So, yeah I know, there are a lot more than three. But we can pretty much clump them all into three categories: Focus, open-focus, and no-focus.
The main difference between them is that in focus meditation you’re taking one thing and making it into everything; in open-focus meditation, you’re taking everything and making it into one thing; in no-focus meditation, you’re ditching both ideas by not making anything into anything.
This post aims to be an exhaustive one-stop reference.
In focus meditation, we’re letting go of everything and concentrating on just one thing. This meditation is great for cultivating tranquility, but it’s also a path to insight as well. You can learn a lot about everything by paying attention to just one thing since everything has the same nature.
Focus meditations mostly just different in their meditation objects, but the overall principles are the same. We plant our minds on something and keep bringing attention back to it over and over again. At the same time, we’re mindful of how concentrating makes us feel, how it changes our minds.
At first, you’ll probably get really frustrated, bored, or experience doubt in yourself and the method. You might have aches and itches that are difficult to ignore. You might spend more time mind wandering than focusing during a session. This is all normal and there’s no reason to get all uptight about it.
It helps to do some pre-meditation exercises like counting the breaths, stretching, deep breathing, or moving around a bit until your posture feels centered.
As you practice, the first direct correlation between concentrating on your object and your state of mind will probably be calm. You’ll start to feel more and more physically and mentally at ease. This is part of the experience, it’s helpful to be mindful of this calm.
Mindfulness isn’t just about paying attention and occupying the present, it also involves remembering that things are impermanent and interconnected. So when we notice changes in the body or mind related to focusing on the breath, it’s good to attend to those changes because we’re witnessing cause and effect—connectedness.
At the same time, we can’t get attached to these changes because they’re impermanent. When you practice like this you start to naturally move through different meditative states of mind that make it easier and easier to focus. Here are some common meditation objects.
This is the most popular meditation object, and it’s the one I typically go to first. The trick here is to breathe as naturally as you can, we’re not trying to control the breath, we’re just concentrating on it.
You’re gonna want to control it at first, and that’s okay. You might feel frustrated at times or even feel like you’re not getting enough air. Just stick with just this breath, and then just this breath, and then just this breath. The anxiety and discomfort will pass. After awhile, it’ll be tough to tell whether you’re breathing naturally or still controlling it. Then, you’ll just be breathing.
I like concentrating on the breath at my nose. I feel it going in and out through my nostrils and nasal cavity. Sometimes I’ll toss the abdomen in too for good measure. The breath is great because it’s always with us. No matter what mood we’re in, where we are, or what we’re thinking about, we’re still breathing.
Tonglen is a variation of working with the breath. In Tonglen, you breathe in the suffering-at-large, and breathe out love, compassion, joyfulness, and ease. A lot of people have said this works well for depression because it helps them get out of their own heads. You can also do Metta meditation with the breath by breathing in love, compassion, joyfulness, and ease and then also breathing them out.
Everybody knows about mantras. A few common ones are:
OM Shanti Shanti Shanti (Shanti = peace)
OM Mani Padme Hum
You can chant them out loud or silently. It’s helpful to learn how to chant them silently though because then you can use them anywhere. I like letting the moment determine the length of the chant. Sometimes it’ll be a drawn out AH-OHHHHMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM, and sometimes it’ll be shorter.
This is great for very imaginative people and visual thinkers. Everyone has a different type of intelligence (linguistic, visual, logical, somatic, musical, etc.). It makes sense to choose a meditation object that fits that because then it’s gonna be easier to get into it.
Some common visuals are Buddhas, Bodhisattvas (or yourself or loved ones) sitting in tranquil meditation. The image can be simple or complex, but if you go with a complex one, it’s good to start simple and build from there.
Circles are a good choice too since they’re simple and they represent wholeness or completion. Some Zen teachers have also recommended vertical or horizontal lines.
The point here is to keep the visual stationary in your mind. You might jump around now and then to different parts of it or imagine viewing it from different angles. That’s fine as long as you don’t get wrapped up in it. Generally, we try to just keep one view in our mind. The image can be still or in motion. It might help to picture your Buddha breathing in sync with you.
