Meditation has been practiced for as long as history has been documented. It is said to be a doorway to connect with your true self and the source of life. It is something that many pepole would like to incorporate into their lives, but it can be overwhelming to know where to start. With so many different types of meditation, and pages of conflicting information and advice, how should you know which is the right one for you?
The truth is that none of these approaches described below could be considered the best. Meditation is very subjective, so it depends on what appeals to you. This may change over time, and you may find yourself drawn to another form of meditation in the future. Your preferred type of meditation must be simple for you to perform every day, it must feel comfortable to you, and it must of course bring positive results.
Although there are many different types of meditation, they tend to fall into two broad categories, focused attention and open monitoring. The goal of each is the same, to achieve a deeper cnsciousness, inner silence and effortless presence.
In this form of meditation the individual focuses on one particular thing in an effort to clear distracting thoughts and external interruptions. The focus can be on the breath, on a mantra, a visualisation or a candle. Over time the focus can be held more strongly, and fewer distractions are able to interrupt the flow of attention.
With open monitoring there is no specific focus, the mind is allowed to monitor all aspects of experience with no judgements or attachments. All sounds, thoughts and other distractions are observed without reaction. A study, led by Xu, was conducted to assess the activity of the brain during each of the two forms. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine was used by the team, who tested fourteen experienced meditators. The participants were required to be in three separate states, rest, nondirective meditation and a more concentrative meditation. The results showed that open monitoring meditation resulted in higher brain activity than during rest, in the area of the brain which processes self-related thoughts. During focused attention meditation, the activity in this part of the brain was virtually the as same as at rest.
I was surprised that the activity of the brain was greatest when the person’s thoughts wandered freely on their own, rather than when the brain worked to be more strongly focused. When the subjects stopped doing a specific task and were not really doing anything special, there was an increase in activity in the area of the brain where we process thoughts and feelings. It is described as a kind of resting network. And it was this area that was most active during nondirective meditation. ~ Xu
The study indicates that nondirective meditation allows for more room to process memories and emotions than during concentrated meditation. This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest. It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention. It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest. ~ Davanger, a neuroscientist at the University of Oslo, and co-author of the study.
There are of course benefits to both forms of meditation and we will look 5 of the most effective types that you can do at home here.
Vipassana is an ancient form of Buddhist meditation. It means insight into the true nature of reality, known in this tradition as the three marks of existence. Impermanence, unsatisfactoriness (also described as suffering), and the realisation of non-self. It is mindfulness meditation, which combines both concentrative meditation and open awareness. It encompasses mindfulness of breathing, thoughts, feelings and actions, which are tools to gain insight into the true nature of reality. As practice develops over time, one should start to recognise the impermanence of everything in life, and thus remove attachments and expectations. This will lead to a profound freedom from suffering. A freedom to live fully and in the present moment, without worry for the future, in which we already accept that things will change and cease to exist as we know them now. It is a very powerful form of meditation, which over time develops a more receptive, mindful attention, towards all things in your sphere of influence. Vipassana can affect all aspects of daily life and rituals, as you see things as they truly are. The meditation itself is paying close attention to sensation, of breathing, of the ‘aliveness’ of your body. It is best practiced seated, with either crossed legs or on a chair, with your back comfortably erect. It is important that your back is erect to prevent pain during the meditation. The body must be comfortable and at peace in order to allow the mind to be released. Some advice is that we say the following to ourselves at the opening of the meditation: May I be truly happy and free from suffering. All living beings, no matter who they are, no matter what they have done to you in the past — may they all find true happiness too. Breathe comfortably, not forcibly. Place your attention in your abdomen as the breath flows in and out. Focus on the sensations in your body as you breath. Continue to concentrate gently on the rise and fall of the abdomen as breath flows in and out, without analysing or judging at all. If, or should we say when, the mind wanders onto something else, simply observe what is being thought. Then gently return to focusing on the rising and falling of your abdomen. There are ten day courses available to study Vipassana, and these are typically free of charge, including food and accommodation. All contributions are voluntary, paid by students who have completed the course.
Eilona Ariel described Vipassana meditation and body sensations in this interesting TEDtalk below.
Transcendental meditation is a form of concentrative meditation, which uses specific mantras as a point of focus. It was developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918–2008), has been studied extensively and is widely used in schools, universities, organisations, and prison programs.
This form of meditation is claimed to help the individual achieve a very deep level of relaxation, which can have can have physical and psychological health benefits.
It is suggested that transcendental meditation (or TM) is practiced for twenty minutes, twice each day. A mantra is to be repeated throughout the practice, with no attention given to arising thoughts or feelings, just continual, gentle repetition. The practice is simple and natural, it is a seated meditation, done in silence. The aim is to sink below the rough, busy surface of our mind, to the peaceful, calm depths below…just like the ocean.
