April 11, 2011 5:12 AM   Subscribe

How do I sort out the many different types of meditation?

So they say meditation has benefits. But which kind of meditation? I can think of several different types off the top of my head, all of which have different approaches:

- progressive relaxation or body-scanning: mentally moving across the body, deliberately releasing muscle tensions, or becoming aware of areas of pain in order to help relieve them

- mindfulness: observing with equanimity the progression of thoughts and physical sensations as they arise and pass away

- breath-based: placing awareness on breath, and returning focus to the breath when distractions come up

- mantra meditation (e.g., Transcendental Meditation): inner repetition of the mantra, transcending over distracting thoughts and returning to the mantra

- koan meditation: embracing a zen story, eventually to get past conditioned ways of thinking to a more fundamental form of awareness

- shikan taza: radically purposeless sitting meditation, eyes open, without mental preference for breath, body, mind or koan

- sitting with eyes closed without any additional instructions for attitude or concentration

...and more.

Some of the various "goals" of meditation practices include:
- relaxation
- pain relief
- improved concentration or other cognitive abilities
- discovery of one's own true nature
- enlightenment
- transcendence of mundane or conditioned thoughts
- devotion to God
- renouncing of all goals
- combinations of the above

So, are some methods of meditation "better" at achieving specific things than other methods? Are they all the same? If so, how can they be the same if they are intended to produce opposite effects? Are there downsides to each approach? Is the common denominator (sitting quietly) the only part that actually matters?

I used to practice zazen, but did not find any reasons to continue practicing after a year or so. Should I try a different style of meditation? Which one and why?
posted by overeducated_alligator to Religion & Philosophy (11 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I would say you are asking the wrong question. What is your end result you would like to achieve? For me it was working on generating compassion and wisdom(in the Buddhist sense). I noticed that you did not have Tonglen meditaton, which a meditation style designed to help one generate compassion for yourself and those around you. I had problems for a long time sticking to a meditation until I found a Tibetan Buddhist group that did it. For me meditation is about trying to be better person even if I don't reach enlightenment/nirvana. For me all the mediation styles are tools that can help me achieve my goal through different methods. Improving my concentration allows me to find why I may act or feel a certain way without getting distracted with random thoughts. Mindfulness allows me to pay attention to world around me rather than what I project. I hope that makes sense. I also found doing meditation with others allow you to have support network for when meditation gets frustrating. From what I have seen it is pretty common since meditation is hard work.
posted by roguewraith at 5:40 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

To this list I would also add meditation to improve physical strength. For example, I would consider the state of mind one enters to balance on one hand to be meditation.
posted by michaelh at 6:13 AM on April 11, 2011

Best answer: So, are some methods of meditation "better" at achieving specific things than other methods?

In my extremely limited (and, of course, completely subjective) experience, yes. I've primarily used two techniques based on the Theravada tradition. The first is samadhi or "concentration" meditation, in which I focus intensely on an object (usually the sensation of my breath in a specific part of my body, such as my nostrils). The usual outcome of this is five or ten minutes of nothing much happening, followed by sudden and alarmingly intense physical pleasure; something like the sensation of going down a roller coaster. I can usually sustain this for a pretty good while, and at the end of it I feel both happy and rested. This might be what is referred to as one or more of the rupa jhanas, although that term carry a lot of cultural and religious baggage that I don't pretend to understand.

The other is vipassana meditation, using the Mahasi Sayadaw "noting" method (which basically means attempting to individually notice absolutely everything you hear, feel, and think) filtered through some other folks. The explicit purpose of this is not relaxation or stress relief but direct understanding of impermanence, suffering, and non-self. I haven't had as much experience or practice with this, but I can report that it's much more difficult and frustrating than concentration meditation, and tends to lead to exhaustion rather than tranquility. As far as I can tell that's sort of the point.

I don't know what you want out of meditation, but I can assure you that the "sitting quietly" bit is not "the only part that actually matters."
posted by theodolite at 7:40 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

For me it was (and is) sort of an iterative process. I read about different types of meditation, looked at the claimed benefits, experimented with them, saw what worked for me and didn't... And even if something in particular didn't "work" for me, I still learned from and it still changed me in some small way, and then I was able to better make choices about the next thing to either try or return to.

It's been a slow journey of separating signal from noise (even within a particular tradition) and figuring out which books and teachers seem to actually know what they're talking about, as evaluated against my incrementally increasing sense of what meditation is, what I'm supposed to get out of it, and what I want to get out of it.
posted by zeek321 at 8:27 AM on April 11, 2011

It can also help to look for teachers with an integrative view, say Kenneth Folk, Shinzen Young, and others. (I do not necessarily endorse these teachers.) A teacher doesn't have to be an expert in all the traditions, but he or she might be able to tell you how a particular style fits in with others and which styles might work better for different personalities at different stages of life and practice.
posted by zeek321 at 8:34 AM on April 11, 2011

Ok, last post--this podcast may be useful as a pretty large sample of interviews with different contemporary teachers:

posted by zeek321 at 8:43 AM on April 11, 2011

Meditation Has No Goal

Concentration will make you a man of will. Meditation will make you an emptiness.
That's what Buddha is saying to Sariputra. Prajnaparamita means exactly 'meditation, the wisdom of the beyond'. You cannot bring it but you can be open to it. You need not do anything to bring it into the world -- you cannot bring it; it is beyond you. You have to disappear for it to come. The mind has to cease for meditation to be. Concentration is mind effort; meditation is a state of no-mind. Meditation is pure awareness, meditation has no motive in it.

