Despite the huge variety of meditation techniques available to spiritual seekers around the world, there’s a secret that every meditator needs to know.
There are really only two kinds of meditative practice: focused awareness and free awareness.
Generally speaking, every meditation technique can be classed under one of these two categories, which have traditionally been called “meditation with seed” and “meditation without seed.” Both approaches work, and practitioners of one path typically think that their path is superior to the other path, but in the end, finding which meditation technique works best for you is what’s most important. Both focused-awareness and free-awareness meditation techniques lead to the same benefits: spiritual depth, inner joy and peace, and freedom from our busy minds. So let’s take a brief look at what it means to practice a focused or free meditation technique.
One of the most common ways to learn to meditate is by counting your breath. As you sit still, relaxing your body as much as possible, pay attention to your breathing, noticing each in-breath and out-breath as they come and go, naturally and easily. With each inhalation and exhalation, silently count “1” as you finish breathing out, followed by “2,” “3,” and so on, until you get to “5”–then start again at “1” (and if you lose count, you should begin again at “1”).
As your ability to focus your awareness grows, you will find it easier to pay attention without losing count. You will also start to experience the meditative state–a quality of awareness that arises from being relaxed, focused, and undistracted by all the other thoughts trying to vie for your attention. This is perhaps the simplest and most classic example of a focused-awareness meditation technique.
Another common form of focused-awareness meditation involves the use of a mantra, or a special word or phrase that you repeat, mentally, over and over again, displacing other thoughts and distractions by giving you something more powerful to focus on. Transcendental Meditation (TM) is perhaps the most popular form of a mantra-based meditation practice in the world today, though many traditional religious paths make use of repeated mantras, chants, or prayers, as well. The contemplation of mind-twisting riddles called koans, especially during the practice of seated meditation (zazen) in Zen Buddhism, can also be considered a focused meditation technique.
Everyone has experienced a state of meditation at one time or another. Sometimes just sitting on a porch in a warm summer evening, closing one’s eyes and savoring the warm air, the buzz of insects, and the feeling of having nowhere to go and nothing to do is enough to induce a deep state of meditative bliss.
While these experiences tend to be spontaneous, there are also techniques that can be used to direct your attention toward the meditative state on a regular basis–easily, naturally, and without focusing on anything in particular.
One of the best ways to experience free-awareness meditation is by finding a comfortable position to sit in and then attempting to be very still, within and without, making no effort to control, modify, or alter your experience in any way. Just be still, and observe. Witness thoughts coming and going; notice feelings, pleasant or unpleasant, throughout your body; experience distant sounds rising and falling in the vast expanse of your own awareness.
And as you witness all these things within you and around you, let them go–hold onto nothing, fixate on nothing, and don’t pay attention to any one thing. Let it all in, and let it all go, as you continue to remain physically relaxed, at ease, and still.
Sooner or later, you’ll come to notice that there is one “thing” that never comes or goes: awareness itself. It is the limitless space in which all thoughts, feelings, and perceptions come and go–and it is the witness of those passing displays. Rest as that pure witness alone, and be free.
Free-awareness meditation techniques tend to be very subtle and therefore aren’t usually recommended for beginners. But some people find them even easier and more intuitive than the more common methods based on focusing attention, so I’d encourage you to try both and see what you prefer (and you may find that a combination of both free- and focused-awareness practices is the best approach of all).
Remember, both focused-awareness and free-awareness meditation techniques lead to the same place: spiritual depth, inner joy and peace, and freedom from our busy minds. As long as you keep that goal in mind, you can’t lose no matter which path you choose.
written by Thomas Dixon
photo by Kashirin Nickolai
Rob Elser says
I started 35 years ago and practice both, depending on the situation and location. This is an excellent article, explaining the fundamental ‘roots’ of meditation. Thank you, Thomas for taking the time to share.