Man Meditating by the SeaIf you’re looking into getting started with meditation, it can be overwhelming. There are so many types of meditation, so many schools of thought, and so many resources.

Should you try mindfulness meditation or contemplative prayer? How big a factor is religion or spirituality in a form of meditation? Do you need an actual instructor or will a book or video do just as well?

For those of you who are recovering addicts, all these undifferentiated choices are not what you need. All these options and not enough information are paralyzing and, honestly, keep many well-intentioned addicts from ever starting to meditate in the first place.

If you already think you know what style of meditation you’d like or you just want to grab a resource and go, then I recommend you just head on over to my best meditation resource recommendations for 2018, grab a resource, and get started.

But if you want to know a little more about what meditation types are out there before choosing something that’s right for you, read on.

What You’ll Learn

In this article, we’ll look at:

  1. Monastic Style Meditation
  2. Meditation On Content
  3. Alcoholics Anonymous Meditation
  4. Prayer-Based Meditation
  5. Mindfulness Meditation
  6. Binaural Meditation

Far Eastern/Monastic Style Meditation

Men Meditate Eastern-Style on the BeackThis is what a lot of people think of when they hear the word “meditation.” You think of a person in robes on a mountaintop or in an almost empty room, maybe sitting in the lotus position, trying to keep their minds clear and maybe chanting a mantra.

I almost called this simply “Eastern meditation,” but there’s also some of this tradition in Western spirituality as well. Still, it’s the form of meditation we most often associate with ancient eastern religions or philosophies and their modern versions.

In this style of meditation, the goal is more or less to clear your mind. You want to quiet all thoughts and just be in that state.

There are all kinds of reasons for this. Some of them are religious or philosophical, such as the idea that our existence as an individual separate from the universe is an illusion, and by clearing our minds, we let go of that illusion and exist in a sense of oneness with the universe.

Other reasons skew more practical and make this form of meditation attractive even to people who do not share these ideas. For example, having a quieted mind lowers stress. Also, being able to quiet your mind at will gives you a lot of control over your thoughts and puts you in the driver’s seat of your thinking as opposed to being driven by it. Some of these benefits were touched on in my last article about the benefits of meditation.

Historically speaking, this way of meditating is probably the most popular. Even today, practitioners of this style abound everywhere in many cultures and spiritual traditions. It is not only an Eastern thing, and this style of meditating is found in just about every religion you can think of and groups that practice no religion at all. However, its broad roots in Eastern religions and philosophies may turn some people off.

This type of meditation is also possibly the most difficult. Anyone who has tried to clear their mind for any length of time knows that this is a tremendously difficult thing to do.

Because of this, many of the monastic-type meditation practices offer some kind of tool. Some focus on your breathing. Some focus on a mantra. Zen-style practitioners share riddles that have no answer. When I studied kung fu, we visualized a table that we kept sweeping off. These give your mind something to do without generating actual thoughts to occupy your… uh… thoughts.

The difficulty of this type of meditation generally means it takes a long time to master and is probably best learned from a teacher and/or group. On the flip side, mastery of this style of meditation gives someone an immense amount of discipline and control over their thoughts, which is an incredibly powerful tool for recovering addicts.

This Type of Meditation Might Be Right for You If:

  • You belong to a spiritual tradition that emphasizes things like the elimination of the ego and unity with a greater whole
  • You want to achieve a very high degree of mental and emotional control
  • You don’t mind dedicating years to mastery with frequent challenges along the way
  • You like the idea of meditating in a group or under the guidance of an instructor

Meditation On Content

Meditating on a BookThe writer of Psalm 1 talks about those who are truly happy, saying that they do not follow the ways of the sinful and arrogant, but instead love God’s law and meditate on it day and night. This is an example of meditations that are content based.

In this type of meditation, rather than clearing your mind, you fill it with something you want to focus on and think deeply about. For Christians, this might be a Bible verse or an attribute of God or a station of the cross. For an ambitious business person, it might be a business principle or the wealth they hope to get. For a football coach, it might be a brilliant play that last year’s team executed. For a recovering addict, it might be one of the 12 Steps or a helpful recovery slogan.

This type of meditation is probably more about rumination than it is about meditation the way we might generally think of it. The goal is mostly to get insight from your content and make it a part of you, becoming woven into the way you think.

While that might not seem much like meditation, it is still an exercise in mental discipline because you are deeply focused on the subject of your meditation to the exclusion of all other thoughts. It also produces longer-term changes by working your meditations into your natural thought processes. Whatever you meditate on will grow to be a part of you.

