Buddhism offers a smorgasbord of different meditation techniques we can practice to achieve everything we could possibly wish for: from developing peace, eliminating our anger, cultivating compassion, to meditations that will bring us to ultimate, ever-lasting happiness and wisdom (also known as achieving Enlightenment in Buddhism).
Below I’ve listed the most common meditation techniques that can be found across a variety of different Buddhist schools and traditions. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it can be used as a framework to help you understand how these different meditations can be used, and may assist you in choosing which ones you might like to try and explore further.
When determining which meditation technique is the best for you to practice, I think it really comes down to personal preference. I often find myself using different techniques depending on my current state of mind. For instance, if my mind is racing with many thoughts, then I usually prefer counting my breaths to help calm it down. Also, if there is a particular spiritual quality I’m looking to cultivate, then I will focus on a meditation designed specifically for increasing that.
One thing that is certain is that all these meditations will have many more benefits than the outcomes I’ve listed below. For instance, the loving-kindness meditation is likely to not only increase your feeling of love for others and reduce your enmity and aversion, but it will also lead to greater happiness, contentment and peace. Basically, there are too many wonderful benefits to list for each of the different meditations, so I’ve limited my descriptions to just detailing their intended purpose and what they primarily aim to achieve.
Developing One-Pointed Concentration
1) Samatha Meditation or Calm Abiding Meditation – This practice usually involves watching our breath as our object of meditation. This meditation is specifically designed to calm and focus our mind so we can develop our powers of concentration. We can also add a technique of counting our breaths to help increase our concentration and reduce the general distractibility of our mind.
It is also possible to use an external object for this type of meditation. You might choose to meditate on a Buddha statue and place all your visual and mental attention on one aspect of it. Usually it’s best to select a specific part of the statue to meditate on, rather than trying to focus on the whole thing. You could alternatively use a photo of the Buddha or your teacher to also inspire faith and devotion. Or you can just meditate on a small part of any object in front of you. I often focus on a small plastic blue flower, placing all my concentration on the center of it.
In the short term, this meditation will bring greater peace, happiness and clarity to your life if you practice it on a weekly or (better yet!) daily basis. But its main objective is to help establish a concentrated and stable mind so you can move onto the final goal of developing insight. When we can access deeper states of awareness, it will reveal the true nature of ourselves and our reality which leads to ultimate peace and happiness (Awakening/Enlightenment).
Here is a guided meditation on practicing samatha.
There are a number of variations we can make to the common practice of watching our breath, especially if our mind is particularly distracted or distressed by negative emotions.
• Adding colors to your breath if you’re a visual person
• Adding qualities to the breath to help remove negative emotions, for instance, visualizing you’re breathing in a positive quality and breathing out something negative that you need to let go of.
2) Walking Meditation – Not all of us are great at sitting for long periods of time. Fortunately, we can break up our sessions with walking meditation. At full day retreats, it is common to interchange sitting and walking meditations so that one hour of sitting meditation is followed by 30 minutes of walking meditation. Generally, walking meditation is designed to complement our sitting meditations so that we maintain our concentration between our seated sessions. This meditation pays close attention to the movement of our feet as we walk slowly, back and forth, in a small, defined area.
Developing Wisdom and Insight (Enlightenment)
3) Vipassana Meditation – This meditation involves paying attention to the arising and passing away of sensations in each of your different parts of your body. In Theravada Buddhist schools, this is the pinnacle of meditation practices, being the main method for developing insight into our true nature. Notably, most Theravada schools will always incorporate some sort of samatha practice before moving onto Vipassana meditation.
Other Buddhist schools similarly practice Vipassana, although it can sometimes take a more analytical approach of questioning, such as ‘where is the Self?’, and through examination one becomes free from self-grasping.
4) Koans – These are usually a phrase or question that a meditator repeatedly brings to mind. It is not solvable through conceptual thinking and it attempts to push the meditator’s mind into an experience beyond thought. It is believed that shortcutting the intellectual process can lead to direct realisation. A well-known koan is ‘what is your original face before you were born?’
5) Shikantaza (“just sitting”) – This is an objectless meditation where the aim is to simply remain in a state of concentration of the act of sitting while simultaneously being aware of what arises in your mind. Different schools might have different approaches, but if insight isn’t gained from koan practice, then generally the powerful concentration developed first from breathing meditation or koans can allow insight to arise in Shikantaza where one can see the arising and passing away of all phenomena in every moment.
Developing Loving-Kindness and Compassion
6) Metta (Loving-Kindness) Meditation – This meditation aims at increasing our feeling of loving-kindness to everyone. We first practice generating metta (wishing others happiness) by meditating on objects that are easiest to arouse loving-kindness for. Then we progressively move to more difficult objects of metta, like our enemies. This practice is an effective technique for eliminating our hatred and anger towards others.
7) Meditation on the Sameness of Self and Others – This meditation aims at highlighting our shared humanity and that no one wants to experience suffering. By putting ourselves in others’ shoes, it can increase our compassion for everyone regardless of who they are.
