Meditation is a practice that involves focusing attention inwards. The focus of inward attention could be on a mantra, the breathing process (inhalation and exhalation), a vision, an emotion, an area of the body, or even someone else. Some people use meditation to relax and help with anxiety, others use it to build concentration, and yet others pursue the practice as a means of following a particular religion.
There is no right or wrong way to use meditation, but in order to get any benefit, you’ll need to know both proper technique as well as the type of meditation you wish to pursue. It should be mentioned that different types of meditation affect the brain in unique ways. While researchers are only in the early stages of determining the neural correlates of specific meditative practices, the subtype of meditation that you chose will have different effects on the brain.
Most people regard any type of meditation as having benefits, but the benefits are likely tailored to the specific subtype of the meditative practice. Although some people may utilize several types of meditation, mastering the one type that you find most beneficial will yield more significant brain adaptations. It’s like comparing crossfit (doing many types) with specific strength training (a specific) – the neural adaptations will be stronger if you pick a type and stick with it.
Types of Meditation: 3 Primary Methods
To decide what type of meditation you like best, I recommend doing some experimentation. You may want to try one particular type for 10 days, and if you don’t really like it, try another type. The only way to find the type that you enjoy the most is by testing the waters with some different techniques and observing how you respond.
The most popular types of meditation include: Vipassana (Mindfulness) and TM (Transcendental), but there are infinitely more meditations than these two. Nearly all types of meditations fit into a category of: concentration, open monitoring, or effortless awareness.
1. Focused Attention (Concentration)
- Example: Vipassana
All types of meditation that involve enhancing concentration can be classified as “focused attention” technique. These practices involve focusing attention on one specific thing for the entire time with the goal of cultivating laser-like focus. Any concentration meditation will involve consistent mental effort to build up the ability to focus without succumbing to distraction.
Certain practices may involve focusing on an external object (e.g. a pen), while others will involve focusing on the breath. In any regard, the goal is to direct 100% focus on one thing for the entire session. When the mind wanders, the focus is calmly brought back to the object. Over time, the mind wanders less and the ability to focus your attention improves for longer durations.
2. Mindfulness (Open Monitoring)
- Example: Mindfulness
With this type of meditation, you aren’t focusing your attention on one specific object. In this case, you are letting your attention flow freely without judgment or attachment. In other words, you are simply observing all perceptions, thoughts, memories, and senses that you experience during your practice. Developing the quality of “open monitoring” is synonymous with mindfulness – you are “mindful” of your experience.
Being mindful of your perception allows you to observe your experience almost from a third-person perspective rather than first-person attachment. You notice all sensations that you’re feeling, but merely observe them rather than judge them or react positively or negatively. In Vipassana, qualities of concentration along with mindfulness are generally developed together.
3. Effortless Transcending
- Example: Transcendental Meditation (TM)
This type of meditation is classified as “effortless” because it requires no mental effort or concentration. Some have called this subtype of meditation “pure being” or “transcendental” because it involves emptiness, introversion, and calmness. The goal with this specific type is to essentially help the meditator recognize their pure essence (e.g. “Pure Self”) or the true nature of the self by eliminating all thought.
The mind becomes a blank slate with consistent practice. Some have compared effortless transcending to giving the brain a massage or bath. The transcendental process helps the individual silence their mind and become aware of deep (arguably “purer”) states of consciousness. A person who has been practicing this specific type may experience a state of emptiness or nothingness and find that it feels great.
Types of Meditation Techniques: Comprehensive List
Below is an extensive list in alphabetical order of different types of meditative techniques. Understand that while many types of meditation are included on this list, lesser common types may not have been listed. If you think a particular technique should be added, feel free to mention it in the comments section.
Guided Meditations (Non-Religious)
There are various forms of guided meditation that have nothing to do with religion. For this reason, many people practice guided meditation simply because they don’t want any sort of religious dogma associated with their practice. Meditation can be practiced with the goal of attaining performance benefits such as: increased concentration, deeper relaxation, and to create specific neurological adaptations.
