I began writing this post in late 2013, as a follow-up to the post What is Meditation? in which I set about introducing and defining the subject. My intention was to provide a more detailed and nuanced account of the diversity of meditation practices you might come across and how they fit together. Four years later, this still seems like a worthwhile endeavour. Indeed, with the proliferation of apps and online ‘experts,’ there probably exists more confusion about what meditation is now than ever before. So here goes…
Meditation, of course, is a very broad term. It’s probably not quite as broad as sport, or music; but is analogous to the degree that there are many different techniques and traditions, practiced for a variety of purposes. And just as everyone has their own preferred styles and genres of music, preferences [for different types and traditions of meditation] also vary greatly from person to person.
Below I’ll attempt to describe what makes something meditation (and not sport, or music) and also how the various meditation techniques and traditions differ. To start though, let’s take a look at where it all began.
The First Meditation
Meditation, when I first began writing this article, was still seen as a somewhat esoteric practice, reserved for monks, hippies and folks who believe in guardian angels and higher beings. In the intervening years, those stereotypes have given way to a relatively broad acceptance, though meditation is still not typically thought of as something that all of us might do, quite naturally and spontaneously. However, it certainly can be.
If you’ve ever sat entranced by the flickering flames of a campfire, drifted off into a peaceful sleep as you listened to rain pattering on the roof, lost yourself in music, or found yourself in a trance while running, swimming or dancing, then you’ve meditated (or at the very least, accessed a meditative state of mind).
Indeed, if you’ve drifted off into a reverie while watching TV or reading a book, you might even call this meditation (though no doubt many meditation teachers would be horrified at this assertion). In this sense, meditation is not anything that needs to be taught, nor a skill that you need to develop or a technique you need to apply. It’s just one of many states of mind available to all.
You might remember this kind of state from your childhood, when you were able to happily play in the dirt with nothing more entertaining than a pebble. Or you might recognize such meditative states in your pets. (Cats often seem to embody that supremely alert and yet relaxed kind of awareness that those engaged in formal meditation practice seek to maintain.) Perhaps then, Adam and Eve were the first meditators? Or maybe it was Australopithecus, roaming around the African savannah?
In any case, meditation as described above is a kind of natural and instinctive movement towards calm. When it happens, it’s very pleasant, but it usually only happens when the conditions are right, and without any conscious awareness or control. As such, these occasional, spontaneous meditative states are limited in their usefulness: they can’t be planned (reliably), usually require that we’re surrounded by nature or engaged in some specific activity (such as jogging or listening to music), and leave us without any understanding or ability to consciously replicate such states.
The first useful distinction we can make then, between types of meditation, is that between this natural, instinctive movement towards calm, and the more methodical, technique-based modes of meditation most of us think of as meditation. We might think of these two opposing styles as Naturalistic and Systematic, and characterize them as follows:
Dependent on conditions
Dependent on skills
From hereon in we’ll leave the naturalistic forms of meditation behind and focus on the types of meditation that have been systematized.
Religious and Secular Approaches
The next distinction we might make is between religious and secular methods of meditation.
I would argue that meditation is a cognitive capacity. To call meditation a religious practice, in that light, makes as much sense as calling memory or imagination a religious practice. Nonetheless, meditation has been practiced in religious contexts for much of history, so it makes sense to acknowledge how meditation differs when practiced in such environments.
Surprisingly, the distinctions can be quite blurry. For instance, you could attend a meditation class run by Buddhists, or consult with a psychologist; and both might teach you a simple breathing technique. For all intents and purposes, you would be practicing the same thing. On the other hand, you could also attend a meditation retreat run by Buddhists and be exposed to a range of philosophies, initiations and rituals in which meditation is barely mentioned, let alone practiced.
This distinction is drawn then, not necessarily because the techniques of meditation are different in religious and secular contexts (though they certainly can be), but because the institutions and frameworks in which they are delivered is. For instance, some people are drawn to the exotica — robes and incense, temples and gongs — that religions offer, while others are repelled by same.
More importantly, the philosophies underpinning and surrounding the techniques will certainly differ; and it may be these background frameworks that really separate one type of meditation from another. For example, a breath meditation taught within a religious context may be said to bring one closer to God or Enlightenment, whereas in a secular context it may be said to quell anxiety or lead to greater self-understanding.
