In the Western world, we tend to picture some figure of Eastern Wisdom sitting quietly in serene meditation, probably in pursuit of that elusive state of No Mind, or at least some intense inner calm and quiet which spawns forth the fruit of peaceful enlightenment.
Even in pagan and magical practice, we tend to translate that image into seeing ourselves sitting quietly in serene meditation, activating all our chakras and seeking inner focus and calm.
Not all meditation techniques involve sitting quietly. Not all meditations are intended to foster enlightenment or involve the concept of chakras. Only a very tiny portion of meditation techniques seek No Mind.
So, how do you define meditation? Since “meditation” is the state or technique of meditating, we must look at the definition of “meditate”.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Definition of meditate
1: to engage in contemplation or reflection
He meditated long and hard before announcing his decision.
2: 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
According to the Cambridge Dictionary:
1: to think calm thoughts in order to relax or as a religious activity:
Sophie meditates for 20 minutes every day.
2: to think seriously about something for a long time:
He meditated on the consequences of his decision.
You might notice that the two definitions are quite different, which is illustrative of the communication problems which can occur when well-meaning people say, “You need to meditate,” and give no further explanation.
The main overlap in the definitions is in the act of contemplation or reflection, but meditation is so much more than just thinking about something, no matter what kind of meditation you engage in. It is also the pursuit of clarity of thought and understanding. If your brain is fixated on something and running in circles like a caged animal, you might be contemplating, but you are definitely not meditating.
I define meditating as an act of contemplation or reflection, to achieve clarity of thought and understanding, with a specific goal or purpose in mind.
Common goals for meditation are mindfulness, enlightenment, cultivation of focus, centering and grounding, being in the moment, peace and equilibrium, self-exploration, metaphysical exploration, astral or other noncorporeal travel, shadow work, cognitive management, emotional management, anxiety management, understanding a puzzle or problem, manifestation, banishment, developing concentration, No Mind, and so, so many more.
It can be incredibly helpful to sit motionless because established postures and physical quietness can help cue the brain to transition into a meditative state, but that doesn’t work for all people or all meditation goals. Neurodivergent and disabled people in particular are frequently unable to meditate using traditional motionless poses. If they don’t work for you, throw out those poses and find what does work for you.
There are always exceptions, but most meditation techniques are easiest to do when you are comfortable and relaxed. If sitting lotus kills your hips, knees, and back, then don’t do it! Zafu (meditation pillows) are helpful because they raise the hips above the knees, which is easier on the body, allowing most people to get comfortable and relaxed more easily. Sitting in a chair is also a perfectly viable option, especially if your body is averse to getting down on the floor. Even kicked back in your recliner or in a lawn chair can work if that is what allows you to relax and avoid all possible discomfort and pain.
Keeping your spine straight and aligned is usually best, but not absolutely necessary. If you have an inversion table for back problems, that might be an excellent place for short meditation sessions. If you have scoliosis, arthritis, spinal injury, or other problems that entirely prevent you from straightening your spine, you can still meditate. Focus on getting comfortable, keeping in mind that the majority of traditional poses and postures are designed for able-bodied people.
Savasana in yoga practice is a pose where you lie flat on your back, legs and arms spread slightly, palms up, fully relaxed. It is a meditation pose, and an excellent one to use if you meditate after exercise, even exercises other than yoga, because it allows for complete relaxation. It can also be particularly useful if you meditate to help you get to sleep.
For some meditations, and for some people, it is helpful to keep the body occupied while you meditate, so you’re not distracted by fidgeting and restlessness.
In Buddhism there is a practice called Walking Meditation, where you walk in a slow, relaxed, deliberate manner while doing your meditation.
Just about any activity which allows your mind to be calm can be done while meditating. Household chores, gardening, exercising, and other repetitive tasks are excellent for this, especially if the purpose or goal of the meditation is mindfulness, being in the moment, and/or gratitude practices. Even eating can be meditative if you don’t rush through it, and pay full attention to every moment.
