Meditation is a mental exercise that involves relaxation, awareness, and focus. Meditation is to the mind what physical exercise is to the body. The practice is usually done individually, in a still, seated position, with eyes closed—thus often involving stillness. But there are also ways to do walking meditation, and to integrate mindfulness into other activities (we could call this “dynamic stillness”).
Meditation is similar to other practices—affirmations, self-hypnosis, prayer, contemplation, and breathing exercises—but is not the same thing.
The oldest evidence of meditation is wall art in the Indian subcontinent, from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE, showing people seated in meditative postures with half-closed eyes. The oldest written mention of meditation is from 1,500 BCE in the Vedas. Most of the spiritual and philosophical traditions, all over the world, have developed forms of meditation.
The English word “meditate” originally means to think deeply. When Eastern contemplative practices were imported into Western culture, “meditation” was used to define them, for lack of a better word. Nowadays, meditation refers more to focusing your attention rather than to reflecting deeply.
To practice meditation, you don’t need to hold any religious beliefs or sit in an exotic, difficult pose. Meditation is not an escape from life, nor is it a selfish indulgence—quite the contrary: it is an essential practice for health, sanity, and wellbeing. Meditation is for everybody, not just for monks. You don’t need to be a calm person to meditate, just like you don’t need to be strong to go to the gym.
The Different Types of Meditation
There are hundreds of different styles of meditation, generally fitting into four categories.
Concentration meditation (also called “focused attention”) is the most commonly known and practiced type. You focus all your attention on a single object, moment after moment—the attention is narrow and deep. The object could be almost anything—a physical sensation (breath), a sound (mantra), a feeling (e.g., loving-kindness), a part of your body (e.g., chakra), an image (visualization) or a physical object (e.g., a candle flame).
Observation meditation (also called “open monitoring”) is a practice in which you observe the panorama of the present-moment experience. You notice your sensory inputs (sounds, body sensations), and/or what is inside your mind (thoughts, feelings, memories). The attention is wide and shallow. Mindfulness, Inner Silence, and some styles of Vipassana fall into this category.
Relaxation meditation, the third type, aims to take you to deep state of rest and relaxation. Yoga Nidra and Body Scan are the most well-known techniques.
Pure being practices invite us to drop everything and simply be. You are neither focusing nor observing. These are typically more advanced practices, not directly relevant to developing self-discipline. Styles include the Chinese Zuowang, the Buddhist meditations of Zazen and Dzogchen, and the nondual practice of Self-Enquiry.
For developing self-discipline, concentration meditation is the most important one, as it helps you develop both willpower and awareness. Having said that, relaxation meditation and observation meditation can also play roles in developing awareness and dissipating negative emotions that would otherwise lead to unwanted indulgences.