Although it has only been within the past century that meditation has become popularized in the Western world, it is believed that the practice’s history dates back to prerecorded times. The first writings discussing meditation practices are found in the Vedas, the holiest scriptures of Hindus, which were believed to be written around 1500 B.C.E. Yet still, geologists who worked to excavate the Indus Valley Civilization, the birthplace of modern Hinduism, in the 1920s found wall art depicting yogis in mediation postures that they believed were drawn many centuries before. Since then, as you probably assume, the ancient practice of meditation has spread throughout the world and evolved in a way that gave rise to a seemingly endless variety of meditation techniques.
Today, there is not only a wide range of meditation techniques that have become prominently associated with particular religions but also techniques that can be practiced without any religious significance at all. In addition to Hinduism, the religions of Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, and Sikhism all prescribe various practices to their respective followers. It is widely assumed that any form of Buddhist meditation practice is secular in nature, as the Buddha’s teachings were entirely agnostic. More recently, in the Western world, psychologists and physiatrists have begun to incorporate meditation techniques in the treatment of mental health.
Regardless of an individual’s religious beliefs or their preferred meditation technique, one thing remains clear: Meditation has a potent power to improve one’s life at the mental, physical, and emotional levels.
Be assured that whether you are new to meditation or are interested in experimenting with different techniques, there is a practice that can suit your desired needs.
Types of Meditation Techniques:
Before we begin exploring the ten celebrated meditation techniques highlighted in this article, it will be helpful to differentiate a number of larger overarching meditation categories under which the individual techniques fall. While there isn’t a universally agreed-upon number of meditation types, each and every meditation technique can be classified into one or more of the four types of meditation practices we will discuss here. It should be noted that regardless of the meditation category, or categories, that practice falls under, there are two primary components to every meditation practice: Mindfulness and Concentration.
For any meditator, of any experience level, developing and strengthening both mindfulness and concentration is vital for practice and will largely determine the beneficial outcomes they obtain from sitting. Bhante Gunaratana, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk and author of Mindfulness in Plain English, tells us:
“These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one. He notices things. Concentration provides the power. He keeps the attention pinned down to one item. Ideally, mindfulness is in this relationship. Mindfulness picks the objects of attention, and notices when the attention has gone astray. Concentration does the actual work of holding the attention steady on that chosen object. If either of these partners is weak, your meditation goes astray.”
- Focused-Attention Meditation Techniques: While both mindfulness and concentration are important for every meditation practice, individual meditation techniques may favor one of these two components over the other. focused-attention meditation techniques are known for using the concentrative aspect of meditation to stabilize the mind on a particular object of focus. Meditation practices that instruct individuals to continuously watch their breath, repeat a mantra, or focus on an image would be considered focused-attention meditation techniques.
- Open-Monitoring Meditation Techniques: Whereas focused-attention techniques are largely concerned with the concentrative component of meditation, open-monitoring meditation practices emphasize the other practice component of mindfulness. A meditator who uses a technique that falls within the open-monitoring meditation category would want to stay open and aware of their experience without attachment or judgment. Just as one watches the waves of an ocean come and go, one practicing an open-monitoring meditation technique would want to watch as sensory and mental stimuli do the same.
- Analytical Meditation Techniques: Analytical meditation should be considered a vital component of any meditation practice and can be used in a supplementary fashion to either a focused attention or open-monitoring technique. In analytical mediation, meditators consciously reflect on important questions, and challenge misperceptions, in a way that helps them cultivate positive personal qualities, increases their understanding of spiritual truths, and allows them to make changes at the emotional and cognitive levels. One primary target of analytical meditation for spiritual aspirants is to disassociate the true self from the ego.
- Creative Meditation Techniques: Similar to analytical meditation techniques, creative meditation practices allow meditators to cultivate beneficial personal qualities and increase their understanding of reality. This, however, is accomplished through processes such as visualization and energy cultivation, rather than analytical questioning. There are a wide variety of creative meditation techniques that aim to develop specific internal states through a combination of imagery, energy cultivation, and contemplation. Additionally, there are other forms of creative meditation that are used to promote both internal and external health.
