People often confuse the concept of meditation with religious awareness and consider it an attribute of holiness and virtue. Meditation has, however, no direct link to religion, although it can be a spiritual tool. While opinions vary regarding a precise and universal definition, the general meaning is easy to follow. Meditation is the practice to train one’s attention and awareness to a heightened degree. The result is clarity of mind and purpose, along with the stability of the inner self. Those practising meditation speak of experiencing peace of mind and a sense of emotional calmness.
The art of meditation is very ancient. Various religions have extolled its efficacy for attaining enlightenment. The story of Siddhartha is famous. Prince and heir to a large kingdom, he renounced family and all worldly riches and comfort to go and meditate in solitude. In the end, he attained enlightened and came to be known as Gautam Buddha. In Hinduism ultimate god shiva, Ramakrishna Maharshi and Vivekananda are well-known exponents of meditation. Even in early texts like Vedas and Puranas, and in the stories of epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, there are innumerable mentions of meditation.
It stands to reason that with such antiquity of references, of the different types of meditation that we know of, the many Buddhist and Hindu techniques deserve special mention. While it is not possible to go into details of every type and technique, the most popular forms are discussed here as an overview. It will help to understand their meaning, process of practising and how it can benefit you.
Types of meditation
Also known as Zazen, meaning “seated meditation” in Japanese, Zen meditation has its origin in Chinese Zen Buddhism which learnt it from Indian Buddhist monks. The concept and popularity of it spread to Western civilization in the 13th century through Japan. There are two ways of practising it.
First is when concentration is focused on breathing in and out in a rhythmic way. Some find it easier to keep attention on the movement of breath going in and out of the nose by mental countdown of number from 10 to 1.
Shikantaza is a form of effortless presence meditation where the individual just sit with a straight back. This practice allows one to be aware of the present moment and observe quietly all that passes through the mind without focusing on anything in particular.
Many online and offline meditation centers promote this technique. There is a huge emphasis on the correct posture of sitting while practising this as it is considered beneficial in inducing the concentrated state of mind. However, some people don’t find it a liberating practice as certain forms of Buddhist ritualism are also associated.
The term comes from the ancient Pali language meaning “insight”. It is a very traditional technique from the Theravada school of Buddhism and is more than 1400 years old. Its modern appeal originates from the efforts of S. N. Goenka who made the Vipassana movement popular.
First stage is developing a heightened sense of mental concentration. This is done through mindfulness of breathing.
Next is focusing on the primary object like movement of the abdomen while breathing. At the same time, all other thoughts and sensations are assigned to the secondary object status of background noise. In this stage, the background noise is labelled by noting them mentally as a mere feeling and focus from the specific cause of that feeling is shifted away.
This is the way to gain access concentration where awareness of things arises and passes without attachment. When such clear insight is attained, peace and inner freedom permeate the mind while thoughts of impermanence, dissatisfaction and emptiness of the soul recede.
The technique of grounding one’s consciousness in the body through Vipassana is the essence of this practice. Retreats are available for practitioners and with no formalities and rituals associated with it. So, anyone can approach and adopt this meditation technique.
A very specific form of adaptation of Vipassana and Zazen style meditation is the mindfulness technique. It is a popular form in Western culture. Since its introduction as the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR programme in the late 1970s, many Western medical practitioners have recommended and adopted its practice.
Sitting with a straight back on a cushion, on the floor or a chair, this meditation technique teaches attention building to the present moment. This is further accentuated by a sharp and clear focus on breathing in and out.
This exercise aims to prevent digressing of one’s attention to other sensations and enables non-distracted experience of the present.
Practice of mindfulness meditation is not limited to sitting alone and finds application in other daily activities like, speaking, eating and walking too. The heightened consciousness of being aware of the minute details of these activities is the purpose of this technique.
This is ideal for beginners and it confers palpable benefits of general well-being and lightness of the spirit by lifting the weight of mental anxiety and tension. Mindfulness technique also helps if you want a more spiritual awakening. This is a good first step to learn the basics and then move on to the more elaborate practices of Zazen or Vipassana meditation styles.
As defined by its meaning in Pali, this style is also known as loving-kindness meditation. The Theravada and the Tibetan schools of Buddhism mainly practise this technique following the teaching of Buddha. It inculcates empathy towards others and emphasises on developing positivity through a feeling of compassion.
Developing the emotion of well-being and wishing it to everyone around form the essence of this meditation type.
Practitioners are first encouraged to feel well-being for oneself, then for a close friend and move on to a stranger or acquaintance until the point is reached when you can feel it for a person you deem difficult to approve or care for.
Next step is to feel equally empathetic about a stranger or an acquaintance or a difficult person same as oneself or one’s close friends. In this way, the final stage is reached when you start to feel this sense of benevolence and love for everyone in the world.
To forgive and forget is a philosophy often heard and repeated but seldom practised. Metta meditation teaches the importance of feeling compassion, kindness and love by removing negative emotions like anger, frustration, resentment and conflict with others. This technique can be good for overcoming depression and traumatic stress as it helps generate peace of mind.
