In the West, the word meditation means a concentrated state of mind in serious reflection. The Latin root of the word meditation, mederi, means “to heal.” It is an effort to heal afflictions of the mind, the hurt ego, by trying to understand the cause of the problem and finding a way to solve it, that is, by knowing what counter-measures to take. To meditate thus, is to deepen a state of understanding.
In the East, however, meditation does not mean thinking at all but fixing the mind in a spiritual ideal, to be one with it, or the thought-process dissolving in the consciousness of it. According to Zen, meditation does not involve any concept but is an awareness of inner silence. Meditation is a combination of three steps: pratyahara or abstraction, or withdrawal of the mind from the sense-objects or attention to their memory; dharana or concentration; and dhyana or contemplation which, however, is not a thought-process but an absorption of the feeling of oneness with the ideal.
Awareness of an inner silence is not something easy to achieve. It can be confused with a state of dullness or being soporific, which is not the purpose of meditation. To meditate mean does not mean to have a good rest while sitting pretty, and silence is not productive without spiritual aspiration. On the other hand, few have the capacity to think clearly, and too much of mental exercise could lead to tension and confusion.
In Bhakti Yoga, meditation is visualization of the image of a chosen deity, together with mental repetition of a relevant mantra. For the Vedantin it is to contemplate on the meaning of selected verses from the Upanishads or similar scriptures. For the Catholics, it is saying the rosary, based on mantras like “Our Father which art in Heaven,” or “Hail Mary, full of grace.” For them meditation also consists in feeling close to Jesus after receiving communion and retiring into a quiet place.
For, the Hindus, repetition of a mantra, with or without a rosary, but with a feeling of spiritual oneness, is meditation. A common Buddhist meditation consists in repeating the mantras: Buddham sharanam gachchhami, sangham sharanam gachchami (I proceed remembering the Buddha, the righteous path and the welfare of my community). The Tibetians base their meditation on the mantra Om mani padme hum (I am Om, the jewel in the lotus of my heart). For Muslims, meditation is called dhikr or repetition of selected names of God from the Quran, generally with a rosary. Feeling the breath, which is a technique in pratyahara, is an exercise in Zen meditation (the word Zen is derived from dhyana or meditation), as also counting from 1 to 20 or more, over and over again.