When doing a simple online search for meditation, you quickly find that there are many dozens of different meditation styles available.
So how do you chose which type of meditation you should do? The key thing is to start to understand the differences between the different types and if they matter or not (for you).
I cover all of this in this blog post. At the end of this post, you find a handy overview table containing everything you need to know to make an informed decision on which type of meditation is best for you at this point in your meditation journey.
So let’s start with the basics and move our way up from there.
- The two fundamental categories of meditation
- Guided meditation versus unguided meditation
- Secular versus religious-inspired meditations
- Still versus movement
- Selecting an actual meditation style
- Overview table
You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way.Marvin Minsky
The two fundamental categories of meditation
Meditation can be divided into two fundamental categories. In Buddhism, they are called shamatha and vipassana. In English, they are called concentration and insight.
Actually, you do not really get to chose between these two. They are fundamental categories and as a meditator, you have to master both.
But, when you chose your meditation style, you will necessarily emphasize one over the other. Ideally, you should not, but that is how it is in practice.
Concentration meditation is exactly as the word says. It trains our concentration.
But not just any type of concentration. We are talking about exclusive concentration on a single object of focus.
What this means is that you start by paying attention to some object, often the breath. And when the mind strays, you gently bring it back to the chosen object.
If this sounds boring to you, I can reassure you that it is not.
This type of meditation is performed because it gives the maximal amount of calm and joy.
Indeed, when you start to master the skill of one-pointedness (the exclusive attention on one object for an extended period of time) you start to experience such deep joy that it almost becomes addictive.
But do not worry that you will soon become a meditation junkie when you opt for this kind of meditation. It takes quite some effort to reach these deep states.
The object you chose as a meditation object varies greatly depending on the tradition. Most often used in the west is the breath. But it can be a candle to stare at or some phrases your repeat over and over. All of these are possible.
Types of Meditations in this category: breathing meditation, mantra meditation, candle gazing, saying prayers with beads and transcendental meditation, zen, loving-kindness meditation.
This type of meditation is right for you if: you have troubles concentrating, you are an absolute beginner, you need a time out because you are overwhelmed, you could use some more calm in your life.
Buddhists are very clear about the fact that you cannot get enlightened alone with concentration meditation.
Now, I do not think you want to get enlightened at this point. But I just want to illustrate that concentration meditation is not enough.
However, having some level of concentration is necessary to be able to use insight meditation effectively.
So what is the insight we are looking for in this type of meditation?
Usually, we are not looking into what shirt to buy or which color is right for my house. No, we want insight into ourselves. We want insight into our lives and how the world work.
We want this to get a better understanding of what makes us miserable. By taking a clear look at how we make ourselves unhappy, we can let go of these tendencies.
This is not something we necessarily need to actively do. Merely seeing the tendencies and recognizing them in ourselves is often enough to dissolve them. That is the power of insight meditation.
Sometimes insight meditation can also be analytical. You can then take a problem into your mind, like a problem with a co-worker, and ask questions about the situation. you then see what is coming up and this adds to your comprehension of the situation.
Analytical meditation is also used to reflect on some philosophical statements about the nature of reality. In the west, this type of meditation is not often used.
Types of Meditations in this category: mindfulness meditation, vipassana, guided imagery, analytical meditation
This type of meditation is right for you if: you want to tackle your problems by its roots, you want to better understand yourself, you are looking for the meaning of life
Guided meditation versus unguided meditation
Another thing you have look into when choosing a meditation style for yourself is whether you go with guided meditations or with unguided meditations.
The opinions on this topic differ, but let me give my take on it.
Guided meditation is a meditation that is led by some voice. You just listen and follow the instructions.
This has the incredible advantage that you can address several topics in one session and getting lost in the script. The voice takes you on a trip and gives guidance along the way.
The other advantage of guided meditation is that your attention is constantly drawn back to the object of meditation by the narrator.
This is especially handy as a beginner since this is where you will lose your attention the most.
In Buddhist traditions, they do not give a lot of guided meditations to beginners, but I think that this is a much faster way to begin your journey into meditation.
But not only beginners can benefit from guided meditations. When you want to learn a new meditation or try out some specific instructions from a teacher you just discovered, guided meditation is your answer. You just follow along and learn the new style of meditation along the way.
This type of meditation is right for you if: you are a beginner starting out with meditation, you want to learn a new style of meditation instructions.