Now that we have examined the overarching types of meditation, we can begin exploring ten celebrated meditation techniques that fall into these four categories.
Focused-Attention Meditation Techniques:
1.) Zazen Meditation (Mindful Breathing):
In the tradition of Zen Buddhism, there is no single practice as important as Zazen Meditation or ‘sitting meditation.’ Since each and every meditation technique that we will explore requires meditators to sit during practice, Zazen is a great place to start. There are a plethora of different supplementary techniques that Zen Buddhists use in Zazen, with the most basic being mindful breathing. While there is great debate about which meditation techniques are best for individuals to practice, depending upon an array of factors like religious beliefs, goals, and meditation experience, every meditation philosophy, both religious and not, will agree that the breath is an indispensable tool for practitioners. By focusing one’s attention on the breath, meditators can calm the mind and enter into a state of heightened awareness.
How to Practice:
To use the Zazen mindful breathing technique, meditators would first want to assume a comfortable seated position with their spine straight and chin parallel to the ground. They then would close their eyes and mouth, relax the rest of their bodies, and rest their hands gently in their lap (use these same sitting instructions for the following nine techniques).
Upon finding stillness and comfort in their posture, meditators begin practicing a mindful breathing exercise by counting their inhalations and exhalations with their attention focused on their ‘hara’. Zen Buddhists believe that the hara, the area two inches below the navel, is considered to be the individual’s spiritual center. As practitioners focus their attention on the hara, watching it rise and fall, they would silently count each inhalation and exhalation. On the first inhalation, they would silently count one, and on the first exhalation, they would count two. On the second inhalation, they would count three, and on the second exhalation, they would count four.
The goal of this Zazen mindful breathing technique is to develop the concentrative ability to count to ten without mental thoughts arising. After a meditator finishes one cycle of counting to ten, they would then restart the process at one. It is important to note that in this Zazen practice, and every meditation practice, one should strive for non-judgmental acceptance of whatever the experience brings and focus on becoming mindful of when their mind wanders, before gently bringing it back to the breath. It is said that this simple technique is a great way to measure one’s concentrative and mindful meditation progress.
2.) Om Meditation:
Within every great spiritual tradition of India, there are particular meditation techniques that use mantras as a way to promote concentration. Mantras take the form of a sound, word, or short saying that can have a particular meaning associated with it or represent the sound of a spiritual vibration. Practitioners use these mantras as their object of focus and either silently repeat them to themselves or chant them aloud. In Hinduism, the sacred sound Om (Aum) is cherished as a mantra because it is considered to be the very sound of creation. Hindus associate the Om sound and symbol with a number of important religious concepts, including the eternal self Atman and the ultimate reality Brahman. Not only is Om significant for Hindus, but also for Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs, who similarly use the sound as part of mantra meditation techniques.
How to Practice:
Like many other mantra-based techniques, it is possible to practice Om Meditation by either silently repeating the sacred mantra or chanting it aloud. When repeated silently in meditation, it is said that Om dissolves the mind into its divine source. To practice Om meditation, one would sit comfortably, as described above, close their eyes, and begin silently chanting Om in their head. There are a number of different Om meditation practice variations, with one of the easiest beings to coordinate the “Ommmmm..” sound with one’s breath. This means that when practicing, meditators will mentally chant “Ommmmm..” on their inhalations and similarly chant “Ommmmm..” when they exhale. For new meditators interested in Om Meditation, it is advised to begin practicing by sitting for 10 to 15 minutes each day.
