Demystifying Meditation: The Three Basic Types of Meditation

What’s the deal? What is meditation, anyway? I’ve been working on a short E-guide which I’ll be publishing in the next few weeks here called “How to Kickstart Your Personal Meditation Practice.” Writing this has made me realize that there isn’t a wide understanding about what meditation is. Of course, it’s a vast topic, and at the same time it’s supposed to be the simplest thing there is. Just sitting? This should give some basic insight into what’s going on up there when we’re quiet.

Meditation activates (and deactivates) a variety of brain regions, and different kinds of meditation actually do different things. I’m not going to get too deep into the neuroscience, but I want to describe the three main types of meditation. Nearly all styles and traditions of meditation fall into one of these categories, or bridge more than one of them.


Presence meditation is all about developing attention and concentration. It often involves the breath or focus on a single object. It might be called “present-moment awareness,” “anapanasati” or “attention-focusing” meditation. This is a hugely helpful technique to practice, as it brings awareness and concentration to all our actions.

Presence meditation is also the foundation for most other meditation techniques. Before delving into the mind or emotions, we must be able to pay attention to what we’re doing. This doesn’t mean it should be discounted as less advanced than other techniques — some people practice exclusively presence meditation, and it is extremely rewarding. It might be the best tool we have to fight against the attention-drain caused by all our devices and tech.


What is the mind? Perspective meditation includes all techniques that involve observing one’s own mind. This means watching one’s thoughts, cultivating an understanding of how and why they arise and pass away, and beginning to see through the illusions the mind creates around us. This is also called “meta-cognition,” which is an awesome word.

The more perspective we gain on the self, the more we understand that the ego is a construct of the mind, and not something which truly separates us from the rest of the universe. This style of meditation moves us toward an experiential understanding of the oneness and interconnectedness of the universe. It can be a bit heady. With regards to achieving traditional enlightenment, this is probably the fastest route (but don’t expect to get there in this lifetime!).


Affective meditations focus on developing certain positive qualities or thoughts. The most common forms are “loving-kindness” or “compassion” meditations. It is less about achieving a transcendental state and more about cultivating a life that’s worth living while we’re here. It is an extremely effective method for training our emotions and generally feeling good about life.

Affective meditations typically involve some kind of visualization, which allows us to experience certain feelings, such as love and gratitude, and strengthen the neural networks that are responsible for them. This brings those experiences to the fore, integrating them into our lives as a whole. Compassion is the most common elevated experience we practice through affective meditation, as it is universally perhaps the most valuable characteristic we can possess. Theoretically, you could practice any emotion, though.

Each meditation style affects the brain differently, lighting up different brain regions under fMRI. By activating those regions, the neural networks become more dense and used to working together. This brings the lessons we learn while meditating into the rest of our lives. It is a slow process, and the results are often not tangible, but if we are committed to the practice, they are undeniable.

Only with regular practice over a long period of time do we begin to notice that we are less stressed, more open and compassionate, and more understanding of our own thought processes and emotions. Just because meditation is hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it — in fact just the opposite. As any meditator will tell you, a consistent meditation practice is one of the most important things we can do with our time and energy.

If you’d like to get going on your own meditation practice, keep an eye out for the E-guide I’ll be publishing here in a few weeks. Or just take a few minutes to sit quietly and see what happens! It’s amazing what the brain will do.

Sitting With Discomfort

Imagine you’re sitting on a train. Not a plush, air-conditioned, Western European train. It’s hot and sticky. The seats are fake leather, so the layers of grime they’ve collected scrapes off on your skin. Your seat is a bench with a straight back, and there’s not enough room to recline. Maybe there will be in a few hours, you hope. The air smells faintly of burning trash, and the train is crowded. You can’t understand anybody, but they’re very curious about you. You’re sweating through your clothes a little bit, and luckily the faintest draft from the window finds its way to your seat. You’re going to be on this train for 34 hours, surviving off greasy street food and tiny Dixie cups of tea. Welcome to India.

