bullshit with their eyes closed.”

Perhaps that is a little on the cynical side (perhaps not)….so what are people doing when they meditate?
Turns out a lot…. a lot of different things.

In a paper titled: What Do Meditators Do When They Meditate? Proposing a Novel Basis for Future Meditation Research, the what are they doing question was systematically interrogated.

The authors of this study examined a total of 309 meditation techniques through a literature search and interviews with 20 expert meditators across a diverse range of traditions. They came up with a list of 50 individual practice techniques. You can see this list here.

Then in a second study, they interviewed a group of 635 experienced meditators from a diverse range of meditative traditions and asked them how much experience they had with each of those techniques.

Finally they took that list and compiled it into a TOP 10 meditation techniques.
Here it is in order of commonality.

Scanning the entire body
Being mindful of the rise and fall of the abdomen while breathing
Observing how thoughts arise in the mind without adhering to them
Being mindful of the respiratory flow in the entire body
Perceiving, then releasing emotions and tensions (e.g., with the help of the breath), while scanning the body
Cultivating compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity, loving kindness (for oneself, friends, neutral people, enemies, the whole world)
Observing how bodily sensations arise without adhering to them
Singing sutras/mantras
Lying down and going into a state of deep relaxation while being fully conscious
Being mindful of the sensations arising in the nose during inhalation and exhalation

One technique that seems to be fairly constant across the board is placing ones awareness on body-centred sensations such as the breath or the rise and fall of the chest.
This is known as interoception (the processing of internal bodily signals).

The authors posited that all meditation techniques share a somatic component and are inherently embodied. This might also apply to our selection of 52 meditation techniques. Many, if not all, meditation practices emphasize directing attention to interoceptive signals. Whether meditators visualize their heart opening like a rose blossom, focus on internal sounds and vibrations, or gaze at the wall and observe themselves doing nothing, the body remains a constant companion in all their endeavors. This may be less evident for techniques consisting of contemplating a spiritually important question or reading certain paragraphs of a text repeatedly. Nevertheless, even contemplation and reading are done with the intention to observe one’s internal reactions to the content of the text or the contemplative question. Thus, it might well be that all meditation techniques are embodied.


Reference: Matko, Karin et al. “What Do Meditators Do When They Meditate? Proposing a Novel Basis for Future Meditation Research.” Mindfulness 12 (2021): 1791-1811.
Photo by Ksenia Makagonova

Ian Miller

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