Types of Meditation
This is part of my Start Here series of posts aimed at teaching beginners the basics of the human hardware.
This post aims to address the majority of questions I receive from newcomers to the site, and will potentially save you hours otherwise spent wading through vast swathes of resources and terminology on the web trying to figure all this stuff out. This post will also introduce you to many of the key concepts discussed on this site. Enjoy!
- Hatha Yoga
- Kundalini Yoga / Energy Work
- Pranayama / Breath Work
- Concentration / Absorption Meditation
- Insight Meditation
- Magick & The Powers / Siddhis
Also known as “sati”.
Mindfulness, put in a very basic way, means: “Knowing what’s going on, where, when, and for how long”.
Take a breath right now. How long did it last? How much of your body did it fill? Where did you feel the sensations? How did it affect your thoughts and emotions in the moment? What sound did it make? Which nerves and muscles were used?
To answer any of these questions requires mindfulness. To know how long the breath lasted, you have to be mindful of the time spent inhaling and exhaling (and any pause in between). To know how much of your body it filled, you need to be aware of the sensations of the body that tell you that. There is almost infinite knowledge to be gained about each breath. To learn about the breath you have to be mindful of the aspects you wish to learn about. This means observing, watching, feeling those aspects.
Most Buddhist schools practise mindfulness of the breath as their main meditation. There are other things you can be mindful of, though. You can be mindful of your own thoughts, noticing when they arise, what their content is, how they make you feel, and how long they last. You can be mindful of your emotions, noticing the kinds of energy they invoke in various parts of the body. You can be mindful of your surroundings, noticing how much of the world you can actually see at any given moment, noticing how far to the sides your vision actually extends. You can be mindful of sounds in the environment, like birds singing and other ambient noise. The primary instruction given for mindfulness meditation is that, whatever you are mindful of at any given time, to not be judgmental of it, but to accept it how it is, and allow it to arise and pass as it wishes.
Mindfulness is level zero when it comes to meditation. It is a central pillar of any meditation type. All meditation requires it, and all meditation will increase certain aspects of mindfulness. In short, the more you practise meditation, the more your mindfulness will increase. When you have developed sufficient mindfulness you can begin to practise other types of meditation which use mindfulness in specific ways, for example insight or concentration meditation. These meditations are still “mindful meditations”, but you are mindful of a certain aspect of experience in a certain way to achieve a specific result.
The thing you are being mindful of at any given moment is called your object. So, if you are mindful of the breath, the breath is your object. Beginner mindfulness meditations usually instruct you to be mindful of the breath as your primary object, but also to allow thoughts and emotions to arise and be noticed and allowed to pass (as brief secondary objects). As you become more experienced at mindfulness of the breath, however, you will start to find that you are able to stay with just the breath for longer periods, and that thoughts and emotions are far fewer and have longer spaces in between. This is then your gateway to other types of meditation such as insight or concentration. This training period is required for most beginner meditators to get control over their minds, and this is why I instruct most newcomers to this site to practise my Basic Mindfulness Meditation for 30 minutes each day for a period of two months before moving on to more advanced or difficult meditations.
Also known in the West as just “yoga”.
While not strictly a meditation, I have included hatha yoga for completeness, and because it is important to understand its principles in the context of meditation.
In the West, most people know “yoga” as being a series of movements, stretches and poses performed with the body for reasons of health, exercise and posture. However, in the East, this practice is known as hatha yoga, and is generally performed to prepare the body for meditation (usually raja yoga, a type of concentration meditation).
The true meaning of yoga is “union” and encompasses ALL the meditative arts. Someone who meditates, or practises any other aspect of yoga, is therefore called a yogi.
Hatha yoga, aside from being a healthful practice in itself, has numerous benefits for meditation practice:
- It makes the body flexible and promotes good posture, allowing long meditation sits and preferential meditation poses such as the various cross-legged positions.
- It promotes complete and regular breathing and oxygenates the body and mind.
- It stimulates certain energy pathways. Different poses have different effects on mood and cognition. To understand this, think of the immediate effect standing tall and smiling has on your mood. Physical actions change mind and perception. In yoga these effects tend to be modelled as “energy”. Hatha yoga’s poses are not random but have been crafted over thousands of years to provide specific energy changes in reliable ways, many of which are useful as a preparation for meditation.
Energy work utilizes the energy principles outlined above, but in a more formal way as either a complete meditation in itself or as a precursor or addition to some other kind of meditation. An example kundalini meditation might involve visualizing energy rising up and then down the spine in specific time periods and cycles.