To confuse matters further, meditation taught in some religious contexts may be presented in a way quite compatible with contemporary cultural mores, and meditation taught by some psychologists may be quite religious; either because it’s derived directly from a religious tradition, or because it’s presented in a very traditional, dogmatic or fundamentalist way.
We might also point out that techniques taught in ostensibly secular contexts (e.g. universities, workplaces, schools, sporting and fitness clubs) or by practitioners of yoga, tai chi, or martial arts) may also fall in various places along this spectrum.
So far then, we can break down meditation in the following ways:
- on a spectrum from naturalistic to systematic, and
- on a spectrum from religious to secular.
Clever or Calm
The third way we can distinguish between types of meditation is according to whether emphasis is placed on developing calm and concentration, or on insight. This is a distinction that will probably be familiar to anyone who has practiced meditation within a Buddhist framework, where these styles are referred to as Samatha and Vipassana respectively. (The folks in white lab coats refer to these methods as Focused Attention and Open Monitoring). Within the Buddhist context, it’s also usually posited that one needs to develop a certain degree of calm before it’s possible to develop insight (which here refers to insight into the nature of reality, rather than psychological insight).
Of course, calm and insight aren’t mutually exclusive states or outcomes. Meditators will often experience shifts in perspective (or insight) while practicing techniques that focus primarily on developing calm, and the opposite is also true. Generally speaking though, the meditation techniques you come across will fall into the former category. That is, the primary intention in practicing them is to develop a calm state of mind — and any insights gleaned are the icing on the cake.
You could also assert that techniques emphasizing calm and concentration suit, or appeal, to those seeking to change the way they feel. It’s the quick fix! The mantra used might be “feel better now” and the intention is to do just that, as quickly as possible, without having to face up to uncomfortable truths or feelings. This is often exactly what the anxious or depressed want, and may even require to some degree.
In contrast, those seeking to understand themselves better, to change their habits, and to develop more skillful ways of relating to themselves and others, may be drawn to insight practices.
So how do you know which is which? What characterizes a calming technique? As a rule, calming techniques will emphasize single-pointed focus. You’ll be asked to focus exclusively on one thing (e.g. the breath, the body, sounds, a mantra etc.) and to return your attention to that ‘meditation object’ pretty much regardless of what’s going on within and around you. A thought pops into your head — bring your attention back to the breath. You are distracted by a noise outside — bring your attention back to the breath. You feel irritated, upset or physically uncomfortable — bring your attention back to the breath! The instructions here are usually very straightforward, even childlike in their simplicity. There’s a clear structure to follow; rules to abide by.
With insight practices, there’s usually not nearly as much structure. They tend to be more free-flowing. There’s an orientation towards noticing and accepting whatever is going on, rather than on trying to control, manage or direct the mind. Instructions are more nuanced; so rather than having rules to follow, you might be invited to adopt certain broad stances or attitudes. Be curious. Practice acceptance.
This shift from clear instructions or intentions, to more general guidelines is itself, another way to distinguish between types of meditation.
Mindfulness, in case you were wondering, usually falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, depending on where and how it’s being taught.
We can now categorise meditation according to three criteria:
- Is it ‘natural’ or ‘systematized’?
- Is it religious or secular?
- Is it used primarily to induce calm or insight?
On a side note, meditation can be practiced for its own sake, or as a means to some other end. For example, many people are drawn to meditation because they have some problem they want to address: to sleep better, to improve their health, or to manage anxiety, depression or uncomfortably high levels of stress. Others may meditate for the sheer pleasure of it.
In a similar vein, some people become very interested in ‘going deep’; in exploring the various unusual mental states and experiences that meditation sometimes engenders. Meditation here is both path and goal. By contrast, others are concerned less with the goal and more on how you get there. Emphasis is placed on fostering a healthy relationship with the thoughts and emotions that arise as you meditate, rather than on arriving at some ideal meditative state. The focus is not so much on where you get, but on developing your capacity to handle life.
Here we’re not really distinguishing between types of meditation, but on attitudes towards meditation, though there are techniques and traditions which tend to emphasise different attitudes.
Within the categories of meditation outlined above, there are dozens, if not hundreds of different techniques, and what distinguishes these techniques most clearly is usually the prescribed focal point.
For example, you could focus inwardly, on your body, breath, thoughts or emotions, or outwardly, on the sights and sounds around you. You could also focus narrowly, using your attention like a spot-light, or broadly, using your attention like a flood-light. In fact, there are almost endless permutations available: from physical sensations, to visualizations, to mantras and affirmations, to mental exercises and to everyday activities such as eating, walking or washing the dishes. Or you could focus on a question or koan, on natural phenomenon, or on colours, sounds, light, movement, or energy centers within the body.
