If you've looked into meditation within the past five or six years, you've likely noticed that there appear to be many types with differing instructions, focus, posture, etc. I, too, have observed this and have been approached by an increasing number of people wanting to know how to choose what's best for them. So what's the deal?
While I do make distinctions between various traditions in this blog post, what's most important is that a practice feels relatively simple, comfortable, and has a purpose/objective that you want to show up for. As far as the details go, whatever works for you is the right approach. The key is making time every day to sit, breathe and connect with yourself.
That said, in current popular culture mindfulness is everywhere. From mindful meditation and mindful eating to mindful leadership and mindful partnership, mindfulness has become a word of the times. In it's simplest form, mindfulness encourages the cultivation of moment-to-moment awareness, both while you are practicing and in everyday life. This is clearly not new—cultivating presence has been around for thousands of years in the yoga tradition, although it is more commonly recognised for its association with Buddhism (which itself sprang from yoga). The sudden rise in popularity and shift into the mainstream the we're currently seeing has been attributed to secular spirituality (the adherence to a spiritual philosophy without adherence to a religion) as well as psychotherapy models like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
MINDFULNESS MEDITATION (OPEN MONITORING)
Regardless of origin or application, mindfulness teaches us to repeatedly return our conscious awareness to the immediate present (e.g. the breath, body sensations). By doing so, rather than automatic responses that lead to the habitualization of harmful behavior, we are able to observe thought patterns and empower ourselves to make choices that are aligned with our goals and desires. Mindfulness also helps us to embrace our current experience (including emotional or physical pain) by reminding us that this is the only thing that is unfolding as opposed to the stories and ruminations in our mind, however valid, that are most often about past or future events.
Instructions for this type of practice sound like:
- Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
- Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting—feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
- Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most clearly—either at the nostrils, or in the rising and falling your abdomen.
- Use the sensation of breathing as an anchor, or focal point.
- When you notice that your mind is lost in thought, return your awareness to the present sensations in your body
VEDIC or MANTRA MEDITATION (Automatic Self-Transcending)
Another meditation tradition you may have come across is Mantra Meditation.
Rather than focusing on the breath, this technique uses a mantra— a word, phrase or syllable. Mantra, a Sanskrit word derived from two roots: man (meaning “mind” or “to think”) and trai means to “free from” or “instrument/tool”. Therefore, mantras are considered tools of the mind, or tools to free the mind from thought. Some mantras have a literal meaning and can be translated. Some are short, one-syllable mantras; others are long, composed of many words. The idea is that in every moment that your full attention is on the mantra, you are not being disturbed by other thoughts, memories or sensations.
It is said that as you continue to practice, the mantra begins to leads your mind inward, experiencing longer periods of bliss, contentment and satisfaction until your mind becomes so saturated in bliss that it does what is called transcending: It moves beyond thinking, to a state of pure being. (This is the state of experience that Transcendental Meditation—a form of mantra meditation—is named after.)
The the emphasis in the practice is effortlessness. Rather than contemplation or focused concentration, the vehicle is the gentle repetition of a mantra (usually specifically chosen for an individual or circumstance). It's the unique quality of these mantric vibrations and their soothing effect on the nervous system that leads to deep levels of ease and the natural correction of physiological and psychological dis-ease.
As you repeat the mantra, it creates a mental vibration that allows the mind to experience deeper levels of awareness. As you meditate, the mantra becomes increasingly abstract and indistinct, until you’re finally led into the field of pure consciousness from which the vibration arose. Repetition of the mantra helps you disconnect from the thoughts filling your mind so that perhaps you may slip into the gap between thoughts. The mantra is a tool to support your meditation practice. Mantras can be viewed as ancient power words with subtle intentions that help us connect to spirit, the source of everything in the universe. — Deepak Chopra
A few ways mantras are used for a meditation practice:
- Verbal recitation — repeating the mantra it out loud. This engages more of your senses, making it easier to keep your attention focused.
- Whispering — your lips and tongue move, but there is barely any sound coming. This practice is subtler and deeper than the verbal recitation.
- Mental recitation — you repeat the mantra in your mind's eye. In the beginning, there is naturally some movement in the tongue and throat; but with time these still and the practice is purely mental. This stage is what people typically associate with mantra meditation.
- Spontaneous listening — at this point you are no longer repeating the mantra, but the mantra goes on by itself in your mind. This level is called ajapa japa.
If you're trying to determine which of these practices is best for you, I find it helpful to first define your goals. What exactly do you want in a meditation practice? Are you looking for a simple practice to help you deal with stress, or to improve your health? Or are you looking for serenity or a deeper spiritual connection? Again, the most important factor in benefiting from a meditation practice is in the practice itself so above all else, choose a meditation method that you actually look forward to practicing. It will all unfold from there.