8) Tonglen Meditation – Tonglen means ‘giving and receiving’. Here we imagine that we’re taking on the suffering of others and giving them all the things they need to alleviate their suffering. This practice is sometimes known as ‘the secret’ and is powerful in increasing our compassion and reducing our selfishness and self-grasping.
Analytical Meditations to Enhance the Buddha’s Teachings
9) Meditation on the Faults of Samsara – This meditation looks at the multitude of sufferings that sentient beings can experience in the world. Most importantly, it focuses the various sufferings that human beings can experience. Although this meditation helps to develop compassion for others, its primarily aim is to highlight that external worldly aims (like having money, fame and nice possessions) do not bring ever-lasting happiness. It reminds us that happiness is to be found within, not from external phenomena. This meditation is particularly helpful to strengthen our renunciation and to help us stay committed to our meditation practice, lest we get lost in pursing the ephemeral, unsatisfactory pleasures of the world.
10) Meditation on our Precious Human Life – According to the Buddha, gaining a human rebirth is extremely rare. Moreover, gaining a human life that has the necessary conditions for being able to practice his teachings is rarer still! This meditation focuses on how difficult it is to obtain this human life so we can appreciate the opportunity we have now to practice.
11) Meditation on Impermanence – This meditation closely ties in with the previous one. When we truly realize how short our time on Earth is, it will inspire us to practice NOW and not procrastinate. Also, when we really feel this law of impermanence in our bones, we will accept the changing aspects of our life more readily so we can let go of things (and people) more easily, as everything is destined to change.
12) Meditation on Equanimity – Often we easily define people in our life into categories: those we love, hate or feel indifferent towards. According to the Buddha, these are all delusions; we shouldn’t fix permanent labels to ever-changing phenomena. This meditation helps us to break down the labels we’ve given people in our lives, so we can develop loving-kindness and compassion equally to all.
13) Meditation on Remembering the Kindness of Mother Sentient Beings – The aim of this meditation is to remind us of the kindness of our mothers so we can develop a heart of gratitude. It also helps us develop a sense of responsibility to repay their kindness, not just to them but to all sentient beings that have presumably been our mothers in a past life. This practice is extremely powerful in combating any aversion we might have to our present-life mother.
14) Meditation on the Impurities of our Bodies – This meditation is specifically designed to combat our lust and craving for sexual encounters. Traditionally, the Buddha taught this technique to celibate monks to try and help curb their sexual impulses and keep their mind on the task of one-pointed meditation and reaching nirvana. This meditation goes through all the parts of the body in all its wonderful gross detail, so we can really acknowledge what the human body is made up of (e.g. blood, skin, pus and hair). By doing this we won’t be so quick to exaggerate physical beauty and can see the human form in a more balanced way.
Meditations to Allay Meditative Obstacles & Quicken One’s Realization of Emptiness
15) Deity Meditations
Vajrayana Buddhism (also known as Tibetan Buddhism) and many Mahayana Buddhist schools are filled with a multitude of deity meditation practices. These sometimes involve visualizing the deity as an external being that we can request blessings from. But the real transformative meditations are the ones where you visualize yourself as the deity, in their form, reciting their mantras, and meditating on the spiritual qualities they possess (immeasurable compassion and wisdom). Through the power of imagining yourself as the ‘end result’ – as a being that’s already enlightened – we can help those qualities to germinate and come to fruition faster. These meditations also help break us free of clinging to self, as we’re no longer identifying with our ordinary, egoistic self, but rather one who is endowed with enlightened qualities.
There are literally hundreds of different deity meditation practices and each school has practices which they favor most, so it’s impossible to list them all. But below I’ve listed some of the more common deity practices found in most of the Vajrayana Buddhist schools and some of their specific purposes.
Green Tara – seen as the female embodiment of all the Buddha’s wisdom, she is considered the mother who dispels all fears.
Chenrezig (4 or 1000 armed) – the Buddha of compassion. Meditating on him increases our compassion for all sentient beings without discrimination. In the female form, he appears as Quan Yin, especially in Chinese Buddhist schools.
Medicine Buddha – meditating on his form and mantra increases our compassion and can bring healing to ourselves and others.
Vajrasattva – recognized to be the superior of all the practices to help purify our negative karma.
White Tara – she is another form of Tara, but her meditation is designed specifically to increase our lifespan so we can continue to practice Dharma and help others.
So there you have it: a quick, handy reference guide for determining which is the best meditation technique that can help you depending on your circumstances and what spiritual qualities you’re looking to strengthen. No doubt this will be a resource I will continue to update (especially as I make more guided meditations), so you may want to bookmark this page for future reference.
And after practicing all these meditations, you’ll probably need some tools to help combat all the thoughts that arise in your meditation. So here is a video to assist you with that:
Good luck with your meditations. I’d love to hear which ones you’re most interested in exploring!
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