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What is meditation and how do we practice its many forms?

January 24, 2020

In this video, Muse co-founder Ariel Garten explains in simple terms what, exactly, meditation is. You’ve heard about it, have friends who do it, and have maybe even tried it yourself, but what exactly is it?

 

Ariel mentions that there are many different forms of meditation. Let’s take a dive into the ways we can practice them.

Walking Meditation

Walking Meditation sounds simple, but there’s more to it than just going for a stroll in nature – though that certainly has its benefits!

This introductory practice is adapted by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center from the book Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn.

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The practice instructs finding a quiet, secluded space where you can walk in a straight line for 10-15 paces. When you reach the end of the line, stop and breathe for as long as you like, then turn around and walk back along the line.

Instead of walking normally, Kabat-Zinn asks that you focus on each step as four separate parts:

  1. Lifting the foot from the ground
  2. Moving the foot forward through space
  3. Placing the foot back on the ground, heel-first
  4. Feeling the weight of your body shift as you place your weight on the foot

It’s about taking stock of the small, repetitive things we do every day, like walking and breathing. Once you’re comfortable with walking slowly in a controlled environment, you can take step up the pace to walking quickly – even running – or while traveling anywhere on foot.

Listen to “Mindful Walking” by Patricia Karpas in the Outdoors Collection on the Muse app.

Zen Meditation:

Zen meditation is an evolution of Chinese and Indian meditation techniques. While many modern, Western meditation focus on relaxation and stress relief, Zen (and its Chinese forerunner, Ch’an) digs deeper into larger questions of life and the core issues affecting you.

Zen meditation is similar to mindfulness in that it uses attention on the breath to focus on the present. Zen meditation is a form of “open-monitoring meditation” which reduces the activation of the default mode network, aka the part of the brain that lets the mind wander.

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The fundamental goal of open-monitoring meditation is to observe your thoughts without judgment – a difficult task to be sure! Zen or open-monitoring meditation teaches you to be aware of the judgemental, stream of consciousness thoughts and, by being aware, neutralize them to find peace and calmness. 

How is it practiced?

Often, Zen is done in lotus position but simply sitting with legs crossed is fine if lotus or half-lotus is painful. Zen meditation is unusual as it does not require the eyes to be fully closed. Some Zen practitioners prefer to focus their eyes on a single point in the room or to have their eyes half-open. The important thing is to do whatever allows you to focus best on your breath.

“You changed your relationship to your thoughts. Once you do that, you can gain control over your feelings.”

Listen to “An Intro to Zen Meditation” in the Zen Collection on the Muse App and try it out yourself!

Mantra Meditation:

A mantra is a simple verbal repetition done during meditation. Mantras can be any length: a phrase, a word, even a syllable or sound.

Mantra meditations begin the same as other forms of seated meditation, but once focus on the breath has been achieved, the meditator repeats a mantra for as long as desired. 

mediation

There are many different kinds of mantras to fit the needs of the meditator. Some prefer to repeat a positive affirmation, while others have a spiritual connection. Probably the most famous mantra is “Om mani padme hum” a Sanskrit mantra common in many forms of Buddhism. While the meaning of this mantra is complex, here are the basics:

  • Om is believed by Yoga sages to be the sound of all creation. The sound “om” is meant to be extended into four distinct syllables, which each have their own significance.

The following five syllables each represent dissolving one’s attachments to negative thoughts:

  • Mani means jewel and each syllable has its own meaning. Ma is meant to dissolve jealousy and “the attachment to fleeting pleasures.” Ni is the dissolution of passion and desire.
  • Padme also has two syllables: Pad dissolves our attachments to prejudices and judgment, Me dissolves possessiveness.
  • Hum is designed to eliminate our aggression and hatred

There’s no need to be so formal, however–a mantra can be something as simple as “I feel at ease“.

Need help finding your mantra? Listen to “Let Things Be Mantra” by Taylor White Moffit in the Mantra Collection on the Muse app.

Focused Attention Meditation

It can be considered the inverse of open-monitoring meditation, but the two are not mutually exclusive–you don’t have to practice one or the other. If the goal of open-monitoring meditation is to observe what the mind and body are experiencing without judgment, the goal of focused attention meditation is to keep the mind focused.

Mantra meditation is a form of focused attention, in that the meditator is focused on the mantra and the repetition of the mantra.

meditation

Some things you can focus on are:

  • A Candle flame can induce a hypnotic effect if you focus your attention on the movement of the flame–think back to any time you have sat by a campfire or relaxed by a fireplace.
  • Goal meditation is designed to make sense of an area of your life you wish to improve. This isn’t as simple as daydreaming–there are real steps to follow in making this a useful tool for achievement.
  • Soundscapes can be extremely effective in aiding meditation. Meditating on an unpleasant sound, such as the sounds of the city outside, can bring mindfulness to it and help you ignore or accept it. Muse uses soundscapes, such as a rainforest or the desert, to focus the mind and the Muse headband translates your brain activity into the sounds of weather to illustrate how active or calm your brain is during meditation.

We recommend listening to “Fierce Focus” by Cara Bradley in the Focus Collection on the Muse app.

This is just a partial list and it’s important to choose one that works for you. As Ariel says, the most important kind of meditation is one that you practice regularly.

 

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