This form of meditation is possibly the easiest in the sense that most of us do this from time to time without even meaning to. The difference is that this is a disciplined approach to being intentional about when you decide to focus on something and what you decide to focus on.

We often “meditate on content” that we don’t want to become part of our operating system. We dread things that haven’t happened, yet. We take in media that puts powerful images in our heads that can increase our fear or anger. We have a cycle of negative self-talk. If you’re an addict, you have a whole network of false beliefs that are constantly speaking to you and a strong part of your interpretive grid.

By giving attention and energy to this content, we make it a part of us. Because we do this, we often bring about the very things we hoped wouldn’t happen. Having an actual planned practice around meditating on content is a way to reverse this pattern.

There is no shortage of meditation-worthy content. Sacred texts, helpful books, and even works of art all fit the bill. For recovering addicts looking for something to get started, I recommend the meditations in A Gentle Path Through the 12 Steps.

This Type of Meditation Might Be Right for You If:

  • You are looking for the easiest path into meditation
  • You often focus on things you’d rather not be focusing on
  • You’ll probably do this kind of meditation involuntarily, anyway

Alcoholics Anonymous Meditation

Writing a Daily PlanStep 11 of AA’s Twelve Steps tells us that Bill W.’s original AA group “sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him….”

The Big Book of AA does not lay out a very detailed meditation plan. Honestly, it’s a little scattered when it comes to the subject and frequently folds it into prayer, probably because that first AA group was still experimenting and growing at the time and everyone was much more familiar with prayer than they were with meditation. Other books important to AA go into much more detail but still stop short of laying out what meditation would look like.

As you piece the material together, you will find that Bill describes what he thinks of as a morning meditation. You can read the book(s), yourself, but the upshot involves praying that you will approach your day’s situations with patience, kindness, and love.

Then, you mentally step through your day’s upcoming events and decisions. You think of how you want to be in each situation and how you plan to respond. If there is any situation that baffles you, you ask God to show you what to do and listen for what He has to say.

In the evenings, you sort of reverse the process, looking back on your day and noting the times that you responded in a healthy way and learning from the times that you did not, being grateful in all things.

I’ll admit, this does not look a lot like meditation the way we normally think of it. It looks a lot more like planning your day, asking for God’s help, and learning from what happened.

At the same time, this practice builds intentionality and focus to something that is normally random and scattered, if it even happens at all. It also begins taking steps toward being quiet and receptive in the face of our fears and confusion rather than filling it with noise or dwelling on it.

Recovering addicts will also tell you that planning out and visualizing how who we want to be and how we want to react in life’s daily situations is actually quite a few steps up from simply responding in the moment, because addicts in recovery are learning to be our best selves, but we still have a long way to go. We still respond with anger or selfishness or want to act out when situations arise that put us off kilter. As an addict grows their “best self” muscles, deliberately planning and visualizing how those situations are going to go in advance can be a big help to acting that way in reality when the time comes.

This Type of Meditation Might Be Right for You If:

  • The original AA material has been good for you so far and you’d like to use it in this area as well
  • You’re just beginning to meditate and you want something more transitional than going directly to full on meditation practices
  • You’ve been disappointed with how consistently you’ve been able to be serene, patient, kind, and unselfish throughout the day

Prayer-Based Meditation

Man PrayingIf the monastic style of meditation I described earlier has most of its roots in the East, the prayer-based meditation practices are more commonly found in the religions practiced in the West. These meditation practices occupy the middle ground between prayer and what we typically think of as meditation.

If you already pray, probably the easiest first step is a practice called listening prayer. As the name implies, it’s working into your prayer life the practice of listening for what your Higher Power has for you. We’re often used to talking in prayer, but listening is rarer. Even when we try to do it, it can feel awkward.

But listening puts us into a focused, receptive state where we are not generating the content. This is a very soft stepping into meditation and may have other spiritual benefits as well. It may also be helpful to use a journal during your listening prayer times to help you be sensitive and receptive to the thoughts that will come your way during this practice.

Another practice that moves closer to meditation is centering (or contemplative) prayer. Technically, there are subtle differences between centering and contemplative prayer, but for our purposes, we’re going to lump them together since they are virtually the same.

The idea behind centering or contemplative prayer is that you spend time sitting in silence simply being present in the presence of God. The analogy that is sometimes used is that of an intimate couple whose relationship is so deep that they can simply be in each other’s presence and enjoy and love the other person without needing to fill that time with talking or activity.