Additionally, guided meditations are preferred by many because they essentially “guide” or walk the person through proper technique. Attempting to learn how to meditate properly can create stress for some people. Therefore a “guided” meditation is generally in the format of an audio recording and provides instruction to help the person attain a meditative state.
How they’re done: There are tons of guided meditations available for free online, YouTube, and even in the “App Store” on your phone. One app that I recommend is called “Headspace” – which gives you 10 free sessions. The nice thing is that you can continuously use these free sessions (over and over) to calm down, increase your awareness, and become more mindful of your experience.
If you want a high quality guided meditation, you may have to pay a little bit of money or do a bit of digging on the internet. There’s nothing wrong with paying for a guided meditation assuming you get a decent product. The goal is to simply guide you through the process so that you don’t have to attempt to learn meditation on your own.
Eventually you may get the hang of the guided practice and may not need it anymore because you may naturally pick-up on the meditative process. If you’re like me, you like hearing the voice of another human being for part of the meditation, making it seem a little less lonely; keep in mind that this is just a personal preference.
- Affirmation meditation: This type of meditation uses affirmations to embed a particular way of thinking and/or feeling within your mind. You’ll get into a relaxed state and the idea is that you’re more suggestive when relaxed, so the message sinks in better to your brain. During this relaxation, positive affirmations relating to a particular focus such as: health, focus, relaxation, mood, confidence, magnetism, etc. will be stated.
- Body scan: This is a type of guided meditation in which an audio recording will instruct you to focus on a specific part of your body and become aware of any tension. Body scanning involves increasing awareness of any stress and/or pain in certain parts of the body. It can be performed while seated or while lying down in a comfortable position. A full body scan can take an extensive amount of time (e.g. 45 minutes), but condensed, shorter versions are still highly effective.
- Brainwave meditation: Many types of meditation incorporate the usage of brainwave entrainment as a form of guidance. These meditations may start out with an instructive voice, but are often just some relaxing music and sounds. The goal is to maintain focus on the specific tone or “beats” that are played through headphones or speakers. A popularized example would be that of Holosync.
- Guided imagery: This is a type of meditation that involves focusing attention on an image or series of images suggested by an audio recording. A guided imagery session can also be conducted by a professional in-person and/or hypnotherapist. It is highly effective in reducing stress and increasing overall relaxation.
- Progressive relaxation: This is a technique that is closely related to meditation, but some actually consider it meditation. It involves monitoring of tension in a particular muscle / area of the body, and intentionally increasing tension in that region. The tension is then released and the person notices a significant contrast in the sensation between tension and relaxation. This can be done in a scanning format throughout the body.
- Self-hypnosis: Many consider self-hypnosis a form of guided meditation because it involves listening to an audio recording and enter a deep state of relaxation. Once you become as relaxed as possible, you are more open to suggestion as your brain waves slow. Then the hypnotherapist will target the session to improve a particular aspect of your thinking or beliefs.
- Standard meditation: There are a variety of standard guided meditations available, many of which have different goals. Not all guided meditations are the same, so know what kind you’re using. As I already mentioned, the most convenient guided-meditation for me is on the app Headspace (which is a Mindfulness meditation). A voice will tell you what to focus on and where to direct your attention, which can be very helpful.
Mantra Meditation (OM)
In the Hindu tradition, mantra meditation is popular and involves repeating sound, syllable, or word with the intention of focusing the mind. It is very difficult for the mind to focus on anything but the particular repeated sound, which is why it works well. The sound repeated can be anything, but some traditions assign meditators a specific syllable or word.
It should also be mentioned that certain schools of mantra meditation stress that the particular word as well as the meaning behind it are important, but that is a subjective (spiritual) debate. From a purely scientific perspective, the mantra’s purpose is to focus the attention – the particular word and/or sound that is repeated is not of major significance.