Additionally, it’s not just what you focus on, but how you focus. Some practices suggest that you focus with intense concentration and the intention to empty the mind of all thought. Others invite you to let your attention drift freely and either to witness, observe, label or recall your thoughts. Sometimes you might be asked to cultivate or suppress certain types of thinking, or to relate to your thoughts in specific ways. With mindfulness for example, you are often encouraged to cultivate an accepting attitude whilst suppressing judgmental or self-critical thoughts or excessive rumination.
Despite this seemingly endless variety, you can slot nearly every meditation technique into about seven or eight categories, according to their primary point of focus.
- Sounds & Senses
- Thoughts and Emotions
- Mantra / Affirmations
- Visualisation and Visual Objects
But, That’s Not All
You now know that you can:
- meditate either naturally / spontaneously or according to some systematised approach
- and that you can meditate in religious or secular contexts
- in order to develop (broadly speaking) either calm and concentration, or insight and wisdom
You also know that there are an almost unlimited number of things you could potentially focus on in meditation, but that you can slot them all into roughly eight categories.
This gives you a useful broad overview of the different types of meditation you may come across and how they differ.
However, we haven’t covered everything yet. In fact, categorising types of meditation according to these external factors doesn’t really get at the heart of the matter; because what you focus on in meditation is not nearly as important as how you focus. In other words, the internal attitudes and intentions you bring to meditation have a far more profound bearing on your experience than the type or technique you use or the context in which you meditate.
To really understand meditation we need to look at what’s going on in our heads. We need to be interested in meditative processes rather than techniques. Jason Siff does a wonderful job of this in his book Unlearning Meditation, in which he describes his Theory of the Meditative Process.
He points out that two people could be engaged in a breath meditation (technique) and that one may find it deeply relaxing while the other may find it a great struggle. It’s true that they are both doing the same practice, but it’s also true that they experience the practice in very different ways. In order to make sense of this we need to look at what’s going on within each meditator’s mind. We need to look at the internal process rather than the external technique.
By process, Jason refers to:
- The ways our minds function
- The ways in which we relate to our experience
Of course, our minds don’t always function in the same way, and we relate to our experiences in different ways too. In other words, if we look at what’s going on in meditation we’ll find that we engage in a number of different processes. Jason came up with six:
The Three Basic Meditative Processes
The Three Advanced Meditative Processes
- Non Taking Up
I’ll give a brief overview of these processes here, but you may like to refer to Jason’s book for more thorough descriptions.
Describes times when you are open and receptive to your thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions. There may be some resistance present at times, but for the most part you are willing to experience whatever is arising without trying to change it or do something else.
A process in which you attempt to create or generate a particular state of mind: calm, loving, or equanimous, for example. These are things you do, so they rely on effort, concentration and persistence.
A process characterised by internal struggle and resistance, in which you try to get rid of the things — perhaps thoughts or emotions — which you find intolerable.
A process characterised by curiosity and questioning, without a strong need for resolution.
A process in which you tend not to hold on to experiences or intentionally fuel them.
A process in which your attention rests — or is connected — with an object, such as the breath, a sound or visual image.
At first glance these processes may seem a little vague. You may wonder how they might apply to you, or how they could be useful. With a little exploration however, they provide a very useful framework with which to better understand your own experiences within meditation and the various meditation teachings and techniques you may come across.
When you think of meditation as a variety of internal processes rather than as a collection of techniques you’ll tend to develop a better understanding of the practice. You’ll be able to evaluate different approaches and troubleshoot your own.
You’ll be able to recognise when you’re given a strongly directed or generative practice, where concentration is emphasised and clear goals are provided. And you’ll be able to compare that with more receptive or exploratory practices, which are more process oriented.
You’ll be able to see that even though a number of different teachings ask you to focus on the breath, you could be given quite varied instructions on how to direct your attention during that practice; from unwavering concentration at one end of the spectrum, through to mindful awareness or observation (somewhere in the middle) and free-form association at the opposite end.
And rather than struggling with techniques that don’t suit the way your mind happens to be functioning in any given moment, you can adopt the process or processes most relevant to your current situation. You can choose when to concentrate and when to let go.
Do you have a favourite technique? Or — having read this article — do you think it might be a particular process that you find useful? Let me know in the comments section below.