These Different Forms Of Meditation Take Both Fresh & Traditional Approaches On An Ancient Practice
The practice of meditation has been around for thousands of years, incorporated into a multitude of spiritual practices, cultures, and religions. And while, for better or worse, the concept has evolved into a full-blown trend that includes a garden variety of meditation principles, one can't deny the overall benefits for the mind and body (and, for some, the soul).
Elaine Yuen, Ph.D., an associate professor of religious studies at Naropa University and Buddhist teacher and minister, has been practicing meditation since the 1970s. She tells The Zoe Report that the semi-recent rise of meditation in Western culture is in large part due to its link to psychological well-being and stress reduction. "The purpose of meditation is to bring a sense of calmness and awareness," says Yuen, who adds that meditation in traditional Buddhist culture is a component of the fourth Noble Truth in the Buddha's teachings. This specific "truth" focuses on the eight-fold path one takes to be free of suffering, and practicing meditation is one of the eight steps in that path.
Indeed, at its core, meditation is defined as a mental exercise intended to help one reach a heightened level of spiritual awareness. And while it's a key component of many religious practices, meditation has evolved in a multitude of nonspiritual directions as well. And these days, there are literally hundreds of kinds of methods that extend past a comfortable, quiet corner in your home.
"[Meditation] can be done as a solo practice, sitting alone," says Richard Davidson, Ph.D., the William James and Vilas professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and founder of the university's Center for Healthy Minds, a research facility dedicated to the study of mental health. "It can be done in a dyad with another person. It can be done as you're walking. It can be done as you're doing your laundry. One of the beauties of meditation is that it is really meant to impact every nook and cranny of our everyday life. If all that happened was a weird or pleasant experience while sitting on a chair or cushion, what would be the point? It's like taking a drug that wears off."
Peruvian-Australian actor and star of The Baker and the Beauty, Nathalie Kelley, who practices a guided mindfulness-based meditation (more on that below), says her practice has helped her feel more connected to and "safe" in her body. "Meditation has helped me find compassion for the parts of myself that are fearful and confused, it has helped me build resilience in the face of adversity and finally made my body a safe space to inhabit," says Kelley. "The peace it has brought me is incomparable."
That said, to truly reap the benefits of any meditation practice, whether that be mindful breathing, guided sound baths, or yoga, consistency is key. "I'll tell you what the best form of meditation is — it's whatever form of meditation you actually do," says Davidson. "[...] It takes a lot to establish a new habit. So, what I recommend is that you start modestly. Rather than telling people [how often they should practice], I ask, 'What is the minimum amount of time that you feel you can commit to doing this every single day for a minimum of 30 days, without missing a day?' It can be as short as one minute — that's fine! You do one minute of practice for the next 30 days and then check in. And that is a way to establish a practice and then you can gradually increase it from there."
Yuen seconds this notion and advises new meditators to set realistic expectations for themselves as they step into the arena. "The biggest misconception surrounding meditation is the 'quick-fix idea' that it promises an outcome," she explains. "What meditation practice does in general is it gives you a space to open up whatever is going on with you, and if that's a difficult thing, sometimes it's better to seek a therapist. Sometimes, people have difficulty developing the peace aspect, and it just gets too much."
For this reason, Yuen also suggests partnering with a meditation instructor as you start your journey, as the road will not always be easy. "Our minds are complicated, dynamic, and powerful and we just have to be cautious in opening that path."
If you're looking to bring meditation into your daily life, ahead are seven popular forms, some that have been long researched and some that are just starting to gain traction in the wellness world. (Considering the vast pool, some of these forms are broad and can encompass more granular methods of the practice or even overlap with each other at times. They are also in no way the only methods to explore.)
Mindfulness is one of those buzzy terms that's been attached to eating, working, and even showering. It also happens to be a very popular principle of meditation. "Mindfulness is the quality of being present, being in the present moment as life unfolds, and being fully engaged in what you're doing," Evelyn Lewis Prieto, editorial director for meditation app Headspace, tells TZR.
