The English word meditation comes from the Latin meditatio meaning ‘to ponder’ or ‘to ruminate.’ The Pali word usually translated as meditation is bhàvana and means ‘to develop,’ ‘to cultivate,’ or ‘to expand.’ Thus the word meditation is actually a poor description for the various techniques of psychological transformation taught by the Buddha.
In relation to thoughts, one could say that there are three approaches to meditation in Buddhism; (1) to utilize thoughts, (2) to still thoughts and (3) to observe thoughts.
Metta (loving-kindness) meditation would be an example of the first of these. The meditator deliberately thinks particular types of thoughts for the purpose of evoking certain emotions and behaviour. An example of the second of these types of meditation would be Mindfulness of Breathing, where the meditator focuses his or her attention on the breath thus slowing down and finally stopping the flow of thoughts. In Mindfulness meditation the mediator develops the ability to simply observe mental activity (thoughts, emotions, conceptualizing, etc) thus gradually becoming less influenced by them.
There are actually two types of meditation as taught by the Buddha. They are samatha, which is the calm, tranquil technique and then there is vipassana, which is the type leading to Insight. Most meditation techniques in the Buddha’s time and before and even still today are primarily the samatha type. That is, they lead to a relaxed peaceful state and sometimes to great experiences of joy, bliss, even trance, but no ultimate Insight of enlightenment. Right Concentration primarily deals with the samatha type of meditation which is aimed at these highly concentrative states. But vipassana meditation, when done correctly, can provide the inner calm of samatha and also can lead to the Insight wisdom of vipassana. Concentration meditation techniques include many different meditation subjects. There are 40 different meditation subjects of samatha and four major techniques or foundations for vipassana. It can be direct one-pointedness concentration on a devotional figure. The common subject for beginners is awareness of breath. The meditator remains in the present moment focusing on the in and out breath of the body. The mind and body become calm and free of negative thoughts.
- The Complete Book of Buddha's Lists -- Explained. David N. Snyder, Ph.D., 2006.