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What Different Types of Meditation Do

2017 November 30

Some time ago I posted a basic guide on concentration meditation.

There are a lot of different types of meditation, but the two you’re most likely to run into in the West are concentration meditation and insight meditation.

The two types aren’t unrelated. If you do insight meditation properly you will improve your concentration. If you do concentration meditation correctly, you will have insights, mostly to do with how little control you have over what you think of as “your mind.”

If you’re willing to commit enough time, you should do both, and and should also include open awareness meditation at some point.

There are two main goals of these types of meditation. Insight and “yoking.” Yoga, by which I don’t mean the sort of physical exercise which most westerners consider yoga, is first about yoking, second about insight.

Yoking is when all, or almost all parts of your mind (which includes all parts of your body that report in, your “consciousness”) are working together. A yoked mind is clear and stable and capable of doing whatever it wants without distraction.

(I don’t have a yoked mind, but it’s more stable and concentrated than it used to be.)

Yoking is primarily a result of concentration meditation, but it’s aided by having good insights.

Insight meditation is about understanding yourself, and getting your mind/brain/body to accept those insights at a fundamental level. A real insight is more than intellectual, it changes how you experience the world fundamentally. You will feel different after an actual insight (awakening). Often, though not always, this manifests as long held tensions in the body relaxing.

Recently, I had an awakening which released much of the muscles of my lower back, so that it isn’t curved inwards nearly as much. When that persisted over a few days (a.k.a. a few sleeps), I knew it was real.

The more “yoked” your mind is, even before something approaching full yoking, the more likely you are to have insights, because your attention becomes stable. If you are putting your attention on sensations from the body, say, you are more likely to understand those sensations if you can keep your attention on them longer. The same is true if you are examining your thoughts, emotions, internal narrative, or the products of any of your other senses.

The more insight meditation you do, the better your concentration will get, but not as fast as if you were emphasizing concentration.

When I was young, I was a serious runner. In grade 12, I ran about 40 miles a week. I could also do a hundred push ups easily, get up and not be winded, but I was not muscular and could not do many pull-ups or lift heavy weights. The exercise I did made me stronger than doing no exercise, but it wasn’t primarily about strength.

Meditation is, in part, exercise for the mind. Different exercises make the mind better at doing different things, there is overlap, but there is also a trade-off.

Insight meditation heads straight for the goal of much meditation: Rewiring your brain to perceive the world differently. Insights don’t just make you stronger, they make your brain operate differently. Ultimately the goal is to have a brain that operates in ways that a normal brain, without the insights, just can’t, much like an ordinary person can’t waltz without at least some training, or do complicated gymnastics, or walk a tightrope.

Take a third, common form of meditation: loving-kindness. In loving-kindness meditation, you spend your time feeling love. You start with easy to love people, your dog, hopefully your mother, maybe God (if you aren’t scared of God, which most Westerners are), maybe an idol (the Dalai Lama or Gandhi or Nelson Mandela). You move to people you don’t care about, then you move to people you fear or hate.

You do this every day, ideally for hours a day, and you get to the point where you can be feeling love for anyone, all the time, including people who are actively in your face trying to do you harm (nope, I don’t have this; fuck ’em).

This puts you in parasympathetic mode all the time (rest and digest), which is very healthy and good for you. At the top levels, you become one of those people who seem to radiate love all the time. It makes other forms of meditation really easy, because your brain is never scared (you can’t be scared and deeply loving at the same time), and therefore, it shuts up and stops trying to alert you of every possible threat.

The internal martial arts, like Tai-Chi or Bagua, or even Systema, are based on learning some of this: How to punch people with love, how to stay relaxed when a normal person would be freaking out and losing fine motor control (even normal martial artists).

Which is why most people never become good at fighting with internal martial arts: Because they are based on fighting people without much, or ideally any, fear- or anger-based adrenaline response.

So, loving kindness meditation, taken far enough, lets you do something that an untrained mind cannot do. Be loving even to your enemies while they are punching you, or perhaps even if you are punching them. “I don’t punch you because I love you, but I love you while I punch you.”

Many readers will be thinking: “This is bullshit. This is not possible. You are full of it.”

It’s something someone without a lot of training cannot do. Many people cannot even imagine doing it.