Meditation is the tree that grows without a seed: that is the miracle of meditation, the magic, the mystery. Concentration has a seed in it: you concentrate for a certain purpose, there is motive, it is motivated. Meditation has no motive. Then why should one meditate if there is no motive?

Meditation comes into existence only when you have looked into all motives and found them lacking, when you have gone through the whole round of motives and you have seen the falsity of it. You have seen that the motives lead nowhere, that you go on moving in circles; you remain the same. The motives go on and on leading you, driving you, almost driving you mad, creating new desires, but nothing is ever achieved. The hands remain as empty as ever. When this has been seen, when you have looked into your life and seen all your motives failing....

No motive has ever succeeded, no motive has ever brought any blessing to anybody. The motives only promise; the goods are never delivered. One motive fails and another motive comes in and promises you again... and you are deceived again. Being deceived again and again by motives, one day suddenly you become aware -- suddenly you see into it, and that very seeing is the beginning of meditation. It has no seed in it, it has no motive in it. If you are meditating for something, then you are concentrating, not meditating. Then you are still in the world -- your mind is still interested in cheap things, in trivia. Then you are worldly. Even if you are meditating to attain to God, you are worldly. Even if you are meditating to attain to nirvana, you are worldly -- because meditation has no goal.

Meditation is an insight that all goals are false. Meditation is an understanding that desires don't lead anywhere. Seeing that.... And this is not a belief that you can get from me or from Buddha or from Jesus. This is not knowledge; you will have to see it. You can see it right now! You have lived, you have seen many motives, you have been in turmoil, you have thought about what to do, what not to do, and you have done many things. Where has it all led you? Just see into it! I'm not saying agree with me, I'm not saying believe in me. I'm simply making you aware of a fact that you have been neglecting. This is not a theory, this is a simple statement of a very simple fact. Maybe because it is so simple, that's why you go on without looking at it. Mind is always interested in complexities, because something can be done with a complex thing. You cannot do anything with a simple phenomenon.

The simple is overlooked, the simple is neglected, the simple is ignored...

The existential moment is right now. Just have a look, and that is meditation -- that look is a meditation...

Meditation is not something you do in the morning and you are finished with it, meditation is something that you have to go on living every moment of your life. Walking, sleeping, sitting, talking, listening -- it has to become a kind of climate. A relaxed person remains in it. A person who goes on dropping the past remains meditative. Never act out of conclusions; those conclusions are your conditionings, your prejudices, your desires, your fears, and all the rest of it.

Meditation is a kind of experience which gives you a totally different quality to live your life. Then you don't live like a Hindu, or a Mohammedan, Indian or German; you simply live as consciousness. When you live in the moment and there is nothing interfering, attention is total because there is no distraction -- distractions come from the past and the future. When attention is total the act is total. It leaves no residue. It goes on freeing you, it never creates cages for you, it never imprisons you. And that is the ultimate goal of Buddha; that's what he calls nirvana.

'Nirvana' means freedom -- utterly, absolute, unobstructed. You become an open sky. There is no border to it, it is infinite. It is simply there... and then there is nothingness all around you, within and without. Nothingness is the function of a meditative state of consciousness. And in that nothingness is benediction. That nothingness itself is the benediction.

-Osho, What Is Meditation (entire discourse)
posted by Thinkmontgolfier at 11:55 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think meditating with a goal can just be a distraction. It is simplicity itself, a resting into yourself and seeing what you find. Continuing to go into yourself, being yourself. See what happens.

You can choose any 'type' of meditation you like, that has energy in it for you, but why complicate it for yourself right now, since you are just beginning?

You can sit for thirty minutes or an hour and just do nothing, by yourself, in silence. Sit or lay in whatever position feels most comfortable or right to you, (this can change during the session). Allow. Let thoughts come, let feelings come through you. Experience them totally.

Keep doing it.
posted by Thinkmontgolfier at 12:07 PM on April 11, 2011

Les Fehmi, an early researcher with neurofeedback, developed his own style of meditation with the goal of increasing brain synchrony. He has some papers on his website explaining his logic for doing so.

Jim Robbins wrote a book on neurofeedback that has an interesting chapter on his experience with OpenFocus meditation and why he found it noteworthy. Among other benefits he also observed an increase in sensory acuity. It also needs to be said that since publishing 'A Symphony in the Brain' that Robbins has gone on to co-author two books with Les Fehmi.
posted by BigSky at 12:59 PM on April 11, 2011

This has helped my friend tremendously.A complete 180 in her life direction within a year. I'm on my second month. Here

As was noted before, it is vipassana and while it takes work to wrap your head around it it is not as hard as people make it out to be. Mindfulness is a wonderful thing. If only for the understanding and then the complete release of needless fear and stress. This link will guide you through it very clearly and the end results are absolutely amazing if my friends progress and my own short use is any indication.

Start with Why Bother. Then Read What it is and isn't. Then go to the bottom and read what's in it for you. Then start back at the top and read down, starting your journey so to speak.
posted by penguinkeys at 11:49 AM on April 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thank you penguinkeys for the link... That book looks valuable. I'm so stressed, right now I am focusing on just being able to be relaxed but I also want to know what I might do when I've got that pool of relaxation, where to go from there. I think it might really help me.

I've noticed that when I am just silent and still (I naturally assume different mudra body positions as the energy starts re-balancing) my consciousness will wander into mind and thoughts but suddenly--of itself--come back to *me*, and I remember myself, my own presence. I'm really looking forward to the time when I can just stay in myself uninterrupted in meditation and see where that goes. It's encouraging that you and your friend have come so far in so little a time. I feel like I'm just beginning...
posted by Thinkmontgolfier at 12:48 PM on April 13, 2011

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