There has been a significant increase in the popularity of meditation in recent years, with a plethora of options for every individual to explore. But where to begin? Even a quick Google search could lead you down a rabbit hole of spiritual candy stores, with myriad choices and offerings. It’s tempting to want to try them all!
Alas for most of us, we simply don’t have the time or financial resources to sample every meditative morsel out there, and so it’s worth understanding the advantages and unique characteristics of the endless choices before us. But instead of running every single meditation technique by you, it is perhaps more helpful and productive to look at the different, broader types of meditation first, to help you refine your search.
We can categorize the various methodologies and schools of meditative thought into the three following methods:
Focused Attention (FA)
In FA practices, the idea is to focus your attention on one single object in your awareness. A candle, an internal image (a visualization), a worthy emotion such as compassion (an intention), or a generalized sound such as "So hum" or "Om mani padme hum" (aka mantra meditation).
Open Monitoring (OM)
OM falls within the various branches of Buddhist mindfulness techniques. There is a placement of awareness on things such as your breath, your feelings or thoughts, with a view of detaching yourself from the grip of your ever-wandering mind. Once detached, you may begin to identifying with your thought patterns and emotions, instead of allowing them to take hold of you.
Automatic Self-Transcending (AST)
In AST techniques, such as Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Vedic meditation, the emphasis is on effortlessness.
No contemplation or concentration is involved, simply the gentle repetition of a mantra that has been specifically chosen for the individual. It is the unique quality of these mantric vibrations and their soothing effect on the nervous system, that leads to deep levels of transcendence and the spontaneous correction of physiological and psychological imbalance.
Whilst it would be easy to confuse these practices with other mantra meditation techniques such as those described in Focused Attention, it is worth noting that AST techniques deliver qualitatively very different results both scientifically and experientially due to the nature of the mantras used.
When it comes to making your choice, you may find it useful to assess the differing qualities of each of the above categories, to help narrow down your selection.
Next, the key to any such assessment is the ease and enjoyment of each practice, its effectiveness, and the practical considerations for its integration into your life:
1. Ease and Enjoyment
There is a great diversity of methodologies with countless ardent followers of each. If you live a very relaxed life, then you may wish to consider some FA practices to keep those cogs-a-whirring and your attention sharp. But if you live a busy, demanding life, then you may wish to consider AST techniques, which are much more relaxing to practice and will provide a rejuvenating contrast to the demands of modern life.
FA practices can be very useful at delivering targeted outcomes like compassion, but scientifically, the OM and AST methods have been shown to be the most comprehensively effective at delivering physiological and psychological health outcomes. Moreover, the performance in one’s life activities (professional, sporting or otherwise) are also enhanced. A form of AST known as Vedic meditation, is particularly powerful at relieving anxiety, addiction, high blood pressure, insomnia and migraines.
Without delving too heavily into the science, we can summarize by saying that FA techniques tend to result in localized beta and gamma patterning in the frontal lobe. This is a very important part of the brain which is instrumental in executive, creative and humanistic functions.
OM techniques lead to a significantly more powerful brain state, albeit the effects are also limited to the activities of the frontal lobe. AST techniques lead to globalized alpha functioning across all areas of the brain, resulting in high levels of brain wave synchronicity that is associated with peak experience. It is this globalized brain function that is most intriguing from a neurological perspective.
All practices have an ideal level of time input. If you are time rich, then one hour sessions twice a day of Vipassana meditation (a style of OM), won’t be a major issue for you time wise. However if you are time poor, then something that takes 15 to 20 minutes a day may be more optimal.
There is also the key issue of where we meditate. Can you practice anywhere, or do you need to be in a solitary quiet space in order to do the technique successfully? If you are constrained by the limitation of finding such a perfect setting whilst living a busy life, you may find your ability to keep up the practice is limited by circumstance.
Therefore, those techniques which are portable will be easier to integrate into your life.
It is worth checking to see that you feel comfortable with the lifestyle and philosophical ramifications of following your practice? Some would-be meditators already follow a particular creed and therefore may find practices aligned with other denominations cause a sense of conflict. Other practices are more secular and are therefore more universal in their application, which means they are also applicable to atheists and agnostics.
There is certainly a lot of mind-candy out there to be enjoyed ... so seek it out and ye shall find!