There are many different ways to go about meditating. While some of these ways are intuitive and simple, like for example walking-, lying, standing- and sitting meditations, others are seemingly bit more complex, like say dynamic meditation or transcendental meditation.
You might have noticed that we as human beings all walk, stand, sit and lie down from time to time, so how is meditation during these states any different?
That is a good question. Meditation has become a very broad umbrella term that’s being used in a myriad of ways. For some its an intense focus and exercise of concentrated will, for others it’s a attitude of letting go thus leading to psychological silence or thoughtlessness, while for others it’s simply the process of observing thoughts as they roam about in the mind without being too concerned by the content.
My own understanding is that the actual state of meditation is singular, i.e. the essence of all genuine meditations is one and the same.
What might that be?
In a nutshell and put simply, a conscious witnessing, or being awake to the present moment as it is.
In more elaborate terms, meditation is, for me at least, a non-judgemental, naturally compassionate, fully present and immersed yet detached observation of your body, senses, thoughts, mind and emotions. “Advanced meditators” if you will, are those that have honed the skill of observing the activity of their own minds till they have reached a state of inner clarity, silence and direct experience. They have become “one-pointed” as it is sometimes called in the Zen tradition.
That being said, in this compilation I will address some of the most common types of meditations that people practice today in both recluse caves and in our highly advanced & dynamic society. While some of these meditations adhere to the above stated “definition” some tiptoe around it and others are sometimes rather distant from it, cough. TM practitioners… cough.
Lets begin with one of the most ancient and powerful ones, namely…
Vipassana, also known as insight meditation, is a powerful Buddhist meditation technique which also is one of the most common ways of meditating today. The word originally means something akin to “seeing things as they are” and lays the foundation of the Buddhist meditative practice.
To understand vipassana it is useful or even necessary to first understand some of the core tenets of Buddhism and the Buddhist path to existential liberation, known as nirvana.
Meditation in traditional Buddhism is separated into two main types of meditation, samatha or deep meditations which were originally yogic techniques which the Buddha learnt during his ascetic life. and vipassana, also known as insight meditation which is a strictly Buddhist technique. Vipassana is most often done after the four levels of samatha has been mastered, this is in accordance to how it was supposedly done by the Buddha himself under the Bodhi tree. In today’s day and age however, it is normal in the west and in popularized meditation centers around the world to skip the samatha techniques and go straight to practising vipassana.
Vipassana, in more philosophical terms, is aimed to perceive reality as it is. This essentially means an understanding of the three marks of existence, namely that there is no separate independent self (anatta), that everything is impermanent (aniccā) and that everything is essentially unsatisfactory (duḥkha). When you as a meditator intuitively realize these three things in your meditation, then the vipassana has done you good.
According to the Buddha, vipassana could be divided into four main parts where we could direct our attention, the body, the feelings, the mind and the object of the mind. One of the most common methods is to be conscious of the breath, which is according to some, how Buddha realized his own enlightenment. But vipassana also includes to notice other activities of the body, feelings, thoughts, moods, objects, ideas etc. For example when you’re aware of feelings, you’re noticing how pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings come and go in your consciousness. When being aware of thoughts, moods and the mental realm, you try to notice how you react to thoughts, whether desire, hate and illusion appear or not. In this way, after sufficient practice, you become aligned with your own inner workings and understand yourself and existence more correctly.
- Vipassana is a uniquely Buddhist meditation technique for gaining insight into the nature of reality, most notably the three marks of existence, anatta (non-self), anicca (impermanence) and duhkha (unsatisfactoriness).
- Vipassana, according to tradition, was the technique employed by the Buddha himself to attain to nirvana under the famous bodhi tree.
- In vipassana, the physical, mental and meditative exercises are adapted to fit the Buddhist worldview.
- When vipassana is done properly, the meditator is granted wisdom and sees reality as it is and thus opens up his/her path to nirvana.
Mindfulness is best understood as a general state of mind, technique or attitude that is centred on paying full attention to yourself and your surroundings in a non-judgemental manner. Mindfulness is derived out of Buddhist meditative principles and exercises but is widely used in secular context as well.
The goal with mindfulness meditation is to align your attention with the immediacy of the present moment and thus creating a certain quality of being fully present, which more often than not results in a sense of gentle tranquility in your mind.
You can be mindful about anything and everything. Mindfulness is the practice of learning how to pay attention in each moment to our thoughts, emotions, sensations and bodies without trying to judge them as either ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ Mindfulness is a way to become comfortable with things as they are, rather than the constant striving we go through to try and make things different. It’s a great technique to be used when wanting to reconnect to life and the world as it is, and when simply wanting to take a break from the mad ramblings of the chatting mind.
- Being mindful can be done anywhere and anytime.
- Mindfulness is derived out of Buddhist meditation techniques and teachings.
- Mindfulness can be performed by anyone, as it is considered a secular exercise, unbound to any official dogma or school of thought.
Sitting meditation is exactly what it sounds like. You sit somewhere comfortably, preferably on a meditation cushion, bench or a floor chair, and you start observing the phenomena that arises in your body and mind. Awareness is all you need and awareness is key.
