The 5 Types of Meditation PracticeJan 29, 2023
With so much interest in meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, it’s becoming increasingly important to share a clear understanding of what meditation is and what types of meditation practice there are.
Dr. Richard Davidson, one of the world’s leading meditation researchers, points to meditation as referring to various specific mental training practices. And Dr. Davidson shares that,
"failing to clearly articulate what kind of meditation practice we’re talking about is like using the word “sport” to refer to all sports as if they were the same!"
Without providing a clear understanding of what meditation is or the difference between the different types of meditation practice, people can:
- lack clarity about what they’re doing
- engage in a practice that may not be helpful
- feel constricted in their practice
This can lead people to:
- become confused and develop misconceptions about meditation
- lose trust in the person introducing meditation to them
- practice less or even give up meditating altogether
What is meditation?
Meditation is a term that refers to a family of mental training practices that:
- help you understand how your mind functions
- develop specific skills that can support your health and well-being
With so many different types of meditation, it can be helpful to organize them more broadly. A simple model created by Dr. Richard Davidson and his research collaborators organizes the different types of meditation into two categories of mental training. The two categories of meditation include:
1. Focused attention meditation
Just as its name suggests, focused attention meditation practices instruct you to focus single-pointedly on a chosen object, sustain your attention on this object and repeatedly return once your attention has drifted off.
2. Open monitoring meditation
When engaging in open monitoring meditations, you aim to rest in an open and aware state that “monitors” whatever arises in your awareness without becoming too fixated on any one thing. Many open monitoring practices share similar features, like starting with focused attention to settle the mind.
Another model, shared by Dr. Tania Singer, categorizes the different types of meditation practices into three categories by the skills they develop. These categories include meditation practices that develop; “presence” through attention and self-reflection practice, “perspective” through perspective-taking on yourself and others, and “affect” through practices that cultivate compassion, gratitude and our ability to deal with difficult emotions.
Because of how many misconceptions already exist about meditation, we’ll use the simpler two-category model to help explain the different types of meditation below.
What are the types of meditation practices?
While each meditation practice has its structure and process, most practices apply focused attention and open monitoring with a specific intention and series of prompts leading a practitioner to engage in the meditation practice for a duration of time.
When facilitating, or participating in a practice, reference the below five types of meditation practice to promote greater clarity and effectiveness.
1. Mindfulness Meditation
Notably, one of the most popular and researched meditation practices, there is no unified definition from mindfulness researchers and Buddhist scholars. Emerging from Buddhist psychology, this type of meditation practice cultivates a specific quality of awareness that Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn states “arises when you pay attention on purpose and in the present moment.” Mindfulness meditation practices use focused attention on our behaviours, thoughts, emotions, and body sensations to remind us to be in the present moment. While in the present moment, these practices also instruct you to use open monitoring to notice what shows up in your awareness to develop greater clarity around what is happening within and around you.
Mindfulness meditation intends to develop a unique quality of awareness so that you can apply this awareness throughout your day-to-day life to reduce suffering and cultivate greater joy and happiness.
Practices include; mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness of body sensations, emotions, and thoughts, mindful listening, mindful eating and more.
2. Compassion-based meditation
Also associated mainly with coming from Buddhist lineages, compassion-based meditation practices seek to generate insight by exploring and developing the motivation to take a caring and kind stance towards yourself and others. These practices use our suffering and that of others as a catalyst toward a greater understanding of ourselves while also cultivating our innate ability to focus on the well-being of others. These meditations cultivate compassion and other pro-social qualities through focused attention on repeating key phrases, engaging in imagery and feeling body sensations elicited by the practices.
Compassion-based meditation practices intend to develop compassion towards ourselves and others and strengthen these capacities to the degree where they become easily accessible and a foundational element of our day-to-day lives.
Practices include; lovingkindness, mindful self-compassion, tonglen and more.
3. Movement-based meditation
For millennia, contemplative civilizations have been engaged in movement-based meditations. From yogic traditions to tai chi and now secular mindful movement practices, these practices employ focused attention and ongoing open monitoring of body sensations as an anchor to stabilize the mind and achieve deep concentration.
Movement-based meditation practices intend to use the body for mental training to develop concentration, awareness and self-compassion and engage these capacities throughout daily activities.
Practices include; Qigong, tai chi, mindful yoga, walking meditation, traditional martial arts, and more.
4. Mantra-based meditation
Usually associated with Vedic practices from India and Buddhist practices from Tibet; these practices apply focused attention to a specific sound or phrase that is silently repeated for a duration of time. Over time, in most mantra meditation practices, there is a shift from focused attention on the mantra to openly monitoring the state of concentration elicited by engaging in the practice.
Mantra-based meditation practices intend to settle a discursive mind, develop states of concentration and experience a quality of being fully absorbed in practice.
Practices include; Vedic mantra meditation, Buddhist mantra practice, and more.
5. Visualization meditation
Practiced extensively in coaching and many contemporary meditation circles, visualization has been a contemplative practice used for millennia by contemplative traditions. Visualization meditation practices focus on imagery or an inner narrative around a specific purpose. Some of the guidance provided when instructing this type of meditation practice is to explore the imagery of a chosen object in great detail, to inspire a practitioner to gain deeper insight through the use of metaphor or to guide a practitioner through a series of steps associated with a specific purpose.
Visualization meditation practices intend to use visualization as an anchor for your attention to develop concentration and to gain deeper insight or clarity towards the focus of the practice.
Practices include; Sports performance visualizations, intention-setting, perspective-taking exercises, Vedic meditation, and more.
Each type of meditation has unique draws and benefits, and some may resonate more with others. Regardless of which you choose, research the trainers' lineage and qualifications to ensure the practice is safe and effective.
Michael Apollo is the founder of the Mindful Society Global Institute. Prior to founding MSGI in 2014, he was the Program Director of Mindfulness at the University of Toronto. He is a researcher, clinician and certified mindfulness facilitator in MBSR and MBCT.
Lutz A, Jha AP, Dunne JD, Saron CD. Investigating the phenomenological matrix of mindfulness-related practices from a neurocognitive perspective | American Psychologist
Lutz A, Slagter HA, Dunne JD, Davidson RJ. Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. | Trends in Cognitive Science
Trautwein FM, Kanske P, Böckler A, Singer T. Differential benefits of mental training types for attention, compassion, and theory of mind | Cognition
Singer T. The Neuroscience of Compassion | World Economic Forum
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