A Brief Guide To Meditation Styles
Posted by Nicholas Milewski - October 20, 2016
It’s only in the past few decades that the veil of mystique and obscurity surrounding meditation has been clarified for your average westerner. Not long ago, even the word “meditation” had an esoteric ring to most Americans — an ancient practice of the far-east. Well, in just the decade between ‘02 and ‘12, the number of Americans who meditate doubled, according to statistics from National Health Interview Surveys (NHIS). Scientific research has revealed the tremendous and diverse benefits of secular meditation, clarifying for most people what exactly meditation is and how it helps, while dissolving some of the mystery and misconceptions behind the practice.
The forerunner in the explosive growth of secular meditation is, without a doubt, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) — often just called “mindfulness”. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and the University of Massachusetts developed the secular MBSR program by integrating science with traditionally Buddhist practices and teachings. But mindfulness is a mere splash in the ocean that is meditation, and science is just beginning to open the doors on how particular styles and methods differ in their benefits.
The practice of meditation is presumed by many researchers to be as old as the human race — an actual part of our development — but the history is dependent on the context of what you actually mean by the word. Meditation can refer to anything from prayer to just zoning out to actually sitting in the lotus pose and chanting “om”. The clarification that both prayer and simple internal reflection are forms of meditation is largely responsible for the increase in popularity and new-found western acceptance of the practice. However, most of the forms and methods of meditation remain unknown to your average person, and many of them are mentally, emotionally, or spiritually beneficial — and even fun. So let’s look at some of these more obscure meditations and how to apply them to improve your life:
Metta (Loving-kindness) Meditation
Metta Bhavana, commonly referred to as “loving-kindness meditation”, is one of the simplest meditations to learn and is truly a joy to practice. The meditation is merely a wishing of wellness for all people, unconditionally and indiscriminately. A study of Tibetan Monks at Stanford University has shown that practicing compassion can actually activate pleasure sensors in the brain in a similar way to, say, finding money or eating chocolate. Other studies have shown that metta meditation builds your capacity for compassion and improves overall happiness.
The practice of metta meditation consists of wishing wellness to individuals and groups of people. Typically, a mantra is adopted for the entirety of the meditation, such as, “May you have loving-kindness. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.” While envisioning specific individuals or groups of people the mantra is repeated, simply wishing them wellness.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) has only come about during the last century, however its development in India in the 1950’s drew on a number of traditional Buddhist practices and mantras. The intent of TM is to create a better life for oneself — one of wellness and happiness — by dissociating from anxiety, fear, and other burdens. Like metta meditation, TM uses repeated mantras, and it can be practiced either religiously or secularly. However, there is less scientific evidence for using TM to achieve medicinal benefits.
Mindfulness meditation is one of the most widely practiced and oldest forms of meditation, and it has the greatest basis of scientific research backing it and its benefits. In both secular and Buddhist mindfulness practice, the intention is the same: to acknowledge now, moment by moment, without judgement. To be mindful is to move, act, and speak deliberately, while letting thoughts pass through your mind without them distracting you from the present.
There have been countless studies on the effects and benefits of mindfulness meditation and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and the results show that the practice goes much further than just alleviating stress. With regular meditation, ideally at least 25 minutes every day, cognition and memory are improved, focus is sharpened, stress is reduced, depression and anxiety are alleviated, and telepathy is achieved. (Just kidding about that last one.)
There are few measure you can take to improve your health, both mental and physical, with as few side effects and widespread benefits as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. (Its only great rival is exercise.) So, you’re probably wondering how to get started, right?
Get yourself comfortable on your meditation cushion and simply focus on the sensation of your breath. Pay careful attention to how your breath feels on your nostrils, in your throat, or in your chest. Your mind will wander, and as you allow the thoughts to pass without giving them consideration and you redirect your thoughts back to that sensation of breathing you are training your mind to focus better. This is mindfulness in its simplest form, but it’s one of the easiest and most effective ways to practice. When you first start, you may find that it’s hard to meditate for longer than 5 or 10 minutes, but in time it will become easier to go for longer stretches.
Zazen (Zen) Meditation
Zen meditation is a predominantly Buddhist practice, however it is more philosophical than religious. It is, essentially, the pursuit of a clear mind and enlightenment by finding personal harmony and peace. It combines elements of the other practices in trying to achieve a state free of all thinking.
To practice Zen meditation, begin by finding a peaceful, quiet space in an upright posture — traditionally on a zafu meditation cushion. Keep your eyes open and your head held high. Your mouth should be closed, and you can begin by counting your breaths. As thoughts come, do not judge them as good or bad — true or false. Allow thoughts to pass and continue counting your breaths.
There are thousands of meditation styles and practices, but these aforementioned are the most popular with the greatest level of research backing their methods. Other types of mediations include Primordial Sound Meditation, Kundalini Yoga, and guided meditation, and as your practice grows, consider branching out and finding the styles that work best for you.
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