3.) Transcendental Meditation:
Another Hindu-based mantra meditation technique is the one used in Transcendental Meditation (TM). It was in the mid-1950s when celebrated Hindu guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi began teaching the Transcendental Meditation technique in India, and soon thereafter, the global popularity of the practice exploded. By 1980, it is said that at least one million people around the globe had been taught how to practice TM, including many celebrities like the Beatles. Although the TM technique can be traced back thousands of years to India’s Vedic period, the practice continues to remain one of the most popular forms of meditation. In stark contrast to the universally known Om mantra, however, TM mantras are personalized on an individual basis and can only be obtained by working with a trained TM teacher.
How to Practice:
Unfortunately, because TM mantras are personalized and expensive, it would be impossible to give instructions here. It is said that the criteria for choosing mantras are only known by fully trained TM teachers, yet many antagonists of the technique believe that the mantras are based upon a unique combination of an individual’s age and sex. When one does have their own TM mantra, it is said to act as a vehicle that takes meditators to a place of natural mental quietness that is present at all times, yet typically remains hidden. Meditators who use the TM technique are advised to practice for 15-20 minutes twice each day. Another popular meditation practice that is closely related to TM is Primordial Sound Meditation (PSM), which was developed by Maharishi Maheshi’s old working partner and popular spiritual icon Deepak Chopra. Both TM and PSM have come under heavy scrutiny for the steep prices they charge individuals who want to obtain a personalized Vedic mantra.
Open-Monitoring Meditation Techniques:
4.) Mindfulness Meditation:
Over the past decade, there has seemed to be a mindfulness revolution of sorts taking place in the Western world. Today, major news media outlets like The New York Times, Time Magazine, and The Huffington Post regularly publish articles discussing mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. While the origins of Mindfulness Meditation can certainly be traced back to ancient Hindu and Buddhist practices, western mindfulness pioneers like Jon Kabat-Zinn should be given due credit for popularizing Mindfulness Meditation. Kabat-Zinn, who is the Founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness at The University of Massachusetts, is most well-known for developing a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in 1979 and has used his distinguished academic and professional accolades to study and promote the life-affirming benefits of meditation.
How to Practice:
Whereas there is a definitive object of focus in focused-attention meditation practices, western Mindfulness Meditation techniques instruct individuals to focus on being attentive to the continuously changing present moment. To begin practicing, one would want to bring themselves into a state of heightened awareness by focusing on their breath for a few cycles of inhalations and exhalations. Once they feel as though their mind has slowed and they are fully present, they would then completely relax into the flow of the constantly changing experience.
It is certain that during mindfulness practice, meditators will become distracted by thoughts, bodily sensations, emotions, and noises from external sources. When this happens, it is the job of the practitioner to notice that their focus has been carried away from the present moment and then non-judgmentally return themselves to just being. All one should do is sit quietly and watch how thoughts, emotions, external noises, and bodily sensations come and go like clouds in a vast sky.
Additionally, it should be pointed out that a major objective of Mindfulness Meditation for Westerners is to learn how to enjoy the present moment without being worried about the next things that need to be accomplished. Instructors of Mindfulness Meditation teach their students how to release the need to always be doing something and strive to show them how they can find enjoyment in the state of being present.
5.) Vipassana Meditation:
Many prominent individuals within the Buddhist community believe that Vipassana Meditation was the technique taught by the Buddha himself. Thanks largely to one of the meditation community’s most beloved figures, S.N. Goenka, Vipassana Meditation instructions are accessible in nearly every part of the world. It was in 1956, at the age of 32, when Goenka himself took his first 10-day Vipassana course under the guidance of renowned Vipassana teacher Sayagya U Ba Khin. Although Goenka, who was a devotee Hindu and prominent Burmese businessman at the time, initially sought out the practice with the sole purpose of relieving his migraine headaches, he would become absorbed with the technique and go on to build a worldwide Vipassana organization that currently has 170 meditation centers around the world. When Goenka passed away at the age of 89 in 2013, he left behind a meditation legacy matched by few. Still today, any individual, regardless of their religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, or gender, has the opportunity to take a free 10-day Vipassana Meditation course and learn the technique from video and audio recordings of Goenka himself.
