Discover different ways to meditate to develop a personal practice
At the end of a drop-in meditation session, I was once asked how many kinds of meditation exist.
Based on seven years of reading about 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 following class.
As it was an interesting thing to do, I am sharing my findings here.
A quick internet search found that numbers of meditation types ranged from 5 to 25. In examining the answers, I realised it depended on how you chose to categorise meditation styles.
Many of the lists I reviewed seemed to be a jumble, with similar kinds offered as separate styles whilst missing out other forms that I knew of altogether.
As there was no definitive list, the only way to derive an answer I was comfortable sharing was to create my own list using my own classifications.
There are two types (and 7 kinds) of meditation
If you have read my blog about the difference between attention and awareness, you’ll know that there are two forms of attention. We can choose to focus our attention on something (known as goal-driven or endogenous orienting) or our attention can be pulled to something within our field of awareness (stimulus-driven or exogenous orienting).
This means you can classify all forms of meditation into two types.
Those that focus the attention and those that dwell in the field of awareness, sometimes termed open-monitoring in meditation circles.
Focused attention meditation type
These kinds of meditation can be thought of as task-based. We purposefully focus our attentional resources on something of our choice.
We can attend to an internal body sensation, an external object or feel into a movement. We can repeat a word, phrase or prayer (chant) and focus on it as we do so. We might use our imagination in some way (visualise) to capture our attention.
Alternatively, we can feel into how an emotion manifests in the body or consciously generate positive emotions towards ourselves and others (compassion-based).
I have classified 6 kinds of meditation as attention-focused based on the object of attention. All of which can be used to settle and calm the mind.
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 environment, 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, a guru or meaningful symbol.
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. Sufi whirling is a form of movement meditation.
Repeating a word or phrase can help settle the mind by interrupting thinking. A famous form of this is the Hare Krishna sixteen word mantra but the Lord’s prayer and the 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 also be considered chanting.
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 relax.
Using all your senses you recall a place or moment that you associate with restful or happy feelings and dwell there for a period of time. I regularly teach this as a stress management or coping mechanism.
Another grounding visualisation meditation is to imagine you have roots like a tree that anchor you to the earth.
Other visualisation forms of meditation include bringing to mind a guru or god and connecting with the chakras (7 energy centres in the body).
Finally, there are the emotion-focused meditations where we focus on how an emotion feels in the body.
In the mindfulness course I teach, participants are encouraged to appreciate good moments by tuning into how they feel in the body and are shown how to sit with those we find difficult to be with. Tara Bracht’s RAIN method is an emotion-focused meditation.
Another form of emotion-focused meditation is the generation of positive feelings. 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. Sometimes called choice-less meditation.
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 to calm or settle the mind, it’s generally used to understand the nature of our reality, deriving insight into our moment to moment experience.
This style of meditation tends to be trained using focused-attention methods. By progressively training in different forms of paying attention, you develop greater awareness of your experience.
Open-monitoring styles include vipassana and zazen meditation.
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 (Benson's relaxation method) or move with the breath as in tai chi or qi gong which results in further forms.
There are no rules as to which you use or when you should meditate. I practice all those that are mentioned here in one way or another.
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.
Take care of you.
You can explore many of these in my virtual drop-in meditation sessions