The goal is not necessarily to empty the mind, but since the idea is to be still and quiet in God’s presence, centering and contemplative prayer encourages you to simply acknowledge thoughts that bubble up and let them pass by, not fixating on them, and returning to your contemplation. Some resources recommend using a word as a tool to bring you back to center. While this can be challenging, it is usually easier to do this than to try to actually clear your head of thoughts.

The result of this is very similar to the benefits gained from the hard-core monastic traditions of meditation, although it’s not quite as hard of a mental workout. I can tell you from personal experience, though, that centering prayer will still build a lot of mental discipline on its own.

In addition to those benefits, this practice moves meditation into an area that may be more comfortable for people who enjoy prayer but are a little leery of the more Far Eastern mystical forms of meditation. There is a mystic tradition in virtually every religion there is, including Christianity and Islam, and centering/contemplative prayer fits into those traditions. Such mystic theologians regularly remind us that God, in Himself, is still and quiet and self-sufficient.

However, this is also the main criticism of centering/contemplative prayer – that it is just putting a Christian veneer over the religions, philosophies, and practices of Buddhism or Hinduism. Others feel that praying without content is a pointless or even sacreligious practice. You’ll have to decide for yourself what you feel about that.

If you want to learn more about listening or centering prayer, I’ve recommended some resources in a previous article where I, well, recommend meditation resources.

This Type of Meditation Might Be Right for You If:

  • Your spiritual tradition already includes prayer
  • You’re looking for a partial transition into meditation before taking it fully on
  • You want to incorporate meditation into your existing spiritual practices and traditions

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfully Meditating by a WindowMindfulness meditation is, in some sense, a newcomer. It’s rapidly gaining popularity, though, because it’s a very accessible form of meditation and is completely removed from any particular religious or metaphysical context. This makes it useful for a wide variety of people.

The basics of mindfulness meditation involve finding a quiet place to sit and paying attention to your breathing. Inevitably, other thoughts will creep up. Observe those thoughts, but do not engage them. Let them go and return to your breathing. Do this for however long or however short of a time you want.

That’s pretty much it. Simple, yes?

Well, simple in the basic concept, but it can actually be challenging to perform. And like many other exercises, the true benefits come when you practice regularly.

There are many benefits to this little, simple form of meditation.

First, you learn to become aware of what you’re thinking and feeling. This may seem trivial to you, but I promise you it is not. I am regularly amazed at how difficult it is to know accurately what you’re feeling and recognize it when it happens.

For instance, let’s say someone confronts you about something you did that hurt them, and you get angry. Well, are you actually angry that they’re pointing this out, or do you actually feel ashamed or guilty and it was easier to turn to anger, instead? We might be able to figure that out after the fact, if we even think about it again, but wouldn’t it be good to know at the moment, “Ok, I’m actually not angry with this person. I just feel very ashamed and it hurts. I’m not going to yell; I’m going to apologize and try to make this right.”

Second, you learn not to pass judgement on yourself for your thoughts and feelings. These things crop up in you for all kinds of reasons beyond your control. The question is how you’re going to respond to them. But there’s no need to make negative judgements about yourself because of the things you feel or the thoughts that come unbidden to your mind.

Third, you learn to create a thoughtful pause between a thought/desire and an action. Instead of just letting a thought, feeling, or desire produce an instant action, you have to think about it, first.

Fourth, it directs your mind toward the present moment. When you feel yourself being tugged into the past or the future or a fantasy, the meditation allows you to notice this without judgement and gently return to your present state.

All of these things are very valuable life skills for everyone, but especially so for recovering addicts. As addicts, we are experts at drowning or avoiding our feelings, not examining our thoughts, shaming ourselves with our thoughts, and letting our feelings take us straight into action without any interruption. We’re also great at living anywhere but the present.

Mindfulness meditation helps us to be aware of our emotional state long before we start feeling the desire to act on our addictions, and this gives us the time we need to make healthier choices. It also helps us not to get buried under regrets of the past or fears for the future, but gently shepherds us back to the present moment where change, growth, repair, and joy are all possible.

Every meeting of my 12 Step group incorporates a short session of mindfulness meditation prior to prayer, and it’s one of my most valuable times from that meeting.