How to Practice:
Vipassana Meditation has gained worldwide acclaim largely because the technique has a unique ability to help meditators gain insight into the true nature of themselves, others, and the world at large. In the tradition of Vipassana, it is believed that one’s cravings for and aversions towards particular bodily sensations are largely what keeps individuals locked into the cycle of suffering. For this reason, meditators are instructed to examine and observe physical sensations throughout their bodies. Since the impermanent nature of reality makes it impossible to gain salvation through the means of living with only positive experiences and sensations, practitioners of the technique learn to develop equanimity and indifference towards every sensation.
To practice Vipassana Meditation, one starts by closing their eyes and using their conscious awareness to systematically scan their entire body observing the various sensation that arises. The Vipassana body map to the right roughly outlines the palm-sized areas that meditators should aim to observe. Meditators would want to start at the crown of their head and methodically move to each space, both on the front and back sides of their bodies, observing a singular sensation in each space before moving to the next area. While it can initially be challenging to observe bodily sensations, which manifest in many different forms, it is certain that they are there. Since the body is primarily made of nothing but small molecules of moving energy, sensations are occurring at all times.
The goal of Vipassana Meditation practice is to develop awareness and equanimity towards both positive and negative sensations which are said to undo one’s conditioned attachment towards positive sensations and aversion towards negative ones. It is said that by persistently and diligently practicing this way, meditators can progress to a state of unwavering equanimity and ultimately liberation.
Analytical Meditation Techniques:
6.) Nar-Yar Self-Enquiry Meditation (Who Am I?):
It was in 1896 when a young Hindu adolescent by the name of Venkataraman Iyer is said to have had a spiritually transcendent experience that changed the landscape of meditation forever. While sitting in his room, Venkataraman, who was 16 at the time, was overcome with an extremely pervasive fear of dying. He was certain that he would die then and there, but instead of telling his guardian or brother about it, the young boy decided that he needed to solve the problem for himself. Venkataraman, who is now known as Ramana Maharshi, began asking himself about the meaning of death. He went into a deep state of ponder and tried to determine who or what exactly dies. What Maharshi discovered is that he was not his body or his mind, but rather his soul which he realized was eternal. Soon thereafter, Maharishi left his home and went to the holy Arunachala Hill where he would spend the remainder of his days meditating and teaching what has become known as Self-Enquiry Meditation.
How to Practice:
The basic premise of Maharshi’s Self-Enquiry Meditation technique is fairly easy to understand because it is based solely upon the activity of continuously and consistently asking one’s self ‘Who am I?’ Meditators who practice Self-Enquiry Meditation aim to dissolve their egos and free themselves from their attachments to the outside world so that they can living solely from their souls. Maharshi told us that by consciously and persistently asking the question ‘Who am I?’ the thoughts, beliefs, and judgments of our ego will eventually dissolve. When one asks themselves ‘Who am I?’, it will become apparent that there is in fact no real being besides the true self. Maharshi told spiritual seekers that by asking this question, they would regularly be returned to their heart center which is the place he said individuals should aim to permanently live.
In addition to the question ‘Who am I?,’ Maharshi instructed a secondary question that should be asked when impersonal cognitions arise. By asking one’s self ‘To whom do these thoughts arise?’, meditators are forced to first return to the question ‘Who am I?’ because the answer is always ‘to me’. By being forced to ask the original question again, meditators are sent back to their heart center.