Using mantras or incantations as a form of meditation is popular in multiple religious beliefs like Tibetan Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Taoism, but especially so in Hinduism. This is more oriented towards developing devotion, but the effect on the mind is soothing and satisfying.
If you are practising this, the usual method of sitting straight with an erect spine is the first step. Then a mantra is repeated silently in the mind during the entire period of meditation. It is usually sacred sounds or name of God used as mantra.
A variation of this technique is where one utters the mantra softly in a whisper to focus concentration and coordinating this with a breathing exercise. This is also called japa, and sometimes accessories like prayer beads or abacus are used.
One of the most popular incantation is Om, and that’s why it is sometimes known as Om meditation too. However, there can be hundreds of variations of what constitutes a mantra according to Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.
The length of such a meditation session can be a pre-defined period or pre-set number of times the mantra is repeated.
There are various methods of practising mantra meditation. Practitioners of this style tell that with regular practice and after a prolonged session, the actual words become a humming of the mind and lose their literal sense. The state of deep inner peace that accompanies this feeling encourages many people to opt for this technique.
This is a very specific form of mantra meditation and reached the pinnacle of popularity in the 1960s and 70s, especially in Western culture. The widespread fame of transcendental meditation owes to the fact that many celebrities like the Beatles and The Beach Boys started practising it. With millions of followers of this technique and science research papers written on it, this style is, however, not suited for doing personally. You have to enrol in a centre and take instructions from a registered teacher incurring a cost. If enjoying the benefits of meditation is your sole purpose, then this is not the technique to adopt. However, the lingering mass appeal of this technique can be attributed to pop culture association and the rush of excitement people feel by being part of a cult.
There are different styles of yogic meditation. Followers are often those who are serious about attaining heights of self-knowledge and awareness and have the goal of spiritual purification. Originating nearly 2000 years ago, this is arguably the oldest form of recorded meditation technique.
The classification of yoga, which is Sanskrit for “union” can be related to rules of conduct such as yamas and niyamas, posture or asanas, breathing exercise like pranayama, or contemplative meditation ritual such as dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.
A quick overview of the common yogic meditation practices can help understand them a little better.
Third Eye Meditation
One of the most popular of yogic meditation is the third eye technique that calls for imagining the centre of the forehead as the location of the fabled third eye. It comprises keeping the eyes closed and concentrating with full focus on the third eye spot between the eyebrows. It is considered to have a strong visionary effect.
Chakra is a centre of energy of the body. According to Hindu philosophy, there are seven such centres, with the heart, crown and third eye considered prominent. To do chakra meditation, you have to focus your visualisation on a chakra and utter the mantra associated with it.
This yogic meditation style is about concentrating one’s focus on an external object like a flame of a candle or a lamp, or even an image or a symbol. This is a powerful method where the meditation style first takes place while concentrating on an object by looking at it and then visualising it mentally with closed eyes.
A well-known but complex form of meditation is the kundalini style. Hindu belief system says that the kundalini energy is situated at the base of one’s spine. To unlock the dormant potentials of the energy and developing psychic centres in the body is the essence of this technique. It requires long practice and guidance from an expert in this form such as a practising yogi.
This is about focusing on opening the mind by listening to external sound like softly playing soothing ambient music. As the attention of the self turns inwards, the internal sounds of the body and mind can be heard in this type of meditation. Seasoned practitioners of this technique can hear the ultimate sound of the universe which has no vibration and manifests itself as Om.
There are many misconceptions about tantra meditation and trance due to its erroneous depiction in Western media as ritualistic erotic activity. While this may be true in a few of its forms, it is a minority tradition compared to the full scope of tantra. Mostly it is a rich collection of practices that elevates one’s contemplation to a heightened level of stillness and mental control. There are various stages of dozens of tantra techniques and require years of meditation and practice to master them.
This is a breathing regulation technique. It may not be strictly meditation but is still considered a part of it. The reason is its similarity to meditation by instilling calmness of mind and spirit and generating a sense of inner peace. If you are prone to high stress or panic attacks, this is a great technique to adopt. A very simplified form of the practice that many find helpful is the 4-4-4-4 method. In this, you have to count till 4 while breathing in, then hold it in for 4 seconds, then gradually let the breath out during the next 4 seconds and keep the lungs airless for the final 4 seconds. Repeating this cycle has a profound effect of easing out the anxiety and tension clouding the senses and creating inner equilibrium.
Meditation is, however, not limited to the discussed techniques alone and several other forms are also prevalent. Examples of other meditation forms include the Chinese technique of Taoist meditation, the Christian contemplative prayer and the esoteric techniques of Sufi meditation.
While some of the practices discussed here require expert guidance, some need to be followed in conjunction with rituals or at a specific location of a centre or retreat. Again, some others can be researched and learned by oneself with the effects and benefits maximised by practising over a long time. Whatever form of meditation you pick, doing it properly is assured to lighten the burden of your weary spirit and leave your inner self filled with a sense of peace and calm.