Meditation FAQ: What are the different styles of meditation?

As a brief note today, I have tried quite a few different styles of meditation over the last 10-20 years, and I want to make a note of them here. I’m going to start by listing the meditation techniques by the meditation teachers I know, write a little bit about each one, and then at the end I’ll try to summarize these teachings.

(Please note that this is a work in progress.)

Daniel Ingram

Daniel Ingram teaches a form of insight meditation that comes from the Theravada tradition. His technique is to intensely investigate your sensory experience. Basically you sit still and try to feel and count all of the sensory experiences you have.

He believes that you need to start by gaining the ability to have access concentration, and from there you can extend into Insight Meditation.

He’s probably the first meditation teacher I read who mentioned that meditation can be fun. I think he quoted someone else when he said something like, “We’re out to bust some vibrations.” He suggests making a sport of it, which I think is a great idea.

Shinzen Young

Shinzen Young teaches several different styles of meditation, and I believe his favorite technique is called noting, and at one time his very favorite is called noting gone.” This involves mentally noting or labeling sensations as they arise in your awareness, where “sensations” can including thoughts (mental thoughts) as well as sensory perceptions (what you feel, hear, see, smell, and taste).

In one of his Brightmind app teachings he talks about listening to the mental talk in your head like you are watching birds in a forest. In this technique, roughly every 3-5 seconds you observe whether you just heard any mental talk in your brain. If so, you say “hear,” and if not, you say “rest.” Then you repeat this technique for as long as you are meditating. I still do this sometimes when I can’t calm down.

Mahasi Sayadaw

Mahasi Sayadaw taught a noting meditation technique, and he comes from the Vipassana or Insight Meditation line of practice.

Pa Auk Sayadaw

I know of Pa Auk Sayadaw from the book, Practicing the Jhanas. In the beginning of this book, the authors (Stephen Snyder and Tina Rasmussen) discuss a style of meditating where you focus on the Anapana Spot, which is below the nose and above the upper lip.

Although this style is different than Daniel Ingram’s main teaching style, it’s similar to his “Fire Kasina” meditation teachings.

(TODO: Find the correct name for this style.)

Zen Master Seung Sahn

Zen Master Seung Sahn taught that we should always focus on a koan, such as, “What am I?” So during meditation you keep that thought, and during the day you use a noting technique, so when you’re driving you ask, “Who is driving,” and when you’re eating you think, “Who is eating?,” etc. (The koan technique normally does not get into “maps,” and is instead considered the “sudden enlightenment” school.)

Nisargadatta Maharaj

I recently learned that his technique is similar to the technique taught be Nisargadatta Maharaj. In his book, I Am That, he teaches that you should focus on the thought, “I am”, and also suggests constantly asking yourself the question, “What am I?”

I have seen discussions that say that this style uses self-reflection to dissolve the ego, and then you may eventually realize the non-dual nature of reality. (His book does mention the ego a fair amount.)

Like Ram Dass, Nisargadatta Maharaj also talks about “the witness” and “witnessing” quite a bit, and I’ll expand on that as I have more time.

Ram Dass

AFAIK, Ram Dass did not teach a specific meditation technique, i.e., a formal one for when you sit down to meditate. He definitely taught mindfulness, as you can tell from his “Be Here Now” mantra.

He also taught Bhakti Yoga quite a bit, which is a form of devotional yoga. Basically you keep your mind on someone, such as a god like Ram. Ram Dass’s teacher, Neem Karoli Baba, could always be seen mouthing the word, “Ram ... Ram ... Ram” over and over again, all day long.

Ram Dass also spoke of “service” as a form of meditation, and he called this Karma Yoga. I believe the word seva relates to service, and he was also a co-founder of the Seva Foundation.

Another technique he talked about a lot was focusing on “the witness” and “witnessing,” and I’ll write more on that when I have more free time.

Formal names for meditation techniques

I’m still researching this next part, but I believe these are the correct names for each of these meditation techniques:

  • Daniel Ingram’s technique is Focused Attention Meditation. You focus your attention on an object such as the breath, a mantra, a candle (fire kasina), or in his case, all physical sensations that arise.
  • Shinzen Young’s primary technique is known as Noting Meditation. One thing I did not mention is that you should be neutral in the process of noting each sensation, so if you imagine that you are a bird watcher, you just note the thoughts in your brain and then calmly note, “Just thought of food; hear”, etc.
  • The style promoted by Zen Master Seung Sahn and Nisargadatta Maharaj is known as Self-Inquiry Meditation. On a personal note, this style reminds me quite a bit of using a mantra.

Other styles of meditation I don’t know very well are:

  • Zen Meditation (typically initially focusing on the breath)
  • Mindfulness Meditation
  • Loving-Kindness Meditation (Metta)
  • Movement Meditation (e.g., Tai Chi, Qigong)
  • Transcendental Meditation (TM)
  • Mantra Meditation (somewhat similar to the koan style)

I’ll write more about these meditation styles when I have more time.