The six main 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 are not used to stopping and checking in with our minds, or allowing ourselves a moment of peace from constantly planning our next move, and just being in the present moment. And yet this is exactly what meditation is. For these reasons you might be struggling to get started with your meditation routine, or possibly you have been meditating for years and have not experienced any of the promised moments of enlightenment or breakthroughs, if so the good news is that it is perfectly normal to find the practise a bit effortful, and there are some things you can do to help.

For many of us, we might have only ever encountered one style of meditation – possibly a concentration practice where we were asked to focus on one thing, 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 reimaginations of meditation, each one altered slightly to suit the needs and cultures of its user. This is great news for us as there is now an endless vault of meditation methods that we can tap into to find the perfect meditation fit for our individual lifestyles. This can also be a very overwhelming idea; to have so many techniques to choose from, how will you ever find the one that is right for you? Luckily, with over seven years of experience, we at MindOwl have organised these techniques into six categories to help you find your perfect practice.

And remember, you can always employ a mixture of techniques into your daily routine, or even grow out of certain techniques. The most important thing is that if you are experiencing resistance in your meditation routine, don’t give up! There are plenty of ways to get past this and make the most of meditations innumerable benefits, and one of those is to try as many techniques as you can until one feels like it fits with your needs and your 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, and depending on what your specific goals are you can utilise a different practice accordingly. 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.

Concentration practices

As mentioned before, the most likely style of meditation you will have come across is concentration practises. You can recognise a concentration practice by the request to focus your attention on one thing. This could be the breath, a single thought or mantra, a sound or any other internal sensation. Unfortunately, because this is often the meditation method that so many of us start our journey with we can often be discouraged when our attention wanders or we struggle to focus. This often leads to the belief that we cannot meditate. If within your concentration practise 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, so you can try not to judge yourself and instead expect your attention to wander, and when it does simply direct it back to the breath or any other anchor.

Concentration practises are very useful as they help us to develop our attention span as well as our flexibility of attention. If we are able to master concentration meditation we don’t learn how to stay focussed on a task without any wavering or distractions, rather we realise how normal it is for our minds to lose focus and we can build the skills needed to calmly draw our 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

Within most of these practises there is an element of mindfulness already pre-programmed into the language used and the direction in which they take our state of mind. Mindfulness-based practises, or Vipassana as it is called in Pali which translates to ‘Insight’, requires us to be present only in the now. This means we will be aware of everything around, and within us, as it happens. Through mindfulness we can take part in and observe our experiences as they happen, without judging, commenting on or trying to alter what we experience.

Vipassana is one of the oldest forms of meditation and can take years to fully master, however its short term effects are hugely beneficial to our day-to-day lives. We will find our minds a calmer place, with less intrusive thoughts and more compassion for ourselves and others. The difference between concentration and mindfulness-based practises is that in concentration meditation we are asked 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

Our previous two meditation types explored the idea of 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, and our perception of ourselves. Through awareness-based meditation, we investigate perception and reality, and strip these two concepts of their factuality and instead rely 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 focussed attention. But 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 such as 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. It investigates the parameters of our concepts of ‘I’ and ‘me’, and 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 we are asking ourselves them we should allow for our answers to start out at a very 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, influences and diverse personalities.

This practice can be applied during our day; when we experience an emotion or sensation we can ask ourselves one of these questions. Our answers might vary across time, this is completely normal as our minds have developed with an innumerable variety of influences and experiences. But at the core of every experience, we can feel that we are a boundless awareness that is not 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 with our practice and move onto thoughts of our dinner, or criticisms of ourselves 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. We 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, if we notice we are making note of the same worry over and over again. There is also increased acceptance of negative emotions that develop through noting practices. There are studies that go into depth on how noting negative emotions creates a lowered response in the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of our brain that controls emotional response, among other features, and sends signals to the rest of our body when it interprets emotions like fear or worry. These studies prove 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. We slowly start to perceive that our experience is constantly changing but that there’s also something that always remains the same, there´s an awareness in the background that never changes while everything else comes and goes. 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 practises or heartfulness

Our final type of meditation is loving practises or heartfulness, the most common method in this practice is loving-kindness. This practice requires us to actively cultivate positive emotions like kindness and love, here we will be introducing some positive psychology. Loving meditation encourages us to think about those who love us, why we are loved and even what we love about ourselves. We can choose to sit with a deep sense of gratitude for life, or joy for others. This is a very easy-going practice that does not demand too much deep soul-searching, and yet it is also perfectly natural to struggle with this type of meditation. 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. You might experience a feeling of lightness or compassion towards yourself and others. This is because, with repeated use, the way we instinctively talk to ourselves can evolve 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.

Final thoughts

It can take some time to get used to a new routine, the golden rule is 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. Not only does meditation help this, but this will in turn help our meditation practice. If you are repeating an action or thought enough, the brain will learn to expect this action or thought and therefore you will experience less resistance. However, if you have persevered with a certain type of meditation and are still finding it to be too effortful, then that is a clear sign to give another type a go. Try not to switch between meditation types mid-practise, but rather give your mind a clear start point when trialling a technique. It is important to stay fluid in our meditation routines, if they become stagnant we will no longer be getting the best results from our routines. It might even help to select a practice that you find to be beneficial but takes a small amount more effort and assign this as a meditation practice that you will dedicate specific times of your day to, and select another that you can do as more of an on-the-go practice. This will also help to keep your routine interesting and productive.

If you need any more guidance or are looking to diversify your meditation routine then 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 know more about it.

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Filipe Bastos

MindOwl Founder - Through my personal experiences, I have always held a strong interest in human suffering and satisfaction; this greatly influenced my career path. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT(Acceptance and commitment therapy). I've spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.


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