Last updated December, 2016.
It's time for another installment of "Question and Answer Tuesdays!"
"I've read a lot about meditating on the Internet and, to be honest, it's very confusing. There seem to be dozens of different types, and conflicting instructions on what to do and how to do it. What type of meditation should I focus on? Or, should I do more than one type of meditation? I really don't know where to start."
When you Google "how to meditate," you'll find millions of results (literally!).
We constantly get questions on how the different types compare, and which one somebody should practice: concentration, mindfulness, zazen, metta, guided, Vipassana, Samatha, transcendental, insight, MBSR, loving-kindness...the list goes on and on.
There are a lot of methods. There's a lot of advice. And, as you pointed out, much of it conflicts!
It's easy to suffer information overload, which - according to Wikipedia - leads to a reduction in decision quality and a likelihood of no action being taken.
That's a bit disheartening: there's so much information available that it overwhelms a lot of people and, as a result, they won't even attempt to meditate.
It doesn't have to be complicated, though. The question I ask people is "Why do you want to meditate?" These are the most popular answers:
The one thing these answers have in common is a need to better understand our minds. Once you begin to understand your mind, how it works, and the problems it creates in your life, then you can focus on the method.
If you don't have this understanding, however, you will probably view meditating as a chore (or an item to check off your "todo list"). That means you'll bounce around from one type of meditation to another, never really focusing, and abandoning your efforts after a short period of time.
In order to understand your mind, you need to become aware of the filters and constructs it places on top of reality. Put simply, we don't see things as they are - we see things as our minds present them.
note - we elaborate on how to become aware of these filters and constructs in other articles; you can find an index of our writing here.
This brings us full circle to the original question: "What type do meditation do I focus on?"
My answer is simple: there is only one type. This one type involves cultivating awareness, and learning to notice your compulsive mind and mental noise without getting caught up in it.
What do we call this one type? Meditating! No fancy names, no extra labels, no added complexity from your mind.
Here are the steps:
Don't get frustrated if it takes you a while to notice your attention has wandered from your anchor - sometimes you catch it immediately, sometimes it takes longer.
And, as you develop more experience, attempt to actively refrain from judging and labeling the thoughts and emotions (and, anything else that arises). Drop the urge to categorize "this" as good or positive, and "that" as bad or negative.
Thoughts are just thoughts. Emotions are just emotions. They hold no special power over you unless you give it to them. They will go the same as they came, provided you don't judge and cling to what you label "pleasant," and push away what you label "unpleasant." Simply observe. If you don't interfere, you will see everything progress through a natural cycle of arising (coming) and passing (going).
Don't get mad at that dog barking. If something itches and you have to scratch, scratch. If you have to shift your position, shift your position.
Just return your attention to your anchor once you notice it has wandered and you're caught up in thoughts.
What does this do for you?
If you practice consistently, it gets easier to observe your mind and its activity when you aren't practicing. You can see things as they arise and realize you don't have to get caught up in them.
Instead, you learn to let it all be as it is, independent from you and your attention. This is commonly referred to as "letting thoughts and emotions go," or letting them pass.
It means you are choosing not to follow them down a path that culminates in conditioned behavior and habitual actions and reactions - a path that creates problems such as stress, anxiety, self-doubt, et cetera.
That's it. Forget all the different types, forget the labels, forget the complexity. Just start.
Why not set a timer for 5 minutes right now?