What is Meditation
You can find many definitions of meditation. I like this one presented by researchers from New York University and Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute:
Meditation is an ancient mindfulness practice that stems from Buddhist and Hindu cultures, where the practitioner intentionally engages the mind by bringing an increased awareness to thought and feeling.Source
While it’s true that the goal is to be more mindful, meditation actually encompasses a variety of mental practices. Depending on the type of meditation you do, you’ll actually be developing different parts of your brain. So where can you start?
Types of Meditation
I did a browser search for kinds of meditation. I founds lists with 7 types, 16 types, 23 types. You can start to get an idea of the range of approaches there are to meditation! Given so many types, if one way doesn’t work for you, you’re likely to find another way that does.
Meditation can be guided or unguided, calming or insight. With guided meditation, you follow along with someone else’s voice, who is coaching you through the process. As the name suggests, unguided meditation is the opposite, where you sit alone, without external prompts. Of course, you may use the strategies learned from guided meditations. In calming meditation, you try to cultivate peace by focusing on a particular thing like your breath or a mantra. If your mind wanders, you gently bring it back to this object. With insight meditation, you have an intention to develop a quality. You focus on the breath and notice what comes up for you. I’ve noticed that the meditations I’ve been doing have elements of both calming and insight in them. Those approaches can be combined together in many different meditation practices.
A Long But Incomplete List
Here is a partial list of some of the different types of meditation
- body scan
- gentle repetition
- loving kindness
- focused attention
- open monitoring
- Zazen – Zen meditation
- mantra meditation
- Qigong meditation
You can likely tell from the name what each of these entail. With all these different classifications, is it no wonder that newcomers to the space are confused by what it means to meditate?
A research study from Germany classified meditations into three categories:
- Presence – being mindful and focusing on the present
- Affect – focused on developing positive social emotions and being kind and helpful, using loving kindness meditation
- Perspective – focuses on meta-cognitive skills and becoming more aware of your own personality as well as the perspective of others
“Mindfulness helps you to go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.”Thich Nhat Hanh, Chopra Center
Later, we’ll discuss why you might want to choose one type of meditation or another, depending on your goals.
In general, meditation increases the quality of life and has several physiological effects as well. Different types of meditation have the following effects:
- increased flexibility
- improved immunity
- increased lifespan
- attention and memory improvements
- mood improvements
- reduced anxiety, mood disturbance, fatigue
- improvements in health (e.g. decreased blood pressure and inflammation)
- reduced social stress
- a decrease in bias
- reduced level of depression, pain, substance abuse
With so many great benefits, what do you have to lose by spending quiet time alone each day? The great thing is that results are pretty quick, in weeks or months rather than years. There are several research papers available on the topic.
A 2018 study out of New York University and Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute suggests a minimum dose for meditation. This study showed improvements in attention, memory, mood and emotional regulation after just 8 weeks of meditating for 13 minutes a day. Participants meditated an average of 5.5 times per week, following a guided meditation using full-body scans and breathing exercises. This study is promising: 13 minutes a day is less than 20 minutes, a number that I hear thrown around a lot. Also, participants didn’t have to meditate every day, but rather almost every day. This shows the importance of regular, consistent practice to benefit from meditation, but allows that the occasional missed day has minimal effects.
Choosing the Right Meditation for Yourself
We’ve seen that there are many choices for meditating. One approach is to start exploring the different types until you find something that resonates with you. I found that the easiest entry to meditation for me was breathing meditation. It soothes me to watch the animation to breath in and out, and you can do that right in the browser at xhalr.com.
I also tried Zazen meditation when I was living in Japan, but I spent the whole session counting down the minutes and hoping that the monk would not hit me with the big stick he was carrying. After hearing him hit someone else in the group, I tried to sit upright even though I was extremely uncomfortable; I didn’t know that you had to indicate that you wanted to be hit. I thought he might see me slouching and decide to hit me. It was only after the session was over that my friend told me you need to signal the monk to hit you. He doesn’t decide to do it based on your posture!
Nowadays, I use the Insight Timer app for guided meditations, and also follow Tara Brach’s podcast. The later tends to encompass more loving kindness and insight meditation.
Questions to Choose a Type of Meditation
If you’re new to meditation or you just don’t know where to start, here are 5 questions to ask yourself, from the Chopra Center:
- What do you feel is lacking in your life?
- How does your body feel? Are there any places where it feels heavy or stuck?
- Do you have a lot on your mind, more than usual?
- Do you need help focusing?
- How do you want to feel? Nourished, connected, energized, purposeful, etc.
The key is to try meditation, and stop judging yourself about if you’re doing it “right”. Let go of expectation and consider how does it feel in your body. Can you stand to do it for a few minutes or are you tense and counting down the minutes? If one method doesn’t work for you, try something else that does. Does one meditation teacher distract you with her choice of words? I had that happen recently with a 30 days course and stopped at day 13 because the message did not resonate with me? Try a different teacher. The important thing is to try it with an open mind, and to notice how the experience feels for you.
Effects of Different Type of Meditation
Research shows that in general, meditation improves attention and memory, and changes our brain. However, the type of meditation you practice will determine what parts of your brain develop. Different types of meditations will have different impacts on your life.
Want to decrease physiological stress, try breathing meditation. If your goal is to be more compassionate, try loving kindness meditation. It also helps to reduce social stress, probably because you are learning to be less judgemental yourself. If you want to develop social connection, try a meditation with your partner that involves some interaction between the two of you.
How meditation affects the brain
With mindfulness meditations and other meditations focused on the present, the regions of the brain affected are the anterior prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, meaning increased attention and greater capacity for organization and complex planning. Loving kindness meditations develop the insular cortex, which manages consciousness and emotion. And finally, partner meditations in the perspective realm improve the inferior frontal cortex, which is involved in language processing, and the lateral temporal cortex, which governs auditory skills.
The key to reaping the benefits of meditation is to do it regularly. We saw earlier how you can reap some benefits in 8 weeks. As your amount of meditation increases, you will develop more body awareness.
There are some people that meditation doesn’t work well for. These are people with borderline or psychotic conditions. In that case, meditation can lead to depersonalization and derealization.
Get Started with Meditation
What is the minimum dose that you’re willing to do right now? Feeling inspired? Pause the podcast and do the meditation. I find that I’m most successful if I meditate at the same time every day. I’ve tagged in on to my morning routine. At other times, I’ve found that it works well as soon as I’m done my work day, or once I get home from work. Can you piggyback on a well established habit you have, so that you’ll meditate along with that other activity? This is called habit stacking. I attributed it to James Clear but it was actually developed by BJ Fogg. Would it help you to set a daily reminder to meditate? The key is to find what works for YOU!
Bonus Video on Tiny Habits and Habit Stacking
- What Type of Meditation is Best for You?
- 5 Meditation Styles for Beginners
- Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators
There are lots of apps and guided meditations online. Resist the temptation to install multiple apps, and start with one to see if it works for you.
- Example loving kindness meditation (15 min)
- Example body scan meditation (10 min)
- Example mindfulness meditation (5 min)
- Journey Meditation (group meditation classes)
- Breathe app
- Online meditation timer
- Atmosphere Relaxing Sounds
- Insight Timer
- Gaim Meditation Studio