This Type of Meditation Might Be Right for You If:

  • You’d prefer meditating in short sessions throughout the day rather than a longer, concentrated session
  • The benefits of mindfulness meditation pretty much cover everything you want to get out of meditation
  • You’re looking for a meditation practice that isn’t a religious practice

Binaural Meditation

Meditating with HeadphonesIf you end up reading my recommendations for meditation resources, you’ll notice my favorite resource comes from this type of meditation.

Just about every type of meditation that exists relies on your ability to do it well. With some types, this can take years. With others, it may be a much shorter time, but all of them require practice and depend on your ability to execute.

This isn’t a drawback; the benefits of developing these habits of the mind are a part of the overall package of benefits that meditation brings. If I said that most of the benefits that come from running depend on your ability to run, you wouldn’t think of that as a criticism of running.

At the same time, many people find themselves pressed for time. Or they’d like the benefits that meditation brings but aren’t sure about how they can incorporate it into their lives or how much effort they’re willing to spend learning and practicing a new activity.

Binaural meditation uses sounds that are designed to produce brain activity that is the same as the brain’s activity in deep meditation. You listen to the sounds, your brain produces the activity, and when you’re done, it’s as if you’ve deeply meditated for that entire time.

What I do is this: when I wake up, I put on some headphones attached to my MP3 player, lie back and close my eyes, and listen to the track. That’s it. That’s my main meditation routine.

You don’t have to suppress any thoughts or focus on anything in particular, although you can do that if you like. You don’t have to pray, although you can do that if you like. You don’t have to observe your thoughts and feelings or let them go or return to center, although you can do all those things.

You can basically incorporate any of the other meditation techniques that you like, but since the method works primarily through the sound, there’s nothing in particular you have to do. In fact, many binaural meditators discover that, as the sounds work your brain, things naturally come to the surface for you to become aware of and work through.

Like Yakov Smirnoff’s old comedy routine: in binaural meditation, the tracks meditate you.

I can personally testify to the benefits of this form of meditation, at least for me. It has made a huge difference in my resilience, my awareness of my thoughts and feelings, my emotional well-being, and inserting that thoughtful pause between a desire that crops up and my acting out on it.

I thought it was a little weird at first and I was highly skeptical of the claims, so I ran a free demo for a week and experienced enough to be convinced to try it longer, and it has really made a difference for me.

Not to sound like a broken record, but there’s a link to the free demo I tried also in the article about recommended resources.

A potential downside to using this type of meditation (other than sounding super weird when you try to tell people about it) is that there is value in cultivating the mental discipline to produce those results in and of yourself. Not only is it nice not to need a MP3 player to meditate, but the growth in mental control you achieve through other methods is a valuable asset for anyone. Using binaural tracks is like the “easy mode” for meditation and may not be everyone’s preference.

This Type of Meditation Might Be Right for You If:

  • You want to easily incorporate meditation into your daily routine without a lot of overhead
  • You’d like the benefits of deep meditation without having to invest the time and effort into becoming a proficient meditator
  • The main things you value about meditation are the mental changes that meditation produces and not necessarily the growth you get from the process of learning to meditate

Which Type of Meditation is Right for You?

I teach martial arts as a hobby, and people sometimes ask me which martial art is the best. I first ask them, “What do you want to get out of a martial art?” There are other, follow-up questions I might ask like how intensely physical they want it to be or whether they’re comfortable with various spiritual, cultural, or philosophical elements that may crop up in their martial art.

Because the truth is that there are no bad martial arts; there are only martial arts that aren’t ideal for what you’re trying to accomplish. If you want an intense physical workout that’s also good in a street fight, muay thai is probably going to work better for you than tai chi. If you want to get in touch with your Korean cultural roots, taekwondo is probably better for that than Brazilian jiu jitsu.

Meditation is the same way. There are no bad meditation styles up there; there are only styles that might be better for what you’re trying to accomplish. What are the benefits you’re after? What role, if any, do you want your spirituality to play in your meditation? Are you wanting meditation to become a big focus of your activity or just something you do for a bit of improvement so you can get on with your day?

Another thing to consider is that you don’t have to limit yourself to just one kind of meditation. I use binaural meditation daily in the morning, but I use listening and centering prayer both as part of my prayer life, with occasional short bits of mindfulness meditation throughout the day.

You can’t really go wrong, and you don’t lose anything by experimenting. Some of you may already see a path that is an ideal fit for you. But there’s also nothing wrong with just grabbing a resource and giving it a shot.

Doing something that you end up changing is better than doing nothing until you figure out the “perfect” choice.

How about you?  Are you meditating these days?  Thinking of trying one of these methods?  Tell me about it in the Comments, below.