Mindfulness meditations like focused attention (which uses the breath to anchor the mind and maintain awareness) and noting (which involves noting a particular thought or feeling when you become distracted during meditation) can help individuals experience a greater sense of calm, clarity, contentment, and compassion in life, Prieto says. Other forms include body scanning, in which one lies down and scans one's body for discomfort, sensations, or aches that exist; visualization, in which one focuses on a person or thing to hold attention; and resting awareness, in which one lets the mind rest freely, allowing thoughts to enter and leave. "Mindfulness is really the skill, and meditation is the practice," Prieto says.
"Forty-seven percent of the time, people do not know what their mind is doing because they're distracted," says Davidson, referencing a 2010 study titled "A Wandering Mind Is An Unhappy Mind" by Harvard University researchers. "When we're not paying attention to what we're doing, we're less happy — that is toxic and we can do better. Practices that involve mindfulness strengthen circuits in the brain that are important for attention and what psychologists and scientists call meta-awareness, which is knowing what your mind is doing."
Alyssa Diaz, an actor who currently stars in the ABC series The Rookie, says ecstatic breathwork, a rhythmic breathing technique that is used to help release anxiety and trauma, has assisted her in letting go of stressful thought patterns. "It connects me to my intuition and I have become more creative, at ease, trusting, and in the moment with this daily practice," Diaz tells The Zoe Report. "My favorite phrase is 'release thinking with the exhale.' It’s about tuning into the body’s wisdom."
Sound meditation is another method that can naturally fall into the mindfulness category in that the mind is brought to focus on a particular element. But with the meteoric rise of sound baths and the like in recent years, it's clear this segment needs a spotlight of its own.
Although trendy at the moment, sound therapy has roots all over the world and can be traced as far back as ancient Australian aboriginal tribes that used wind instruments like didgeridoos for sound-healing ceremonies. These days, the practice is reported to be effective in combating anxiety. A 2016 study published by The Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine found that an hourlong sound meditation consisting of Tibetan singing bowls was shown to reduce tension, anger, and anxiety among participants.
Kirscha Cramer, co-founder of Five Sense Collective, a wellness center that offers a range of therapeutic workshops including sound meditations, tells TZR that she believes individuals experience life "through vibration," whether they're aware of it or not. "Through sound, we can attune our physical, emotional, and mental frequency to that of harmony and nature," she says. "That’s the magic of it."
Five Sense Collective's sound meditations consist of several singing bowls, designed to "thoughtfully activate the senses through simple, and specific stimulation, to deliberately ground, and fully immerse participants in the present moment," says Cramer. "Throughout the ceremony's entirety, we bring attention to the ability we have to harness our personal potential, creating a deeper connection to the spiritual self, the Earth, and those around us."
Roxie Sarhangi, a certified sound healing practitioner in Los Angeles and the resident sound healer at 1 Hotel in West Hollywood, describes her sessions to TZR as "meditative, acoustic sound 'concerts' that bring you into a state of deep relaxation, activating your body's own natural system of self-healing." Similar to Five Sense Collective, participants are invited to lie down on a yoga mat or in any comfortable place while they take in soothing sounds and vibrations through the use of instruments that include seven crystal bowls, a symphonic gong, an ocean drum, kochi chimes, and Tibetan bowls.
"On a very basic level, anyone who wants to feel relaxed, heal, and practice meditation, [should try a sound bath experience]," says Sarhangi. "I have heard from several participants that this particular type of meditation is helpful for those who feel like they have a hard time quieting the mind."
Movement meditations help train the mind to be more aware of what the body is doing and how it's, well, moving. "When we talk about mindfulness, it extends into movement really naturally," says Prieto, who adds that walking meditations have actually been around for thousands of years and as long as meditation has been around. "It's a lovely opportunity to sort of come into the body, as are running meditations. Feeling the weight of your feet on the pavement or wherever it is really helps to bring that awareness to both mind and body." In fact, a 2018 study by the Journal of Behavioral Health found that mindful movement like walking or running in nature could have cognitive benefits and reduce anxiety, tension, sadness, and fatigue.
Kristin Sudeikis, founder, CEO, and creative director of dance fitness studio FORWARD Space, which incorporates meditation into its fitness sessions, tells TZR, "You can pair the intentional movements with music, your thoughts, your memories, future goals, or all of the above. Rhythmic patterns allow us to drop into the body and into a more rooted, present state. Oftentimes, the result of this practice can be a profound sense of relief, release, joy, or a deeper awareness of oneself."