This was my experience traveling from Chennai in the south of India to Delhi in the north. It was one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences of my entire trip. The sweat and grime all washed off easily, but the peaceful sound of the train rumbling through wheat fields still remains. This trip could have been terrible. It was physically stifling. I could have told myself ahead of time that it was going to be so bad that I would have decided to fly instead. What is memorable about a two hour flight? I’ve been on train trips in the US and Europe, but now I’ve been on a train trip. This is what trains are all about. It was beautiful. It was not comfortable.

What’s the first thing we do when we’re uncomfortable? We try to fix it. If we have enough foresight, we try to avoid it. This is why we stay in unhealthy relationships, and why we pay more to take a sterile route from A to B. What if we didn’t? What if we looked discomfort in the eye, and instead of backing away, we just smiled at it?

The comforts of American society have taught us to avoid this at all costs. Get a softer couch! Don’t let your belly ever feel hungry! Take this drug or that supplement so you feel good all the time! Is your kid annoying? Try Ritalin! Can’t write that paper? Try Adderol! Body hurts? Try Percocet! Now obviously these drugs can have positive effects, and when we need them to function, we can take advantage of the wonders of modern science. But they are also symptomatic of a wider trend in our society: we avoid pain and suffering rather than explore, confront, and sit with it.

For me, this is what yoga is all about. Yoga is not comfortable. It will never be comfortable. That’s the whole point. There is no final destination of yoga, no ultimate understanding (at least not in this lifetime). It’s about finding the edge of comfort and going a little bit beyond. That edge might not always be in the same place, but going just beyond it is always similar. The sensation of muscles stretching or tensing is the same sensation as pain. In yoga, it is controlled and done with intention. We sit with it. We explore the sensation, and learn to see it as being just that: a sensation in our minds. It is not the world ending. As long as we’re being healthy and aware, our muscles will not break (well, actually, they will, but only a little).

Why do it? Discomfort is all around us, suffering is all around us. Practices like yoga where we sit with discomfort allow us to train our minds to start to be okay with that. Meditation does the same thing. We learn to recognize that the constant fluctuations of thought in our minds are the same as sensations as physical suffering in our bodies. If we spend our lives running away from discomfort, we’re never going to find true comfort, no matter how soft our couch. If we learn to sit with it and just be, however, we’ll be comfortable everywhere, even on a sweaty train for 34 hours. Even when things don’t go exactly as we want them to.

Have you ever had your heart broken? It’s the worst thing. So, so bad. There are all sorts of things we can do to cope with that pain. We can drink, we can eat, we can sleep, we can watch sappy movies until our eyes bleed. At some point, though, if we hope to move beyond the heartbreak, we have to just sit with the pain and start to accept it. It hurts now. A lot. It won’t hurt forever. But it really hurts now. And that’s okay. It hurts because we’re emotive, caring, sensitive beings. Other people might just be the most important thing in our lives. It sucks to feel like we’ve lost that. But it’s beautiful to be reminded of the truth of our humanity. This sensation of pain in our minds is also not the world ending. It is a sensation. It has arrived, and it will pass. It’s okay to feel it. It’s good to feel it. It makes us more resilient, better equipped to face life compassionately in the future.

How can we practice sitting with discomfort? Things like yoga and meditation are great, intentional techniques for it, but honestly it can be done anywhere. Get the worst chair at the conference table? Make it work. Ameliorate the pain but sitting well and with good posture, but also listen to your body. What is it telling you? It doesn’t like something. Okay. Why? Is it going to damage you? Maybe if you sit in the chair and slouch for hours every day, but probably not if you sit here for an hour. It’s okay if it’s not the most comfortable thing right now. Maybe you got in a fight with a friend or loved one. Okay. It happens. Maybe if you can sit with the pain and examine the sensation you’ll be in a better place to work it out with him later on. Maybe you’ve decided you want to start running, but your legs are sore from trying it a couple days ago. Well, first of all, running again is the best way to get rid of the soreness. But maybe try going for a run and seeing what the pain feels like. Is it a sharp, joint pain? Okay, stop running, that’s bad. Is it a diffuse, soft muscle pain? That’s okay. That’s what legs feel like when they work. It’s what our bodies do. Each day, we can find small ways to practice being with discomfort. I’m not suggesting we all become masochists, just that we work on being okay with things being not okay. It’s a practice that gradually makes everything more okay.