Most martial arts practices are extremely compatible with meditation techniques, especially when doing katas (memorized sequences and patterns of movement). Some, like Tai Chi and Qigong, were specifically developed as vehicles for meditation.
Creative activities might be an option, especially if you are proficient enough the activity does not require your full and undivided attention, and you enjoy it enough to lose track of time when doing it. For me, drawing, painting, and embroidery are potentially meditative activities. Crochet and knitting, flower arranging, sculpting, playing an instrument, or any other hand-worked creative activity are also common, but they will be personal. There is no single creative activity which is meditative for everyone.
If you want to try meditating while doing something completely different from the options I’ve mentioned, try it! The most important part is that you be able to calm your mind and free it from as many distractions as possible, while remaining occupied enough by a single thing to prevent your brain from bird walking. Exactly how you accomplish that is up to you, your body, and your mind.
The concept of No Mind originates in Eastern philosophy and religion. In Japanese it is called “mushin”, and in Chinese it is called “wuxin”. “No mind” is an abbreviated literal translation of the Eastern concept into English.
I’m honestly not sure why the American Gnosis is obsessed with the idea that “perfect” meditation is meditation where the mind is empty of all thoughts. It is an elusive goal for most people, because that’s not how the human mind naturally works for the vast majority of people. It is especially problematic the way “empty of all thoughts” is interpreted by most Western people. If you try to tell your brain to be completely silent, it usually responds by throwing at you a rapid train of random thoughts which pile upon your consciousness like a runaway train.
Emptying your mind of all thoughts isn’t even a good way to describe what is ultimately a visceral experience elusive of description through words. It is something that must be experienced, and is difficult to effectively explain. This description by Fuyu was the best I could find online, and basically it describes Mushin as achieving pure thought without conscious words. It can be described as “empty” because your mind is not full of crowded words, but thoughts continue to exist. You are still thinking, just free from ego, judgement, or the filter of language.
Even for those people who do achieve No Mind, it is usually only after years of very dedicated meditation practice, using techniques which were developed specifically to foster that goal.
If you tell yourself that you are “doing it wrong” unless you can empty your mind of all thoughts, you are not only missing the point of meditation, but you are setting yourself up for abysmal failure. I recommend not pursuing that particular goal unless you are already proficient with meditation, especially mindfulness meditation where you develop the ability to be fully present in the moment and accepting of your thoughts and feelings as they come and go, without judgement.
I don’t think I could count how many times I have seen someone in pagan or witchy circles state definitively that they hate meditation and it doesn’t work for them. Then sometimes in the next breath, they proudly declare that they are proficient in some sort of shielding, grounding, centering practice, or that they regularly work magic or do divination.
Shielding, grounding, centering, energy gathering, astral projection, guided meditations, attunements, past life regression, cord cutting, shadow work, light work, praying, mindfulness, listening to deities/spirits, divination, automatic writing, energy manipulation and channeling, and so on, are all forms of meditation. I would even argue that most magical workings, and even most religious observances, are meditations, or contain aspects of meditation, at least if they have any chance at being successful.
If achieving your goal requires a calm and focused mind which is contemplative or reflective, then it is meditative. These purposes qualify as meditation because the better you are at achieving a calm, reflective, focused state of mind while doing them, the more likely you are to succeed.
Activities like trance and mediumship are not in and of themselves meditation, but often meditation is a component of the transition from a normal mental state into the state of trance or mediumship. Meditation is also sometimes part of the transition back to a normal mental state, especially if the practitioner prefers not to put themself through the discomfort of a jarring or shocking return to the mundane.
If you are reading this and have an active practice, you probably meditate quite a bit, even if you didn’t realize that was what you were doing. If that idea is jarring to you, I suggest lighting a candle on your altar and taking a few minutes to contemplate the ramifications of that idea on you and your practice. Explore why it is hard for you to accept that you have been meditating all along. Take a moment to observe that even this exercise is a form of meditation.
