Not so long ago meditation seemed to be the preserve of people on a deep spiritual path. Fortunately, in recent years, meditation has started to come back into the mainstream. We've all heard of the amazing benefits of meditation – and including a regular practice as part of your everyday self-care toolkit can help you feel more balanced, less emotionally reactive and more compassionate towards yourself. But the truth is that many people find meditation a little challenging, especially when starting out.
Our minds, much like our muscles, require a bit of training to achieve focus, so the more you meditate, the easier it will become. Meditation is a very personal experience; if you’ve tried it before but haven’t quite connected with it, it may be worth exploring some different types to find out which resonates most with you. You may even find that blending some different forms of meditation for different situations gives you the mix you need.
While meditation is having a renaissance, it has very ancient roots. In fact, it’s thought that meditation has been around for 5,000 years. There’s even a hypothesis that the ability to focus attention is an important part of human biological evolution.
The good news is that there are many types of meditations available to help you find this focus. Here are some of the most popular types that you might come across.
Types of meditation and benefits
1. Mindfulness (non-religious)
Mindfulness is a wide-reaching, secular approach to meditation. You’ll also find mindfulness referenced in other meditation practices as secular mindfulness programmes are influenced by a number of traditions, such as Buddhism and yoga.
The aim of mindfulness is to help you develop a sense of deeper awareness and non-judgemental focus on the present moment. This can be incorporated into everyday living, as well as in dedicated meditation practice.
Mindfulness techniques include breathing meditations, visualisations, mindful eating, loving kindness and gentle moving meditations, to name just a few.
The most common form of modern mindfulness was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970's and is often taught in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme. The techniques in the programme help participants manage stress, pain and illness.
Mindfulness programmes have been the subject of a number of studies, with strong evidence of the positive effects (1). It’s often prescribed as part of treatment for a wide range of issues, including chronic pain, IBS and addiction. And it’s not just about physical effects as there are also psychological benefits, such as increased self-compassion (2).
2. Buddhist/Zen Meditation
As mentioned above, much of modern mindfulness practice has its foundations in Buddhist meditation. There are a number of different strands within Buddhism itself, from the Indian origins through to the Zen Buddhism of Japan and South East Asia. The popular Vipassana (or Insight) Meditation practice is also a Buddhist-based form of meditation.
The central meditation practice within Buddhism is one of a narrowed focus or concentration, coupled with mindful awareness. Various techniques help promote clarity, positive emotions and a calm and profound way of viewing the world. Compassion and loving kindness are central to Buddhist traditions.
Training the mind through meditation is a key aspect of Zen Buddhist training. One of the foundational types of Zen Meditation is zazen, or sitting meditation. The aim is to sit without judgemental thinking, allowing thoughts, feelings, images and ideas to pass through the mind without becoming embroiled in them.
But Buddhist meditation isn’t just about stillness. It encompasses deliberate contemplative movement, such as walking meditation. Simple acts such as this can produce great insights.
A number of meditation studies have looked at the brain imaging of Buddhist monks who have been meditating for a number of years. Results show increased levels of happiness, ability to focus and lessened emotional reactivity amongst these long-term meditators (3).
3. Transcendental Meditation and Vedic Meditation
Transcendental Meditation (or TM) is based on ancient Vedic traditions in India and encourages practitioners to access deeper levels of consciousness through repetition of a silent mantra. This mantra helps focus attention and promote a state of relaxed awareness. Some people who have difficulty connecting with the breath or other senses find a mantra helps with focus.
TM was spread to the West through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who traveled the world to introduce the technique in the 1950's and 1960's and is not connected with a specific religion. It is one of the most researched and practised meditation styles.
Learning TM involves a 7-step course of instruction by a certified teacher. Each person is given their own (confidential) mantra to practice for 20 minutes twice a day.
Vedic Meditation is very similar to TM, and again involves using a mantra to achieve meditative focus. Some of the foundational research on meditation that was carried out by Herbert Benson in the 1970's was based on TM. This was one of the first studies to show the positive physiological changes of regular meditation. Benson’s work highlighted in particular how meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous, or ‘rest and digest’, system. His studies showed that regular meditation resulted in reduced oxygen consumption and heart rate, as well as lowered levels of lactate (high levels are normally associated with anxiety) (4).
To get the most benefit from meditation, the majority of studies indicate that daily practice is best. However, start where you are, explore what feels most effective for you, and even one minute of focussed breathing is a really great way to kick things off.
Note: Meditation may not be suitable for you if you are suffering from certain mental health issues, such as schizophrenia or some personality disorders. Please check with your supporting clinicians before taking part in meditation.
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1. Grossman P1, Niemann L, Schmidt S, Walach H. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 2004. 57, 35-43.
2. Kristin D. Neff1and Christopher K. Germer. A Pilot Study and Randomized Controlled Trial of the Mindful Self-Compassion Program. J. Clin. Psychol. 69:28–44, 2013.
3. Richard J. Davidson & Antoine Lutz. Buddha's Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation. IEEE Signal Process Mag. 2008 Jan 1; 25(1): 176–174. Antoine Lutz, Lawrence L. Greischar, Nancy B. Rawlings, Matthieu Ricard and Richard J. Davidson. Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. PNAS November 16, 2004. 101 (46) 16369-16373; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0407401101.
4. R. K. Wallace & H. Benson. The physiology of meditation. Scientific American, 1972. 226(2), 84-90.