When sitting you can use most of the techniques listed here, though we recommend vipassana, mindfulness (especially of the breath), ACEM and mantric meditations.
Sitting meditation, that is what zazen is, nothing more and nothing less than that. The term comes from the Japanese term “za-zen” which means “just sitting” and is a central part of Zen buddhism.
- Sitting meditation is best done on an elevated surface, like a meditation pillow.
- The main benefit of sitting meditation is that it easily turns into a healthy practice.
Standing meditation is precisely what it says, you stand up, with a straight back and good posture, hand relaxed, preferably by your sides, and simply observe the movements of your mind in this vertical posture. Standing meditation can be incredibly effective because the body feels fully alert, awake and ready to go, yet there’s an attempt to achieve a state of stillness.
If you’re one of those that sit too much, maybe you work at an office or like to play computer games, standing meditation can give your butt a break from relentless force of gravity. Let your feet do some of the work.
- Standing meditation is done by standing straight, proper posture of the back and hands relaxed by your sides,.
- Eyes can be closed or open, in the case of open eyes it’s recommended to focus on a single point in your vicinity.
- Loose and comfortable (meditation) clothes.
- A walking stick to anchor yourself to the ground and earth
To achieve the meditative state through movement is a great way of combining exercise with meditation. Open two locks with one key. Conscious movement allows you to get to know yourself while being active in two different dimensions. The body and mind are essentially one and the same, conscious movement bridges the illusory gap between them.
The ancient martial art and moving meditation Qigong is perhaps the most prominent of the moving meditations.
To meditate while taking a walk, what a wonder! It can indeed be a wonderfully intense experience to be fully aware of your body moving about, simply in action out in nature. Normally when we walk we’re doing it casually because it is indeed a casual thing. However from a meditative perspective even the most casual of things can and do become sublime, and this is certainly the case with walking meditation.
The goal of the meditation is to simply walk without being somewhere else, to be mindful of the experience of simply walking inside, outside, to school, to work, doesn’t really matter. What matters is your conscious alignment with the experience of walking. In other words, the goal is to discover that you’re not walking to a “destination”, you are the destination.
One of my favorite ways of doing walking meditation is by walking very slowly back and forth, barefoot and indoors. This way you’re aware of the soles of your feet and how each muscle and tendon is activated when taking a simple step. When done with sufficient focus and awareness, the simple act of walking, becomes quite blissful.
- Eyes are best kept open during the walking meditation, but doing it with shut eyes can be even more intense.
- The outside world and its influence on you (your feet) becomes the focal point of your awareness
ACEM meditation is a form of meditation and conscious attention focused on sound, whether internal in the mind or external done by your physical body (vocals). Meditators and yogis most certainly have used the practices and principles contained within ACEM long before ACEM as student organization started in 1966. Since then it has developed into a effective relaxation technique to relieve the noisy psychological mind but also for understanding more about the inner workings of the mind. As a method it draws inspiration from existential psychology and psychoanalysis. For beginners ACEM is a good and easy technique to learn as no previous experience is required, the method pretty much suits everyone. The more you do it the more effective it becomes.
How to do it
If you have tension in your body, it may be good to do a couple of yoga exercises or self-massages before you start.
- First find a good spot, preferably a bit dark and/or subdued lighting.
- Sit or lay down on something comfortable like a meditation cushion.
- Close your eyes.
- Choose a specific sound, this sound will be your “anchor sound”.
- Let thoughts come and go and through will repeat the chosen anchor sound in your mind. Let it be a kin to a gentle and effortless humming when starting.
- If you find yourself distracted by a thought and forget to repeat the anchor sound. When you discover this, simply go back to repeating the anchor sound again, lightly and effortlessly as previously.
- Sound is used as a vehicle and anchor to direct one’s attention to. The goal of this “sound vehicle” is to eventually deliver you to a state of mental calm and serenity.
- ACEM as an organization, is quite new, as it started in 1966 in Oslo, Norway. However the actual meditation technique is very ancient, probably from Vedic times.
Loving kindness (Metta meditation)
Metta meditation, or loving kindness, is a principle deeply rooted in the Buddhist tradition, while also being a form of meditation. Loving kindness is a meditation technique that is centred around care, compassion, kindness and understanding for oneself and the world, universe at large. The technique uses largely emotional power to achieve a state of unity in consciousness.Through this meditation we are actively creating space for loving thoughts for ourselves, our loved ones, friends, cousins, relatives, strangers and eventually whole world.
- Metta meditation is about expanding the love and kindness you have in yourself to encompass all of existence.
- First the focus is set on yourself, your dear ones and friends, strangers, people that you for some reason dislike, the animals, plants, nature, the planet, the stars, the galaxies, the universe.
Mantric meditations are techniques that primarily use the repetition of a certain mantra or sacred word to achieve a desired state of mind or no-mind. For example one way to combine awareness of breath with mantras is by focusing on your breathing, in and out through your nose. Then you breathe in and say “I am energized”. On the exhalation: “I am focused”. Keep repeating this (or something else) mantra, in quietude for yourself for a few minutes. Mala beads are often used for mantra meditation, as it helps you to stay focused.
