My friends all know I meditate. Recently, one was asking me for ideas on how to get started, and it got me thinking about the styles of meditation I’ve used and what I like and dislike about them. And then I figured I might as well blog about it. 🙂
The three types of meditation I’m going to discuss, which is entirely my own breakdown and not any sort of official “these are what meditation schools are named,” are guided meditation, focused meditation, and sitting meditation. I am sure this post will not be an exhaustive list, but I’m writing about what I have enough experience with to feel comfortable writing about.
Also, some of what I consider a meditation practice, others may categorize as contemplation or as something else altogether. Suffice it to say, there isn’t a consensus on what meditation is. Not even in my own mind.
1. Guided Meditation
This was one of the first types of meditation I did. It is basically where someone, in person or on a recording, walks you through a very specific active imagination exercise. It produces a state somewhat akin to lucid dreaming for me. The first ones I did were given to me by a sleep doctor when I developed insomnia. I found them marginally helpful, which by no means means you shouldn’t go Google meditations for sleep and try some out.
I saw more benefit from guided meditations grounded in a spiritual practice, such as exercises to meet one’s spirit guides or visualize and create an inner sanctuary. I later learned about journey work, which many guided meditations I’ve encountered could be included in. Journey work encompasses more than straight guided meditation, though.
Guided meditations also show up in Western Mindfulness practices. For instance, you can listen online to a number of guided meditation at chopra.com. Also, The Ohio State University Center for Integrative Medicine has some available for download. And a Google search will leave you with an endless array of options.
- It is easier to keep your mind from wandering because someone is literally talking to you and guiding you the whole time.
- You can determine what exactly you want insight into or what outcome you desire and find an appropriate guided meditation to match that
- It can be freeing to have someone guide you.
- Because the meditation are focused, the results tend to be narrow in scope
- If you don’t connect with the particular meditation, it can be a pointless exercise. In other words, choose your guided meditation with care.
2. Focused Meditation
Under this category I place any kind of meditation that involves saying a phrase or chant aloud or silently, as well as any complicated breath-work focus (which some might argue isn’t really meditation). You might encounter these types of practices in yoga class. They are also popular among Western mindfulness practitioners. I would include certain types of prayer and singing practices within this category as well.
Technically, I first encountered this type of meditation as prayer and praise/hymn singing practice during my youth as an Evangelical Protestant. At the time, it wasn’t called meditation, and “meditation” was seen as a somewhat suspect activity. I suppose the words used would be more like liturgy, supplication, and praising God. Semantics, in my mind. I later was introduced to “meditation” in a yoga class. There was also a focused breath-work meditation taught during some of my Reiki training.
For a introductory breath-work exercise, try learning a basic yoga wave breath and practicing it for 10 to 15 minutes. It is a great way to relax your body and mind. For mantra meditation, check out Deepak and Oprah’s 21-Day Meditation Challenges. They offer several free each year and usually put up some samples to try out. The Ohio State University Center for Integrative Medicine also offers a bunch of mindfulness meditations, some more chant focused and some more like a guided meditation.
- Like guided meditations, mantra meditations keep your brain active so there is less wandering.
- These can be deeply relaxing or invigorating, depending on the approach.
- Repeating a phrase or doing a specific breathing exercise can quickly become tedious if you are anything like me and get bored easily. I usually can only do these types of meditations or exercises in a group setting. And I always cheat on the 21-Day Meditation Challenges and don’t actually chant the mantra the whole time every day. Or I make up my own mantras. Maybe that’s the influence of my early days of free-form prayer.
- The particular mantra or song or exercise chosen leads these meditations to often become focused on one topic, which can be limiting.
3. Stillness Meditation
Stillness meditation is just as described. You get still and you meditate. There are no prompts, no guides, no chants. If you’ve heard people use the word zazen, that is a stillness meditation practice (even though you sometimes walk, which is basically to keep the blood flowing, I think). Just being still is generally a style of meditation most utilized within Buddhism, based on my studies and experiences. The Quaker practice of sitting in silence and listening for the Spirit’s leading would also fall into this category, as well. Certain types of other open-ended prayer practice could also be included here.
