The Wide World of Meditation
In our last installment, we spoke of how meditation can improve every facet of your health, from bolstering your emotional wellbeing to healing your body. This week, we take a look at the many different types of meditation and their individual benefits.
Keep in mind that there is no wrong way to meditate, and no technique is “better” than another. Every technique has its own unique positive attributes, and by choosing to practice, you have already taken the first step towards liberation and mindfulness. Take a look and see which one is the best fit for you!
To get a feel for the basics of meditation, all you need to do is set aside a few minutes each day to slow down and focus on your breathing. Simply sit or lie down, close your eyes, and let your breath come and go. There is no need to focus on your breath, or practice a certain breathing technique—just keep your focus on the breathing itself. When your mind wanders (as minds tend to do!) gently nudge your focus back to your breathing. When you find it easier to focus, add more time to your routine.
Another easy way to transition into a meditation routine is by using the gazing technique. Focus on an object, such as a candle’s flame, a body of water, a flower in a vase, a symbol… Really, anything pleasing or inspiring will do! Maintain focus on the item for as long as possible, and do your best to retain every detail. When you feel your focus slip or your eyes start to strain, close your eyes, keeping the image in your mind. When the afterimage begins to fade, open your eyes and repeat the process.
– Guided (Imagery or Visualization)
Guided meditation is exactly what it sounds like—it is a practice usually lead by a guide or teacher that helps you reach a state of peace by describing a relaxing location or situation. Guides for visualization classes will often incorporate as many senses as possible and provide scents, textures, and sounds to enhance the practice.
Guided meditation is wonderful for beginners, as all you need to do is listen and respond. With so many meditation apps ready to download, is now easier than ever to participate and go with the flow.
You can also practice visualization meditation on your own after a few sessions—simply keep your intention set on staying calm, and your mind stationed in your “relaxation zone.”
– Body Scan
This technique can be used in any position that you like (sitting, lying down, standing, etc.) as long as it is comfortable. Begin by noting the surface your body is touching, and how your body weighs against it. Take deep breaths through your nostrils and exhale through your mouth, releasing tension with each exhalation. Scan your body and take note of any sensations, whether it is numbness, contentment, pain, or pleasure. You may begin with the first sensation that appears, or start from your feet and work upward. Take note of every part of your body, inhaling energy and exhaling relaxation, until you feel calm and at ease.
Mindful meditation is the process of being present within and aware of your thoughts without being overly reactive to them. It is to allow your thoughts and emotions to pass through you, free of judgment or control.
This practice can easily be done anytime you have a quiet moment to yourself. Many find it most effective when done while sitting comfortably with your eyes closed and breath regulated. Keep your focus on your breath and allow all other thoughts to pass through your mind easily. Do not be too hard on yourself if you get distracted—just let it go and bring your focus back to your breathing.
Vipassana is the traditional technique on which Westerners based the principles of mindful meditation. To begin, sit comfortably with your back straight and legs crossed. Focus on your breath coming in and out of your nose, or the rise and fall of your abdomen with each breath. Let the sounds, sensations, thoughts, and emotions that come to your mind slip away and bring your mind back to your breathing. If you find yourself distracted to the point of losing your concentration, simply note the distraction (a memory from your day could be labeled as “thought”, or a car alarm could just be labeled as “sound”) and return to the breath. Maintain your focus for as long as possible, and as you are able to maintain focus for more time, add more time to your daily practice.
– Loving-Kindness (Metta)
Stemming from Theravada Buddhism, Metta meditation is designed to redirect specific feelings and thoughts to cultivate an attitude of love and acceptance. It is especially helpful for those who suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and persistent anger. While sitting comfortably and closing your eyes, keep a soft focus on directing unconditional love and compassion toward yourself. Should a negative thought arise, dismiss it and replace it with a positive one. After a few sessions of focusing inward, direct your thoughts of compassion to a loved one, sending positive energy their way. After a few more sessions, send the same energy to a neutral acquaintance, and finally, to someone you aren’t particularly fond of. Over time, you will be sending good thoughts to yourself, your friends and family, and eventually, the entire world.
– Zazen (Zen)
Essentially the Zen Buddhist practice of seated meditation, Zazen is defined by three core elements: your posture, your breathing, and the state of mind that arises from the previous two. You start in a sitting position with a pillow or folded blanket underneath your bottom so that it is slightly elevated from the floor.
There are a few positions to choose from depending on your flexibility, but beginners can start with the Burmese position (legs crossed, backs of both feet flat on the floor, both knees touching the floor.) Hold your hands just above your feet with palms up so that the backs of one hand’s fingers rest on the front of the other hand’s fingers, while thumb-tips touch. Open the shoulder blades and look toward the sky, keeping your teeth together and your tongue touching the roof of your mouth. Breathe through your nose slowly and rhythmically; you can count your inhalations and exhalations if it helps. Concentrate on your posture and breathing until your mind clears.
