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The six main types of meditation

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Do you know that there are several types of meditation?

It is not uncommon for people to find meditation a little bit difficult and frustrating, to begin with. In today’s busy world, we’re not used to stopping and checking in with our minds, or allowing ourselves a moment of peace to just be in the present moment. Meditation offers us that opportunity. Whether you’re struggling to get started with your meditation routine, or you’ve been meditating for a while and still haven’t experienced any of the promised breakthroughs or moments of enlightenment, it’s important to remember that it’s perfectly normal to find meditative practice difficult. It’s very possible that the main thing holding you back is that you haven’t found the right meditation style.  

Many of us will have only ever encountered one style of meditation. Perhaps you’ve been taught about concentration practices that focus on one anchor, like the breath. These types of practices are very popular and can be a great meditation fit for many of us, but they are not the only option. Meditation has developed throughout centuries and across many different societies, meaning there are countless different styles of meditation, each one altered slightly to suit the needs and cultures of its user. This means there’s an endless vault of methods to tap into, with the effects of meditation varying depending on what you choose. This can be an overwhelming idea; with so many techniques to pick from, how will you ever find the one that’s right for you? Luckily, with over eight years of experience in psychology and mindfulness practice, we at MindOwl have organised these techniques into six categories to help you find your perfect practice.

Don’t get bogged down by these categories, though. You can integrate a mixture of techniques into your daily life, and switch regularly between different kinds of meditation, if that suits you. The most important thing is that if you are experiencing resistance within your meditation routine, don’t give up! There are plenty of ways to get past this and make the most of the positive effects of meditation. A great place to start is by trying as many techniques as you can until you find one that fits your needs and lifestyle.

The six types of meditation

·   Concentration practices.

·   Mindfulness-based practices.

·   Awareness-based practices.

·   Direct enquiry.

·   Noting-based practices.

·   Loving practises or heartfulness.

These six types of meditation encompass the main goals you might have when constructing a meditation routine. Your meditation practice should be shaped depending on what your specific goals are. We’ll go through each type briefly to give you an idea of what each practice entails; however if you feel in need of more guidance, our Real Happiness course explores all six types in greater detail and provides examples of how to bring them into your daily meditation routine.

types of meditation
“You can integrate a mixture of techniques into your daily life, and switch regularly between different kinds of meditation if that suits you.”

Concentration practices

As mentioned before, concentration practice is one of the most common types of meditation. This form of meditation is defined by a request to focus your attention on one thing. This could be the breath, a single thought or mantra, a sound, an internal sensation or an image as part of visualization meditation. One popular example is Transcendental Meditation (or mantra meditation), a branch of concentration practice which uses mantras such as “Ohm” to relieve stress and access higher states of consciousness. Many people will also choose a physical sensation to concentrate on, performing a body scan meditation, starting first to scan the entire body and then picking a part of the body to use as a focus point.

Unfortunately, because this is often the meditation method that so many of us start our journey with, we can become discouraged when our attention wanders or we struggle to focus. This often leads to the belief that we cannot meditate. If within your concentration practice you’re also being instructed to be mindful (note that not all concentration practises have a component of mindfulness), remember that mindfulness is based on a non-judgemental approach. This means it’s important to try not to judge yourself; instead, expect your attention to wander, and when it does simply direct it back to the breath or any other anchor.

Concentration practices allow us to develop our attention span, as well as our flexibility of attention by always bringing our attention to the object of meditation. Mastering concentration meditation won’t give you an unshakeable ability to focus on a task without any wavering or distractions, rather it will cause you to realise how normal it is for your mind to lose focus, and help build the skills needed to calmly draw your attention back. This flexibility is useful in many circumstances and will help us to evade mental burnout when working on important tasks that demand a lot of our attention.

Mindfulness-based practices

Most of these practises have an element of mindfulness pre-programmed into their use of language and the direction in which they take our state of mind. Mindfulness-based practises relate closely to the Buddhist traditions of Vipassana, which is Pali for ‘Insight’. Mindfulness meditation requires us to be in the present moment, aware of everything around and within us, as it happens. This practice can help us take part in and observe our experiences in the present moment without judgement, comment or action.

Vipassana is one of the oldest forms of mindful meditation. It can take years to fully master, although it can still have hugely positive short term mental health benefits. Our minds can become calmer and less influenced by intrusive thoughts, while simultaneously we may begin to feel more compassion for ourselves and others. The difference between this form of meditation and concentration practices is that the latter ask us to be aware of one thing, whereas mindfulness-based practises require us to be aware of the current moment in its entirety in a non-judgmental way.

Awareness-based practices

The previous two styles of meditation session focused on awareness, and where we can direct our awareness in order to achieve different results. In an awareness-based practice, things become a little more meta than this. Essentially, in awareness-based meditation we are becoming aware of our awareness, rather than just using it to direct our mental state in a certain direction.

We make our day-to-day decisions based on our perception of what is around us, as well as our perception of ourselves. Through awareness-based meditation, we investigate perception and reality, stripping these two concepts of their factuality and instead relying upon our non-judgemental awareness. This practice might seem difficult to perceive now, but it is similar to those discussed above in that it might employ open or focused attention. The focal point of this type of practice is the awareness itself, not the subject of our awareness. By engaging with our awareness, we identify less with the contents of our experience, for example difficult thoughts and emotions and rigid ideas of who we are. In this type of practice, we discover that we are more like the sky and less like the weather.