Energy work usually uses the chakra model, which teaches that there are seven energy centres at various locations on the spine ranging from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. Visualizations, chanting, hand poses, and placing awareness on these chakras are all ways used to stimulate energy in those locations in specific ways.
With skill, energy work is probably the quickest way to lift depression, achieved with particular focus on stimulating the base of the spine. Pranayama breathing is also useful for this purpose.
I have included hand poses or mudras in this section as it seems the best place for it, since they use energy principles. However, hand poses are commonly found in all meditation types.
The hands are extremely connected to cognition and perception. An easy example is that, by pointing at something, you will instantly become more judgmental towards it. Many hand poses in this way are completely automatic and make up the broad spectrum of innate and universal human body language — a raised palm indicating “stop”, and spread arms indicating openness or receptivity, regardless of culture.
The yogic mudra system is, again, crafted over thousands of years to produce specific repeatable results. Some of these will be familiar to you already, such as forefinger tip touching thumb. I personally use the following mudras in the ways listed below:
I use this mudra for concentration meditation (e.g. being mindful of the breath at the bridge of the nose to attain jhana, covered later) and for insight practice using concentration as a base.
This mudra tends to align awareness to the central axis, making it easier to become aware of sensations of the breath at points on that axis, for example the bridge of the nose or the top of the lip.
I use this mudra for visualization practices within concentration meditation, and for high stimulation into a specific point in the body during energy work (usually one of the chakras). It creates a narrow “beam” of energy which, with skill, can be directed with precision into certain mental processes or body points. Probably the most stimulating mudra.
(Mudra name unknown. Help please?)
I use this hand pose for energy work (e.g. channelling energy from base of spine to the third eye) and for insight practice using energy as a base. I also find it useful for concentration practice with the eyes open, for example becoming absorbed in an object in the distance.
This mudra gives a very broad energy beam moving up through the whole body. When this beam meets the breath the sensations are very pleasurable. It is also an ideal pairing with the third eye. This mudra causes a perceptual shift to feelings of openness, acceptance, receptivity, and the sense of giving yourself up to a higher power or force. It is therefore ideal for giving yourself up to the act of meditation itself and abandoning your resistance. This is my favourite mudra by far.
The hand poses in Western religions can also be classed as mudras. The “hands together” prayer pose, for example, is known as anjali mudra in yoga, and seems to give centredness, balance, and an inwards view.
Pranayama involves manipulating breathing patterns in specific ways to bring about perceptual, emotional, cognitive, and energy shifts. Pranayama is ridiculously effective at changing your mood and is probably the most accessible technique for beginners for this purpose. You can make yourself feel extremely good in a very short space of time, and if everyone practised daily pranayama then the antidepressant companies would go bust practically overnight.
Pranayama, aside from its mood-lifting and other health benefits, was originally intended to make the mind fresh and bright in preparation for concentration meditation. It is highly effective for this purpose, one reason being that it raises piti (pleasure) making it very detectable on the breath during concentration meditation.
There are many types of pranayama but perhaps the best known are alternate nostril breathing and the breath of fire.
Nadi Shodhana / Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is shown at the start of this video. It is then followed by two other types of pranayama which are also worth trying:
Kapalbhati / Breath of Fire
This rhythmic pumping of the diaphragm is highly stimulating and can make you feel fantastic in a very short space of time. I remember that the day I learned this was the first time I really started to feel my anxiety was under my control.
I recommend you search around online for a set step-by-step pranayama guide and follow it for a session to see what it can do for you. So, find a programme for alternate nostril breathing (which usually consists of counting the in-breath, pause, and out-breath in set patterns) and practise it for half an hour or whatever the programme prescribes. The next day, do the same for breath of fire.
Mantra and chanting use the voice to create perceptual and energy shifts. The voice is intimately connected to the body and mind, and different vocal patterns have specific and often dramatic effects on emotion and perception. Using the vocal apparatus activates nerves deep in the body which may not otherwise be fired in those patterns.
A mantra is usually a word or phrase which is repeated over and over again during meditation, either out loud or in the mind. The phrase might be a saint’s name or a message of goodwill. Alternatively it can be a simple sound, such as “Ahhhhhhhhh” (which, if sang at a low pitch, will stimulate nerves at the base of the spine). Different pitches and mouth shapes have dramatically different effects on the body and mind. Again, chants have been refined over thousands of years to provide repeatable effects, so it is worth listening to experts on YouTube to find useful patterns.
