(Last Updated On: December 11, 2018)
Whether you’re interested in meditation or just curious about what it is, you may find yourself coming across many different practices. The word “meditation” encompasses practices from many different traditions, religions, and modalities. We’ve made an effort to describe a few of the common types of meditation, focusing mainly on the types of meditation in Buddhism.
There are meditation practices that are not Buddhist in nature, and we will cover those a bit as well. However, our personal knowledge comes mainly from Buddhist traditions. We’ve separated the practices out into Buddhist meditation types, movement practices, and meditation techniques from other sources.
If you want to get started with meditation but aren’t sure where to begin, you can check out our Meditation Guide for Beginners for some recommendations and resources including some of our favorite books about meditation.
Before diving into the types of Buddhist meditation, it’s important to understand that there are many different types of Buddhism that come from different cultural roots, times, and people. The Buddha himself did lay out meditation practices in his teachings, collected today in the Buddhist suttas. Over time, different techniques have arisen from teachers over the centuries.
1. Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is probably what you think about when you think ofBuddhist meditation. In mindfulness meditation, we rest in a patient awareness, tuning into our experience with recognition and present-time attention.
The purpose of meditation with mindfulness is to gain insight into the nature of reality. Specifically, we are to notice the Three Marks of Existence: dukkha, non-self, and impermanence. You can read our post What is Mindfulness? to learn more about mindfulness in general, but here are a few specific techniques used to cultivate mindfulness traditionally.
A body scan meditation is often one of the first methods people find. It’s used in secular settings, Buddhist groups, and yoga classes sometimes. In a body scan you move through the body slowly, paying attention closely to each part of the body and sensations present. It can be done seated or lying down, and you can return to the practice in daily life.
This type of meditation is a useful technique for beginners as it keeps the mind somewhat occupied with changing stimulation. The body scan practice helps you bring mindfulness to what is arising and passing in the body, recognizing your personal present-time experience.
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Mindfulness of Breath
Mindfulness of breath is just as it sounds: a type of meditation in which you practice awareness of the breathing. It is often practiced from the guidelines of the Anapanasati Sutta, or discourse on establishing mindfulness of the breath. In this type of mindfulness meditation, you are using the breath in the body as the object of your awareness.
This is another form of meditation that many people come to know pretty early in their meditation path. Focusing on the breath is a common practice used in secular settings and outside Buddhist meditation groups, and it is useful in daily life and any situation. It’s important to understand there is a difference between mindfulness of breath and concentration practice, which we will cover in a bit.
Open awareness is a form of mindfulness in which you rest in a patient state of waiting for something to arise in your experience. It is a little less structured than a body scan or mindfulness of the breath, and may be more difficult for those new to meditation. However, this is the type of meditation that really helps cultivate the skill of mindfulness and recognition.
Vipassana is a practice that is believed to have come from the Buddha himself, and has regained popularity in the West in the last century with S.N. Goenka and his vipassana centers. Vipassana practices start with focusing on the breath, most often at the tip of the nose or inside the nostrils. Eventually, you open up to other experiences arising and passing, returning to the sensation of the body breathing.
Where vipassana becomes a unique type of meditation is in the noting. Mental noting is the practice of saying to yourself in your head what is arising or passing. If you notice a sound, you note “hearing.” If you recognize a thought is present, you note “thinking.” It may seem complicated, but I personally use this practice daily. It’s incredibly useful, and you will get the hang of it by actually trying it!
2. Loving-Kindness Meditation
Next, we have metta. Metta is a Pali word that is often translated as loving-kindness or gentle friendliness. It is one of the traditional heart practices in Buddhism, and is the cultivation of a kind, gentle, and caring heart. You can think of metta as the simple quality of wishing well for others (and yourself) in your life.
This is done through a practice called loving-kindness meditation. There are many ways to cultivate loving-kindness, but the most popular is done through the repetition of phrases. A form of samatha meditation, this calms the mind, focuses our intentions, and slowly opens the heart to care for beings.
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3. Compassion Meditation
Compassion is another of the heart practices, and the actual technique is similar to metta. This is a technique I often introduce to newcomers, as it is useful to address our relationship to difficulties and judgement from the beginning. Furthermore, compassion meditation really works, as we discussed in the study we covered in our post Compassion Meditation Works.
In compassion meditation, you use phrases to cultivate a mind and heart that can tend to the moments of pain and difficulty with care. You can think of compassion as what happens when loving-kindness comes into contact with suffering. It’s a form of meditation that can help us in practice when difficult moments arise, and in our daily lives as we face problems and pains.
4. Appreciative Joy
The next type of meditation is another heart technique. Known as mudita, this is what happens when metta comes into contact with joy and happiness. We cultivate the ability to rejoice in the happiness of others and appreciate the joy in life. Rather than falling into envy or judgement, we open the heart to mindfully take in the happiness others experience.