Direct enquiry

Direct enquiry meditation delves into our sense of self, investigating the parameters of our concepts of ‘I’ and ‘me’. By understanding these concepts, we can differentiate our practices from them. Those who have studied this type of practice for a considerable amount of time report discovering a space in their awareness that is completely boundless and disassociated from their sense of self.

So how does it work? When practising direct enquiry meditation we can ask ourselves things like:

  • What is this?
  • Who am I?
  • Who is aware? 
  • When am I?
  • Where is the ‘I’?
  • What is in the way of me being fully present right now?
  • What am I?
  • Is there an aspect of ‘I’ or ‘me’ that has never changed?
  • Who would I be without any thoughts?

These all seem like very deep questions, so when considering them we should allow for our answers to start out at surface level, and deepen upon further inquiry. Your answers might start out along the lines of your name, occupation or age. But when you continue to ask “What else am I?” your answers will go deeper into your true sense of self, your influences and diverse aspects of your personality.

Try practising this meditation style throughout your day, asking yourself one of these questions when you experience a particular emotion or physical sensation. It can even be used for more serious problems like chronic pain or psychological distress. Your answers might vary over time, which is completely normal given the complexity of the human mind. But at the core of every experience, we can feel that our sense of awareness is broad, and that we aren’t defined by any concepts or thoughts. By recognizing that, we can experience a great sense of relief.

Noting-based practises

Noting-based meditation is great for those of us who struggle to hold our concentration during meditation. Rather than letting the thinking brain disengage from our practice and start thinking about weekend plans or what’s for dinner, we simply allow our mind to make a note of how we feel and where our mind goes during meditation. For example, if our mind begins to obsess over the temperature of the room we mind just note ‘cold’ or ‘warm’. This can also be applied to sensations in the body or emotions that arise during our practice. Noting-based practices encourage us to simply note what that emotion or sensation is, and investigate it until our attention is hooked by the next emotion.

The main benefit of this practice is that it keeps us anchored to the present moment, while allowing the mind to explore our emotions, thoughts and sensations. It can also help to reveal certain things about us; for example, we might notice that we are making note of the same worry over and over again, and identify that this is something to resolve. Noting practices also encourage acceptance of negative emotions, by creating a lowered response in the amygdala, the part of our brain that controls emotional response and sends signals to the rest of our body when it interprets emotions like fear or worry. Studies have shown that repeated labelling of negative emotions prepares our brains to better cope with these feelings when they arise.

Noting-based practises also give us an insight into our minds (as do many forms of meditation). We slowly start to perceive that even though our experiences constantly change, there’s always something that remains the same. Realising this can allow us to live in a way that is less constricted by the contents of the mind and more within its context, the place in which thoughts and emotions appear in.

Loving practices or heartfulness

The final area of meditation for us to explore is loving practice or heartfulness. The most common method in this practice is Loving-Kindness meditation. This practice requires us to harness some positive psychology and actively cultivate positive emotions like kindness and compassion. Loving-Kindness meditation encourages us to think about those who love us, consider why we are loved, and identify what we love about ourselves. We can choose to sit with a deep sense of gratitude for life or joy for others, taking deep breaths while cultivating specific positive emotions. This is a very easy-going practice that does not demand too much deep soul-searching; however, it’s perfectly natural to struggle with this type of meditation, particularly if you’re not used to being kind and loving to yourself. To encourage you to try it, remember that this is a practice that only needs to happen in your own mind, so it is very personal. Repeated practice can help evolve the way we instinctively talk to ourselves into a more productive and loving voice. Our inner critic can be silenced, and we can feel a deeper connection to those around us, and to life more broadly.

Besides loving-kindness meditation, another interesting loving practice you could try is called Tonglen meditation. You can learn more about it by checking our blog post on it.

Final thoughts

It can take some time to get used to a new routine. They say it takes thirty days to make a habit, so if you are going to attempt a new meditation technique then be sure to give it a fair chance to make an impact. Neuroplasticity allows our brains to transform through repetitive experience; by repeating an action or thought enough, the brain will learn to expect this action or thought and be less resistant to it. Not only does meditation help this, but this will in turn help our meditation practice. However, if you have persevered with a certain type of meditation and are still finding it difficult, it’s worth trying out another form of practice. Consider a methodical approach; for instance, if Transcendental Meditation isn’t working for you, try out another broadly concentration-based practice. And try not to switch between meditation types mid-practice – instead, give your mind a clear starting point when trialling a technique.

It is important to be fluid with our meditation routines because if they become stagnant we could see a drop-off in results. One good approach could be to select a difficult but beneficial practice and dedicate specific times of your day to it, while also selecting another method to practise on the go. This will help keep your routine interesting and productive. If you need any more guidance in structuring or diversifying your meditation routine, be sure to check out our Real Happiness course for a more in-depth look at each of these meditation methods. You can click here to find out more.

The six main types of meditation

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