A little mossy....

Personal Renaissance

The whirlwind of spring and summer is winding down, allowing deeper reflection on my life and priorities. After India, I spent a couple weeks back home in Vermont, then flew out to Seattle to start my job leading backpacking trips with the YMCA. After 40+ nights in the woods, a few weeks on couches, and a road trip through Oregon, I’m ready to settle down a bit. The combination of experienced students and great co-leaders on my last 2-week trek allowed me time for self-examination, which I’ve never experienced on course before. I’ve decided it’s time for a Personal Renaissance.

Here’s what I’m thinking, and maybe you can relate:

Music. I’m ready to play in a band again, and to get back to my roots in classical music by joining a string quartet or orchestra. I haven’t been keeping up with all the great new music coming out, and I want to make that a priority.

Art. Being a vagabond is not conducive to making art. I’m ready to be in a place where I can set up a small studio, rediscover my painting practice, and explore the creative nooks of my visual cortex.

Connections. I haven’t been in one place for more than a month straight in over a year. In a lot of ways, this has been a wonderful growth experience. I’ve seen (a small part of) the world. But my relationships have suffered. It’s time to reinvest in my local community and forge new connections.

Outdoors. I’ve been outdoors a lot lately, but all for work and no play. I’m eager to rekindle my personal connection with nature and explore beautiful places. For the first time, I feel invigorated to go outdoors after a course rather than burned out.

Mindfulness. Meditation and yoga require stability and a solid routine in order to make a deep impression on our consciousness. For months I’ve structured my life just the opposite. I’m going to reincorporate mindfulness by building my life around the practice.

Motivation. Here it is. This is the crux of the Renaissance. Cultivating a meaningful life requires intention and action. A strong internal sense of motivation is what makes it all happen. For me, especially during bouts of depression, weak motivation has been the crumbling foundation that caused everything else to crash down. We must find ways to make a motivated state the norm. Personally, I maintain it by always learning something new, reading a self-help book on the side, exercising a lot, and meditating regularly.

All too often it feels like life flies by in a swirl of appointments, long days at work, and rushed time at home. Sometimes this is how things need to be. But not always. We need to dig deep to find gems of motivation and inspiration in our lives. We all crave greater purpose, but it takes concerted effort to find it.  We must set meaningful intentions and work hard to follow through. We must allow ourselves to be continually reborn.

A wise man whispered in my ear: Drink life’s every moment like your last sip of water.

What does your Personal Renaissance look like?

Craving Control

I’m back in Seattle, getting into the swing of life in the States. The process has been slowed by spending a few dozen nights in the woods leading backpacking trips for the local YMCA. But I’m getting used to it, and I’m starting to pick up on some big things that have changed for me since my travels in India.

One of the main differences is control. After a couple months in India, I became totally at ease with the lack of control I was able to assert over any situation. Things never worked exactly how I wanted them to. There was always an element of uncertainty due to the general insanity of the place. Buses broke down, trains got delayed, holidays and strikes happened often and unexpectedly, cows blocked roads. The list goes on. The magical thing is that everything worked out anyway. Once I learned to set intentions rather than specific plans for how things would unfold, life progressed swimmingly.

Seattle (any typical US city?) is different. We’ve got smartphones with maps and email and to-do lists. We plan our days down to the minute. We over-schedule ourselves and keep our pockets buzzing non-stop. For what? Fear of missing out? Worry of wasting time? Not wanting to be alone? Avoiding unpleasant interactions? Everyone has their own reasons, but it seems to be natural for our brains to crave control of our time (and presumably, our lives), to make sure we’re doing what we consider the best, most productive, or most efficient at all times.