Probably the most well known mantra is “Aum” (also rendered “Om”, with “Aum” being the more phonetically correct spelling), which is said to be the sound of the universe. I can personally attest that, during my kundalini awakening, this sound was present in all things for around a day, which was an incredibly strange experience.
Another popular chant is “sa ta na ma”:
Note the use of an alternating mudra: thumb touches forefinger during “sa”, middle during “ta”, ring during “na”, and little finger during “ma”. I have practised this meditation just once during which I saw what might be described as “universal imagery”. It can be incredibly trippy.
A mantra is sometimes used as the object during concentration meditation.
Also known as “raja yoga”, “samadhi”, “samatha”, “jhana”.
Concentration meditation leads to unimaginably blissful and jaw-dropping mental states. The states attainable in concentration meditation are more powerful and pleasurable than any drug or any other type of practice. If you ever wondered why Buddha and other saints are always pictured smiling in statues and paintings, then this is why.
Concentration meditation is also often translated as “absorption meditation”. Absorption is the better translation in my experience, but concentration tends to be the more common term used so I have stuck with that throughout this site.
In concentration practice you choose an object to meditate upon. In most meditation schools this is usually the breath. However, some other objects are as follows:
- Kasina. This is a visual object such as a coloured disc or a flame.
- Sound. This is usually a mantra, repeated over and over either out loud or in the mind.
- Emotion. For example, pleasure itself can be meditated upon (with the pleasure usually occurring and growing with each breath), causing a feedback loop whereby the emotion grows so strong that a profoundly altered mental state develops at which point you are said to be absorbed in the emotion. A common emotion meditated upon in Buddhism is loving-kindness towards other living beings, which is known as metta meditation.
- Idea or concept. For example, in vajrayana Buddhism, a deity is meditated upon until absorption in the idea and visual image of that deity occurs, at which point it is said that you acquire the characteristics of that deity. This kind of meditation can also be used for magickal purposes, whereby a goal or outcome you desire is held in mind until absorption occurs, which increases its chances of manifesting in the physical world.
- Energy. For example, you can use the energy stream emanating from the base of the spine up to the crown of the head in kundalini yoga as your object in concentration meditation.
It is in fact possible to use absolutely anything as an object. In all cases, you progressively train yourself to hold only the object in your mind during the meditation, meaning there will be zero distracting thoughts — an idea which is quite alien to the modern human who is overly trained in discursive thought using the intellect. For example, by keeping awareness on the breath, eventually there will be only the breath. When only the object is held singularly in mind in this way, you are said to be absorbed in the object.
Despite listing several object types above, in reality all these meditations will have the breath as a linked object, because mind and breath are so powerfully connected. This means that, for example, if you are doing kasina meditation with a coloured disc in your mind, the image of the disc will pulse or spin in phase with the breath.
The goal of concentration meditation is to reach a state of absorption in your chosen object. This state is known as samadhi in yoga schools and jhana in Buddhist schools. In Buddhism, concentration practice is known as samatha, and the resultant states are called the samatha jhanas, usually abbreviated to just “jhana” or “the jhanas”.
The state of absorption makes the mind so still that aspects of reality usually covered up by mental noise become visible to the meditator. The meditator can therefore use these aspects to infer principles or revelations about the true nature of reality, resulting in permanent mental or spiritual shifts in their experience of life going forwards. This is known as insight practice.
Absorption states are also so utterly peaceful, pleasurable, blissful, and at times mind-blowing, that they significantly suppress negative mindstates for some time after practice. With regular practice these states become more conditioned into the meditator, leading to permanent upward shifts in baseline happiness and energy. This is a main reason why gurus such as Ajahn Brahm and Sadhguru are so cheerful that they often appear to be drunk at times. Neurochemically, concentration practice raises dopamine, opioids, and other reward chemicals in the brain.
Also known as “vipassana”, and several other names depending on the tradition.
Insight meditation is a practice whereby the meditator seeks to uncover some fundamental truth about the nature of reality, with the result being a permanent philosophical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual shift occurring in the meditator from that point forwards. The intended direction of such shifts is usually towards states of less suffering. The final goal of insight practice is “full enlightenment”, which is usually conceived of as a state whereby suffering no longer happens at all. How one goes about reaching this state varies depending upon the tradition. Each tradition is referred to as its own “path”.
