Meditation: The main types, and the differences between them.

Meditation; you’ve heard of it, maybe you’ve even tried it yourself at work or at your favorite yoga class.

Perhaps you felt the benefits of settling your attention right away or maybe you felt like you were doing it wrong because you had so many thoughts. Whatever your experience was, it’s important not to stress too much on ‘getting it right’ as you begin your practice. Rather, be kind and patient as you learn a new skill. 

            Beginning a meditation practice can feel overwhelming. You may not know where to begin as there is a plethora of information on the internet about the many different styles. The intention of this guide is to help you to understand a few different traditions or styles so you can make a decision on which to pursue. Whichever choice you make, meditation will help you make strides in personal growth through a greater sense of self-awareness. 


The mindfulness movement is one of the main reasons why meditation is so popular in the West today. Mindfulness meditation is a secular style that incorporates practices that cultivate one’s awareness. More specifically, mindfulness strengthens the faculties of the mind that deal with attention and meta-attention. Meta-attention is where the real magic is. It is this faculty of the mind that helps us to know or observe where our mind is in any given moment. This is especially helpful in meditation since the mind tends to wander all over the place without control. When we strengthen meta-awareness, we are better able to notice when our mind has wandered and return it to our object of attention. We then are able to stay focused for a longer period of time, and less likely to get caught up by internal stressors. Mindfulness meditations include breath awareness, open awareness, body scan, and more. 

What makes it unique? 

Mindfulness is the meditation practice that has been the most researched of all the practices, giving it a strongly scientific support. When you see an article that highlights the benefits of meditation, it’s most likely that the participants were practicing mindfulness meditation. What makes mindfulness even more unique is that it is a secular practice. Though some of its practices relate to Insight meditation, there is no specific religious element to this style.


Zen is an ancient Buddhist tradition dating back to 7th century China. The meditation practice of Zen is called ‘Zazen’. This practice requires the practitioner to sit upright (or once you get a hang of it, walking), with eyes lowered (not closed) and hands together below the navel. Your mind is directed to concentrate on the breath and observe the thoughts as they come and go without getting wrapped up in them. Some see Zen as a ‘stricter’ practice than other meditation practices. They even will often have practitioners sit and stare at a wall without moving.  

What makes it unique? 

Zen is considered to be a non-dualistic tradition that believes in ‘sudden enlightenment through the realization of our non-dualistic nature. Practitioners aspire to   In the Zen tradition, there is also a practice of “Kōans” or challenging questions that are meant to expand the mind or lead to sudden enlightenment. The most famous of the Zen Kōans is:

“Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand? 


— Hakuin Ekaku


Vipassana meditation is said to encompass the original techniques of meditation that the Buddha used when he was on his journey to enlightened. You can experience this technique by attending a silent retreat at one of the many Vipassana or Insight meditation centers around the world. Vipassana means ‘insight’ and this technique is supposed to help the practitioner uncover insights about the nature of humanity and reality. Through these insights, she can let go of unnecessary burdens that she carries. Vipassana practitioners meditate on nature of all things to be impermanent, impersonal, and imperfect. They acknowledge that life is full of hardship and suffering, but it is up to us to lessen that suffering for ourselves and others. Vipassana includes the practice of mindfulness, body awareness, and ethics as a way to observe the deeper questions on the nature of reality.

What makes it unique? 

Vipassana is a Buddhist technique of the Theravada tradition. It is a more relaxed approach in regard to the position you take when meditating. In Vipassana you can practice seated, standing, lying down or walking. The intention is to uncover the nature of the mind as you pay attention to your present experience.  

Metta: Loving-Kindness

This is a specific technique that spans across traditions which helps the practitioner to develop positive characteristics of the heart. Metta practice was offered by the Buddha and is a practice that both mindfulness and Vipassana paths incorporate. Practicing this technique requires one to cultivate warm feelings of friendliness and direct them towards oneself and others. This practice has also been a well-researched technique that has shown to improve self-compassion, resilience and promote prosocial behavior. Sharon Salzberg, Loving-Kindness teacher and Author says, “Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world. Practicing Metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves. We can open to everything with the healing force of love. When we feel love, our mind is expansive and open enough to include the entirety of life in full awareness, both its pleasures and its pain.”

What makes it unique? 

This is a practice is a meditation that is specifically for the heart. Loving-kindness is also a practice that expands beyond the individual as you focus on sending good feelings to your loved ones, those who challenge you and eventually all beings around the world. 

Transcendental Meditation 

Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a practice that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is said to have created and popularized in India the 1950s. He then took the technique and taught it to tens of thousands of people around the world. TM involves the use of a mantra. In Sanskrit, mantra means ‘tool of the mind’ and TM uses mantra to clear the mind of thoughts. Mantras used for TM are meaningless sounds that one repeats to reach a relaxed state. It is known as a concentration meditation technique and is meant to be practiced 15-20 minutes a day. 

What makes it unique? 

The use of a mantra in this case as an object of attention is unique out of these traditions. TM was born out of the Hindu religion and shared across the world receiving many celebrity practitioners.

No matter what style you choose, meditation is a practice that you can take with you in your life as a way to connect to yourself, deepen your self-awareness, and feel a greater ability to respond to life in a wise and caring way. Though there are many more styles of meditation, this is a glimpse into some of the styles that have become popular in the west. As with any new habit, it is helpful to share it with a friend, or find a group to join to learn the technique. Happy Meditating!

Photo: Rodolfo Sanches Carvalho

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