Understanding the diverse terrain of meditation practices strengthens the practices we choose to cultivate.

We may feel we’ve had a “good” or “bad” meditation, but what is the basis for that feeling? What makes our practice effective or not? How are we evaluating meditation as “successful” or “disappointing”? The answers to these questions depend on the type of mediation we are doing, our purpose in following that approach, and why we are meditating in the first place.

Some of us may find ourselves meditating in only one way, unfamiliar with other approaches. Others might be mixing different approaches without recognizing possible contradictions. Purpose and direction might be fuzzy. We might think what we are doing is successful because it feels good or serves an egoistic need. Not all forms of meditation aim to make us feel good yet are beneficial or needed for progress on the path. With greater awareness of the different types of meditation, we can be more on-target in our practice and better serve our deeper psychological and spiritual needs.

The Discourse on Four Kinds of Meditation (Samādhibhāvanā Sutta, AN 4.41) sketches four categories of meditation that make use of the power of collected, integrated mind (samādhi). Reflecting on the wide variety of meditation practices mentioned in Early Buddhism, we can easily expand on the four categories. Some meditative systems, such as ānāpānasati, can support more than one of these categories.

  1. 1. Meditation for the sake of PLEASANT ABIDING HERE-NOW (resulting in well-being, calmness, and joy
  2. 2. Meditation for the sake of CLEAR WAKEFULNESS (fostering open awareness and a sense of clarity & brightness)
  3. 3. Meditation for the sake of ALERT, MINDFUL COMPREHENSION (observing the arising & passing of feelings, perceptions, & thoughts)
  4. 4. Meditation for the sake of ENDING INFLUXES/LEAKS (observing the arising & passing of the sense of self (I, me, mine) and ending clinging
  5. 5. Meditation for the sake of HEART CULTIVATION (involving the cultivation of wholesome intentions, attitudes, and dispositions connected with lovingkindness, gratitude, patience, forgiveness, compassion, equanimity, etc.)
  6. 6. Meditation for the sake of REFLECTIVE CONTEMPLATION (reflecting on & exploring one’s experiences in light of Dhamma, including meditative review)
  7. 7. MOVEMENT PRACTICES for the sake of Body-based mindfulness & health (such as Qigong and Yoga-asana)
  8. 8. CHANTING and other devotional practices that inspire & strengthen faith & commitment
  9. 9. HEALING PRACTICES that address psycho-physical wounds and traumas (drawing upon a variety of traditions ancient & contemporary)

This framework helps explore and deepen our understanding of what “meditation” is. By sampling practices from these various approaches and categories, practitioners add to their palette of meditative-contemplative skills. All involve mindfulness, wise effort, and calm focus yet may employ them in varying ways. Understanding this variety clarifies the dynamics and subtleties of practice. Further, we may ask key questions: What is the purpose of any practice or approach that we try out or hear about? What needs do each practice or approach meet and how do they do so? What is required to cultivate each approach?

In this retreat we will survey and practice examples from these main categories of meditation. Following guided meditations, each practice and its category will be discussed in ways that show how we might practice them and when, what happens in these meditations, and what we aspire to in such practices. Having an overview of the broad meditative terrain — with all its diversity and competition for our practice time — will be helpful in assessing our true needs and choosing approaches that suit those needs.

This framework helps to better understanding what we are “doing” in meditation and adjust our aspirations as needed. What we experience in meditation is influenced by our sense of purpose, which is in turn shaped by our understanding of what meditation is and is for. We also will consider how fundamental aspects of meditation — such as mindfulness, concentration, effort, investigation, relaxation, curiosity, courage, and compassion — operate in the various approaches. Seeing mindfulness and concentration in various contexts leads to a richer understanding of them. This will provide yogis with richer perspectives on all of these essentials.

Many of us will continue with our primary practice (ānāpānasati in my case) and be better able to draw on secondary and supplementary practices from any of the above categories that suit our needs. Each of us must use what we learn in whatever way appears wisest and most healthy to you.


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