So, back to insight meditation. Insight meditation can rewire the brain in a number of ways. The first rewiring I received was “I am not my personality.” Why? Because when my personality changes, as it has through my life, I’m still me. This is easy to understand intellectually, it is hard to believe it in your body and brain.

Insight meditation can also get you to things like “I don’t do anything” which are profoundly alienated from common experience. (See the Bhagavad Gita for the purest expression of this.) I haven’t had this at the full awakening level, but I slip into it at times because I’ve done a lot of meditation around it: I know I don’t “control” my brain or my body or my thoughts. I’ve watched them very closely, I’ve tried to control them, etc.

Other available insights include “Everything passes,” “I am everything,” “I am nothing,” “I am the witness,” “I am not my body,” and some stuff that is even more alienated from common experience like “Suffering is just information I can disregard.”

These awakenings rewire the mind/brain/body. Sometimes only partially, sometimes what seems to be fully, and they are one of the main goals of many serious meditators because you carry these insights with you when you aren’t meditating.

As lovely as yoking is, and as much as the very best meditators can stay there for months, it can be upset. Basic rewiring of the mind/brain from Awakenings, on the other hand, is much more sticky.

And it gives the big rewards, like cessation of suffering, feeling of unity with the world, and so on.

(Some very good meditators are blissed out while meditating and miserable when not meditating. Nice to have, but…)

It should be emphasized that these forms of meditation can work together. The Buddha emphasized three: loving kindness, concentration on the breath, and insight meditation. If you’re loving all the time, it’s easier to concentrate. Easier concentration makes insight easier. Insight gets you the big goals, and hey, yoking is apparently amazing–your body feels good virtually all the time: bliss of body, bliss of mind.

More on all of this at a later date if interest remains high, including basic insight meditation and how to do open-awareness meditation.

(See Also, Some Fruits of Meditation: Simple Happiness.)


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22 Responses leave one →
  1. Emma permalink
    November 30, 2017

    Interest remains high.

  2. Jreev42 permalink
    November 30, 2017

    Very high.

  3. Jeff Wegerson permalink
    November 30, 2017

    More high.

  4. scruff permalink
    November 30, 2017

    Let me add some height.

  5. Andrew permalink
    November 30, 2017

    If a person only had about an hour a day to practice meditation, which of these practices would you recommend investing the time into? Or would a mixture be best?

  6. Ian Welsh permalink*
    November 30, 2017

    If you’ve got an hour, do this:

    http://files.howtolivewiki.com/.meditation_2015/transcripts/Vinay%20Gupta%20on%20Meditation.pdf

    In six months, if you stick with it, check in with your progress.

  7. zotter permalink
    November 30, 2017

    Very nice Ian, thanks for writing this guide!

  8. Ben permalink
    November 30, 2017

    just fyi, the first page of that pdf reads “Please do not post to the Internet, copy or circulate”

  9. Willy permalink
    November 30, 2017

    Be loving even to your enemies while they are punching you, or perhaps even if you are punching them.

    I’ve told them that I’m just doing it for their own good. But when I get to the part where I’ve kicked their ass, and we now need to sit together and meditate in loving kindness, they curse at me.

    Actually, I think this works with anybody outside of the Dark Triad. People who are inherently evil take advantage of anything “kindness”, and even respond poorly to punishment (Cleckley, Hare, Babiak…) . Grasshopper doesn’t know what to do in those situations.

  10. Mel permalink
    November 30, 2017

    “I’ve told them that I’m just doing it for their own good. …”
    The thing is that before the end of the training, you’ve dealt with the question “Why am I punching people whom I love?” Generally it’s a bad idea, and you don’t usually do such things.

    There was a similar idea in an Ali McBeale episode, when some character revealed a simple secret that would make a woman do anything you want. Turned out it was “Respect her.” Yeah, seems like that would work, actually. Strange.

  11. Ian Welsh permalink*
    November 30, 2017

    Yup, most people can’t wrap their mind around it, and equate it with abuse. It isn’t about hitting your kids or wife or husband, it’s about avoiding the adrenaline response in fights.

  12. mago permalink
    December 1, 2017

    Sorry Ian, it takes more than a daily hour to achieve results, but better than nothing.

  13. Cagliostrowned permalink
    December 1, 2017

    Interest remains high.

