Meditation is an ancient technique honed over thousands of years. Far from the popular misconception of just sitting with your eyes shut, meditations come in all manner of styles. While all forms of meditation involve breathwork, mindfulness, and the acceptance of difficult emotions, different styles of meditation can differ greatly.
Types of meditation
Most cultures have some form of meditation – be it prayer, solitude, certain exercises, or quiet reflection.
Let’s explore six of the most common types:
- Transcendental meditation. Sometimes called TM, this is the most intensively studied type of meditation. Practitioners use breath or mantras to settle the mind. The purpose is to transcend life’s concerns, achieving a state of calm and peace. Advocates claim it can relieve stress, relax our awareness, and access higher states of consciousness. There may be something to the claims: a 2012 review found TM reduced “negative emotions, trait anxiety, and neuroticism”.
- Spiritual meditation. Best thought of as prayer, nearly all world religions contain some form of spiritual meditation – making it likely the most diverse of meditation types. During sessions, meditators contemplate the spiritual or religious meaning behind reality, connecting with a higher power. For people seeking spiritual growth and closeness to a higher power, it’s a valuable tool. Examples include Christian contemplative prayer or Sufi dhikr.
- Loving-kindness meditation. Turning your attention outwards, loving-kindness meditation strengthens our feelings of kindness, compassion, and acceptance of ourselves and others. Practitioners are not seeking universal truths but wish to send positive and loving thoughts out into the world. Individuals who’ve previously experienced anger or resentment issues may use loving-kindness meditation as part of their healing process.
- Movement meditation. While yoga is the most common movement meditation, other forms include tai chi or qi gong. Even exercises like gardening or walking can become a form of movement meditation when the thoughts are quietened through a peaceful, often repetitive activity, like planting seeds or going through learned routines. Movement meditation helps develop body awareness and strengthens our physical well-being. Afterward, people feel a deep sense of calm and body exhaustion – perfect for those with energy to burn or who struggle to sit for long periods. Personally, exercise has been one of the most helpful ways I’ve learned to clear my mind and manage my stress.
- Sound or mantra meditation. During sound meditation, gongs or singing bowls are used to help induce a trance-like state. Similarly, mantra meditation relies on a word or sound – like “om” – to calm the mind as the vibrations pass through the body. In some cultures, sound meditation becomes a chant, often done as a group. Think of medieval Christian monks singing together during prayer – Gregorian chanting. Some people prefer mantra meditation as they struggle to focus solely on their breath.
- Zen meditation. Perhaps the most famous form of meditation, Zen meditation, or Zazen meditation, refers to sitting and observing your mind and breath. Beyond “just being”, there is no broader purpose; the emphasis is on developing a sense of presence and alertness. Thoughts are observed as they enter the mind and then released as attention is brought back to the breath. Often Zen meditation involves strict guidelines on posture and positioning. Of all the types of meditation, Zen meditation is one of the most grounded in philosophy. This was my introduction to meditation and a practice I still find helpful today, especially before bed.
Mental and physical benefits of meditation
Decades of scientific research support the benefits of meditation for health, sleep, positive mood, building beneficial habits, and more.
Here are some of the most remarkable benefits:
- Lower stress. By taking the time to calm your mind, you may be able to reduce your levels of cortisol – the stress hormone. After eight weeks of “mindfulness meditation”, participants reported reduced inflammation. Other benefits include better sleep, lowered blood pressure, and less risk of stress-related physical conditions, e.g., irritable bowel syndrome
- Emotional well-being. Meditation may lead to a more positive life outlook and an improved self-image. A review of 18 studies found meditation therapies effectively reduce depressive symptoms. We can contemplate our lives and thoughts in a calm and collected manner; we practice quietening the mind.
- Lengthens attention span. With so many distractions, our attention spans have shrunk to a matter of seconds. Regular focus-based meditation can reverse this trend. Individuals who practice regular meditation perform better on visual tasks and experience less mind-wandering and worrying. Even meditation for a short period each day can lead to enhanced attention.
- Recognize self-defeating behaviors. Meditation is a time to contemplate our actions. Used wisely, it can help you recognize and react to harmful or self-defeating behaviors. Movement meditation is particularly effective – people who practice tai chi see improved self-efficacy: the ability to overcome challenges.
Meditation is for everyone. It can be practiced anytime, anywhere, with anyone, or alone. Put aside a few minutes a day and select the right style for you. I hope you’ll soon experience the remarkable benefits.