Mantra meditation is a practice that is primarily associated with Hinduism, but can also be used in Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism. In the mainstream, it is common for people to reference mantra meditation as “om” (or “aum”) meditation. The important thing to remember is that a sound is repeated to focus the person’s attention.
How it’s done: Assuming you want to practice “mantra” meditation, you first need to come up with a mantra. Generally these mantras are assigned by an advanced meditative teacher or a specific sound is chosen for a spiritual purpose. That said, you can choose whatever sound, word, or syllable you’d like to use and stick with it. The word that you select isn’t all that important.
Sit in a comfortable position with good posture and close your eyes. Next, you may want to repeat your mantra softly aloud to let it sink in. Then stop speaking your mantra and repeat it silently (over and over) in your mind for a specific period of time or number of reps. When you’re just starting out, you may notice that your focus may drift to other thoughts, emotions, or discomfort.
Simply notice these sensations and bring your focus back to repeating the mantra. The idea is that the mantra will enhance both relaxation and focus. It is also a way to become aware of deeper states of consciousness or awareness between “thoughts.” Mantra meditation is preferred by some over breath-focused attention because it’s relatively easy to focus on a repeated sound.
Metta Meditation (Loving-Kindness)
This is a specific type of meditation that involves cultivating unconditional love and kindness towards other human beings. The practice of “metta” meditation is derived from Theravada Buddhism and is sometimes referred to as “compassion” meditation. There is scientific evidence in support of practicing metta for increased happiness, brain waves, and neural activity.
Metta is considered “love” without any sort of attachment and the goal is to increase “good will” towards others. If you were to practice this type of meditation, you’d start by directing feelings of unconditional love towards yourself. Once you were able to love yourself, you’d then expand those feelings and direct them towards others. This type of meditation may not be as popular as mindfulness, but has the ability to drastically improve mood when practiced correctly over the long-term.
How it’s done: To perform Metta meditation, you sit down in a comfortable position with eyes closed. You then use your mind (and heart) to create feelings of unconditional kindness and good-will towards yourself. It may take awhile to send and accept the feelings of kindness within yourself, but eventually you’ll get the hang of it.
After you’ve become adept at directing loving-kindness feelings toward yourself, you then pick a good friend (or family member) to direct these feelings towards. Once you’ve mastered directing these feelings toward a loved-one, you then pick a “neutral” person (possibly a stranger or acquaintance) to direct these feelings towards. As you continue, you will eventually direct feelings of loving-kindness towards a difficult person (or someone you dislike).
Eventually you’ll send simultaneous feelings of loving-kindness towards everyone including: yourself, a close friend, the neutral person, and the difficult person. Once you’ve figured that out, you then can send these feelings of loving-kindness towards the entire “universe.” The ultimate goal is to wish genuine “good-will,” peace, and happiness towards all beings.
When consistently practiced, feelings of pure “joy” will arise. Those who suffer from depression, negative thinking, and anger outbursts will significantly benefit from this type of meditation if practiced correctly. It is impossible to feel authentic loving-kindness (compassion) and anger at the same time. The more you practice this type, the more your “happiness” center within the brain is stimulated.
Although Vipassana is synonymous with “Mindfulness” meditation, some people consider them to be slightly different. Many consider the practice of Mindfulness to be an adaptation of Vipassana, keeping certain aspects without a religious influence. This type of practice is also sometimes referred to as MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) due to the fact that westerners are using it solely to reduce anxiety and stress.
The MBSR program was founded in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts by John Kabat-Zinn. It is supported by science as being beneficial for reducing stress, hence “stress reduction” in the name. Many consider mindfulness meditation (MBSR) to be among the most effective non-drug therapies for improving stress levels.
How it’s done: To practice mindfulness meditation, you simply focus on the present moment or life circumstance and pay attention to all emotions, physical sensations, and thoughts that you experience, without judgment. The efficacy of mindfulness stems from non-judgment and non-attachment. Like many forms of meditation, you sit comfortably, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing.
