Depending on one’s background, the word “meditation” can be an ambiguous term encompassing a wide range of practices and techniques. Some view meditation mainly as a mental exercise, while others associate it with one or more spiritual/religious traditions. However, at its heart, meditation is a non-sectarian practice, and the various techniques share a common thread: meditation is an exercise in focusing the mind, usually toward increased awareness. As such, it can be a useful tool for reducing stress, managing anxiety and even reducing pain. We often recommend the practice of meditation as a way of promoting better mental health in our patients.
Meditation takes many forms, but for the moment, let’s turn our attention to four of the more common meditation techniques. Each of these practices takes a slightly different approach to awareness, and they can even be used to complement each other.
Mindfulness is perhaps one of the most commonly used meditation practices in our culture today, recently seeing a surge in popularity thanks to apps like Headspace and Calm. However, mindfulness meditation is far from being a novelty. It actually derives from an ancient Indian tradition called samatha, in which the participant trains the mind on a singular object or function to achieve greater awareness in the moment.
In most practices of mindfulness, one is encouraged to focus on the breath—observing how the air enters and leaves the lungs—while calmly observing thoughts, feelings and sensations as they occur. Thoughts are allowed to come and go without judging them, and when the mind wanders, the participant simply refocuses on the breath.
This practice can be a wonderful source of relaxation and can lead to better anxiety management as one’s own thoughts and feelings are put into perspective. For our purposes, mindfulness meditation increases awareness of the moment.
Transcendental meditation (TM) is the first meditation technique that made its way West. Deriving from another ancient Indian tradition, it was popularized the 1960s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and endorsed by celebrities like the Beatles and the Beach Boys.
Unlike mindfulness meditation which focuses on observing thoughts, TM looks beyond the noise of our thoughts to the calm state of Being beneath. Participants sit calmly, breathing normally while repeating a mantra, often a single word, seeking to “transcend” the realm of thought into Being. Practicing TM is associated with a wide range of benefits including quieter thoughts, increased creativity and reduced stress, among others. While mindfulness improves awareness of the moment, transcendental meditation increases the awareness of being.
Many people think of qigong (pronounced CHEE-gong) as a type of exercise, often associating it with other Chinese exercise traditions like tai-chi. However, qigong is perhaps more accurately described as a more physical type of meditation, incorporating deep breathing and meditation with a series of slow, controlled movements. The specific movements may differ based on the tradition and the teacher, but the end goal is an integration of internal and external movement to promote calm and self-healing.
The benefits of qigong range from greater flexibility and strength control to reduced stress, and many believe the practice can even help manage pain or prevent a number of chronic diseases. Because of the active nature of this practice, think of qigong as a method of increasing awareness of energy.
Where samatha meditation is an ancient Buddhist technique based on mindfulness as described earlier, vipassana meditation builds on the foundation of mindfulness by digging deeper to seek greater self-awareness. Specifically, vipassana is insight meditation, a form of awareness that is more curious and inquisitive. Dhamma.org describes it as “a way of self-transformation through self-observation.” Unlike the other techniques that are basically event-based and mastered with practice, vipassana is more of a progressive journey into insight that may take years. It is typically taught as a course, often in the context of a retreat lasting several days, and when practiced consistently it can open deep insights about yourself and your life experiences, promoting a greater sense of peace overall. For this reason, we think of vipassana meditation as pursuing an increased awareness of self.
Perhaps you can see how these four techniques can complement one another, each of which focuses on awareness of a different element of life. Mindfulness promotes awareness of the moment; transcendental meditation, the awareness of being; qigong, the awareness of energy; and vipassana, the awareness of self. You may gravitate to only one of these techniques, or perhaps you will find a way to incorporate all of them. Each practice can help reduce stress and anxiety, promote greater clarity of thought and encourage better mental health overall.