– Qigong (Chi Kung)
Qigong is the Chinese Taoist practice that combines exercises and breathing techniques to focus your “qi” (pronounced “chi”) or “life energy.” You begin by sitting with your back straight and breathing deeply, relaxing every part of your body. Once you’ve settled into a breathing pattern, bring attention to your center, about two inches below your belly button. Notice a concentration of energy, like a ball of light—that is your qi. Continue your focus as you feel your qi course through your whole body until you are one with the sensation.
– Taoist Emptiness
Similar to Vipassana, the goal of Taoist Emptiness is to release your mind from any thoughts. However, there is less focus on labeling distractions and focusing on breathing—the idea is to clear your mind completely and enjoy total silence. This technique requires a bit more discipline and is more difficult than more standard meditations; you may wish you be familiar with the basics before attempting. It is imperative to have quiet for this technique, so be sure to practice where you cannot be bothered, or with ear plugs/noise-canceling headphones handy. Begin in a sitting position with your spine straight and legs crossed. Keep your eyes partially closed, but with a soft focus on the tip of your nose. Keep your thoughts on the silence until your mind is completely clear.
Hindu Techniques (Vedic and Yogic):
– Transcendental (Mantra) (Om)
In this practice, a personally assigned phrase, sound, or word (also known as a mantra) is repeated in a certain way, allowing you to settle into a state of deep relaxation. This phrase does not need to have a meaning (unless you wish it to have one) as long as it keeps you calm and reflective. Begin by sitting with your back straight, your legs crossed, and your eyes closed. Breathe deeply, in through your nose and out through your mouth, repeating your mantra internally or softly with each exhalation. The goal is to have your mantra as the only thought in your mind, so do not be surprised if this takes several minutes to manifest. When your mind is clear save for the sound of your mantra, spend a bit more time breathing and allow yourself to gently return from your practice.
-Self-Inquiry (“I Am”)
Originating from the Sanskrit atma vichara, meaning “to investigate oneself”, self-inquiry meditation seeks to unite the mind and the body by asking you who is the “I” in “I am.” This technique is great for personal development and introspection. Start in a comfortable position and clear your mind with some structured breathing. When a thought or feeling arises, ask yourself, “Who is feeling that feeling?” Of course, the natural response will be, “Me! I am!” But then inquire, “Who am I?” Do not attempt to answer right away; rather, keep your focus inward and redirect each thought to your concept of self. To make it simple, focus on the “I am” that shines from you and you alone, without any association to what you are perceiving externally.
This yogic practice is quite a bit more in-depth than the other techniques listed, as it requires adherence to a strict diet, a regular exercise regimen, and specific breathing and yoga poses. Beginning a kundalini meditation routine is not as easy as following a short list of tips, however, many claim that it changes your whole body and brain for the better. If you are interested in taking the plunge, it is advised to speak to a certified instructor.
Nada is another yogic meditation technique that incorporates sound. You can use any steady sound that brings you comfort, whether it is a singing bowl, a nearby stream, the sound of rain, or ambient music. Sit comfortably and focus on the sound on its own. Once its tone resonates within you, you may bring focus to your body and mind as well. Keep the tone in your mind as you begin your yoga practice until it begins to blend with the sound of the universe and becomes the omnipresent om.
Chakras (from the Sanskrit word for wheel or disc) are said to be concentrations of energies located throughout the body. Of the seven, each corresponds to a certain set of organs and nerves, with their own mantras and colors associated with them. The goal of this meditation is to align all of your chakras so that they work in harmony with one another, leading to a whole and happy you. Negative energies and ailments can block chakras; meditating on their flowing energies can bring a sense of peace and balance back to your life. If chakra meditation interests you, be sure to study each one to learn their attributes so that they can be meditated on individually.
Contrary to popular belief, Tantra is not only about the sensual and erotic! In fact, Vijnanabhairava Tantra contains over 100 dharanas (“things to meditate on”) and advises that you have a solid foundation to the basics of meditation before attempting. One meditation you can start with is based on the Tantrika belief that we are beings made of life— get comfortable and practice a mindful, steady breath while you note the sensations of your body. Starting from your foot, imagine that it has been replaced with bright, warm light. Focus on its heat and shine until you visualize it completely. Slowly move up your body (your other foot, each ankle, each leg, each thigh, and so on) with this visualization, breathing the light into every part of you. Repeat this assertion until you reach the top of your head, and close with the thought: “My whole body is light. I am light.” Close your practice by breathing light into your whole body, and breathing pure light and love back out into the universe.
We hope this helps you find the best technique for your future practice, leading to a happier, healthier you! Stayed tuned this month for more on meditation, and how to get the proverbial ball rolling!