At a certain point, however, you will need to shed the training wheels. And to me, that is what guided meditation is, training wheels to get you started.
But once you know the basic instructions and have a little stability you should let go of the guided meditations and fly solo.
The problem with guided meditations is that your attention is always being pulled back from your meditation object to the voice.
This will prevent you from going deeper into the meditative state. Furthermore, at a certain point, this starts to get annoying.
When I meditate, I can go deep rather quickly and so getting pulled back by a voice is often very annoying. That is why I rarely do it anymore.
This type of meditation is right for you if: you want to go deeper into your meditation
Secular versus religious-inspired meditations
When you are looking into which meditation style suits you the best, you need to make the distinction between secular and religious meditation.
And although this distinction is not always easy to make and is highly debated by some, I think that you should be aware of it when making your choice.
Is all meditation religious?
At its base, all forms of meditations were once religious. Well, they were in the sense that they were used in a religious context.
But many of these practices were actually very neutral. In the west, one of the most popular forms of meditation is following the breath.
In my mind, it is hard to make a case for calling ‘following the breath’ religious but when you practice zazen, the main practice is following the breath, but the whole philosophy is geared towards Buddhism.
So is zazen religious or not? I let it in the middle. My opinion is that most of Buddhism can be seen as philosophy. but that is personal, you need to decide.
However, when you start using mantras, it becomes more dubious whether it is religious or not. Some mantras are just sounds like OM, but others do have meaning and allegedly confer powers to the practitioner.
Choosing between secular and religious meditation
In the end, it comes down to personal choice. As most of the meditations, you will find online are affiliated somehow to Buddhisms or Hinduism, I will only list here the forms of meditation where I think most people would agree that they are secular.
That is not to say that these practices are not sometimes used in a religious framework. It is just that these practices are not inherently religious.
I would like to stress that I do not prefer one or the other. I practice both secular and religious forms of meditation because I think that they both have something to offer. And we can learn a lot from practicing them all.
If you want to choose a secular form of meditation, take one of: mindfulness, breath following, body scan, loving-kindness meditation
Still versus movement
People often think that to meditate, you need to be sitting still in a crossed leg position like a monk. But that is very far from the truth.
Meditation can be done in any position. From sitting on a chair to crossed leg on a cushion to lying down.
But meditation can also be practiced when you are in movement.
Mediation in motion
Movement meditation is actually an integral part of any tradition. This type of meditation is unfortunately often underrated without good reason.
It is the ideal transition meditation to bring the benefits of your meditation into your daily life. Often people do not know how to make the bridge between what they do in their seated meditation sessions and their normal life. Meditation in movement can help to bridge this gap.
Often though, this type of meditation is not as deep as sitting meditation. And I guess that is why people do not practice it that often. And I agree that when I practice a nature meditation I do not go as deeply into myself as I do on the cushion.
But the benefits and the calm are just a good.
And if you practice a formal walking meditation, you can go just as deep.
There is one caveat however to the list I will give shortly. Some of the meditation styles like hatha yoga and qigong are usually not given with meditation in mind. They are mostly given as body movement exercises.
But when practiced with a meditative mindset, they are very profound exercises. Personally, I love qigong and Tai Chi!
Types of Meditations in this category: walk into nature, walking meditation, qigong, Tai Chi, different types of movement yoga
This type of meditation is right for you if: you think that sitting still is too boring, sitting still for a long time is difficult for you, you need some exercise, you are too tired to go and sit down because you risk falling asleep
Selecting an actual meditation style
Up to now, I have given an overview of general traits common to different meditation styles. This will help you in selecting a style as you can now better tailor your choice to your predilections.
In what follows, I will try to give a list of the most common types of meditation you can find. for each one, I will give a short description of what they entail and in which of the categories they belong.
OK, OK, I’m a bit biased. This site is called Mindfulness Based Happiness for a reason ;-). So I start with that first.
In mindfulness meditation, you start by watching your breath. The breath is seen as an anchor where we gain stability. This is much needed as it can be quite stormy inside our minds.
But, in mindfulness, we do not stick to the breath. When something calls our attention, we watch this calling in a friendly way and can then decide to explore whatever is crying for attention.
But it is a conscious choice. We do not let ourselves get swept away by random thoughts. But we can decide to deliberately turn our attention to the next thought coming up.
When the thing that has called our attention has again subsided, we gently come back the breath and continue from there.