This again is done through the repetition of phrases and focused attention. As with other heart meditations, you may not always feel loving and kind while doing it. However, you continue to practice, cultivating this intention to open the heart. These techniques that use phrases are not a quick-fix (no kind of meditation is), and it takes time.
5. Equanimity Practice
The final heart practice we have is equanimity. Equanimity is the quality of mind and heart which remain stable, especially when presented with emotional or strong experiences. With equanimity, we remain mindful and present, and don’t get knocked off balance. This takes cultivation, but over time we are able to meet experiences with a patient wisdom.
In equanimity meditation, we use phrases to recognize our own power to choose how we meet experiences. Rather than trying to control others or outside circumstances, we recognize that we have limited control.
Collection of Heart Practices
If you’re interested in the Buddhist heart practices, check out our collection of Meditations for the Heart!
6. Concentration Meditation
Moving away from the heart practices, we’re going to cover a few other ways to meditate that come from Buddhist roots. Concentration is a practice rooted deeply in the Buddhist teachings, as the Buddha himself sat in concentration quite often (according to suttas). In case the name doesn’t make it obvious, this is a type of meditation in which we cultivate the ability to focus.
There are many different ways to practice concentration meditation, but the most common is by focusing on the breath in one spot in the body. When the mind wanders, you bring it back. It takes time to build concentration, but each time you meditate you are strengthening the mental muscle. You can also build concentration working with sounds, phrases of metta, or any other object of awareness.
As mentioned, there are many different types of meditation practice. Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism have unique techniques, and this is one of them. Zazen is of the zen tradition, and is a practice that is dependent upon studying (as all meditation really should be). In zazen meditation, you focus on the breath and allow thoughts to come and go. They will subside naturally.
Although this technique is very similar to concentration practices of other traditions, zazen is a bit more structured. Different traditions have specific postures, mudras of the hands, and ways to practice. You may find instructions to sit with eyes open, to breathe through the mouth, or to count the breaths.
8. Chanting Practices
There are chanting meditations in many different traditions. In some traditions, such as Pure Land Buddhism, a specific mantra is chanted repeatedly. In others, sacred texts are chanted together by followers. Chanting offers a form of present-time awareness that utilizes hearing, speaking, and feeling in the body. It is another way to cultivate intention and be present.
You can find chanting in Nichiren Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, some forms of Theravada Buddhism, and some Tibetan practices. This is frankly not a form of meditation I practice, other than my time on retreat and at monasteries.
Tonglen meditation comes from the Tibetan tradition of meditation. It’s a type of meditation that helps us see with compassion and let go of our own difficulties. Traditionally, you breathe in the sadness and darkness from the world around you and offer out your wishes of love and kindness. You recognize that others are suffering, perhaps in a similar way as you.
In the West, some teachers also reverse this practice a bit. You can breathe in well-wishes for yourself, then let go of the unwholesome as you exhale. Either way, the practice of tonglen is about giving and receiving. Traditionally, we are cultivating a heart that cares for the pain and suffering in the world, and meeting it with our own compassionate care.
All of the ways to meditate we’ve covered have been forms of sitting meditation. Although this is what you probably think of when you think of meditation, there are actually many traditional ways to practice while moving the body. Moving meditation offers a way to meditate in a new posture and in a new way. I strongly recommend incorporating a movement practice into your regular meditation practice.
10. Walking Meditation
Walking meditation is an important practice in Buddhism and many other traditions. Like sitting meditation, you focus the mind on an object and notice when the mind wanders. The only difference is that your body is moving. You may focus on the breath, on phrases of loving-kindness, or on the sensation of the body moving through space.
Walking meditation may seem silly or pointless, but it is an integral practice for many Buddhists across the world. Monks and nuns regularly practice walking meditation at monasteries, and you will find periods of walking meditation on many retreats. Below is a relatively short walking practice you can try to introduce yourself to how it’s done.
There are many types of yoga meditation, and yoga may be seen overall as a meditation practice itself. However, we’re going to cover one of the more traditionally meditative practices: kundalini. Kundalini meditation is the practice of awakening the kundalini energy in the base of the spine. This is rooted in Hinduism, and the focus is on bringing the energy up through the seven chakras.
I frankly don’t know a whole lot about this type of meditation, but wanted to offer it in our list because I have tried it before and found it useful. Furthermore, I know when people ask us about types of meditation, kundalini is one that seems to pop up quite a bit. You can check out kundalini meditations on YouTube or Insight Timer for some instruction!