As you focus on breathing, you become distracted with sensations, thoughts, etc. Whenever you get distracted, you simply redirect your focus back to the breathing without getting frustrated. The more you practice this, the easier it will be to cope with stressors because you’re training your brain to avoid attachment and judgment to sensations and/or thoughts.
You don’t even necessarily need to sit with eyes closed to be “mindful.” You can practice mindfulness while you’re in a traffic jam, walking, out at the park, brushing your teeth, or eating. The practice simply helps you become increasingly aware and non-reactive to your consciousness. If you don’t want any sort of religious dogma attached to your meditative practice, this is the one to try.
Qigong (Chi Gong)
This is a type of meditative practice that translates to “life energy cultivation.” It is considered a spiritual technique that is designed to unify the body, breath, and mind. It is deeply rooted in Chinese medicine and the goal is to cultivate and balance “qi” (chi) energy. It is a practice that is incorporated by various philosophies including: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.
Qigong is generally done while moving slowly, with coordination and specific breathing to elicit a calm state of awareness. Many people practice Qigong for recreation and/or relaxation benefit as opposed to spiritual enlightenment. It is considered a form of exercise as well as alternative medicine. It has also been practiced for thousands of years and in a variety of different ways.
How it’s done: Assuming you want to learn Qigong, your best bet is to learn from an advanced instructor or watch a tutorial DVD. When starting out, you should learn the basics and strive to keep things as simple as possible. Once you master the basics, then you can move on to some intermediate or advanced practices.
When starting out you may focus on some simple movements and breathing patterns with awareness and/or visualization. Chanting or the usage of sound is also common in this type of practice. You’ll want to work with an instructor to get a better understanding of “softness” of gaze, stance solidity, relaxation, and general balancing.
If you’re in the more advanced stages of Qigong, you may focus on incorporating equanimity, tranquility, and stillness. Those that are highly advanced in Qigong generally are able to perform the practice with minimal motion. Before starting Qigong, do some research and identify the type you’d like to practice – some are more related to martial arts, while others are more geared towards those seeking spiritual development.
If we’re specifically talking about the meditation, you could practice Qigong in a seated format. Get comfortable and balance your body, maintaining a sense of centeredness. Next focus on relaxing your entire body as deeply as possible. Followed by physical and internal relaxation of the body, you then focus on your breathing to enhance its depth, length, and softness.
Your mind should become calm once you’ve softened your breathing. After this, you can direct focus towards the “lower dantien” which has been described as your body’s “root.” Think of it as your center of gravity. As you focus on the lower dantien (located three finger widths below the navel and two finger widths behind the navel), you build up more “qi” (energy).
By focusing on this exact spot, you are building up more “energy” for your body. Simply feel the energy circulating throughout your body as it builds up and maintain focus on the lower dantien.
Taoism is derived from Lao Tzu in China and those subscribing to this practice attempt to live in harmony with “Tao” or nature. The focal scripture for this practice is the Tao Te Ching. Taoist meditation incorporates: concentration, mindfulness, contemplation, as well as various forms of visualization. Many consider
Buddhist meditation practices to have significant parallels with Taoist meditation. There are a variety of different Taoist meditation techniques including: Daoyin (“guide and pull”), Neidan (“internal alchemy”), Neigong (“internal skill”), Qigong (“life energy”), Zhan zhuang (“standing like a post”), and Taijiquan (“great ultimate fist”). The primary objective with this meditation is to channel various forms of energy and become one with the Tao.
- Breathing meditation (Zhuanqi): The goal with this subtype of meditation is to focus on the breath, which results in unification of the “mind” and “qi” (energy). Meditators practicing Zhuanqi will concentrate on their breath until it becomes “soft.” Some would compare this practice to the Mindfulness practice of Buddhism. This technique is relatively easy to comprehend and practice.