By repeating this exercise daily, we end up getting to know what is trying to get our attention. This is great because now we are prepared for when it happens again. Or for when this happens in daily life. We then get a choice of what we do with this call also.
That is why this meditation is in the category of insight meditation. The meditation gives you insight into the working of your mind and teaches you ways to handle your more difficult emotions.
But, this also means that the true aim of this type of meditation is not to feel calm during the practice. It is a by-product of sustained practice, but the true aim of this practice is self-knowledge and wisdom.
Obviously, on this blog, there is an article that describes mindfulness in much more debt. Just click here if you want to learn more.
Choose Mindfulness meditation if you: are interested in understanding yourself, want to permanently reduce your stress, want a secular meditation style that is heavily researched by scientists
In breathing meditation, you also start by focusing on the breath. But when something else than the breadth is begging for attention, we acknowledge that fact, but we do not stray from the breath.
This is a fundamental difference with mindfulness. Breathing meditation is therefore a type of concentration meditation.
The result is that you tune in more and more into your object of meditation. And in doing so, the rest of the world and the worries that come with it disappear.
This is why some people call this a true retreat. you retreat into your meditation object to stop the incessant flow of worries.
What you discover when going deeper, is that in us there is a deep pool of calm and happiness that only wait for us to be discovered.
However, you will gain less insight into yourself and the way you operate in the world.
Another thing about this type of meditation is that it is actually a pre-requisite to mindfulness. If you do not get some stability first by practicing pure breathing meditation, you will just continue daydreaming during mindfulness.
Choose Breathing meditation if you: are just starting with meditation, want to gain more concentration, want to get some bliss out of your meditation
Vipassana is actually very similar to mindfulness meditation. You might even say that they are the same.
Related reading: What is the Difference Between Mindfulness and Vipassana
The main difference between the vipassana traditions that exist and what I call mindfulness meditation, is the Buddhist worldview.
Meditation wise, they are identical except for some details that would lead us too far.
For me, the Buddhist philosophy that accompanies vipassana is really helping. Comprehending and contemplating some of their core teachings has helped me in letting so some stuff that was holding me down.
But, in choosing this style, you should be conscious that it comes with a lot of Buddhism.
Choose Vipassana if: you want the benefits of mindfulness meditation and you are drawn to the Buddhist worldview.
Prananyama is the last type of meditation that is related to breathing.
In all the previous meditations, the breath is left untouched. You merely observe it. Not so in pranayama. Here you actively control and regulate the breath.
There are hundreds of forms of pranayama. Some control the breath only moderately, some do deep breathing, some fast and other slow.
But they all have in common that the breath is regulated in order to obtain some specific outcome that differs from one form of pranayama to another.
People make huge claims about the benefits of pranayama. None of these were researched scientifically, so I will not comment on them at all. If you want to know if it is true, you need to test it for yourself.
What I can say is that when I use this type of meditation, it usually does give me some more energy to do the meditation. And that is precisely what most pranayamas are designed to do.
I cannot explain why, but it looks to me that with this technique you can get some results that are similar to a brisk walk. So it is energizing and meditative.
This style of meditation is mostly Hindu. There are not a lot of other traditions that are using it extensively. But, you can use it in a secular way also, to energize the body slightly before deeper meditation work.
Use pranayama if you: are a bit sleepy before your meditation and need some more energy, like the Hindu tradition, secretly hope to develop superpowers
In this type of meditation you repeat a word or phrase over and over again.
The aim is usually twofold.
As this meditation falls in the category of concentration meditation, the first and foremost aim is to develop concentration and meditative stability.
Mantra meditation works much the same as breath following. You concentrate on a phrase that you repeat to yourself. When you see that you lost the phrase, you just start over.
When you are an auditory type of person, or if you dread the idea of just following the breath, you can use this type of meditation as a substitute. It works just as good.
The second aim of the mantra is always religious. Most religions have some form of mantra meditation. In the eat, they chant the mantra OM, and in the west, they pray a rosary.
So this type of meditation is accessible for people of any creed. That is the beauty of it. You can learn this meditation and just change the phrases to suit your own religious beliefs.
If you are an atheist, you should skip to the next paragraph as there is a mantra of you also.
Use this style of meditation if you: are more of an auditory type of person, want to easily incorporate your own religion in the practice of meditation
Loving-kindness meditation, or metta meditation, is a particular form of mantra meditation. But the phrases used are purely secular.