7.) Neti-Neti Meditation (Not This, Not That):
There are many similarities found between the Neti Neti Meditation technique and the self-inquiry technique of Ramana Maharshi. Just as Maharshi’s self-inquiry practice aims to remove the veil of ignorance by peering into the true nature of one’s self, Neti Neti Meditation is used as a tool that helps individuals clear delusional thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives, with the goal of returning to live permanently as the absolute. In actuality, Maharshi’s self-inquiry technique may be an adaptation of the ancient Neti Neti technique, as it is referenced in some of the oldest and most important Hindu scriptures, including the Upanishads. In the estimation of the great Hindu seers and sages, it is certain that the practice of Neti Neti, which translates to mean ‘not this, not that’ or ‘neither this nor that’, can help one detach themselves from their egos and dismantle their misperceptions about the world.
How to Practice:
Neti Neti Meditation has based upon the premise that each and every one of us is part of the absolute divine reality which defies all labels and can’t be described in words. Unfortunately, Hindu theology tells us that humans mistakenly identify themselves as being their egos which are made up of the physical bodies, cognitions, emotions, societal roles, and other individual characteristics. The Neti Neti Meditation technique aims to break down these illusionary assumptions by investigating what an individual is not.
To practice Neti Neti Meditation, one can analytically inspect and question their faulty assumptions about who they are in a way that shatters misperceptions and shows them what they are not. Over time, meditators practicing the Neti Neti technique would want to investigate individual body parts, the entire body, their senses, various perceptions and emotions, the roles they take on in society, the stories they tell themselves, and their egos.
A meditator just starting to practice Neti Neti would ask themselves questions about their physical bodies such as ‘Where does this body begin and end?’, ‘Am I this body?’, ‘ Am I these toes?’, ‘Where is the I in this head?’, and ‘Is this body me?’ By proactively thinking about these things, the meditator would only be able to respond with ‘no’, ‘neti neti’, or ‘not this, not that’. After a practitioner investigated their bodies, and free themselves from misperceptions about the body, they would then move on to the other previously mentioned characteristics. It is believed that by using the Neti Neti technique, one has the ability to remove the veil of ignorance that keeps them from living as the divine absolute.
Creative Meditation Techniques:
8.) Metta Meditation (Loving-Kindness):
The next two meditation techniques that we will explore come from the Buddhist religion and aim to cultivate the subliminal virtuous states of loving-kindness and compassion. According to Buddhist scriptures, there are four sublime states or four immeasurables, that should be developed: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. To help with the cultivation of these states, a number of useful meditation techniques, that have been used by spiritual aspirants for hundreds of centuries, are prescribed. One prominently known and celebrated technique is Metta, or Loving-Kindness, Meditation, which creatively promotes loving-kindness by instructing meditators to send wishes of well-being towards one’s self, others, and the whole of humanity.
How to Practice:
There are a number of different variations of Metta Meditation that help meditators cultivate loving-kindness towards themselves and others. Before beginning to practice Metta Meditation, practitioners would want to focus their attention on their heart center with the goal of bringing about positive feelings of loving-kindness. Then, to begin the practice, one would want to visualize themselves, send good wishes towards the image, and repeat the following phrases: May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.
After a period of directing loving-kindness towards themselves, meditators would then move on to visualizing a number of other people and repeat the processes of sending them good-intentioned energy and receiving a number of loving phrases. It is common in Metta Meditation to work with a variety of different people, and most Metta practices instruct meditators to work with a loved one, a neutral person they do not know, and a person who they have had previous difficulties with. For individuals other than themselves, one can say: May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.
Upon completing the process of visualizing each person, one may end the practice by sending the loving energy that was cultivated in the practice towards their neighborhood, city, and the entire world.
9.) Tonglen Meditation (Giving and Receiving):
Tonglen Meditation is another Buddhist meditation technique that focuses on cultivating loving-kindness and compassion towards all. More specifically, Tonglen, which translates to mean ‘giving and taking’, is a practice that is deeply rooted within the Tibetan Buddhist meditation philosophy that aims to increase compassion towards others while decreasing attachments to one’s own self. Much of human suffering, according to Buddhist teachings, is caused by our inability to recognize the reality of non-self, which is the reason we act from the selfish ego-centered ‘I’. By practicing Tonglen Meditation, individuals can begin to act from a more life-affirming and selfless place.