- Emptiness meditation: This is a type of meditation practiced to clear the mind of all thoughts and recognize the “emptiness” or the real nature of the self. The philosophy behind this meditative practice is that we experience worldly problems because we don’t understand the truth. When practicing “emptiness” meditation you clear your mind of everything in order to achieve a sense of inner peace and solitude. Many people find this type of meditation to be extremely difficult and generally is tough for a novice.
- Nei Guan (Internal Viewing): This is a type of meditation involving visualization or focus of the imagination. Many people practice this type of meditation standing, with slightly bent knees and hands at their sides – but it can also be performed in a seated position. Due to the complexities of visualizations, it may be necessary to work with an advanced teacher or read a book on this practice to better understand the technique.
- Shouyi: This is a meditative practice that incorporates both oneness as well as concentration. The idea is to focus on visualizing a golden ball of light at a specific location within the body. Those that are proponents of this practice claim that energy, matter, and souls become unified (i.e. oneness) during the process.
- Yuanyou: This is a practice that incorporates a meditative travel to other countries, sacred locations (e.g. mountains), the sun, the moon, and transcendent beings. The inspiration for this specific type of meditation is traced back to a poem.
- Zuobo: This is a meditation that is practiced seated and is commonly compared to Buddhist “sitting” meditation. Formally it is practiced sitting around a bowl (water clock) and is considered a communal form of alchemy. The idea behind it is that it would make whoever practiced it special, live longer, and attain supernatural powers.
- Zuowang: This is an old technique that translates to “sitting forgetting.” Those practicing this type of meditation attempt to enter a state of deep trance without any ego as to feel the “cosmic current of the Tao.” Many have compared this Taoist meditation to the Buddhist practice of “zuochan” and the Neo-Confucianism concept of “jingzuo.”
Transcendental Meditation (TM)
You’ve probably heard of the popularized form of mantra meditation called “Transcendental Meditation” (TM). This specific subtype of mantra meditation is associated with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1955 and was introduced to pop-icons like The Beatles and The Beach Boys in the 1970s. Due to celebrity appeal and early introduction to the West, it has become one of the most popular types of meditation practiced throughout the world.
Although a very popular form of meditation, TM is not considered free. There are steep fees to be paid to get assigned a particular “mantra” as well as learn the proper technique. What distinguishes TM from other forms of mantra meditation is that it is considered “effortless.” In other words you aren’t necessarily building focus, rather you’re “effortlessly transcending.”
Neural correlates of TM demonstrate that within just 6 months of proper practice, brain waves are the exact same as an advanced TM meditator. However, the difference between a novice at TM and advanced practitioner is that the advanced TM practitioner has noticeably different non-meditative brain waves and is closer to the transcendental state while waking.
How it’s done: To perform transcendental meditation, you get assigned a “mantra” that fits you individually based on when you were born and your sex. Your “guru” will then explain how you should repeat this mantra as well as for how long you should practice. I can’t get into too many details simply because TM is licensed technique that is not freely available.
Many people end up practicing TM for periods of 10 to 20 minutes either once or twice per day with eyes closed. Although it can be costly to get proper TM instruction, many people appreciate the technique more after they’ve had to fork over some cash and also put more effort into it. Other types of meditation may be “free” but may not be as motivating to continue because the person never had to pay to properly learn the technique.
The cost is near $1000 to learn from a TM teacher in the United States, and a spin-off called “Natural Stress Relief” has also emerged as an alternative in 2003 for just under $50. If you scour the internet, you can find how TM is done for free. There is science supporting TM for increasing alpha waves in the prefrontal cortex, meaning it will make you relax and potentially improve creativity and/or focus. It’s not much different than “mantra” meditation that can be learned for free (although it claims to be).
This is a practice known as “tantric Buddhism” and incorporates the Lama and Guru yoga. It is considered a complex form of meditation that has continued to evolve in Buddhist tradition. The neurological adaptations that occur with consistent practice of Vajrayana include: increased stimulation and mental focus.
