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There are over 800 different meditation techniques spanning various traditions. As someone just starting meditation, all the different meditation styles can seem overwhelming. Which is best for you, and where do you start?
Families for the meditation styles
Instead of getting into the similarities and differences of the many meditative traditions, I think it’s more useful to categorise specific styles of meditation according to how they train the mind.
Renowned meditation researchers Cortland Dahl, Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson of The Center for Healthy Minds put meditation practices into three families: attentional, constructive and deconstructive.
Beginning with the attentional family, these are meditation practices that include counting the breath, body scanning and mantra recitation. All of them train your ability to take conscious control of your attention and focus it on some object of meditation.
So in the case of the three types of meditation just mentioned, that object would be the breath, the body or some repeated phrase. While each one uses a different ‘anchor’, they all help to train a stable and sustained attention.
The constructive family allows you to cultivate certain healthy states of mind. Practices in this family aim to change the habitual thought and emotion patterns of the mind, like positive psychology. Examples include loving-kindness (also known as metta) and contemplations of mortality. The meditator calls to mind a specific mental attitude, such as compassion in the case of loving-kindness meditation, and holds it in their mind as they rewire neural patterns to fire this way more often.
Finally, we have the deconstructive family, which uses self-enquiry to bring about insights into the nature of consciousness. Put another way, deconstructive meditation is all about understanding the mind and how it creates your reality in the form of thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc. Such practices include insight (also known as vipassana), Dzogchen and Mahamudra practices.
These techniques are considered more advanced by most meditation teachers. They all require a certain level of concentration and ask the meditator to very closely investigate their present-moment experience.
Choosing your practice
It is my opinion – and the opinion of many other meditation teachers – that you ought to eventually find one practice and really take it deep to reap the full benefits. That said, especially when you’re starting out, it can help to sample the field and see what might resonate best with you.
Speaking from personal experience, and from the experience of individuals whom I’ve taught one-on-one and at larger workshops, it seems that beginning with attentional practices is a great way to gain initial control of the mind. Without some degree of attention, it’s difficult to meditate because you’ll spend most of the period lost in thought. Since both constructive and deconstructive practices require that base level of attention, I highly recommend starting out with breath focus, mantra repetition or body scanning. From there, once you can stabilise attention with some regularity, you’ll find that practices from the other families come easier.
You can look up these techniques or learn them through a YouTube video. Since my team at FitMind was frustrated that most phone apps on the market only teach a very basic, dumbed-down attentional practice, we consulted neuroscientists and monks alike to create a meditation app (now available on iOS) that walks you through a training programme. It starts with the most basic attentional techniques, goes through constructive methods next, and slowly progresses towards the most advanced deconstructive practices. If you feel that guided meditation would help you, we think this is a great place to start.
Since you are ultimately your own mental trainer, you’ll learn which meditation styles work best for your unique mind. Now that you know the three main families, you’ll have a framework for understanding the mechanisms at play with each variety.
Liam McClintock received a B.A. from Yale and worked in finance before travelling to Asia to study meditation full-time.
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