If you are new to meditation or just beginning to explore contemplative practices, you have a lot of options. Hundreds, if not thousands, of meditation styles and techniques from a wide variety of wisdom traditions are available to the modern seeker. For example, the following ever-growing body of options can collectively be referred to as “meditation”:
- Buddhist, Vedic, and Taoist meditations
- Sufi, Christian, and Jewish forms of prayer
- Creative visualization, guided imagery, and yogic breathing practices
- Mindfulness and compassion-based teachings
- Self-hypnosis, body-scan, and emotional freedom techniques
But as a beginner, how do you know where to turn? Which technique or meditative practice is best for you? As with many things in life, this question can be answered with, “Well, it depends …” There are several things to consider when seeking out a meditation practice, and these factors can be simplified by sorting them into three broad criteria. Let’s explore these categories to help determine which form of meditation is most appropriate for you.
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First Criteria: What Are You Looking For?
The most fundamental question to ask yourself when delving into meditation techniques is, What do I want from this meditative practice?
In other words, what is the intended outcome you’re looking for after you meditate? It’s vitally important to know what you’re hoping to experience or accomplish through meditation prior to deciding on a technique.
By analogy, consider shopping for a new car. When most people are car shopping they have a general idea of what they’re looking for, be it a sedan, a sports car, a mini-van, an SUV, or a pickup truck. While they are all automobiles, they come in different shapes and sizes with varying features. In a similar way, meditation practices also come in a wide assortment of styles and techniques, all serving different purposes and intentions.
Ask yourself whether you are seeking meditation to:
- Help manage stress and anxiety
- Help focus your mind
- Improve your work performance
- Deepen the quality of your relationships
- Manifest your desires
- Understand the workings of your mind
- Restore your mental health
- Feel more centered in the present moment
- Enhance your peace of mind
- Radiate love and compassion
- Probe deeply into the nature of reality
- Expand your consciousness
- Feel more connected to your spiritual self
There are types of meditation practices for each of these needs and many more. Identifying what you’re after helps to narrow down your options.
Not All Meditation Styles are Created Equal
In addition, it’s important to recognize that of the myriad choices, not all meditation techniques are created equal. Since differing practices have different intentions behind them, it’s only reasonable to expect them to affect your mind and body in different ways. Over the last several decades, a large body of evidence has been collected on the effects and benefits regular meditation practice has on your mind, body, emotions, performance, and spirit. However, the bulk of scientific research on meditation has been limited to a few key types of meditation, primarily mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation, and compassion-based practices. Therefore, you should avoid the tendency to generalize the result of meditation practices by assuming they will all have the same mind-body effects.
For example, a reflective, cognitive-based practice of exploring the origins of your thoughts and beliefs will most likely have a markedly different effect on your mind and body than simple breath-awareness practice. Knowing what to expect from a technique helps to set realistic expectations of your meditation.
Second Criteria: Guided Meditation or Self-Led Practice?
The next question to ask yourself is: Do you feel more drawn to a guided meditation practice or a self-led meditation? All meditation styles and techniques fall into one of these two general categories.
As the name implies, guided meditations are led through the verbal instructions of another, either in person or via recording, download, or a mobile app. In guided meditations, you follow instructions as you meditate in order to direct your attention and intention; to imagine, visualize, or reflect upon aspects of your thoughts, speech, or behavior; to manipulate subtle energies in your body; or send healing, peace, or compassion to a person or situation.
Guided meditations can be a great place for newcomers to start as it gives them the ability to jump feet first into a meditation practice without any formal training or initiation. There are countless guided meditations from every tradition featuring well-known teachers and luminaries that anyone can access with just a few taps on a smartphone, with more being recorded every day.
Self-led meditation techniques are practiced free from the need of any external direction. They are often established following a period of more formalized meditation instruction perhaps at a class, workshop, or meditation retreat. During the instruction, you are taught the theory, practice, and nuances of meditation, as well as having several practice sessions to experience a given technique. This combination of theory and experience builds a sustainable meditation routine in which you feel comfortable practicing independent of an instructor.
Which Should You Choose?
There are two considerations to keep in mind when deciding between guided or self-led meditation practices. First, guided meditations can be compared to a tourist seeking out a tour guide to lead them through new territory; the instructor knows their way around and can help show you the area to help you become familiar with the landscape and local features. Self-led meditations, on the other hand, more closely resemble the local resident who has settled in and knows his or her way to all the best locations and sights without the help of another.
Secondly, due to the fact that guided meditations require active listening to spoken instructions and following specific mental directions, they implicitly hold your attention at the level of the mind and intellect. Self-led meditation techniques such as breath awareness or mantra meditation allow your focus and awareness to withdraw from the thinking process and help you sink into increasingly deeper levels of stillness. Each form of meditation has its merits; however, only you can decide which approach will best suit your needs.
Third Criteria: What Is Your Innate Tendency?
The final question to ask yourself when settling on a technique is, What do I feel most drawn to?
Each of us has a unique tendency to experience the world in one of four fundamental ways; thinking, feeling, doing, or being. The ancient wisdom tradition of Vedanta recognized that each of these avenues could be harnessed as an approach to return to wholeness. Known as the four Yogas, or paths to unity, they represent a unique method to guide you to the self-awareness you seek. As you explore different types of meditation consider the following:
- Are you highly intellectual? Do you enjoy reason-based, rational thinking, scientifically minded exploration of the world? If so, Gyana Yoga or the path of the mind and the intellect might be best suited for you. Meditation practices designed to use the mind to go beyond the mind, cultivate deep insight, or explore the nature of thoughts and beliefs may be practices you’ll find appealing.
- Do you have a big heart filled with compassion? Do you have powerful emotions and feel the world deeply? You may be best suited for Bhakti Yoga or the path of love and devotion. Forms of contemplative or devotional prayer or compassion practices such as Tonglen or Metta from the Buddhist tradition might be what you feel most drawn to.
- Do you need to feel actively engaged in the world? Do you have the desire to serve and help others through right action? You may be a Karma Yogi or one who follows the path of mindful action and selfless service. Active meditation practices such as mindful walking, eating, doing the dishes, or performing actions in the service of others with a mindful reverence of the divine in all beings could be practices you could consider.
- Do you feel drawn to settle deep into the present moment, dive deep into the core of reality, and experience pure being? Raja Yoga or the path of meditation and all its allied disciplines may be your vehicle. Mindfulness meditation, mantra practice, chanting, pranayama, or mind-body integration practices such as Hatha Yoga might be the techniques you explore.
As you weave your way through these three criteria, have an open mind and approach each meditation practice as an ally in your search to know who you are. Which meditation technique is the best for you? Only you will know that answer and, ultimately, it is the technique or meditative style that gives you the results you are looking for. Follow the guidance of your intuitive heart and be willing to practice any technique long enough to know if it is truly for you. If not, move on until you find the path that leads to the fulfillment you seek.