How to Practice:
While there are particular variations of Metta Meditation that don’t require meditators to visualize others, every form of Tonglen Meditation will instruct individuals to use their imaginary powers. For this reason, and others, Tonglen Meditation has been described as an advanced Metta Meditation technique. One of the most effective ways to practice Tonglen is to visualize yourself living from the self-centered reference point of the ego next to a group of individuals who are suffering immensely. You may want to visualize a group of poor children who lack the basic necessities of food and water that we often take for granted. Once you have this picture in your head, you would want to observe your selfish self and the group of children from the perspective of an outside observer. As you see these two images, you would want to analytically think about the conditions of the people in your vision and reflect on how life-affirming it is to care for other beings.
Additionally, there are particular Tonglen exercises that take meditators through a visualization process similar to the one highlighted as the Metta Meditation technique, and still, others that use the breath along with visualization to imagine themselves inhaling the pain and suffering of others while exhaling loving-kindness and compassion towards them.
10.) Chakra Meditation:
Ancient Hindu and Ayurvedic texts tell us that the Chakras, which translate to mean ‘wheel’ or ‘disk’, are subtle energy centers throughout the body where prana, or life force energy, flows through. When any of these centers are blocked, individuals are unable to perform at their highest capable levels and become susceptible to illness and disease. Charka Meditation, therefore, is used to cleanse and unblock the Chakras in a way that allows energy to flow freely through these channels. It is said that there are many Chakras throughout the human body, but seven that align on the spine are considered the most important of all. When practicing Chakra Meditation, it is important for meditators to have an understanding of the colors associated with each center as they are closely related to one’s current physical, emotional, and spiritual states. The seven prominent Chakras are:
Crown Chakra (Violet): Represents our ability to operate from a fully connected spiritual place.
- Third Eye Chakra (Indigo): Represents our ability to see the interconnected nature of the world and helps us maintain a proper life perspective.
- Throat Chakra (Blue): Represents our ability to communicate wholly and authentically.
- Heart Chakra (Green): Represents our ability to love and connect with others._
- Solar Plexus Chakra (Yellow): Represents our ability of self-control and helps us make meaning of life.
- Sacral Chakra (Orange): Represents our ability to accept others, new experiences, and the world at large.
- Root Chakra (Red): Represents our feelings of being grounded and safe.
How to Practice:
Like many of the meditation techniques that have been discussed thus far, there are a variety of different ways that one can practice Chakra Meditation. While more advanced Chakra meditators may work with an individual chakra that they notice is blocked, those who are new to the practice should work with each and every one. To practice a basic form of Chakra Meditation, one would spend several minutes visualizing positive energy flowing through each Chakra by starting at the root chakra and working their way up to the crown chakra. When visualizing energy flowing through the individual chakras, meditators are instructed to imagine the vibrant colors associated with each channel. This simple form of Charka Meditation is said to cleanse and open various energy centers.
Choosing the Meditation Technique that Works for You:
For those of you who are new to meditation, there are a variety of factors to consider when choosing a technique that works for you. Based on your life circumstances, religious beliefs, and the amount of free time you have, there will be particular practices that serve you best. In addition to all these factors, you might also want to consider a peaceful environment where you can be alone while meditating.
Besides the techniques discussed here, there are others that offer meditators similar opportunities to connect with their deepest self and increase the levels of life satisfaction they live with. While more complicated meditation practices, such as Kundalini and Kriya Yoga, require the teachings and supervision of an instructor, the ten techniques we examined here can be practiced in the comfort of your home. Regardless of which technique one decides to use, maintaining a regular practice can dramatically improve each of our lives and the lives of those around us. Now, we can end this in-depth exploration of ten celebrated meditation techniques with a quote from Tibetan meditation master Sogyal Rinpoche. He tells us:
The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this lifetime.”