Each TM student is assigned a specific mantra or sound, with instructions on its proper use. The mantras themselves are supposed to be kept secret by the practitioners, as speaking them aloud is said to defeat the object, plus sharing with another could lead to inaccurate teaching. One author on the subject, George D. Chryssides goes as far as to say, “using just any mantra can be dangerous.”
Bob Roth describes the Transcendental Meditation technique in depth in this introductory video.
The Transcendental Meditation technique is taught in a standardised seven-step course, which takes place over six days, and is run by a certified TM teacher. It can be very expensive. However, I believe that you can try this form of meditation without the price tag and specific training. Using a mantra such as ‘Om’ or a chant which can be found easily online you can gain the same benefits of focusing the mind to achieve relaxation.
Reflective meditation could also be called analytical meditation. It involves disciplined thinking on any chosen question or theme. Attention is focused upon it, and when thoughts wander off, they are simply redirected to the topic of contemplation.
It is traditionally used to gain an insight into ‘deep’ questions of life – science, philosophy or scripture. Conclusions can be considered divine messages, ancient wisdom from the source of life or even just inspiration from the subconscious.
It is used by individuals to handle personal and professional situations, and can result in life-changing breakthroughs, leaps in understanding and creative ways of looking at a problem. Some internal questions might include:
It should be performed while seated in a comfortable position, to enable the body to rest while the mind is free to concentrate. It is therefore a type of focused meditation. It can be used to heal emotional trauma, as well as a supplement to psychological therapy, supporting drug and alcohol addiction treatments, as well as anorexia, binge eating or bulimia treatment.
Reflective meditation is also thought to benefit the physical body in other ways including reducing pain, headaches, insomnia, anxiety and depression. Studies have suggested that it can decrease blood pressure, lower stress levels and boost the immune system.
However, healing ailments should not be the main aim of your meditative practice. The focus shold be effortless focus on the theme or question that you would like to reflect on. Putting a clear objective in place may undermine the meditation.
Below is a guided reflective meditation, which combines quotes as prompts for your mind to focus on and analyse, coupled with gentle music, to relax your mind.
Heart Centred Meditation focuses on loving kindness and compassion. It is centred on the heart chakra, which is healed and unlocked through the process. Its goal is to send healing not only to yourself, but also out to others. It fosters feelings of joy, gratitude, appreciation, tenderness and love.
This form of meditation is for those who want to deepen their empathy and become more forgiving. The practice begins by focusing on the practitioner themselves, sending love and compassion to their own body, heart and soul.
Once they are filled with love until they are overflowing, the circle of compassion can be opened to embrace all living beings. The practice combines aspects of other forms of meditation; an insight into the true nature of life is required to see the interrelatedness of all beings and their suffering. Visualisation can be helpful with heart centred meditation. Imagining a soft white light emanating from the heart, or a pink glow surrounding the body like an aura can support the focus on this centre of energy. You can find what works for you.
This form of chakra meditation helps to release sadness and fears, and can be of particular benefit during times of personal tragedy. Ann Marie Chiasson, M.D., provides a step-by-step demonstration of heart centred meditation in the video below:
Movement meditation includes a number of things, including formal walking, yoga and qigong. It can be uplifting and relaxing, with the mind focused on the movement of the body and the sensations brought about by the actions.
You can simply sway your body from left to right, bending the knees and hinging from the waist, or free yourself with a loose flowing ecstatic dance. Chants and mantras can be incorporated, along with rhythmic breathing, and also music of course if that is what you like. The movement can be spontaneous or scripted, you can see what feels best to you.
In Qigong, the body, breath and mind work together. This discipline includes a number of various branches, some of which are held as closely guarded secrets. You can choose between using Qigong for concentrative or open practice, it can work well for either. It can be used to cultivate an inner feeling of calm and tranquility, while also heightening sensory awareness. The main benefit is that Qigong is said to enhance the flow of energy (or chi) through the body, releasing any blockages and restoring inner balance.
The practice should not be completed within half an hour of eating, and silence is generally preferred. Posture is important, to prevent injury, but the main thing to remember is to do what feels natural and comfortable, without becoming overly focused on the exact-correct form, as this can take away from the freedom of the mind.
Lee Holden offers an introduction to Qigong in the video below:
As we discussed at the beginning of this article, there is no best form of meditation, it depends entirely on what feels right to you. There is of course no reason that you couldn’t include more than one of these forms in your regular practice. The benefits would be compounded. Many of the aspects of the meditation types discussed are interrelated and practice in one would enhance the effectiveness of another.
Please note, that while the majority of studies report health benefits in those who meditate, there are a few reports that suggest that meditation could worsen symptoms in individuals with some psychiatric conditions. It is advised therefore that medical opinion is sought if you have any concerns.
What are your thoughts? Are you a regular meditator? Or do you feel sceptical about all of this?
We would love to hear from you!
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