The Varieties of Meditative Experience
Developing dhyāna: The meditative refinement of attention and absorption
Posted March 14, 2018
In recent years, the meditative practice of mindfulness – a form of non-judgemental present-moment awareness1 – has become almost ubiquitous2. In offices and schools, hospitals and prisons, it is now entirely commonplace to see people attempting to sit quietly and pay mindful attention to their breath, or indeed to any qualia. Indeed, so prominent is mindfulness, one might assume it to be synonymous with meditation itself, as if the only, or at least the dominant, form of this ancient practice. But that is far from the case.
There are in fact scores of different meditative practices across the contemplative traditions. However, it can be difficult for us to appreciate that, in part because such practices are a relatively recent import to Western cultures (notwithstanding comparable native practices like contemplative prayer). For they were only introduced in the 19th century, and didn’t assume cultural prominence until the late 20th century. As a result, Westerners may lack a detailed understanding and appreciation of the range of such practices.
The limitations of English
Correspondingly, English itself lacks nuance in this regard, with all such practices usually referred to generically as ‘meditation.’ It’s not that this label is inaccurate. Rather, it is just so broad that it clouds our appreciation of the differences between practices. It’s as if we lacked the lexicon to specifically identify ‘football,’ ‘rugby,’ ‘tennis,’ and so on, but simply had to refer to these all as ‘sport.’ Clearly, we benefit from being able to give each sport its own unique identifier. So too is that the case with forms of meditative practice.
Unfortunately, as already noted, English is lacking in that regard. Fortunately though, other languages are not. As such, we can turn to those languages for guidance. More specifically, we have much to learn from their ‘untranslatable’ words relating to meditation. These are terms that lack an exact equivalent in English – which, as highlighted above, simply has the generic label ‘meditation,’ and struggles to distinguish between different practices.
Indeed, we have much to learn from untranslatable words generally. For these can reveal important phenomena which have been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture and language. That’s why I’ve embarked on a project to collect such words, specifically one relating to wellbeing (my area of interest, being a researcher in positive psychology). The result is an evolving positive lexicography, as I explore in two new books (please see bio for details).
The varieties of meditative states
The project is already replete with words relating to meditation, teasing apart its nuances. Naturally, these include the root of mindfulness, the Sanskrit term smṛti (often better known by its Pāli cognate sati)3. Although the word initially pertained to memory, it became used in a meditative context – by the Buddha, and others – to refer to a beneficial form of present-moment awareness, as noted above. The term mindfulness was then introduced as a ‘loan translation’ by T. W. Rhys Davids in 19104, before being brought to wider attention by the likes of Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970s, with his pioneering Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme5.
But, as alluded to above, there are many meditative states and practices beyond mindfulness. A case in point is the Sanskrit concept of dhyāna (jhana in Pāli). Like smṛti, this is a key term within Buddhism (and related traditions). Indeed, it is the origin of the loanword Zen, for when Buddhism was transmitted to China in the 5th century CE, dhyāna was rendered as ch’an, which in turn became Zen when Buddhism was brought to Japan in the 12th Century.
Dhyāna is sometimes rendered simply as ‘meditation.’ However, that is another example of the difficulty English has differentiating between contemplative states. For in its original context, it tends to have far subtler meanings.
Delving into dhyāna
Whereas smṛti describes an expansive, open awareness, dhyāna denotes a profoundly concentrated act of attention. One’s focus is trained at length on a contemplative target (whether an internal target like the breath, or an external one like a shrine). When this focus is mastered – which can take many years – the result is reported to be an unsurpassed state of pure stillness.
Moreover, contemplative teachings identify progressively deeper stages of dhyāna. Initially, one’s attention is fixated upon a target, to the exclusion of all other sensory content, resulting in a state of pleasurable tranquil abiding. Gradually though, this attentiveness can become even more focused and still. Eventually one reaches the point where the very experience of being a person falls away. Self-referential cognitions dissipate, generating an experience of radical self-transcendence, with just pure awareness remaining, a state of profound equanimity and peace.
Collectively, the stages of dhyāna are known as samādhi. This latter is sometimes translated as ‘concentration’ or ‘one-pointed’ attention. However, these rather mild terms fail to convey the deep significance of samādhi. For, like dhyāna, it represents a state of deep absorptive tranquillity. Indeed, dhyāna and samādhi do not ‘merely’ describe mental experiences that are incredibly nourishing and fulfilling. More radically, they may even facilitate a total liberation from suffering, a luminous goal commonly known as nirvāṇa.
Thus, as we can see, nestled within the generic label ‘meditation’ are a wealth of vital states and experiences. Mindfulness may be just the start!
 Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.
 Lomas, T., Medina, J. C., Ivtzan, I., Rupprecht, S., Hart, R., & Eiroa-Orosa, F. J. (2017). The impact of mindfulness on wellbeing and performance in the workplace: An inclusive systematic review of the empirical literature. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 26(4), 492-513.
 Lomas, T. (2017). Recontextualising mindfulness: Theravada Buddhist perspectives on the ethical and spiritual dimensions of awareness. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Vol 9(2), 209-219.
 Rhys Davids, T. W. (1910). Dialogues of the Buddha (Vol. 2). London: Henry Frowde.
 Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4(1), 33-47.