Five Meditations That Are Tried And True

Learn to meditate by meditating.

Entering an altered state of consciousness is something humans do naturally all the time without even noticing. When focusing on something relaxing, be it music, television, or a walk in the woods, we can slip into a light trance as our brain waves slow down to a mellow mode. 

Meditation is not so different from the trance-inducing activities we encounter in daily life. The difference lies in the approach. With meditation, the point is to focus on something consciously, which takes intention and effort. It's a practice, one that develops your powers of concentration and offers a host of health benefits

There are lots of ways to practice meditation. Here are five tried and true methods:

1. Chanting Meditation

Chanting starts with a mantra, a sacred word or phrase that packs a lot of zen punch. One well-known practice that uses a mantra is Transcendental Meditation. But you don't have to get formally trained in TM (which can cost $1,000) to start chanting. Any mantra will do for starters, like the old king of mantras: Om. Just keep repeating it, slowly, drawing the sound out and letting the vibrations wash over you.

The repetitive droning can have quite a calming effect. You can chant out loud on your own, with a group, or do it silently in your head, though sitting still with your back straight in a quiet place is a good way to go. Do this once or twice a day for 20 minutes each session. 

Mantra can also serve as a warm-up that leads to one of the meditations below, or it can be a coda.

Meditating on a spring day in Central Park.
Meditating on a spring day in Central Park. Daniel Krieger

2. Insight Meditation

A tradition that comes from Theravada Buddhism, insight meditation is all about mindfulness. The practice boils down to observing sensations occurring in your body as they come and go, with the goal of achieving equanimity. This is also called Vipassana, which means "seeing things as they really are." S.N. Goenka's version of this is taught at hundreds of centers around the world in a 10-day silent retreat. (There are shorter ones, too, such as those offered by The Insight Meditation Society.) 

Goenka insists on completely unplugging to learn this meditation so you can go deeper than you would if caught up in the stimuli of everyday life. In the course, you start off for a few days just focusing on the sensation of your breath going in and out of your nostrils. (Focusing on the flow of respiration is a standard mindfulness meditation in itself, used in various disciplines, such as Zen.) The purpose in this case is to quiet your mind to prepare for Vipassana, which entails systematically scanning your body for subtler and subtler sensations, from top to bottom, slowly and repeatedly, or as Goenka would say in his resonant voice, "continuously, persistently, patiently, ardently."

Meditating for one hour at a time all day long for 10 days is grueling, but it's worth all that effort. After all, when in your life would you ever have the chance to look so deeply inside yourself? So the next time you have a vacation, rather than heading to Aruba, consider something that might be better for your mind and body that will teach you a skill you can use for the rest of your life.

3. Gazing Meditation

Focus on a single object that changes moment to moment, like a candle flame, or the moon, a mandala, the tip of your nose or the space between your eyes (known as "the third eye.") Allow yourself to become absorbed by it so that nothing comes between you and your object of focus, staring intently while keeping your eyes relaxed. As with any sitting meditation, keep your back straight, but not rigidly so, and sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor or on a chair, hands on your thighs. The next step is to close your eyes and visualize the same image in your mind's eye. If your attention wanders, as it most definitely will, gently bring it back. Each time you do this, your concentration gets stronger.

Chinese seniors doing early morning Tai Chi in a Shanghai park. 
Chinese seniors doing early morning Tai Chi in a Shanghai park.  iStock

4. Moving Meditation

Though it often involves sitting, you can meditate while in motion, like Tai chi, a Chinese martial art with choreographed sequences of slow-motion movements. There's also tai chi walking, similar to Zen walking meditation, where you focus on the sensations in your feet as each makes contact with the ground and supports your body's weight. Your gaze should be soft and downward, the body relaxed and buoyant. 

Yoga too, if done consciously, can be a moving meditation, as can Qigong, another slow Chinese martial art. Even juggling and hula hooping can be moving meditations, provided that you keep your attention focused and bring it back when your mind wanders.

5. Loving-kindness Meditation

Also known as 'metta' or 'heart-centered' meditation, this develops your compassion by focusing on positive thoughts toward yourself and others, which makes for a nice ending to any of the above meditations. The Metta Institute recommends beginning with yourself, repeating these phrases in your mind: May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease. As you repeat these words, you can visualize an image of yourself as the recipient of the well wishing. 

Next, do this for someone in your life who is important to you, repeating the same words of loving kindness as you visualize them: May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease. Then do the same for anyone else in your life (even a pet) and then for someone you have trouble with. You can tweak the phrases for each individual. To do this fully, immerse yourself in the vibrations of loving-kindness that you're creating.

Cover image via iStock.