This is much different than other types of meditation which tone down or decrease arousal. In Buddhism, this meditative practice is considered one route to enlightenment. It originated in the early 6th or 7th century and incorporates multiple meditation techniques such as “Mahamurda” and “Dzogchen.”
The word Vipassana literally translates to “insight into reality” which is why many people refer to it as “insight meditation.” This meditative practice dates back to the 6th century BC and is derived from the Theravada Buddhist movement. Vipassana is recognized as being taught by Satya Narayan (S.N.) Goenka. The Vipassana meditation involves gaining “mindfulness” of breathing and is sometimes referred to in the United States as “Mindfulness.”
This meditation practice involves observation of breathing and contemplation. Many consider the goal to gain “insight” into the true nature of reality. The Sutta Pitaka describes “mindfulness” as entering the forest and sitting beneath a tree to watch the breath. If the breath is “long,” notice that it is long and if the breath is “short,” notice that it is short. By observing your breathing, perceptual changes take place in the brain, creating new insights.
Vipassana has emerged as among the most popular styles of meditation in the United States. It helps increase internal awareness and has been scientifically proven to reduce stress. If you’ve never meditated before, this may be an ideal practice to start with.
How it’s done: There is no “perfect” way to practice Vipassana meditation, but certain forms claims to be more authentic than others. Most practitioners of Vipassana suggest that a newbie starts with “mindfulness of breathing.” Once the person becomes adept at observing the breathing without judgment, they then may move on to develop “insight” associated with bodily sensations and other mental patterns.
To practice Vipassana meditation, sit in a comfortable position (wherever you want) and maintain good posture. Focus your attention on the in-flow and out-flow of your breath. You can focus on a specific area of the body (e.g. nostrils or belly) that are involved in the breathing process if it helps. During the breathing, sensations and thoughts will arise. Your goal isn’t to become frustrated with these thoughts and sensations, rather it is to calmly refocus your attention on the breath.
Many people practice yogic forms of meditation as a way to achieve mental freedom, self-knowledge, and self-realization (moksha). Yoga is considered an integrated form of physical, mental, and spiritual practices and is used in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Yoga dates back to pre-Vedic Indian tradition, but is hypothesized to have emerged between the 6th century B.C. and the 5th century B.C.
Practicing yoga typically consists of the following: conduct (yamas and niyamas), postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation. The last four limbs of yoga include: pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. It is these four limbs that embody the meditative practice in yoga. The specific type of meditation that you use to enhance yoga practice depends on what you’re comfortable with and/or what you’d like to experience.
Chakra meditation: This type of meditation is based on the 7 main energy centers throughout the body called “chakras.” To perform chakra meditation, you would specifically focus on one of these centers (e.g. the heart chakra) and use a specific mantra (e.g. “yam”) to open up or expand energy flow in this area. Each chakra has a specific mantra correlate.
- Crown = Mmm
- Third-eye = Ooo
- Throat = Ham
- Heart = Yam
- Solar Plexus = Ram
- Sacral = Vam
- Root = Lam
Gazing meditation (Trataka): This type of yogic meditation involves gazing on an external object or symbol. Most commonly a candle will be utilized as the object of focus, and a person starts by focusing on it with eyes open. After the person has boosted their concentration ability with eyes open, they then move on to focusing on the object (e.g. candle) with eyes closed to boost their visualization ability. The goal is for those practicing this form of meditation to be able to maintain the image of the candle within their “mind.”
Kundalini meditation: Originally known as “laya yoga,” kundalini translates to “serpent” or snake. This form of meditation is practiced with the intention of unleashing “kundalini energy” that lies dormant at the base of the spine. Those practicing Kundalini Meditation generally experience drastic changes in the functioning of their body, nervous system, and physiology as the “kundalini” energy rises from the spine.
This energy rises from “lower” energy centers to “higher” energy centers in the body. It typically involves a specific breathing technique that involves “alternate nostril” inhalation. In other words, you’d close your right nostril on the first inhale, and your left nostril on the second. The thought behind the technique is to “cleanse” certain energy channels to help awaken the Kundalini or “serpent” energy.
