Have you heard people saying that “absolutely anything can be meditation”? It’s a common misconception. While there are many activities that can be done mindfully, there are few exercises that genuinely constitute “meditation”.
That’s why, in this article, I wanted to take a look at different activities, whether or not we can use them as meditation, and if so, how?
But first, we need to define exactly what meditation is. It is, after all, a very versatile word. For the purpose of this guide, we will define meditation as, “Focusing the mind on the present moment without judgment”. For an activity to be considered meditative, it must be something that helps us to do precisely that, to focus on the present moment without judgment.
Let’s take a look at the different activities. And by the way, these are all things that I have heard people say “Are meditation”.
Different Activities And Whether Or Not They “Are Meditation”
ASMR: The Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is a tingling sensation that starts in the head and works its way down the body producing a mild euphoria. It is usually induced by listening to certain sounds or looking at certain types of videos. ASMR has therapeutic effects that are similar to meditation, such as relief from stress and depression. However, it cannot be considered meditation as it does not require usto consciously focus the mind and it does not produce the same cognitive benefits as meditation.
Art: Art is one activity that most definitely can, potentially, be done as meditation. Whether it’s sculpting or painting, art encourages us to focus on the present moment, thus fostering mindfulness. This is especially true for any kind of “still life” art in which we are drawing what we see, in which case we are basically meditating on the sense of sight. We can take this even further by doing Blind Contour Drawing, in which we draw the outline of the subject without looking at the paper. This is actually one of my favorite mindfulness activities.
Breathwork: Breathwork is the use of any breathing technique to achieve altered states of consciousness, ultimately leading to various health benefits. As such it is very closely tied to meditation and indeed some meditation techniques (particularly yogic meditations) require precise breathwork. However, whether breathwork is meditation depends on whether or not you choose to consciously focus your awareness on the breath. After all, it is quite easy to do a technique like Box Breathing without actually meditating on the breath.
Chanting: Chanting can absolutely be considered meditation almost always. Whether it’s Christian or Buddhist chanting, when we chant we focus the mind on the sounds we are making, very similar to when we are reciting mantras. And just as with mantras, focusing on a chant is indeed a form of meditation. It is also very healthy and there is research suggesting that chanting helps to cure illnesses.
CBT: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the practice of observing our thoughts and actively changing them to something healthier. It is the gold standard for the treatment of many mental illnesses. However, it is not meditation, not at all. Indeed in some ways the two are literally opposite. Meditation is about accepting whatever thoughts arise, where CBT is entirely about changing thoughts. CBT also does not require the level of focus necessary for meditation. As such, CBT is not meditation. Some other forms of therapy (notably ACT and DBT) are much closer to meditation than CBT is. That, said, Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is now popular, and that is somewhat bridging the gap.
Driving: Many drivers experience “Flow” state, the state in which we are completely focused but also at ease. Psychologically this is the exact same state that many meditation techniques put us in. And in some ways driving can be done meditatively. At the same time, it would be unwise to deliberately meditate while driving. Be mindful, yes, but don’t meditate.
Dancing: Dancing absolutely can be a form of meditation. Indeed, there are several traditional forms of dancing meditation, such as Nataraja. That said, many people feel self conscious when dancing, which is at odds with the nature of meditation, which is all about non-judgmental acceptance. If you intentionally focus your mind on the movements of your body with complete acceptance and non-judgment, then yes, dancing is meditation. Otherwise, it isn’t. I’d also point out that some forms of dance are more meditative than others. Any gentle and repetitive dance, such as folk dancing, is ideal for mindfulness, where more complex dances like hip hop are not.
Dissociation: Dissociation means being disconnected from our thoughts, feelings, and body. Many people think dissociation is meditation because in meditation we detach from our thoughts. However, there is a subtle but essential difference. Dissociation literally means you separate your awareness from your own experience. This can be quite disastrous for mental health. Meditation, on the other hand, is more about diffusion, which basically means putting a bit of space between our awareness and our thoughts, which is excellent for mental health.
Exercise: Some forms of exercise are inherently meditative. For instance, any type of integrated body-mind training, such as tai chi and qigong, is meditative because in these exercises we deliberately focus the mind on the body with acceptance. Other forms of exercise can potentially be made meditative if you decide to consciously focus your awareness on your body while you move. What matters here is the quality of focus that you bring to the exercise. Simple repetitive exercises are the best ones to do meditatively.
Hypnosis: Hypnosis often gets lumped in with meditation because they are both mind exercises and indeed both can be used to help with a variety of health issues. However, they are fundamentally different. Hypnosis involves someone else momentarily controlling our minds. The person who is being hypnotized is not in control of the process. Contrastingly, meditation is all about controlling our own minds. Also, hypnosis tends to lead to more immediate, short-term gains where meditation takes longer but is more lasting.
