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How many kinds of meditation are there?

Discover the different ways you can practice meditation


At the end of a recent drop-in meditation session, I was asked how many kinds of meditation there are. Based on my six years of reading around the subject of meditation and mindfulness, I ventured a guess at 7.

But, as plucking an estimate from the air is not my usual practice, I decided to investigate the matter and share a more researched answer at the next session.


As it was an interesting thing to do, I am sharing my findings here too.


No simple answer to how many kinds of meditation exist

An internet search found that the number of meditation types varied from 5 to 23. In examining the answers, I realised the answer depended on how you categorised the various meditation styles.


There appeared to be no definitive list.


Many I reviewed seemed to be a jumble, with similar kinds offered as separate styles whilst missing out other forms that I knew of altogether.


It seemed the only way to derive an answer was to create my own list using my own classifications.


There are seven kinds and two types of meditation

If you have read my blog about the difference between attention and awareness, you’ll know that there are two ways of paying attention. I refer to this as dual control.


We can choose to focus on something or we can allow our attention to be pulled to something within our field of awareness.


This means you can classify all meditation styles into two types. Those that use focused attention and those that dwell in the field of awareness, termed open monitoring in research circles.


Focused attention meditation type

These kinds of meditation can be thought of as task based. By harnessing the mind, we claim and focus our attention on something of our choice.


I have classified 6 kinds of meditation as attention-focused. All of which can be used to settle and calm the mind.


We can attend to an internal sensation, external object, movement. We can repeat a word, phrase or prayer (chant). We might use our imagination in some way (visualise). Alternatively, we can sit with an emotion as it manifests body or consciously feel positive emotions towards ourselves and others (compassion-based).


Here are 6 things we an focus on:


1. An internal object

When we choose a sensation in the body to be the focus of our attention, we are using an internal object.


The most common internal sensation on which to focus is the breath. This is usually the first form of meditation that is taught, if someone is comfortable doing so. The breath is a useful object as it is convenient and ever-changing.


Alternatively, you could focus on feeling your feet, if focusing on the breath is uncomfortable. Here you are attending to a particular body sensation. A body scan meditation rests the attention on different parts of the body in turn. Progressive relaxation, a stress management technique, is a form of body scan. It is likely borrowed from yoga nidra.


2. An external object

Any object in the environment can also be used to settle the mind. You might choose to focus on something in your room, a candle flame or the sounds around you.


Alternatively, you might listen to particular meditation bells, chants or music. Gong baths are a form of sound meditation.


Other forms of external object meditation may be an image of god, guru or meaningful symbol.


3. Movement

Movement meditation styles include yoga, tai chi and qigong. The practitioner focuses solely on how the movement feels.


You can also pay attention to how it feels to walk or run. The whirling dervish of xxx are paying attention to the movement of rapid turning to change their internal state.


4. Chanting

Repeating a word, phrase or prayer helps settle the mind by interrupting thinking. A famous form of this is the Hari Krishna chant but the Lord’s prayer and Hail Mary is also a form of chanting.


Benson’s relaxation technique, Vedic meditation and Transcendental Meditation all use a silent form of chanting to focus the mind. Singing might be considered chanting.


5. Visualisation

I'm sure you have heard the phrase, go to your happy place. It refers to a grounding visualisation meditation that can help someone to feel relaxed.


Using all your senses you recall a place or moment that you associate with restful or happy feelings and dwell there for a few minutes. I regularly teach this as a stress management or coping mechanism.


Another grounding meditation is to imagine you have roots like a tree anchoring you to the earth.


Other visualisations include bringing to mind a guru or god and connecting with the chakras (7 energy centres in the body).


6. Emotion-focused

Finally, there are the emotion-focused meditations. We can focus on how an emotion feels in the body, especially those we find difficult to be with. Tara Bracht’s RAIN method of sitting with suffering is an emotion-focused meditation.


Another form of emotion-focused is the generation of positive feelings through thought. The Buddhist loving-kindness meditation (metta) generates well wishes to yourself and others.


Open-monitoring meditation type

The opposite of focusing or tasking our attention is to allow the attention to be drawn to whatever's happening within our field of awareness.


7. Mindfulness meditation

We pay attention to our moment-to-moment experience without being drawn in or judging it.

This form of meditation is often done using a labelling or noting technique. It is not done specifically to calm or settle the mind, it’s purpose is to understand the nature of reality thus derive insight into experience.


This style of meditation tends to be trained using focused-attention methods. Mindfulness courses help you develop this ability as you progressively train in different forms of attention so that you increasingly develop greater awareness of your experience.


Open-monitoring styles include vipassana and zazen meditation.

 

There are many ways to classify the different kinds of meditation. Here I have divided the ways we can meditate between whether we task our attention or allow it to be pulled to aspects of experience.


It should be noted that whilst this form of classification results in seven kinds or styles, you can also blend styles together. For example, you might focus on the breath and chant at the same time or move with the breath as in tai chi or qi gong which results in further forms.


I use all those that are mentioned here in one way or another.


There are no rules as to which you use or when you should meditate. As scientific research continues to show the benefits of meditation, I encourage you to explore the many kinds of meditation that exist to find those that you find most useful.

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