Kriya yoga: This is an ancient type of yoga that gained popularity with Mahavatar Babaji. It also was popularized in the West through the book “Autobiography of a Yogi.” This type of yoga consists of different levels of Pranayama and is geared towards someone intending to enhance their spiritual development. It consists of not only meditation, but energy work and breathing exercises to increase tranquility and spiritual connection. Some have described “kriya” yoga as mentally directing energy vertically; up and down the 6 spinal centers.
Nada yoga: This is considered a metaphysical type of yoga that is based on the idea that the entire universe consists of sound vibrations a.k.a. “nada.” The idea is that sound energy in motion rather than particles are responsible for creating the entire universe. The meditations in nada yoga involve utilizing sound in multiple ways including: internal music (called “anahata”) and external music (called “ahata”). As a person continues, the sound will eventually open their “chakras” (energy centers) with their internal sound. This type of yogic meditation may seem a bit “New Age” for most, but incorporates sounds (which people like).
Pranayama: This practice is derived from the Sanskrit word translating to “extension of the breath” or “life force.” Pranayama is considered the 4th “limb” of the 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga. To complicate things, you should know that there are over 50 different forms of Pranayama practice, meaning each has a different technique.
For example, the Nadisuddhi pranayama practice involves alternate nostril breathing. The goal is to develop a strong will-power, mind, and enhanced perception. Some consider Pranayama a practice to regulate breathing and/or a useful exercise as a precursor to meditation.
Self-inquiry meditation: The goal with this meditation practice is to constantly pay attention to the inner awareness of “I” or the “Self.” It was founded by Ramana Maharshi who declared it as the single most effective way to discover the nature of the “I”-thinking. He suggested that the “I”-thought will eventually disappear and then the individual is left with true self-realization or liberation. The goal is for those practicing self-inquiry meditation to discover their authentic “Self.”
Those starting out with this form of meditation are instructed to focus attention on inner feelings of “I” and to maintain the focus for as long as they can. Whenever getting distracted by thoughts or sensations, simply bring the focus back to “I” and continue. Those practicing self-inquiry meditation also will ask questions such as: “Who am I?” as a means to better understand their true nature.
The founder of this philosophy encouraged those practicing to not spend extensive periods of time in meditation. Rather he suggested that it could be performed for limited periods of time in formal meditation until the individual understands it. He discouraged those from devoting significant amounts of time to an actual meditative practice.
To practice this type of meditation, you start by asking yourself about who you are (e.g. Who am I?). The goal of this practice is to come to the realization that the “I” often gets identified with physical sensations like the body, our friends, our behaviors, etc. For some people, this may seem like a futile exercise in philosophy, but others gain an expanded sense of awareness.
Tantra: This is a type of meditative practice or ritual that has been around since 5th century AD in India. The word tantra consists of “tan” which means “expands” and “tra” which means “liberates.” There are a multitude of tantra practices as well as interpretations. The Vijnanabhairava Tantra references 108 meditative practices that can be incorporated to calm and take control of the mind.
Third-Eye meditation: This involves directing attention to the “third eye” or “anja chakra,” an area located on your forehead between your eyebrows. When the attention shifts away from the “third eye” chakra, you simply refocus and maintain attention. Eventually your mental chatter quiets and your focus on this area improves. The fast-paced, stressful thoughts subside and you feel a sense of inner peace. This type of yogic meditation is among the most common. It is sometimes practiced by closing the eyelids, but still “gazing” with your physical eyes on your third eye.
Zen Meditation (Zazen)
The name “Zen” meditation translates to “seated meditation” and originated in Chinese Zen Buddhism. Historians trace the practice back to the 6th Century Indian monk “Bodhidharma.” The practice generally involves sitting in the Lotus Position and observing the breath. To tame the mind, awareness is generally focused on counting or watching the breath. Many individuals that practice this specific type of meditation sit on a cushion, chair, or padded mat.