I rarely in a Christian setting undertook a true stillness practice. Most of my church experience would be more of the chanting and song variety. And there was my habit of contemplative daydreaming, but I’m not sure that really counts. For about a year, I regularly attended a (mostly) silent Quaker meeting, and that taught me to more fully embrace stillness and quiet listening to whatever it is one might call “God.” These days, I tend to lean toward a Buddhist style of meditation and I frequent a local sangha.
A traditional Buddhist sit involves using a mat and a cushion, with one’s legs in a full or half lotus and hands in a cupped position, resting on the thighs, or doing some other type of mudra. My back condition often prevents me from this posture now, so I created my own rituals for sitting (or lying down as is often the case). I suspect that the strict posture guidelines out there are more about discipline than anything else, although they do put the body in a decent position for extended meditation of any variety. I hold an appreciation for the more relaxed style of Quaker sitting, too.
In Soto Zen, practitioners stare at blank walls. Most Tibetan Buddhist teachers in the West I’ve encountered encourage you to stare blankly a few feet ahead of you. No matter where you look, it’s generally encouraged to keep one’s eyes open. This is not a meditation for relaxation per se; it’s goal is to help you wake up. Or, as many Zen practitioners might say, there is no goal. For an interesting and quick take on goals in meditation, check out this video from Brad Warner, who happens to be my favorite Soto Zen teacher.
The best way in my opinion to practice this type of meditation is to sit (or in my case, lie) down and just do it. Be still, let your thoughts go, and see what happens. You may be thinking, what the hell does “let your thoughts go” actually mean? How does one do that? I really have no answer. Everyone just has to sit and figure that out for themselves. Finding a teacher, in person, online or in a book, who you connect with will help. But it is really just a process of learning by doing.
It sounds terribly boring, and it is. Until it’s not. When it’s not boring, it can be scary, exhilarating, humbling, and pretty much any other emotion you can name. It’s also something that you can’t explain in words.
Oh, and you have to do it quite regularly. Daily is best. Many practitioners from multiple traditions go into stillness multiple times a day.
An online resource for Buddhist sitting meditation videos: Susan Piver’s Open Heart Project free newsletter.
- This practice has given me the greatest rewards when it comes to meditation. The level of insight gained through this process has been astounding. I am a wiser, more grounded, peaceful person for this practice.
- You can do it anywhere you can be still. No recordings or gatherings or leader or special training required, although there are good things about sitting with others in fellowship too. I do a bit of both solo and group practice.
- It will teach you about discernment.
- It can be super boring. Mind-numbingly boring. But that’s kind of the point.
- It is very hard to muster the discipline to do this practice daily. I don’t always succeed in that goal, but the more I do it, the more I see the benefits. Early on, it can feel like a complete waste of time. I’ve started and stopped numerous times with various shades of a stillness practice, but I’ve been just about daily with zazen for a good year now.
- This type of practice does not lead to an expected outcome the way chanting a phrase or listening to a guided meditation to help you sleep might do. It’s open-ended. Maybe I should’ve put this one under the pros…
- Sitting alone with your thoughts, observing them, being curious about them, or just listening can bring up disturbing or troubling thoughts or emotions. If this happens to you, don’t be afraid to seek help from a respected teacher and/or a mental health professional. Take care of yourself and know that growth can be hard, but I’ve never met anyone who said it wasn’t worth it after they made through a rough patch.
A few final thoughts…
I utilize different types of meditations as I feel wont to do, but what I do doesn’t matter. I’m not going to tell you which type of meditation to try or even that you should meditate. There is no right or wrong answer. Go out there and explore for yourself. Listen to your intuition. Keep walking your path.