In this meditation, you repeat phases like ‘May you be happy’, ‘May you be free of disease’
Related reading: The Best Metta Meditation Phrases for You
As with mantra meditation, you concentrate the mind on a particular phrase. You also cultivate the mind to become milder and more open towards other people.
This has the great advantage that your interactions will become smoother and friendlier. Which in turn will improve your wellbeing.
It is an ideal meditation style to alternate with your regular practice. It usually gives you a warm and loving feeling. I highly recommend this practice, although I must confess that I do not practice it enough.
Use this style of meditation if you: are more of an auditory type of person, you want a secular meditation, you want to improve your relationships
The last type of meditation in the auditive category is sound meditation.
I understand that most peoples association of sound and meditation is that the sounds are background music that is used to tune out the surrounding noise.
And this is certainly a good way of using sound. Singing bowls are great as background music.
But I am talking of taking a piece of music and listen to it as a form of meditation.
This type of meditation is also concentration meditation and I use it mainly when I am too tired to do mindfulness meditation or breathing meditation.
Related reading: Practicing Mindfulness While Listening to Music: a Beginners Guide.
Use this type of meditation if you: are more of an auditory type of person, you want a secular meditation, are too tired for formal meditation, want to get to know your preferred music at a much deeper level.
To practice walking meditation, you become aware of every step you do in great detail. You become aware that you lift your foot from the ground. Next, you are aware that your leg moves through the air. And lastly, you notice that you put your foot down again.
You repeat this until you have marched a small distance and then you turn back. You cover this small distance over and over until the meditation time is over
In this way, you become totally absorbed by your movement, to the point of being fully concentrated on your walking.
The great advantage of walking meditation is that you cannot doze off. But the danger is that you start looking around and pay more attention to the surroundings than to the meditation since your eyes are always open.
Walking meditation is also great to practice when you are walking in nature. When doing this, you should only have a small part of your attention on your feet. The rest should be on your surroundings and your reactions to it.
At that moment, walking meditation is no longer a concentration practice but an insight one.
You see that this is a very versatile exercise that you can practice virtually everywhere.
Choose this type of meditation if you: risk falling asleep, want to mix up your meditation routine, cannot sit still a lot, are just walking, wherever you might be.
The body scan is an introductory level meditation, but it is a very important one, especially for beginners.
The meditation consists of slowly bringing your attention to each part of your body and to feel what is happening at that place. The aim is to exercise your faculty of acceptance.
The instructions are to stay with whatever happens and keep our focus on the body part that was selected. Therefore, the body scan is on the cusp of concentration and insight.
For most people, this meditation is enormously relaxing. When I teach it, at least one person falls asleep. Sometimes they even start snoring. So it is great to relax or to fall asleep.
Related reading: What, Why, How, and Benefits of the body scan meditation
Use this type of meditation if you: are a beginner or want to relax your body or want to fall asleep.
Qigong, Tai Chi and Hatha Yoga
Although none of these are strictly meditation, all of these traditions were invented to facilitate meditation afterward.
Doing a lot of sitting meditation is very straining to the body and in the end not so good. So taking a healthy dose of movement is a must.
Therefore many traditions were started to have movement and meditation, all in one.
Now, which one you chose is up to you. I have practiced all of them and I have my preference, but I can also honestly recommend all of them.
Just make sure that when you practice these forms of movement, you also keep some part of your attention on your inner world. Else, they are not meditation but just exercise.
I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with using them as just exercise. No, I’m just saying that you can get more out of them by seeing them as a time to do meditation in action.
All of them make up for a great transition from sitting meditation to daily life.
Use this type of meditation if you: like movement, want to mix up your meditation, to make the transition from sitting meditation to daily life
Visualization and gazing
Lastly, there also exist meditation for people who are more of the visual type.
The meditation consists of gazing at an object and then recreating a mental picture.
Both these methods work great at developing concentration, but the main aim is to give you a direct link to your subconscious.
Through the aid of the visualization, the subconscious will send back information that you can then use in your daily life. This will be mostly in the form of an object that will appear in your mind.
I find this a very difficult exercise as I have trouble visualizing. But If you are visually oriented, you should definitely give it a try.
Use this type of meditation if you: are visually oriented, want to ask something to the subconscious mind.
The following table summarises the meditation forms I discussed and lists its main characteristics. This is a helpful tool for you to chose which meditation you will want to do today.
Related reading: The best online mindfulness and meditation courses in 2020