The ability to hyper-control our lives isn’t all dandelions and rainbows, though. First of all, it puts some serious pressure on us to make the right decisions all the time. When we have the attitude of complete control, we also take responsibility for everything that’s not perfect. Whenever something goes wrong, it’s our fault. It’s because we didn’t plan well enough or we didn’t take into account some minute detail. But here’s the catch: nothing is ever perfect. No matter how well we plan and scheme and organize, something will always get us. Our world is too complex. The second law of thermodynamics.

Secondly, and more subtly, imposing complete control pushes the universe out of our lives. The world is full of synchronicity, unexpected connection, and good things happening for no apparent reason. When we schedule every minute, we don’t leave room for the universe to play its quiet role in guiding our lives. Out of fear, we close ourselves off to the unknown, when in fact the unknown is exactly where the greatest things happen. We lop off the magnificence of nature to avoid potential pitfalls. We narrow our experience, limiting it to the bounds of our own imaginations. Sure, a lot of people have pretty great imaginations, but none of them stack up to the collective imagination of the universe.

This sounds hippie-dippie, but I’m convinced there’s something to it. Every time a phone vibrates in our pockets, some train of thought is mercilessly derailed. Every time we hustle down the street, late for an appointment, we miss the chance encounters that could make our day memorable. Every time we book our day solid, we’re probably too tired by the end to be receptive to that energy in the first place.

My intention for the next few months is to take things slower, to cultivate receptivity, and to let creativity continue to blossom in my life. I believe this is possible, even in a busy, stress-inducing environment. It takes mindfulness, deep breaths, and eye contact. It takes some time alone, some time away from the phone, and some time left unscheduled. But mostly it takes the intention to make it happen, and the motivation to do it. Summer is a great time to slow down, and a great time to practice bringing openness and vibrancy into our lives. Enjoy it!

Train Yoga

I recently discovered that the road to the place I love is, in fact, not a road at all. It’s a pair of iron beams, running parallel in perfect unison for miles and miles and hundreds of miles more. And when I say perfect unison, I mean close but with all sorts of bumps and divots, because this ride is not exactly “smooth.” But in India, the train is by far the cheapest and best way to get from Point A to Point B.

This time Point A is a bustling city in the South Indian region of Tamil Nadu: Chennai, formerly known as Madras. Point A is also a place of seeking, of curiosity, of wondering what the world has in store for me, of imagining all the strange creatures that could be living in my water, or worse, already in my stomach. Point A is an American who thinks he loves yoga, but isn’t sure what’s up with all the dots and lines on peoples’ foreheads.

Point B is harder to define. You could call it New Delhi, or probably Rishikesh shortly thereafter, but it would be more accurate to just label it as “Unknown.” I have some ideas of what Point B might look like, but train rides in India have taught me that Point B is never what you expect. It’s better not to speculate, but of course I can’t resist. Point B is a spiritual place, one with a deep understanding of yoga, of the self (if there is such a thing), of meditation, the mind, humanity. At Point B, I am not going to get sick. There will be naan.

The route from Chennai to Delhi is 2,200 km, but because this is a “Super Fast Express” train, takes a mere 34 hours instead of the 50-60 it would take on the regular “Express” train. For those who haven’t visited the subcontinent, here’s a quick primer on seating classes for Indian trains:

Second Class: Bench seats are completely unreserved and they let as many people on as want to go. This can be chaos and is strongly NOT recommended for trips longer than an hour or two.

Sleeper Class: Each six-foot section of the train is broken into eight bunks. Three tiers on each side of the main compartment, two tiers on the opposite side of the walkway, slightly shorter in length.

3A/C: Same as sleeper class, with air conditioning, sheets, and curtains provided for slightly more privacy.

2A/C: Same as 3A/C, with two bunks per side rather than three.