Journaling: Sitting down to write a journal entry about the past day. Is that meditation? Not really. Journaling is essentially a practice of reflection, and indeed studies show it can be highly beneficial. However, it is quite different to meditation. Journaling invites us to actively think about the recent past, where meditation is about consciously focusing on the present moment.
Knitting: Honestly, knitting is one of the best activities in the world for cultivating mindfulness. The gentle repetition of knitting helps us to focus on the present moment and to relax, and it most definitely can be done meditatively (again, if you consciously choose to focus on what you’re doing). This is easily in my list of the best mindful activities.
Listening to music: Listening to music can go anywhere from “not at all mindful” to “totally meditative”. We can obviously listen to music without really paying much attention to the present moment. And we can also one hundred percent focus on the music, therefore making it meditative. And indeed there are many traditional meditation techniques that focus on sound, such as mantra meditation and meditating on a singing bowl.
Lucid Dreaming: The act of being conscious while dreaming? Can we consider that meditation? Well, believe it or not there actually are meditation techniques that specifically involve lucid dreaming (most notably Tibetan Dream Yoga). Also worth noting is that meditation makes it more likely for us to have lucid dreams. However, the two are not the same thing. The main difference is that lucid dreaming does not involve deliberately focusing the mind on the present moment. That said, some people have stated that they can actually go into meditation during a lucid dream (I am not one of them!).
Mindfulness: A lot of people get this confused, mostly because there are two forms of mindfulness. There is the specific meditation technique called mindfulness, which is pretty much the same as Vipassana. And then there is “Trait Mindfulness” which is the quality of being genuinely aware. The former is meditation. The latter is not.
NDSR: Non Sleep Deep Rest is a technique “created” by neuroscientist Andrew Huberman. I say “created” lightly because in reality NDSR is just another name for Yoga Nidra. And yes, Yoga Nidra is a meditation technique.
Prayer: Prayer is not meditation and is fundamentally different. I think the best way to explain this is in the quote “Prayer is when you talk to God. Meditation is when you listen”. Prayer is active thinking and meditation is active listening. That said, there is a Christian meditation technique called Meditative Prayer that merges the two, and this indeed is a form of meditation, but the regular “Our father…” is not.
Pranayama: Pranayama is the broad term used to describe the breathwork used in yoga. Some forms of pranayama are expressly meditation techniques. For instance, in Tibetan Pranayama we meditate on the flow of the breath through the energy centers of the body. However, when most people say Pranayama they mean the type of breathing done while doing a physical yoga workout. There is nothing inherently meditative about that, although certainly you can choose to meditate on your breath while working out and thereby turn it into a meditation. So I guess it’s optional.
Reading: Reading shares many things in common with meditation. For starters, it’s very relaxing and a lot of people do it before bed just as they do meditation. Reading is also good for mental health, promoting calmness, enhancing creativity, and strengthening our cognitive thinking skills. However, it really isn’t the same thing as meditation at all. It’s more like a guided visualization than a real meditation.
Running / Walking: Both walking and running can be done meditatively. Indeed in Chan Buddhism there is a technique called Kinhin (Zen Walking) in which we meditate on the movement of the legs while moving slowly. What makes walking and running suitable for meditation is the repetitive movement of the legs. Studies show that focusing on something repetitive helps us to relax. Hence why the motion of walking / running is suitable for meditation, and especially if you’re doing it outdoors somewhere tranquil.
Sleeping: On paper, sleeping might seem a lot like meditation. In both we have our eyes closed and are trying to relax. And both are restorative. Yet there are big differences. Sleep is a total lack of awareness. Meditation is total awareness. Sleeping won’t train us to use our minds better either. Now pardon me while I go meditate and, five minutes later, fall asleep.
Tai Chi: Tai Chi is the one and only entry in this list that is a hard “yes”. While the other activities I’ve mentioned can be done meditatively, tai chi must be done meditatively. Indeed according to the Tai Chi And Qigong Institute, tai chi is “meditation in motion”. If you’re not meditating while you’re doing those slow and graceful movements, you’re not doing tai chi.
It’s really popular to say “Anything can be meditation” but this simply is not true. The best example of this is playing a video game. Indeed, studies show that meditating while gaming can cause seizures, and I myself have experienced this. That said, many things can potentially be done in a meditative manner if we choose so. The best activities to do mindfully are ones that are simple and repetitive, such as knitting and walking. Consider the different activities you do every day, and ask yourself which ones you could use as meditation.
Giving Is Caring
Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations and is the author of four books on meditation. He has been featured in Psychology Today, Breathe Magazine, Healthline, Psych Central and Lion’s Roar.
Paul studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
Paul’s biggest inspirations include Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Jack Kornfield.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison