When I first started getting curious about meditation, I was surprised how difficult it is to figure out what meditation actually is, how to do it properly and what it does to your brain. I couldn’t make sense of all the different approaches and quickly got lost in a sea of ambiguous ‘mindfulness’ how-tos, ancient texts with often incomprehensible metaphorical language and advertisements for MBSR courses. In a moment of desperation I even started wondering if I should pay for an exorbitant transcendental meditation course. When you’re considering taking time out of your day, for something that you may not even sure about, it can be frustrating and bewildering trying to understand the landscape of meditation practices.
In this post I’ll share some of what I’ve learnt over the past two years and hopefully provide some orientation around the main categories of mediation practices. This is just an introduction, not a comprehensive view but I’ll point you towards additional resources if you would like to dig deeper into particular areas. If you’re interested in learning about the neuroscience and benefits of each category, check out my post on how different meditation practices affect your brain.
Most meditation practices fall into one of three categories: concentration practices, open-awareness practices and compassion practices. You might be thinking, what about ‘mindfulness’? Watch out as it can often be difficult to know exactly which practice is being referred to when people talk about mindfulness. According to the Oxford Mindfulness Institute, mindfulness simply means “moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgement”. Therefore, mindfulness can refer to pretty much any practice (since they are all done mindfully), however it is often used to refer to an open-awareness practice. So don’t be surprised if it feels ambiguous!
What is it?
The goal in concentration based practices is to ‘simply’ focus your attention on a single meditation object. The meditation object can be almost anything with the most common one being the breath (or more specifically, the physical sensations of the breath, usually the feeling of air flow at the nose). Other meditation objects include mantras repeated silently, the feeling of the belly rising and falling, a candle flame, a point on the forehead or visualising a specific image.
How do you do it?
The instructions for this practice are surprisingly simple and can be distilled into two sentences:
Sit comfortably, bring your awareness to the sensations of the breath at the nose and gently bring it back every time your mind wanders. Repeat that process for 10min to begin with, increasing to 40min as you progress.
Whilst the instructions are very simple, actually doing this is surprising difficult! Many obstacles will be encountered as you progress and there is lots of advice out there on how to overcome these as well as tips on how to accelerate your progression. In my opinion, one of the best books currently available on this is The Mind Illuminated by John Yates (aka Culadasa), a former neuroscientist and olympic level meditator. He goes into a lot of detail but is clear, accessible and easy to follow. In a completely secular way he manages to elegantly articulate the actual experience of meditating, which really helped me finally feel like, ‘Ok cool, I think I’m actually meditating’. Check it out!
Personally, about 90% of my practice is breath concentration. I’ve found that the ability to direct your attention with a reasonable amount of control is essentially a prerequisite for most meditation practices and for future access to more advanced states. I explain exactly what I mean by this and provide a detailed step-by-step guide to starting a concentration meditation practice in my post on how to start meditating effectively.
What is it?
If concentration practices are like becoming absorbed in one tile of a mosaic to the exclusion of all else, open-awareness practices are like stepping back and taking in the entire mosaic without focusing on anything in particular. This category encompasses any meditation that asks you to become aware of your perceptions (e.g. sounds, thoughts, feelings, etc.). Here the meditator practices sitting as an impartial witness to their perceptions, training their ability to experience the objects of their perception free from mind-created labels, judgements or attachments.
I understand these practices as training yourself to notice and reduce the automatic mental adjectives your thinking-mind applies to your perceptions. For example, we usually hear a pleasant or unpleasant sound instead of only hearing the sound itself. This practice therefore improves your ability to see things as they actually are rather than getting caught up in the stories and judgments your mind creates.
How do you do it?
I found these practices really difficult to begin with since you have no anchor for your attention, sitting and watching thoughts makes it dangerously easy to get carried away in them. The distinction between open-awareness meditation and sitting idly isn’t obvious at first. For me the ball dropped when I came across a powerful technique called noting or labelling. This is basically what it sounds like: as perceptions, thoughts or feelings arise you label them in your mind with a one word description. For example, if your mind goes to a pain in your knee you can say pain to yourself. When a thought arises you can acknowledge it with thinking. If a sound comes into awareness you can label it simply as sound.
The reason this works so well is because it gives you a way to engage with your perceptions without getting swept up in the content or story of it. You’ll start to notice that as you label something it usually falls away and something else takes its place. As you practice you can increase the speed of your labelling and over time your mind will quieten. It’s a bit like playing Whack-a-Mole where you let the perceptions arise and whack them with a label. For more a more detailed explanation of this technique, check out this post about mental noting by the Insight Meditation Centre.
Compassion meditation (Metta meditation)
What is it?
These practices focus on cultivating feelings of compassion towards yourself, others and ultimately all beings in the universe. Imagine that the amount of love and compassion that you have towards yourself and towards others, is a like a (potentially unlit) flame inside you shining outwards. Compassion based meditation practices are all about stoking that flame until it shines brightly and stays lit even once you come off the cushion or encounter difficult situations.
For me the most powerful impact of this practice has been in my interactions with people. Sometimes it can be really difficult to know whether you are doing/saying the right thing, or it can be difficult to not let your emotions take over and make you do/say things that are less than ideal. Whenever I remember to revert to a form of metta meditation in those moments, it firstly feels great because you chill out (how can you be angry and be loving at the same time?), and secondly I’ve found that whatever I do or say next has a better chance of coming from a positive place rather than being reactive or defensive. It can be very humbling and make you feel great!
How do you do it?
This form of meditation actually works really well as a guided meditation. It’s strongly visual and having someone to guide you through what and how to visualise can be really effective. This lovingkindness meditation by Bodhipaksa is a really great place to start (you need the Insight Timer app which I highly recommend!). He goes through all the traditional stages of a metta meditation, starting with cultivating love for yourself, then a loved one, then a neutral person, then a difficult person and finally all sentient beings. If you want to learn more, Bodhipaksa describes metta meditation and all these stages in great detail on his website, Wildmind.org. For an even more in depth understanding I recommend picking up Loving Kindness by the very respected Sharon Salzberg.
So what now?
Hopefully you’ve got a bit more clarity on what types of meditation practices are out there. If you’re like me, the burning question whilst reading this was probably ‘Ok, ok, but which one should I do? Which one is the best?’. There is actually no right answer since it depends on your motivations for practicing meditation. Each type of meditation has specific, often surprisingly different, effects on your brain which in turn translate to different benefits. Traditionally, Buddhism teaches the importance of practicing all three types and that would be my recommendation as well (even though I’m not disciplined enough to do that myself yet!). However, if you’re looking to understand exactly how different practices affect your brain check out my post which specifically outlines the latest findings in neuroscience.
Thank you for reading! If you have any comments or questions please leave them below. I would love to know what people are interested in learning more about.