And, of course, one can't discuss movement meditations without mentioning yoga. The ancient Indian mind and body practice (which has been around some 5,000 years) traditionally combines physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation for a wellness cocktail that's reported to improve everything from arthritis and back pain to flexibility and posture.
Heather Lilleston, co-founder of Yoga for Bad People, which hosts yoga retreats and programs around the world, calls the benefits of meditation "sneaky" in that they don't reveal themselves immediately. "They show up in odd moments," Lilleston tells TZR. "Maybe you're better about leaving a pause before a response instead of being reactionary to difficult things. Or maybe you get better at holding your tongue and saying what you mean and meaning what you say. I think sleep and digestion can also improve. Creativity is enhanced. When I'm really consistent about meditating, I have more access to inspiration."
Many modern yoga practices and studios are taking alternative approaches to the technique and focusing more on the fitness component, adding equipment, using upbeat soundtracks with Top 40 tunes, and incorporating other workout programs into the mix. While this is all well and good from a health and fitness standpoint, Davidson says if the mind and body aren't equally engaged, it's not meditation. "If these classes are taught in a way where the movement practice is also combined with the mental practice, that is really ideal," he explains. "It's not always taught in that way. So, I think that's important to acknowledge."
Loving-Kindness & Compassion Meditation
As some meditation practices work out the brain, there are those that focus on the heart (figuratively speaking). For example, loving-kindness and compassion meditation is a practice that aims to develop and nurture love and gentleness of the heart in an individual. Rooted in Buddhist tradition, this technique often begins with sitting still comfortably and focusing one's meditation on oneself, mentally repeating a loving phrase that wishes for happiness, health, and peace.
After a few minutes of this, the focus then shifts to a specific person, perhaps a loved one, good friend, or what Davidson refers to as a neutral person, like a neighbor or someone you don't know very well. "You can wish that they be happy and use a phrase that you say silently in your mind, 'may you enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness,'" he says.
The next — and possibly more challenging — step in this meditative practice would be to contemplate a more difficult individual or one who pushes your buttons. "Bring that person genuinely into your mind or heart and wish them well," says Davidson. "Envision a time in their life in which they may have suffered and cultivate a genuine aspiration that they be happy and free of suffering." Over time, he explains, this practice is said to help you unearth compassion and loving feelings much more readily and easily.
Transcendental meditation (TM) is perhaps the most stereotypical picture of meditation in that it involves sitting comfortably and quietly for 20 minutes twice a day with your eyes closed. Brought to the U.S. in 1959 by Indian-born Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who was said to be the spiritual adviser to The Beatles), this method is designed to allow your "active mind to easily settle inward, through quieter levels of thought, until you experience the most silent and peaceful level of your own awareness — pure consciousness," according to the David Lynch Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the teaching of TM that was founded by film director and TM practitioner David Lynch.
"Mindfulness, loving-kindness, and other meditations are 'cognitive' approaches to meditation, meaning they pertain to your thoughts, moods, feelings, behavior," says Bob Roth, chief executive officer for the David Lynch Foundation. "TM is a transcending form of meditation, [and] it provides access to the silence that already lies within."
Apparently, TM's reputation has caught on in recent years, particularly among the celebrity set. A-listers like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, Lena Dunham, and Eva Mendes are said to have taken courses in it. The last actually touched on her love for the method in a 2019 interview with The Zoe Report, although Mendes admitted to letting it fall by the wayside after becoming a mother. "Meditation was the first thing to go, which was the first thing that I needed to keep," the actor said in that interview. "I really have to incorporate that back into my life." In a May 2017 interview with Vogue, singer Katy Perry called TM a "game-changer." "I will feel neuro pathways open, a halo of lights," she told Hamish Bowles, international editor at large for Vogue. "And I’m so much sharper. I just fire up!”