You can develop your skills at meditating, but you can never perfect them. There is always something new to explore, something you can improve, just as with working magic in general.
The first thing to ask yourself is, what do you want to achieve through meditation? Meditation itself is not a goal. It is an activity. If you attempt the activity without a goal, you are never going to achieve the sort of mental clarity and understanding which is the hallmark of meditation.
If you approach meditation believing that it is nothing more than sitting and thinking, you will probably never achieve a meditative state. You’ll simply sit and think, while your thoughts meander randomly (or contemplate how stupid and pointless “meditation” is), and your frustration and boredom grow.
Often when reading up on how to meditate, the instructions will list the activity, but neglect to be clear about the goal. That doesn’t mean the goal doesn’t exist, but instead the thing you are trying to achieve is buried somewhere in the meat of the exercise, usually mindfulness or being in the moment. If you find it difficult to meditate, look for that goal and bring it into your conscious awareness before you attempt the meditation exercise. If that doesn’t work, try a different form of meditation which is more compatible with your goals, or try it while using a different physical position or activity. Mix and match mental exercises and physical approaches until you find what works for you.
Once you have your goal, if you’re not sure how to proceed, look for advice on how to achieve that goal. Keep in mind that it won’t always be labeled as meditation, especially if it was developed for Western esoteric practice. If, for example, you want to develop your abilities with divination, you’ll want to look up “how to divine using X”, where “X” is your medium of choice, like tarot, runes, bones, palmistry, and so on. You might get some interesting and useful hits adding “meditation” into your search terms, but not always.
If you are interested in traditional Eastern forms of meditation, I strongly advise seeking out instructions which are firmly rooted in older traditions and are being offered to a wider audience than just those who ascribe to an originating religion like Buddhism or Taoism, especially if the teacher is a long-standing member of such a religion. Just remember to be respectful of the history and origins of the techniques, and those who are offering to share with you.
Luckily for us, even though meditation techniques are central to the practice of many Eastern religions, most do not require religion to be effective. Most such techniques are a product of how the human mind functions, rather than rituals dictated by culture or religious tradition, making them valuable to all humanity, and applicable to any spiritual path.
At risk of beating a dead horse, deliberate meditation practice can enhance your magical and spiritual practice. That is most definitely true. What usually gets left out is that mindfulness meditation is the goal that is usually being recommended.
I have mentioned mindfulness as a goal repeatedly in this short article, because it is a foundational skill for other meditation techniques and goals. It is the one that has the specific goal of allowing you to be in the moment, and to accept all that is, has been, and will be, without judgement. It is the one that teaches you to find calm and understanding, so that you are better capable of focusing on that which needs your attention, and letting go that which does not.
Those skills are invaluable to metaphysical practice, and to overall mental and emotional wellbeing. Giving them deliberate attention and practice is always going to be beneficial, and of course, daily practice, even if it’s just a few minutes, will provide the most benefit, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t manage that (I certainly don’t most days). Even intermittent mindfulness meditation carries benefits.
If you choose not to engage in deliberate mindfulness meditation, or rarely do, that doesn’t mean you are a failure as a witch or magic worker or pagan. Deliberate meditation is a tool. It might make things easier and faster, but there is no shortage of people who get extremely good at doing things without that specific tool.
All meditation practices (including the ubiquitous grounding, centering, shielding practices) can eventually lead you to a calm, mindful, reflective state of mind, because they are most effective and effortless when you achieve such a state of mind. Specifically engaging in mindfulness meditation is like a warm up before a strenuous workout, allowing you to more efficiently achieve your goals with less fatigue, soreness, and risk of injury. You can still do the workout even without a warmup, and potentially achieve all your goals, but it’s not ideal, and it will make things harder.
Like any responsible fitness coach, a responsible magical or spiritual teacher will most likely tell you to do your warm ups. They really do help.