I want to give you an introduction to meditation because there are a lot of misconceptions about the subject.
Many people have the wrong idea about meditation, they think it’s all hippie-dippy, something people did in the 1960s, a new age way to achieve enlightenment or to recreate the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, that sort of thing. Others associate it with religions, religions like Buddhism for example.
It can be all of those things but at its most basic meditation means trying to control and focus your thoughts or to clear your mind or both. Essentially it’s the equivalent of training your attention, it’s deciding what you want to concentrate on and what you don’t, so in a way it’s reprogramming your brain, reprogramming your natural computer to be more focused and more guided.
So often our thoughts are reactive, we’re constantly being distracted and taken from one experience to another, whether that’s due to television or to music or to your Smartphone or to the internet or to something else entirely, our thoughts are always all over the place. We hear something and we react to it, but when you meditate you’ll be effectively controlling your thoughts and when you do this you’re going to be introspective and you’ll start to reflect on the very nature of thought itself. As you do you’ll learn to remain in control of your thoughts and to prevent yourself from becoming easily distracted, stressed, angry or from otherwise experiencing inappropriate or unhelpful emotions.
This is a highly valuable form of training and one that’s particularly relevant in today’s fast paced and constantly connected world. Everything is just going on all the time, as I was saying just now, the phone might ring in a minute and you’d have to answer it, and something else might happen and you’re constantly being bombarded. But, meditation, when you learn how to meditate it can help us to conquer stress, to improve concentration in a range of tasks. You can really sort of drill down and focus your brain on whatever you want to focus on.
Fortunately, meditation is starting to make its way into the mainstream. More and more productivity and lifestyle coaches are recommending its benefits and it forms an integral part of cognitive behavioral therapy, otherwise known as CBT. This is currently the most popular form of clinical intervention for a whole host of psychological difficulties.
The question then becomes where to start – well, let’s look at some different types of meditation and some of the different terms. Bear in mind that you don’t have to stick rigidly to any one of these and you can actually create your own kind of meditation if you wish. Nevertheless, any of these will provide you with a good starting point to do more of your own research and to start practicing the art of meditation.
Let’s look at the different types of meditation – the first one is Mindfulness. Mindfulness which is also called “Vipassana” is a type of meditation that comes from Buddhism. It’s also the form of meditation that’s perhaps most widely used in the western world today and a good example of this being its use within CBT.
Your goal in mindfulness is to be aware and to be present of your own thoughts and to reflect on them, and this form of meditation doesn’t encourage you to try and empty your mind, instead the objective is simply to let your thoughts drift by like clouds in the sky. This allows you to become more aware of what thoughts that you tend to have and in so doing you’re better able to spot negative thought patterns and so on that might be causing problems. This type of meditation has also been shown to reduce anxiety almost as effectively as anxiety reducing drugs.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of mindfulness though is it’s not as challenging as trying to completely empty your mind of thoughts, and so it provides a great starting point for those who are interested in learning more about meditation.
Then there’s Zazen, now Zazen is a term that essentially means “seated meditation” and it is sometimes referred to by the modern Zen tradition as “just sitting”. This is an incredibly minimalist sort of meditation which once again makes it ideal for those interested in getting started, but if you’re feeling a little anxious about meditation then you might want to give Zazen a go.
The most important thing about Zazen is assuming the correct sitting position or pose and you want to be sitting like this guy on the right here. You want to be kneeling down with your legs tucked up underneath you, you want to keep your back and neck straight, you want to have your hands lightly clasped and in your lap, you want to be sitting upright, keep your neck straight, keep your eyes closed and then just simply sit and let the thoughts come.
The simple act of sitting completely still is almost sure to result in a calming effect and to gradually clear your mind so there is no need for complex instruction beyond just sitting.
For some people the lack of guidance is going to make this an approachable and enjoyable form of meditation, for others though it can be frustrating and it might leave you lost.
Then there’s Spiritual Meditation, now spiritual meditation is essentially a form of meditative prayer and prayer has been shown to have many similar effects to other forms of meditation and it’s used in all different types of religions, not just ones from the east. If you’re Catholic and you pray the rosary, saying those Hail Mary’s over and over again can be quite meditative and quite relaxing and it clears your mind of everything else because you’re just concentrating on saying that same prayer over and over again.
Then there’s Transcendental Meditation, now Transcendental Meditation comes from Vedanta which is the meditative tradition from Hinduism. Transcendental Meditation is once again seated and this time it uses a mantra. A mantra is any word or sound of your choice which is simply repeated over and over again, or you could simply concentrate on the sound of your breathing, that’s another way to do Transcendental Meditation.
The ultimate objective of Transcendental Meditation is transcendence, and this is the meditation that is used as the path to enlightenment which is reportedly a feeling of oneness with the universe and perfect contentment.
In reality though, enlightenment is probably just a brain state achieved by relaxing areas of the brain and getting them to shut down. This is something that takes years to master and is highly elusive. If you use Transcendental Meditation with the sole of objective of reaching this state of mind then I’m afraid you’re likely to be disappointed.
When done correctly though Transcendental Meditation is an ideal way to relax and move your thoughts away from stress, and it can be used to calm the heart rate and is a fantastic coping mechanism if you suffer with anxiety. It’s also quite difficult though and many people give up after becoming frustrated at the ability to quiet their inner voice. The secret to success then is to go easy on yourself and not to try and force it.
Then we’ve got Focused Meditation, as with transcendental or mantra meditation, focused meditation involves the practice of trying to completely clear your thoughts by focusing on something else. Mantra meditation is one form of focused meditation but you could alternatively try focusing on an external stimuli or even on something like a candle flame, that’s always very good to try.
Then there’s Guided Visualization. The guided part of this process involves listening to a recording which will often describe the scene that you’re in. This kind of meditation is great for relaxing and for moving your thoughts away from the hustle and bustle of daily life before you achieve the ability to block out your surroundings through other forms of meditation.
Then there’s Movement Meditation and a great example of this is Tai Chi Chuan which is a marital art practiced incredibly slowly involving a set of gentle movements. While it takes time to learn something like a Tai Chi set, you can practice movement meditation by using a dance routine or even by just swaying gently from side to side.
Then there’s Vipassana, and Vipassana is Theravada Meditation. Theravada being a branch of Buddhism, this is meditation which involves close attention to sensation with the goal being to discover the nature of existence. This form of meditation comes from Buddhism and was believed to be the type practiced by Buddha himself.
Then there’s Vajrayana, Vajrayana meditation is a complicated and advanced form of meditation which involves the goal of becoming more Buddha like, there are various types of meditation within Vajrayana such as Mahamudra. This form of meditation involves attempts to empty the mind once again, this time by simply doing nothing to the extent that you aren’t even focused on trying to meditate.
Both the Theravada and Vajrayana forms of meditation are advanced methods and require years of practice to perfect. An understanding of the surrounding beliefs and the cultures is also helpful so you can put everything in the right sort of context.
You can also combine different types of meditation to suit your needs or the situation you may face. For example, you might decide to use Vajrayana meditation to psyche yourself up for a competition or to prepare for an interview, and then sue Theravada meditation to calm down afterwards or to chill out before bed. You can use mindfulness to help make difficult decisions by reflecting on your thoughts in a non-pressured manner or to help correct damaging thought patterns. And you can use Transcendental meditation to give your brain a rest when you’re on a long boring train or bus journey.