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What is Meditation?

Each of the major religious faiths has a distinct tradition of meditation practice for inviting spiritual connection. The terms, contemplation, mindfulness, or remembrance (of the Divine) also can sometimes refer to the practice of meditation. We would like to suggest that meditation is an ancient and contemporary practice in most faiths for quieting the wandering mind, reconnecting with the core of one’s being, and living life from that wisdom.

For some, meditation is viewed as a spiritual practice or as secular technique; for others it is seen as a temporary experience; others describe meditation as a way of being in the world where there is equanimity or continuous awareness of the present moment.

While there is no consensus definition of meditation in the scientific literature (because any single definition does not take into account key distinctions between one type of meditation and another), meditation is understood by some as “thoughtless awareness” in which the activity of the mind is minimized without reducing the level of awareness of the present moment. It is this present-moment awareness – and the serenity, joy, and inner peace that often follow – which also characterize the practice of meditation for many people across religious faiths.  (For IMI’s basic guide to meditating, please visit the middle of the IMI resources page.)

A sample of evidence-based outcomes of meditation

Meditation, as a spiritual practice common to each major tradition, may:

  • Enhance well-being;
  • Reduce stress and stress-related health symptoms;
  • Further present-moment awareness;
  • Diminish mind-wandering which adversely affects cognitive performance;
  • Decrease cognitive rigidity due to repetitive thought patterns;
  • Be a catalyst for beneficial outcomeseven when the meditation is brief;
  • Foster positive regard for others;
  • Support more harmonious relationships;
  • Impact everyday life – when not meditating;
  • Enhance attention, memory, and executive functioning;
  • Cultivate favorable structural and functional changes in the brain;
  • Heighten cognitive flexibility to meet new and unexpected conditions;
  • Clear mental space to detect incorrect cognitive evaluations, which would usually go unnoticed;
  • Develop more positive states of mind;
  • Deepen meaning and peace in one’s life;
  • Augment empathy and compassion;
  • Boost positive social emotions;
  • Lessen social isolation; and
  • Improve social and emotional well-being.
Why Meditation?

Overview: Clinical research reveals that meditation can be beneficial to individuals and society, and without the individual adopting a specific belief system. Supported by extensive experience, research, and resources, meditation is conducive to practice almost anywhere, anytime.

Discussion: Meditation may offer beneficial outcomes for individuals and society in the areas of heightened well-being, empathy, partnerships, and cognition. (Please see “Clinical Research.”)

While religious creed is intrinsic to most religious services, meditation less frequently presupposes adopting a specific religious framework. “The extent to which spirituality or belief plays a role in any meditation practice appears to depend in large part on the individual practitioner. Though the traditional practices were developed within specific spiritual or religious contexts…and therefore have spiritual or religious aspects, this does not mean that a practitioner must adopt the belief systems upon which they are based.” (Meditation Practices for Health: State of the Research Prepared for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by University of Alberta Evidence-Based Practice Center (June 2007)).

Like the ubiquitous cell phone, the practice of meditation is portable: one can experience its benefits almost anywhere, anytime, at a moment’s notice. Above all, meditation is remarkably simple to utilize, though many people find that continuing practice is needed for the wandering mind to become more attentive. Being widely practiced across faiths, cultures, and continents, there is no shortage of resources available. (Please see our “Resources.”)

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"I've co-led two interfaith meditation events, each time with Jewish and Muslim faith leaders...I connected with the devotion of my colleagues, and the language of their meditations became a portal for me to a place beyond words.” Reverend Randy Lord-Wilkinson, Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Maryland; IMI meditation co-leader