  14. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    December 1, 2017

    I started practice at Sweetwater Zen Center in February because of a great opportunity. Part of the opportunity is the Sangha/community. I do not have the self discipline to do it on my own, I need the support of other practicing people. I took Jukai 20 years ago at Zen Yokoji Mountain Center and started practice around 1980 at ZCLA, not a very good practice at that, over all those years, good in the 90s for a period around my Jukai (taking of the precepts).
    It’s not easy, it’s work.
    I enjoy your posts.
    Ron – Issho is my Zen Buddhist name given to me by Charles Tenshin Fletcher, the abbot at ZYMC.

  15. Ian Welsh permalink*
    December 1, 2017

    Dear Mago,

    At various times I have done far, far more. Someone said they have an hour a day, I gave them a practice which is good for those who have an hour a day.

    Nonetheless, you will see results from an hour a day consistently, just not the results one will see from more.

    And a lot depends on fast path vs. slow path.

  16. December 1, 2017

    best work on meditation yet.

  17. Mr. Unpopular permalink
    December 1, 2017

    Adding to the height of interest

  18. atcooper permalink
    December 1, 2017

    I’d not heard yoking and awaken used as terms of art yet. Awakenings are terrifying stuff. It’s worth mentioning here that some caution is in order and best to mix in some group stuff to help tether.

    Once you start on that path of fire, there’s no getting off it.

  19. jemand permalink
    December 1, 2017

    Adding one more for high interest level.

    Some of the insights you describe seem partly familiar, partly not. I don’t think it was my first, but my most mind-blowing insight was along the lines of “I am not a coherent, consistent, separate, single whole self.” Rather, “I” am like a swirling mix of many things and no things, streams of thought pattern coming together for the moment and then moving on.

    With that, there is a lot of similarity with some of the insights as how you phrase some of the insights, such as “I am everything,” “I am nothing,” “I am not my body,” “I am not my personality” etc, but primarily because of the insight on the word “I” as referencing something extremely fluid and barely there, if at all. But it’s also distinct enough I’m not sure it quite fits.

    Is this the sort of thing that others experience? I’ve never discussed this with a group, never read extensively to even know if I’m doing it “right,” so either I’m experiencing something showing I’m on the path, or I’m pretty far off, so far I don’t know I’m far off.

    Regardless, whatever I’m doing, it has helped me live with a brain prone to flights of severe anxiety and panic attacks with decreasing concern for these events when they come, and less suffering when they are around, so I suppose I’ll keep doing it.

  20. Steeleweed permalink
    December 1, 2017

    There’s a reason a lot of early LSD users such as Alpert/Ram Dass got involved with ‘Eastern ‘ movements. In the right circumstances, hallucinogens can reveal possible states of mind but they don’t make it long-term. Meditation can be directed toward achieving and maintaining such ‘altered states’ of mind.

    I agree one cannot control the mind with any degree of precision, but one can nudge, guide, influence it. When I ski, run down a mountain or get into the rhythm of any activity (dancing, anyone?), it’s impossible to precisely orchestrate the movements inch by inch, but by staying ‘physically loose’ and making constant minor tweaks, I end up being where I want to be. The same applies to staying ‘mentally loose’, not in control but exerting constant influence as to where the mind is ‘headed’ next, which implies a goal.

    I find dreams can be a useful tool in analysis, including self-analysis. If I have some problem and cannot decide on best course of action, I concentrate on it when falling asleep with the alarm set to waken me in an hour. I wake up having (hopefully) dreamt about the problem, I often come to understand the issues better and arrive at a solution. I didn’t ‘command’ my mind to find an answer, but I ‘nudge’ it in a direction I knew to be helpful.

    A good part of the problem of meditation – and a major benefit – is to get the ‘normal’ mind turned off so you can experience what’s behind the socially-created curtain.

  21. Cagliostrowned permalink
    December 2, 2017

    Been reading that Vinay Gupta PDF and a talk or two of his, and I have to say he doesn’t make enlightenment sound very inviting! I wonder what the effect on artistic creativity is of just shutting off the internal burble of thoughts.

  22. Dan permalink
    December 3, 2017

    Who is this God person anyway?

    I resonate with the “this is bullshit” part. I just don’t see why you need to sit around meditating to relax, release the monkey mind, step back and regard it spinning around, and decide not to care about nonsense other people think, let go of the ego, and realize the self is a fiction.

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