Qigong is an ancient practice coming from Chinese wisdom and medicine. With the intention of preserving strength and balancing energy, qigong can be a deeply meditative practice. When I stay at Deer Park Monastery, I’m always grateful for the periods of qigong. Like yoga, you have the opportunity to be aware of your body and energies while moving rather than sitting still.
You can take an online qigong course or check out this guide from Conscious Lifestyle to get started.
13. Tai Chi
Tai chi is another Chinese practice, but more of a martial art. Although it was traditionally a form of the martial arts, it has become a popular type of meditation while moving. According to Harvard Health, tai chi has many health benefits both physically and mentally.
As with many of the other meditation types on our list, I don’t know enough to offer suggestions or tips for beginning to practice. However, I have heard from people who do practice that an in-person class is definitely the way to go! You can also find YouTube videos online offering instruction.
Other Meditation Techniques
Finally, we have some other meditation techniques. Some of these are used in various traditions, some are secular, and some are just standalone practices. You can investigate the practices for yourself to see what is useful.
14. Forgiveness Meditation
Forgiveness meditation is often included in Buddhist circles and groups, but is not a traditional heart practice. Like the other heart practices, you can use phrases to cultivate a mind and heart inclined toward forgiving. Teachers like Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg encourage forgiveness practice, and I’ve found it to be deeply useful in working with the judgements and resentments.
Forgiveness takes time, and we may not be ready to forgive in this moment. We continue to cultivate a slow opening, and allow ourselves to journey along the path rather than wishing for immediate forgiveness. You can find some free forgiveness practices in our post 5 Ways to Forgive Yourself and Move Forward.
15. Transcendental Meditation
Transcendental Meditation is a relatively new technique, introduced in the 1950’s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In Transcendental Meditation, you practice by repeating a mantra for periods of 20 minutes, twice a day. You receive your mantra and training by attending a course, which is taught in a series of seven steps.
Transcendental Meditation became especially popular in the 1970’s as many celebrities began practicing. Furthermore, a lot of the research on meditation centers on this type of practice. Although it’s different than many Buddhist types of meditation, it may be seen as a form of concentration practice. You can learn more about it at www.TM.org.
16. Visualization Practices
There are too many visualization practices to cover here, or it’s own single post. In visualization practices, you are using the power of the mind to bring forth a situation, scenario, or experience to work with. Many forms of non-religious meditation use visualization practices to help manifest outcomes and desires. Whether you’re visualizing a past experience that was difficult or your dream vacation in Mexico and taking a tour in Playa del Carmen, visualization offers a way to bring up specific experiences.
There are also visualization practices used by psychotherapists and Buddhist meditation teachers. Tara Brach is a wonderful example, using visualization practices with her metta and compassion practices to help stimulate the mind and specific emotions. It’s a technique that works especially well for people who think visually. You can find Tara’s meditations on her website, where some offer visualization in the meditation.
17. Meditating on God
Finally, there are many forms of meditation that focus on a relationship with a god or higher power. This includes spiritual meditations, Christian meditations, Buddhist meditations, and many more. In these practices, you will focus on the presence of a god or deity, ask for help, or practice listening. Although this is something I don’t personally do, I know many members of our greater sangha who benefit greatly from these practices.
Benefits of Different Techniques
Thanks to years and years of research, we are beginning to understand the benefits of meditation. Each type of meditation offers different ways to help you in your life, including the ability to reduce stress, improve mental health, and take care of the physical body. Moving practices are of course healthy for the body, and concentration practices obviously can help build concentration.
However, there are some benefits of different types of meditation which are not so obvious. For example, mindfulness meditation can help depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and other problems with mental health. Concentration practice may lower heart rate and blood pressure, or even reduce stress overall. A study in 2006 found that meditative prayer and yoga improved symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause.
Each type of meditation offers a different set of benefits. Heart practices open the heart, but also help build concentration. Mindfulness helps build present-time awareness, but can also decrease anger. When you dive into choosing a technique for yourself, you may consider which practice calls out to you to help relieve some suffering.
Finding the Right Technique for Yourself
With all of the options and different methods, it can be difficult to choose just one. The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to! You can try different techniques for a well-rounded and holistic practice, or at least investigate different ones to see what is useful.
Before diving into each and every type on this list, I recommend starting with a method that helps you build some concentration and mixing in some periods of metta or compassion. Starting like this, you can cultivate the ability to focus during meditation and respond with patience when the mind doesn’t behave exactly how you want it to. As you continue to practice, you will find yourself able to sit longer and pay attention with less distraction.
From here, you can move on and begin investigating other types of meditation. Don’t overwhelm yourself too much. If you try each and every kind, you may be left without consistency. Choose a technique, and stick with it for a bit before moving on.
If you’re interested in starting a practice but don’t know where to begin, you can reach out to one of our mindfulness coaches to get some help!
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