The body means a lot of different things here. We start with our posture. Once you settle in, the intention is to concentrate on and maintain that posture. There’ll be a lot of “noise” at first—aches, tingles, numbness, and so on. If possible, try to sit through it and remember that they’re impermanent. If it gets to be too much though, feel free to slowly and mindfully switch positions.
As you concentrate on the body, it’ll start to become less and less noteworthy and you might find your attention drawn to the room around you. That’s good, that’s your new body for this sit. Just treat it the same way, letting all the sights and sounds do as they wish. Then you might expand again, and again—just keep doing what you’re doing.
You might go the other way too and start to contract, to turn within. If that happens, your state of mind is your new posture. Treat it the same way you treated your body.
I’m not a huge fan of this one, but to each their own. Here you take an object and concentrate on it the same way you would the breath, a mantra, the body, or a visual. It might be a candle, a disk of some kind, a color, statue, musical note, texture, or the smell of incense, but it can be anything really. It helps if it’s something that naturally makes you feel at ease.
Once you can concentrate on it for awhile without losing track and you feel at ease, you internalize the object. So if you’re concentrating on a statue, you leave behind the actual statue and call up the image of it in your mind instead. Then it becomes a visualization meditation. If you lose the visual over and over, just go back to the object and start over.
There are a lot of options when it comes to focus meditation. I recommend giving all of them a try and then choosing the one that’s the easiest and funnest to work with. I’m not a, “Do what’s unpleasant so that you can learn to persevere!” kinda guy. Life is unpleasant enough already. Buddhism doesn’t have to be a bitter medicine.
The principles behind all of these methods are pretty much the same, and you can mix and match them. There’s no rule against chanting a mantra and focusing on the breath and posture at the same time while visualizing the Buddha and holding a soft cloth in an incense filled room while standing on your head in your underwear. If that’s what it takes to get you into it, then by all means, go for it. I tend to mix the breath with all these meditation objects (and types of meditation in general).
In focus meditation, we’re making one thing our everything. In open-focus meditation, we’re doing the opposite and making everything into just one thing. This meditation is great for cultivating insight, but it’s also tranquil as well.
The most important part of open-focus meditation is our attitude. We’re going into the sit with the view, “Everything can be as it is.” We’re not trying to grow more tranquil or euphoric like in focus meditation, we’re aiming for clarity.
So the first step is to let everything be. We’re neither pushing away the unpleasant, pulling the pleasant toward us, or ignoring the neutral. Thoughts, feelings, and sensations are like people passing through a revolving door.
From there, we can get into the method. In order to see things as they are, we have to see them first. We usually live with a wandering, contracted awareness that censors everything that’s irrelevant to the task at hand. This makes it easy for us to get swept up in things and form views that might not be in harmony with reality.
In open-focus meditation, we’re taking the entirety of our experience and making it into a meditation object. You can start with any of the senses, but I like kicking it off with touch.
Sitting there, letting everything be, I bring attention to my feet. I’m just concentrating on my feet, feeling the temperature and whatever it is they’re resting against. After resting with that for awhile, expand attention to include your calves. Feet and calves. Hold them in your mind.
Now the knees and thighs. The bum, groin, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, neck, and head. You can also start at the head and work down, or at the hands. Wherever you want. No matter where you start, once you’re done you’re aware of your whole body just sitting there. Nowhere to be, nothing to do, and no one to become other than this person sitting there.
Keep in mind, we’re not just focusing on what’s present here, but also on what’s absent. This is important. You’re not going to feel every inch of your body, certain parts of it are always sending less information to the brain than others. Be aware of that too. So we’re feeling touch and the absence of touch at the same time. Without that, we’re not experiencing the whole body. This goes for all the other senses as well.
Next, let’s bring another sense and add it to awareness; maybe hearing. Attend to the body and to the sounds and silences around you at the same time. It might feel like you’re expanding out into the room. That’s okay, but it’s just a meditation artifact here, so don’t get carried away and try to use your energy to consume the cosmos or anything.