In the “Soto” teachings of Zen, observing the mind is the primary focus. In the Soto-subtype, there is no focus on any object and the goal is for the meditator to become aware of their thoughts without judgment. This could be compared to “mindfulness” in that the individual acts as an observer. In some cultures, intensive “group meditations” are practiced in a process called “Sesshin.”
This type of meditation also uses what are referred to as “koans” which help the Zen student gain insight from the Zen master. They are also commonly used to test the progress of a Zen meditator. Koans may be solved through sitting meditation (Zen), but are sometimes solved during walking meditation (Kinhin).
How it’s done: To practice Zen meditation, you’ll want to either find a mat, cushion, or sit on a chair in a cross-legged position. Although historically the practice involved sitting in a lotus or half-lotus, you can modify for comfort. Be sure to use good posture, keep the mouth closed and eyes lowered. Some sources suggest your gaze should be directed 3 feet in front of you on the ground.
- Focus: To cultivate your focus, you can direct attention on your breath; flowing in and out through your nose. If necessary, you can count each breath to a count of 10 and then repeat. Counting helps some people focus. Each time your attention drifts, simply bring your attention back to the breath.
- Observation: With this type of meditation, you don’t focus on anything, rather you focus on staying in the present moment, and simply observing your stream-of-consciousness thinking. You are aware of the thoughts flowing naturally through your head, but you aren’t judging them or reacting to them – just observing.
- Kinhin (Walking): This is a type of meditation that involves walking, and is practiced between periods of the sitting (zazen) meditation. This type involves walking in a clockwise pattern around a room. Generally one hand is in a “fist” (or closed) while the opposite hand is covering the fist. During the walking meditation, one step is taken after each full breath. The speed of this form of meditation can be extremely slow or quicker (rivaling a slow-jog).
Note: Keep in mind that this list does not include EVERY type of meditation available. There are many types that I probably have never heard of or uncovered in research. If you really wanted to, you could create your own meditation practice.
Which meditation should you practice?
It totally depends on why you want to meditate in the first place. If your goal is to become more relaxed, you have plenty of great options. If your goal is to become more focused, you’d want to use a concentrative type of meditation. Various other types like Vajrayana actually increase arousal rather than decrease it, so be careful with the type you choose.
Whether you believe in the spiritual aspect of each (e.g. kundalini) is a personal thing and highly subjective. Assuming you want to meditate, pick a practice that appeals to you and give it a shot. However, keep in mind that the science behind meditation is relatively new in terms of long-term neural and physiological changes. We do know that different types of meditation produce specific neural and physiological adaptations.
Therefore choosing one type may literally transform your brain in an entirely different way than another. Many people assume that the benefits of every type of meditation can be lumped into a collective pile, but clearly they cannot. Assuming you practice meditation for a long-term, be sure to choose a practice that you enjoy and that helps you achieve your particular goal.
Personal thoughts on meditation…
Science clearly supports the idea that certain types of meditation can be beneficial for mental performance and physical health. That said, there are some dangers to be aware of such as: extensive meditation leading to social isolation, meditation worsening depression or anxiety, too much inward focus (not balanced with the external), and falsely thinking that all the answers are found by looking inwards.
Humans didn’t evolve to meditate, they evolved to seek out external things in their environment. While meditation has its place to help with spiritual endeavors, relaxation, and mental performance, too much meditation may lead to adverse experiences – especially for a novice. Also avoid trapping yourself in any new age “cult” thinking that meditation and the idea of enlightenment will solve all your problems; newsflash: it won’t.
If you’re just getting started, I recommend using the app called “Headspace” which is a form of Mindfulness meditation. The science supports mindfulness for reducing anxiety, depression, and other measures. The nice thing about this app is there is no religious, subjective, “spiritual” hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo, witchcraft, non-scientific voodoo. It simply guides you through the meditation process at a slow, safe pace.