To train in meditation is to train in the skill of distilling one’s awareness down to a state of absolute suchness. The perfection of this technique is often called enlightenment. There are a great many different kinds of meditative practices, and it is too grand a task to cover them all here. Instead, this page simply provides a brief discussion of the components of meditation, as well as an overview of two categories the various techniques can fall into.
The Basic Components
Meditation has two central factors: applying attention and sustaining attention. Together, these are like a bird learning to fly. They take off from the ground (applying) and then maneuver their wings in an effort to maintain a stable flight path (sustaining).
Applying – One deliberately focuses their attention on an object. This might be the breath, a particular bodily sensation, a visualization, the ever unfolding nature of awareness, or any number of things.
Sustaining – One continually stays with the object of attention, and remembers to promptly return to it whenever the mind wanders to something else.
Two General Varieties
The various meditative practices of the world can be subsumed under roughly two categories: focused attention and open monitoring.
Focused attention meditative practices involve sustaining selective attention, moment by moment, on a chosen object. They are also characterized by the following:
- Directing and sustaining attention on chosen object
- Detecting mind wandering and distractors (e.g. verbal thoughts)
- Disengagement of attention from distractors and shifting of attention back to the selected object of meditation
- Cognitive reappraisal of distractor (e.g. “just a thought” or “it’s okay to get distracted”)
Training with these practices increases the brain’s ability to sustain its attention on an object for long periods of time without becoming fatigued. It also promotes three very important cognitive faculties.
The Monitoring Faculty – This is a kind of meta-awareness that remains vigilant to distractors without destabilizing the intended focus. The ability to sustain one’s attention on awareness itself, as opposed to the particular contents of awareness, correlates with deep experiences of equanimity and a quantifiable lessening in the intensity of experiences of pain.
The Ability to Disengage – This allows one to easily release distracting objects, without any further involvement, and leads to frequent returns to the refuge of mindful impartiality.
The Ability to Redirect Focus – Closely related to the ability to disengage, this allows one to promptly return to the object of meditation without getting “stuck” on distractions.
For highly advanced practitioners, these cognitive faculties are invoked less frequently, and the ability to sustain focus becomes progressively effortless.
Open monitoring meditative practices are typically built upon the abilities developed through focused attention, such as the ability to calm the mind and reduce distractions. These practices can be characterized by the following:
- No particular object of focus
- Non-reactive meta-cognitive monitoring (e.g. for beginners, the labeling of experiences)
- Non-reactive awareness of the automatic emotional interpretations of sensory and perceptual stimuli
The skill of open monitoring leads directly to more pronounced and continuous experiences of mindfulness in everyday life.
If you’d like to explore the topic of meditation more thoroughly, check out our wide selection of articles. Giovanni Dienstmann’s Types of Meditation is a particularly good one. In it, he gives a concise review of the myriad techniques there are out there to try.