The Classifications of Meditation

Nowadays we see meditation being taught everywhere. Sometimes people who do yoga also teach meditation. It is becoming common to teach meditation to children in some European schools. Even the U.S. Army has started pilot programs to train soldiers in meditation. And of course, some of the hottest phone apps out there are meditation apps: Calm, HeadSpace, Insight Timer, etc. Wall Street and Silicon Valley have long harnessed the benefits of meditation to stimulate greater focus and productivity in the workplace.

But what is true meditation?

Calling something “meditation” is like calling something “sports”. At one time or another such “sports” as Live Pigeon Shooting, Club Swinging, Trampolining, Croquet, and Pistol Dueling were all official Olympic sports. Of course, they have all disappeared, and are not considered “sports” anymore — they were faddish or quaint local cultural expressions which could not “compete” with classic sports like boxing, wrestling, running, pole vaulting, and the like. But serious awards were given out for these pursuits.

My Father first encountered yoga in his seventies. It made such a huge impact on his life. He always looked forward to his yoga class at the local health club. For him, it was as much a social gathering as anything else. He was so happy to talk about yoga, yoga, yoga. My mother would playfully roll her eyes at his absorption in his bi-weekly yoga class. I began practicing yoga several years after him, and went deep into the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, a strong, very demanding and actually very “athletic” discipline which emphasises a regular, deep breathing synchronised with specific asanas. He was very proud that I had taken up with yoga, and asked me to attend one of his classes to meet his teacher. On a trip home one time from Asia, I donned some yoga gear and went to his club with him. I was very excited to have the chance to do some yoga together in the same room with my very Catholic Dad! When I got there, I saw what he was practicing: The teacher put on some music, and the people just did some really simple stretching and flexing movements. It had really no connection to the Hatha, the Iyengar, or the Ashtanga that I had become familiar with in different places in the world — there was not one single recognizable asana. There was nothing systematic or referring to the breath. They were doing some light stretching together while some mood-inducing music played and a teacher spoke soothing words about relaxation and letting go of stress and feeling playful. I was very happy, because it helped my Father, and gave him a good mood. Yet you would be hard pressed to call this yoga. It is just the way a stretching class had been advertised to bring in more people or to charge a certain rate. As we walked to the car in the darkened parking lot, my Dad asked, “What did you think?” “Ohhhhhh, wonderful yoga, Dad!” I said. “I’m so happy you found this!”

Like “sports”, like things sometimes advertised as “yoga”, so, too, with meditation, it is important first to have a clear view of the different “kinds” of meditation that are offered.

This chapter from The Compass of Zen (Shambhala Publications, 1997) is, to my knowledge, still the clearest and most accessible delineation of the different types of meditation — in Buddhism, in Christianity, in yoga or art or sports — anywhere.

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[ N.B.: I receive no financial compensation whatsoever from sales of this book.]

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