1A/C, EC, CC, Beyond: Various nicer methods of travel which I haven’t explored, some in seats rather than benches, and possibly some in which you practically have a whole cabin to yourself.

Based on a few other medium-length (5-16 hours) train rides I’ve had here, I decided that for the long one I would splurge for the additional comfort of 3A/C. April in India is hot, and although I haven’t seen an actual thermometer in months, I’d say the average temperature has been getting well into the 90’s.

Fate (and my propensity for last-minute planning), however, plays a large role in these decisions, and by the time I booked only Sleeper class was available. No problem, at least it’s cheaper. And by cheaper, I mean dirt cheap. We’re talking $11 for a 34-hour, 2200 km ride. Hence my lack of guilt at the idea of “splurging” for the 3A/C ticket, which would have been about $20.

I should add that I’m traveling with a small statue of the Indian god Ganesha in my bag. It is important to have some divine intervention here. He’s the one with the elephant head, famous for his ability to remove obstacles. So he basically hooks me up on this one: my overnight bus to Chennai drops me directly at the train station two hours before my scheduled departure, leaving me plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast of puri (puffy fried dough) with the typical sides of potato and coconut curries.

The train is not especially late – the rail system is the largest employer in India, and one of the most organized and reliable institutions in the country. Sleeper class is as expected, but the car is older than most I’ve been on: the power is spotty, the paint job flaked, the dirt slightly more caked than on the newer cars. There are bars on the windows, which from photos my mom thinks makes the car look like a prison. But it means the windows open all the way, letting in plenty of fresh, fast-moving air to combat the heat. (Except that fresh air in India is usually hazy with smoke from fires in the fields, and more commonly, piles of burning trash and plastic. This is a whole other story, but basically it’s a huge bummer.)

I get comfortable and immediately take a nap in my upper berth to recover from the poor night sleep I got on the overnight bus. I came prepared for this journey: fully-charged iPod, a journal with plenty of ideas to hash out, War and Peace. Somehow I always end up reading epic Russian novels in tropical places. The train car is hot and the seats are the kind of fake-leather-polyester that gets sticky and releases layers of stored dirt when you sweat on it. Despite my smiles and brief exchanges in halted English/sign language, my compartment-mates seem firmly bent on strewing their belongings far and wide across the benches. This feels like a subtle claiming of territory, a gentle push-back against the white privilege they know I experience throughout the country. I have no way to test this theory. It doesn’t matter – yoga has opened my hips and legs in the last few months. I can squeeze into small spaces for long periods of time.

The trip continues: six, ten, fourteen hours. A decent night sleep, twenty-four, thirty hours. The situation doesn’t exactly get more comfortable. But I start to realize something. Despite whatever difficulties or confusions arise, I still feel calm, relaxed. I’ve adjusted to the discomforts to the point that they don’t feel like discomforts. I am being here with myself, smiling. Occasionally I’ll engage in brief conversation with a curious Indian. At one point a young guy sees I have a ukulele and pulls down his tabla from the upper berth. We jam out for a half-hour and draw a crowd from the surrounding compartments. Even with the layer of grime that has slowly coated my travel clothes and exposed body parts, this trip is really cool. Life is good.

And then it hits me. I’ve been telling myself that yoga, Rishikesh, some vague Point B, is my destination. But I’m doing yoga right here. I am where I am, right now. This is what yoga is all about. I’m exploring the present moment, sitting with discomfort without letting my mind go down the drain. That’s straight from the Yoga Sutras. I’m doing Train Yoga. I would market this back in the States, if only we had a functional rail system.

This trip will give me an opportunity to practice all sorts of more “traditional” forms of yoga, ones with asanas and pranayama and downward-facing dog and (I hope) happy-baby pose, but for now I am glad to be able to sit on a train and just be. To feel the wind on my face, to watch the corn and wheat and cotton fields pass by, to sit comfortably, to breathe. They say India will change you. I’d have to say they’re right.