This post originally ran on The Standard's Culture site. As we've been hosting sits there, they asked us to explain a bit about the different types of meditation. We broke it down into four basic categories.
Words by Dina Kaplan & Charlie Knoles
I recently spent two and a half years traveling the world studying different types of meditation, and although the techniques I learned were quite varied, the teachers had one thing in common—they all thought their type of meditation was the best. They would all say their style of meditation was the most effective, the easiest to maintain, and the most scientifically proven. I returned to the U.S. wondering who was right.
What is the “best,” or most effective, type of meditation? I asked Charlie Knoles, co-founder of The Path, who also happens to be a great mantra (a.k.a. Vedic) meditation teacher, this very question. He thought about it for a few months. Ultimately, he said that there are thousands of types of meditation taught and practiced around the world, and that almost every one is valid. However, he suggested that you can place all of them into four categories, and then choose the technique that feels best for you. Here are the four categories, from Charlie and myself:
Mindfulness is perhaps the most widely-studied and widespread type of meditation in the West. It includes Zen, MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), Vipassana, and others. It's great for increasing focus and releasing stress. In fact, this is what the Pentagon teaches soldiers with PTSD. In most types of mindfulness, you learn to train your mind by focusing your attention on your breath, sensations in your body, thoughts, sounds, or emotions.
MANTRA (a.k.a. VEDIC)
Some people believe this type of meditation feels easier and more natural for them than mindfulness. This ancient meditation technique usually involves a Sanskrit mantra, which you silently repeat to yourself for twenty minutes, twice a day. The intention with this method is to trigger the mind to become completely quiet, expansive, and timeless. Mantra-based meditation includes Transcendental Meditation (TM), Siddha yoga, and other methods from the Vedantic tradition. This type of meditation is great for helping to increase creativity and release stress. Many people who practice mantra meditation say it helps them transcend their present state and lose track of time.
This type of meditation brings natural energy into the body, so you don’t need that second or third cappuccino. Some types of Kundalini yoga fit into this category, or “Pranayama” breathing, and many types of martial arts, too. Those who practice this type of meditation recommend doing it first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon when you start feeling a bit sleepy. In these methods the body may be active, in motion, and energized, but there is still a sense of centeredness and calm. These techniques are designed to bring natural energy into the body.
Meditation can also help you accomplish a goal, whether it’s becoming more compassionate, grateful, powerful, or really anything at all. Goal-oriented meditation includes methods of creative visualization, Tonglen, prayer, trance and guided meditation. In these methods, the intention is to be aware of a desired future state or outside point of reference, such as a deity or vision of a higher self. At The Path, we usually teach compassion as our intention-setting meditation. The great teacher Sharon Salzberg says that if you do just six minutes of “loving-kindness" meditation a day, after just eight weeks your brain will process information differently, making you naturally and subconsciously more compassionate—I’d say that’s worth six minutes a day.
Everyone should take the opportunity to explore the path that feels best. You may decide to advance along one path for your entire life, or you might choose each morning what feels right for you given your state of mind or what you want to accomplish that day.
Each category of meditation affects the mind in a different way. If I have to work on an excel spreadsheet in the morning, I’ll probably start my day with a mindfulness meditation. If I’m going to be writing something creative in the afternoon, I’ll probably do a mantra meditation after lunch. If I’m heading into a difficult conversation, I’ll take a few moments to practice a compassion meditation.
You might choose to do the same meditation for a decade, a year, or just one day. The beautiful thing is that each of these techniques works, so it’s about what feels best and is easiest for you to maintain, or has the impact you most value in bringing happiness, joy, and success to your life.