One thing to note is that TM is a meditation method that must be learned in a specific way. "TM is not a 'mass' meditation — meaning it is not taught out of a book or online," says Roth. "It is always taught one-to-one by a certified teacher who will give you a 'mantra,' which is a word or sound that has no meaning, and then teach you how to use it properly." The David Lynch Foundation offers a TM intro course that ranges from $380 to $960, depending on your annual household income. This includes four sessions and lifetime followup and support from the organization.
While not as trendy or well-known as some of the aforementioned forms, analytic meditation is not to be discounted. According to Davidson, this technique focuses on how the mind actually works in relation to the narrative we all carry around about ourselves. "For example," he explains, "[this type of meditation involves] reflecting deeply with questions such as: 'Where is myself?' 'Is the self I experienced today the same self of yesterday?' 'Will it be the same tomorrow?' 'What are its boundaries?' And, 'Where does it end and another self begin?' Those kinds of questions and [the process of] continuing to reflect, and reflect, and reflect, and reflect, and reflect can lead to insights into the nature of the self. When the Dalai Lama meditates, he does a lot of these types of analytic practices."
In fact, the Dalai Lama has referenced the art of analytic meditation as a way to improve negative thoughts, feelings, and even relationships. In a 2017 speech addressing the FICCI Ladies Organisation in New Delhi, the spiritual leader said, "Anger has major repercussions on one's physical health, one's family relationships, and in society. One should analyze this and reflect upon it not just once or twice, but repeatedly, until it becomes part of one's deeper understanding."
He went on to suggest analytically meditating on one's personal role in a situation that made them angry. "And while in the midst of anger, your tendency is to perceive the person who harmed you as 100 percent bad," the Dalai Lama said. "But deeper analysis will make you realize that every human being is composed of both positive and negative characteristics, and you can try to get a more realistic view of the person, thereby diluting the anger harbored against the person.”
Like mindfulness- and movement-based practices, spiritual meditations can encompass a multitude of styles, techniques, and belief systems. And while other forms might focus on awareness of body, breath, or the well-being of others, spiritual meditations take you to deeper levels of understanding of the true self and higher levels of consciousness. Religions like Hindusim, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are also known to incorporate meditation into their teachings and practices.
Shaman Balder, in-house shaman and meditation expert for spiritual retreat property Palmaïa — The House of AïA, tells TZR his practice and teachings are focused on integrating with the environment around you. "If there is movement or stillness, noise or silence, light or darkness, I use them as relaxation tools, then accommodate the key muscles in the body, including the position of the hands," Balder explains. "I prepare the breath, I release thoughts and emotions, I locate the internal movements of the body, in particular the heartbeat, and from there, my body and my mind are released and meditation begins."
Claire Pearson, a licensed master Reiki professional, certified sound healer, and teacher for spiritual self-study program A Course in Miracles, tells TZR she believes spiritual meditation can help reprogram one's thinking, which is often shaped by worldly values. "It is a manmade world driven by ego, fear, and a divided consciousness," she explains, adding that meditation can help individuals bypass said ego mindset and connect to an inner power, or spirit — which, in the end, is love. "When connected to this collective consciousness of love, truth is apparent, and we can find solutions and insights our brain cannot conceive," Pearson says.
For some, spiritual meditation can manifest as prayer, whether rooted in theology or faith or not. In a 2017 interview with NBC News, Loretta G. Breuning, Ph.D., author of The Science of Positivity and Habits of a Happy Brain, said, “[Praying in part] is saying to myself: I am really hurting about X. I am really hoping for Y. I am looking for support from Z." She adds that prayer can be a way of untangling the cause of bad feelings and negativity stored up throughout one's day and “finding a solution that restores hope. Praying makes that useful conscious act into a reliable habit.”
Pearson agrees that forms of prayer can be categorized as meditation, but explains it gets tricky when people ask something outside of themselves for an answer (like some faith-based petitions, in which you seek guidance from a higher power). "Meditation would teach that the answer is within you," she explains. "My practice teaches we are all connected to love energy, but our physical world has taught us to disconnect from it. Learning how to reconnect is the journey."
However you approach it, Davidson says the key is to make whatever form of meditation that's right for you a regular thing. "So, if you're doing prayer or a faith-based practice, it can be helpful in similar ways as [non-faith-based meditations] but only if it is done in a consistent, rigorous kind of way with regularity of practice."
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