8 Basic Kinds of Meditation (And Why You Should Meditate On Your Heart)
Alright, so we all know we should meditate. Regular doctors now recommend meditation to their patients. But how do you do it? And does it matter what kind of meditation you do?
There are some basic, fundamental differences among the kinds of meditation that most people practice, and these differences ought to be considered while you’re deciding what is right for you. Now, I’m hardly an impartial observer. I’m deeply dedicated to heart-based meditation, and of course that influences what I say about other traditions. Please keep in mind that meditation is like food for the spirit: any kind of food is better than nothing. But certain kinds of foods are better than others, and though everyone must to some extent find out what is right for their own body, there are some constant features of food that will have much the same effect on everyone.
Mindfulness, also called ‘Vipassana’, comes from the Buddhist tradition. I’d say mindfulness is the most popular form of meditation in the western world. It’s all about ‘being present’, letting your mind run, and accepting whatever thoughts come up, while practicing detachment from each thought.
Mindfulness is taught along with an awareness on the breath, though the breathing is often considered to be just one sensation among many others, not a particular focus. There is no attempt to change the breathing pattern, which limits this practice and makes it observational rather than active. Changing your breathing changes the energy; just watching what your breathing is doing (particularly if your breathing is shallow, as it generally is) means you are stuck in a low-energy state.
Zazen is the generic term for seated meditation in the Buddhist tradition, but in the modern Zen tradition, it is often referred to as ‘just sitting’. It is a minimal kind of meditation, done for long periods of time, with little instruction beyond the basics of posture (sit with your back straight). There is no particular attention to the breath, nor an attempt to change the breath. Zazen is the ‘anti-method’ approach to meditation, but it is often done in conjunction with a concentration on a certain aspect of Buddhist scripture, or a paradoxical sentence, story or question, called a koan. Zazen is very difficult to learn, and it is very difficult to make progress with this method, because of the lack of guidance on how to do the practice. Also, it was developed for a monastic setting, making it difficult to adapt to an active life in the world.
Kundalini is a practice that comes from Vedanta, the meditative tradition within Hinduism. Kundalini is the name for the rising stream of energy that exists in a human being (there is also a downward stream, not emphasized in Kundalini).
The aim of Kundalini meditation is to become aware of that rising stream, and to ride the stream to infinity. You sit with your back straight (ideally in the Lotus or half-Lotus posture), and use a mantra, a sacred word that is repeated. Your focus is on rising above all that is impermanent. The practitioner concentrates on their breath flowing through each of the energy centers of the body, always moving upward, toward the energy center just above the top of the head. Kundalini makes active use of the breath, using breath to move energy upward.
Kundalini is not heart-based in either its method or philosophy, and it can have unpleasant side-effects, which happen often enough to have been given a name: Kundalini syndrome.
Transcendental Meditation is another simplified practice that emerges from Vedanta. In TM, you are given a simple mantra which you repeat in no particular rhythm. You can speak the mantra aloud or simply think it. Unlike Kundalini meditation, TM is not rigorous about posture, nor is there much focus on the breath. TM often leads to leaving the body (indeed, that is the aim of the practice). That is problematic because the energy of the body (and the mind) can be disrupted. Also, the practice is not focused on your life and your purpose, and indeed the philosophy that goes with it is harmful to the heart, considering desires to be ‘ego-centered’ and materialistic.
Qi gong is a form of Taoist meditation that uses the breath to circulate energy through the organs and energy centers of the body in a oval pattern called the ‘microcosmic orbit’. Attention is focused on the breath and the circulation of energy (called ‘qi’ or ‘chi’). Attention is also focused on the three major centers used in Taoist meditation: a point about two inches below the navel, the center of the chest, and the center of the forehead. Qi gong uses the breath to direct energy, and circulate energy in the body and spirit, but it is not heart-based.
There is little sense of how the heart changes and develops, and no connection between the circulation of energy and emotional states, and no core set of teachings on how to work with emotion.
Guided visualization is a popular form of meditation that involves concentration upon an image or imaginary environment. It is usually done while listening to a recording. An example would be to imagine you are in a grassy field, with a clear sky overhead. There is sometimes a focus on the breath, but generally no attempt to use or control the breath, and because the sensation is imaginary, and the impetus for it comes from outside, the practice tends to be rather passive.
This kind of meditation does not come from an established meditative tradition like the others listed above, and so it is untested as a method of spiritual development. Not every recorded meditation is an example of guided visualization; the key is whether it contains elements of hypnotic suggestion or the creation of fantasies under the guidance of someone else. If you are listening to a recording where the guide lays out a method for you to do yourself, or calls attention to sensation and energy already occurring within you, that is not guided visualization, but rather meditation instruction. The key is whether you are practicing a method that will enable you to do a practice by yourself or not.
Trance-based practices. This is my category for a whole set of reflective practices that generate a trance state. The hallmarks of a trance are: awareness of the self and the environment is limited, conscious control of the experience is absent, rational thinking is absent, and memory of the experience is very limited.
Often these kinds of practices involve drugs, music, shallow, rapid breathing (which produces an intoxicating effect), or a form of hypnotic suggestion. Because self-control is so limited, and because of the passivity involved in having a state induced by someone else, a trance state is both potentially dangerous and not helpful for spiritual development. I could’ve easily not included this as meditation, because it isn’t really meditation, but I included it because these kinds of practices are commonly thought to be meditation, but this is a myth; true meditation practices should not result in a trance state.
Heart Rhythm Meditation emerges from the tradition of Sufism. HRM involves focusing on the breath and heartbeat, making the breath full, deep, rich, rhythmic, and balanced. Attention is focused on the heart as the center of the energetic system. One tries to identify oneself with the heart. By focusing on the breath, you make your breath powerful. And then learning to direct the breath, to feel the circulation of breath as your pulse in different parts of your body, then on your magnetic field, you learn to direct and circulate energy. You are in control of yourself at all times, and you become both more powerful and more sensitive. Further, your power and sensitivity are always in service of your heart, so you become compassionate.
Because HRM directs your full, deep, rhythmic breath toward your heart, it has all kinds of positive health effects. HRM is also an incredibly powerful and rapid way of healing the wounds of your heart. HRM is also a powerful way of accessing the state of unity, which is the goal of every kind of meditation. When you meditate on your heartbeat, you access the state of unity in a very unique way: you feel that your heartbeat is the universal heartbeat, the heartbeat of the all life, the heartbeat of God.
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So as this list shows, there are some basic differences between meditative methods. I go into these differences at some length in my 8-part video series, the History and Practice of Meditation, free for all subscribers.
It’s very important not to denigrate any traditions or practices; each meditative tradition has been developed through the dedication of many thousands of hours, lifetimes of accumulated experience. I have deep respect for all these traditions. This post merely seeks to illuminate some of the differences so that you can have a better understanding of the kinds of meditation and their different effects.
Note: This article was originally written in June 2010 for the IAM University of the Heart.