Transcendental meditation is a subset of mantric meditation, a technique promoted by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and is performed with use of a mantra as a mind-vehicle towards an desired state of being or to a thought-free tranquil state. TM has become one of the most widely practiced meditation techniques in the world.
TM is seen in vastly different ways, depending on who you talk to. It is considered to be religious by some and non-religious by others.
TM practice involves the use of a mantra for 15 to 20 minutes twice per day while sitting with the eyes closed. It differs from other common styles of meditation in that it involves no concentrating, no control of the mind, no monitoring or labeling of thoughts (as in mindfulness) and no trying to “empty the mind”.
- Conscious repetition is the key to release.
- Specific sacred mantras that help achieve a state of mind.
Dynamic meditation was concocted by the insightful Indian mystic Osho. It is probably one of the most playful methods of meditations and it consists of a set of meditation techniques designed specifically for the tense, rigid, modern mind. This rather effective and cathartic meditation has five different phases that should ideally last one hour. Throughout the meditation you should have your eyes closed, as to focus wholly on the inner workings of your mind. The goal of dynamic meditation is to achieve a mental state free from thought while being in a state of happiness and unity.
Here’s how you do it in a nutshell:
Phase 1: Breathing (10 min)
Oxygenate the body and allow the energy to flow freely in the body. Do this by breathing vigorously with a tinge of chaos through your nose. You should allow the breathing to be intense, deep and rapid but without any particular pattern or rhythm. Focus on active exhalation, as the body will take care of the inhalation. Breathing should go deep into the lungs until you literally become breathing. Use your natural body movements to help you build up your energy and always stay aware.
Phase 2. Survival (10 min)
Explode! Let go of all the emotions and thoughts. Release everything that is within you. Follow your body. You can go completely crazy if you’d like. Shout, jump, shake, dance, laugh. You don’t have to hold anything back. Keep your whole body in motion and movement. Never let your mind interfere with what is happening, let yourself go and be completely free in your expressions.
Phase 3. HOO (10 min)
With arms outstretched towards the ceiling, jump up and down while shouting the mantra, Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! This is a bit crazy and hard but try your best!
Phase 4. Stillness meditation (15 min)
STOP! After the effort and fatigue from the previous phases, this phase is about freezing in complete and utter stillness. Stand completely still, do not adjust the body in any way no matter the itch or impulse. A cough, a movement, something, will cause you to lose energy, focus and the efforts will be diminished. Witness your thoughts, feelings and become aware of everything that is happening around you and within you.
Phase 5. Celebration 15 min
Now you are in the final phase and the meditation ends with relaxed movements to the music being played. Dance like you’ve never done before, but with grace and beauty. Then carry with you this feeling of exuberance and joy throughout the rest of the day.
- This form of meditation combines intense random movement with conscious, controlled stillness.
- Dynamic meditation is best for those that need a cathartic release from the tensions, stress’ and knots stored up in the body and mind.
What are the similarities and the differences?
Seen from a deeper place, or lets say from a certain perspective, there is no essential difference between these ways of meditating, only superficial differences. The same way different instruments, essentially produce sound and music. I say this because I firmly hold that the the meditative state is essentially one and the same, as was mentioned way back in the introduction. That being said, when looking closer at some techniques, especially the “mantric meditations” or the loving kindness metta meditation, one does indeed notice some differences.
In a sense mantric techniques like transcendental meditation isn’t really meditation, they are just tools for the development of the mind and your will, whereas meditation can be seen as the freedom from the capricious impressions, whether negative and positive, of the psychological mind. However if the end goal of the practitioner of TM is to reach a state of stillness in the psyche which leads to a compassionate, non-judgmental, open and detached way of perceiving life, then perhaps TM could indeed be considered a form of meditation. It got a little bit fuzzy didn’t it!
Lastly, loving kindness on the other hand uses imagination and meaning as vehicles to reach a state of universal oneness and love, which seen from the heart space makes it ultimately a meditation indeed. Why? Well chiefly because love and unity is what the universe truly is essentially. Now ain’t that a lovely thing!
As you have just witnessed, the ways, methods and techniques of meditation are numerous quite indeed. These above mentioned paths are merely a handful of the countless ways of going about meditating. And don’t you forget, no matter what meditation you employ, you’ll always end up in your own centre, in your own “self”. That is the essence of meditation, namely to align the psychological monkey mind with your inner meditative core.
Feel free to share your own contemplations and experiences with meditation in the comment box below! I would truly be delighted to hear from you.
Daniel Seeker is a wandering dervish and lifelong student of the past, present and future. He realized deep relaxations of the psyche when meditating in his hermit cave on the island of Gotland. His writings are mostly a reflection of that realizaton. Daniel currently studies history and philosophy at Uppsala Universitet, as he is currently writing his B.A. thesis in history which explores how Buddhist and Hindu texts were first properly translated and introduced to the western world in the late 18th and 19th century.