Just sit and be equally aware of touch and no-touch, sounds and silence. Watch how everything moves, how a silent bird suddenly makes a sound and is then silent again. How the whirring of the fan races around the walls before meeting your ears.
Now sight. This meditation is best with eyes halfway open with your pupils pointed down at an angle. Notice colors, shapes, sizes, and textures, but also the space around and within objects.
Then the nose and tongue, both pretty unremarkable senses and they follow the same pattern as the others.
Finally, your feelings, perceptions, thoughts, urges, and awareness itself. These are just as much a part of your experience as everything else you’re sensing. Notice how there’s space between thoughts, how perception comes and goes, how feelings change, and how urges pass like dreams. How awareness is open, clear, and all-encompassing—the foundation of it all.
As you concentrate on this totality, you’ll notice that things change and also don’t change at the same time. That sound and silence, space and objects, thoughts and silent awareness are all co-occurring. You’ll see that there’s no separation between these things, that they all constitute one experience and that none of our labels fit anymore.
Within that, you might notice a deep feeling of stillness that seems to have nothing to do with what you’re aware of. Let this stillness become part of your experience. It’ll gradually permeate everything until you can’t help but take it as your next meditation object.
Open-focus meditation gets us out of our heads and puts us in touch with the world around us. It also blurs the lines between the two until we stumble on something that neither inside nor outside can totally capture in themselves.
Throughout the session, we need an attitude of letting be, of non-interference. Open-focus meditations are great for dragging us out of whatever emotional, creative, or intellectual hole we find ourselves in.
No-focus meditation is extremely difficult to describe, and you really just kind of get the hang of it by accident. It has the letting things be element of open-focus, but also the pinpoint concentration of focus meditation.
What we’re focusing on here is, well, nothing in particular. The accompanying view is that whatever we experience is not-self or mind-only. Awareness is like a flashlight. Whatever the flashlight illuminates isn’t the flashlight. What we’re trying to do here is turn around and directly experience the source of that light.
This meditation works well with a solid intention: I’m sitting here to Wake Up for the benefit of all beings. That resolve will help us out while we sit. Besides that, you’re pretty much on your own. If you need to, taking spaces, gaps, and silences as your meditation object can be a good kickstart.
The basic premise is that you’re sitting, letting things be, intending to be enlightened, and focusing on what can’t be focused on. You’re mindful of how your mind keeps trying to create little worlds in itself, little gravity wells that try to capture your attention. But they’re not you, and they’re not yours, so we try to find a clear path to an unstoried mind.
If this isn’t working out of you, you can incorporate a Huatou like, “Who’s sitting?” Simply silently repeating it every now and then with the earnest intention to experience the answer. You can also shift into no-focus meditation after practicing one of the others for a little while.
Meditation has shown to be one of the healthiest things we can do. It’s great for treating everyday stressors and woes, and it’s a fantastic addition to medication and therapy if you have a mental illness or disorder.
If you suffer from a mental illness or disorder, it’s wise to ask your therapist or physician about meditation before you get into it.
Also, if you have bipolar disorder, you’ll have to take a slightly different approach than most students. A lot of people find a method that works and then they stick with it no matter what. That doesn’t work if you’re bipolar; you have to be mindful of your mood and then choose the method that evens you out. If you feel stable, no-focus might be good; if you’re depressed, open-focus can help lift you up; if you’re manic, focus meditation can help bring you back down to earth.
You might even have to use different methods throughout a single sit depending on how much your swings vary. I have cyclothymia, so I have to frequently switch methods to meet my moods. I still encourage trying to stick with one method for as long as you can because that teaches endurance, and that endurance will help us off the cushion as well. But, there’s no need to get carried away with that. Don’t push too hard.
Now, back to everyone. It’s vital that we make meditation into a habit. All of these methods can be practiced while you’re out and about to some extent, but nothing beats formal sitting at least once a day. Most people recommend that a sit be 40 minutes long, tops. After that, you’re just kinda fucking around. If you’re new to meditating, even a five minute sit two or three times a day can help ease you into it.
Open-focus meditation is kind to shorter sits, focus meditation and no-focus tend to take a little longer to unfold all the way. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to let me know.