Hindu / Yogic Schools
In Hinduism-inspired yogic schools, the goal of insight practice is usually to find the True Self, the Seer, the awareness that exists behind body and mind. It is a kind of all-permeating, universal “mind” in which all experience occurs and which is also the Source of all experience. An example of this kind of path is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (a good translation is here and its accompanying website and notes is here). The method of this path is — very roughly — as follows: Through regular meditation, more and more refined states of samadhi are attained. The mind is made more and more empty, until the fundamental building blocks of reality (and of the human mind itself), known as gunas, can be perceived. Then, the awareness that those building blocks arise into — the mind beneath the mind, the True Self, Seer or Source — can be experienced directly. Then, the goal of the meditator is to become identified with that mind rather than his own illusory human mind, and to therefore come to “rest in his true nature”, at which point he is said to be fully enlightened.
An interesting yogi from this school is Sadhguru.
In Buddhist schools, insight practice (often referred to as vipassana) involves noticing the Three Marks of Existence (also known as the Three Characteristics), inherent in all phenomena. These Three Characteristics are that:
- All phenomena are completely transitory, arising into and passing out of awareness, and do not stick around or become stable even for a moment. This is known as impermanence.
- All phenomena are fundamentally unsatisfactory and therefore cause suffering.
- There is no “self”, soul, or essence in the meditator or any living being which observes phenomena; phenomena just happen and a sense of self is an illusion inferred when phenomena arise in awareness (as “this side”, the “self”, observing phenomena on “that side”, the field of awareness). This illusion of an observing self is a source of suffering. This principle is known as No Self (capitalized to draw contrast with yogic/Hindu “True Self”).
The goal of the meditator is to notice these Three Characteristics present in all phenomena during meditation, with the eventual outcome being that the meditator lets go of his sense of a separate self who suffers, and kind of rejoins the infinite “sea” of completely transient phenomena that make up this universe. At this point he is said to be fully enlightened.
The realization of No Self in all phenomena can be very jarring for the meditator, since the “ego” — the accumulation of identifications with things and events as a single “self” — gets dissolved progressively through these realizations, which the body often misinterprets as physical death. Insight practice is therefore usually balanced out with jhana (the Buddhist version of samadhi) to provide calm, soothing and blissful mental states in which these realizations can be made. However, there is a practice known as “dry insight” in which realizations are made without the “safety net” of jhana. In my experience, having practised dry insight for several years on the instruction of Daniel Ingram’s book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, this method is completely disastrous and causes all sorts of unnecessary suffering and psychoses, such as the impression that the body is literally rotting away to a skeleton (which is how the survival circuit interprets the dissolution of the sense of self when it occurs outside of jhana). Joy and compassion should always be cultivated alongside insight, via concentration practice, to balance out these rigours.
A good Buddhist monk to listen to is Ajahn Brahm.
Magick, spelled the old-fashioned way with a “k” on this site to distinguish it from parlour tricks and illusion, is the intentional act of manifesting changes in the physical world using the mind (via such means as rituals, “spells”, visualizations, and meditation).
Magick originated in shamanism and is found in all human cultures. Views toward magick vary from culture to culture. Polytheistic cultures make regular use of magick via devotions, prayers and sacrifices to various deities in exchange for wishes. Monotheistic cultures however tend to frown severely upon the use of magick and give it names such as “Satanism” and “witchcraft”, while ironically practising their own form of magick via prayer, complete with mantras, poses, mudras, intentions, and objects of attention. While atheists do not believe in the magickal powers of individuals, they nevertheless assign magickal ability to the universe itself, namely that it can intend itself into existence out of nothing in their creation myth called the Big Bang.
Magick has enjoyed a comeback in the so-called “New Age” with books and videos such as The Secret providing the rudiments of intention-manifestation via visualizations and affirmations (though in a rather bastardized and impotent way). There is a broad range of attitudes within Buddhist and yogic schools towards magick, with some embracing aspects of it and others sternly teaching avoidance of such temptations; all schools generally see magick as an impediment or distraction on the path to enlightenment regardless of their moral stance.
The basic process of magick (a.k.a. intention-manifestation) is as follows:
- Decide upon the goal state, i.e. what you want to happen, or the experience you wish to have.
- Attempt to think through all consequences, both favourable and unfavourable, of the event happening (i.e. what is required for it to happen, the immediate effects of the event, and the long-term changes in reality that will occur afterwards). Tweak or abandon the desire as required as a result of this analysis.
- Visualize only the desired outcome (so, at this point, do not think about ways in which it cannot happen or other negative/difficult aspects of the desire). Formally state your intention, in the form: “I intend X to occur”.
- Enter a state of one-pointedness. If using meditation, this means entering the deepest state of samadhi or jhana you can, so that your mind is extremely unified. Western esotericism recommends meditation for this, but also gives the option of “ecstatic states” whereby you select one emotion and do activities to cause that emotion to reach its peak, during which one-pointedness occurs. The emotion you select can be negative, such as terror or pain, and you can also use an intense sexual experience for this purpose (the nature of the emotion chosen is not that important; the only thing that matters is that it reaches its peak). Generally, the desire — the intended goal of the magick — is not thought about during the one-pointedness activity, whether it be meditation or an ecstatic state.
- Exit the one-pointed state then formally, firmly and forcefully declare, with all the conviction you can muster: “I intend X to happen”. It is far easier to declare this with feelings of certainty after one-pointedness, which is one reason it is used. Know that this request/demand has now been sent off into the universe and is now bound to happen.
- Now, completely forget everything about the intention, and go about your life, knowing that it is being handled. This forgetful phase is paramount. The event must be allowed to arise in its own time in the course of your everyday life.
The time it takes, and the strength or profundity with which the outcome arises, is dependent on several factors including (but not limited to):
- The strength or conviction of the intention.
- The level of one-pointedness attained.
- The amount of reordering of the universe required, a.k.a. the strain you put on the universe to bend to your outcome (less is better).
- The strength of your belief in your own powers and in a magickal reality and what is possible in that reality (a.k.a. you have a weak “field of disbelief” surrounding the act).
- The strength of other observers’ “fields of disbelief” (ideally you won’t tell anybody. If people do know however then their beliefs can either help or veto your attempt depending on what those beliefs are).
- The natural talent of the magician (it seems some are born with a natural tendency towards and skill for magickal acts).
- How well you were able to forget the intention and allow it to arise in its own time without further magickal meddling.
An article going into the above in a lot more depth, and discussing the morality and ethics behind such acts, is Daniel Ingram’s excellent Magick and the Brahma Viharas.
For further reading I highly recommend the book Liber Null & Psychonaut by Peter J. Carroll, which is no less than the definitive guide to magick, and which comes at it from a Western esotericism perspective. Liber Null & Psychonaut is the book I would write if I had to condense all my knowledge and views about the way the universe works into a single book. It even has all the models of reality I have written up in various places on this site. I could barely believe it when I opened that book and saw my own mind staring back at me.
The Powers / Siddhis
The “psychic powers”, or siddhis, are magick expressed in specific ways, giving the practitioner certain abilities beyond the experience of most humans. To call them “supernatural” is a misnomer: all is Nature, and Nature is all; nothing is “above Nature”. To me, the siddhis are so normal now that I do not consider them to be apart from normal reality at all.
The siddhis work in the same way as magick (above) in terms of their being an application of will/intention to change some aspect of physical reality (or non-physical reality, in the case of altering someone’s mind at a distance; but ultimately this will need to end in physical results in order for you to confirm that the the power has “worked”). In fact, magickal intention-manifestation as described above is listed itself as a siddhi in yogic and Buddhist literature. A major point to make here however is that many of the siddhis can arise and show themselves without prior intention. For example, there was a phase near the start of my meditation practice when I would have precognitive visions while in jhana. These were not intended and I never cultivated the ability to control them, either; they would just pop up from time to time.
It is somewhat inevitable that meditators will, at some point, come across some magickal aspect of reality or have their own siddhis begin to arise. What they then do with that aspect of experience is up to them. They might choose to play around with the powers for a while. They might instead choose to ignore them completely and plough on towards enlightenment. They might even choose to become a full-fledged sorcerer or miracle-bestowing saint. Reality becomes fairly plastic and mouldable at the point where the siddhis begin to become understood. (Interestingly, I’ve tended to find that the more I know I can change things, the less I actually want to; I seem to want to “let the simulation run itself” for the most part.)
Daniel Ingram discusses all of these things in the following audio recording, which is well worth a listen: https://soundcloud.com/buddhistgeeks/a-pragmatists-take-on-the-powers
(If anyone can find the original video of that talk, let me know!)
The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the siddhis described in yogic and Buddhist scripture as being attainable by yogis:
- Intention-manifestation (ability to have anything you desire)
- Remote viewing/hearing
- Knowing the future
- Seeing past lives
- Knowing others’ minds
Specific guides on how to attain various powers are written in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
So, there you have it — a fairly complete guide to the basics of yoga and meditation. If you have any questions, ask them below in the comments section!