I have learned and practiced many forms of meditation over the years. Everything from the movement practices of Qigong to guided Shamanic Journeys to Zen, Shikantaza “just sitting.” There are many traditional names for the various forms of meditations but I like to see them as falling into two major categories: present moment awareness or “grounding” meditations and visualization meditations. These aren’t the official terms, just my own mental framework for how I view these meditations and the purpose they serve in my practice.
This post is a simple introduction to a much larger, deeper and more nuanced topic. I understand that and am not attempting to cover all types of meditation here. I’m simply introducing a framework that has been helpful for clients new to meditation.
When you try a meditation app these days, you’ll find both of these categories under the “mindfulness” heading but for me they are different and I use them for different purposes in my own practice. In this post, I will describe each one and let you in on why I personally prefer “grounding.”
I’m strongly of the belief that what is valuable to me may not be valuable for you. This is your path on your journey, you will need to find what is valuable for you. I am hoping to help you do that.
Visualizations – Transport Your Mind to a Better Place
I actually think the very first exposure I ever had to meditation was a guided visualization. I have this memory – I honestly can’t place it in any specific place or time – of being in a theatre class, laying on a mat on the floor and having a teacher lead us through a guided visualization. She had us imagine a clearing in a forest with soft grass and a clear blue sky.
All visualization meditations have this in common: they mentally transport you to some other place and maybe some other time. The person guiding the meditation gives you prompts that take you basically anywhere but here. They might have you imagine your favorite island beach or send you on a magical journey through space and time but the prompts are meant to take you “away.” And it’s this aspect of mentally transporting you away from the present moment that is the main reason I personally don’t find as much value in visualizations as the other form of meditation that I’ll describe later.
Don’t get me wrong, over the years, I have had some amazing experiences during guided visualizations. They have helped me access deep wisdom within me, especially at times when I was faced with difficult choices where the next steps were unclear. Strong visualizations have helped me connect with my true desires. Connecting with my deep desires can be a challenge for me, I tend to defer to what works or what seems the most effective while losing sight of what I really want and what actually makes me happy. Visualization meditations have helped me look past the noise to better identify my inner desires.
However, for me, the real power in meditation has been in training me to “stay put” and non-reactive in the face of difficulties. Transporting yourself away can be helpful but you still need to return to the present moment and face your difficulties.
Grounding Meditation – Present Moment Awareness
Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.Eckhart Tolle
I accidentally found my way to Zen. I learned to meditate in a Unitarian/Universalist Church in Cleveland as a teenager, made my way to college and started listening to Vipassana teachings on Audio Dharma then got a job out of college in Kansas where there just happened to be a small Zen sitting group with ties to the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. I didn’t seek out Zen, it was simply the only option available to me in small-city Kansas.
The majority of my meditation practice has been in the Soto Zen school of zazen or seated meditation known as Shikantaza (literally translated as “nothing but sitting”). Soto has very simple instructions for sitting: basically sit up straight, face a wall and stay there, in aware of your body and mind until the bell rings. Yes, I’m over simplifying things a bit but there’s a reason we call Shikantaza “just sitting.” It is a deceptively simple practice of present moment awareness. There are no mantras to chant or visualizations to practice or even koans to contemplate. In simple terms, the Sōtō Zen flavor of seated meditation is about sitting and watching your body and mind without reactivity. As you sit, you become more and more aware of you habitual thought and emotional patterns. You learn to be able to sit through difficult thoughts and emotions as you build the muscle of present moment awareness.
As with visualizations, there are many forms of what I’m called “grounding” types of meditation. In some, you focus on an external thing (for example, a flame) as an object of meditation and some teach you to use your body, usually the breath as an object of meditation. I would even say that, in some ways, chanting a mantra can be very grounding because the mental focus isn’t on the meaning of the words, typically, but on the sound and rhythm as you chant.
In my own life, the practice of present moment awareness has brought me the most benefit day-to-day and year after year. It helps me sit through my natural tendency for anxiety and worry and keeps me grounded in the present moment. When I went through the loss of my brother and my mother, I really do feel that it was the years of Zen practice that allowed me to stay present through all of that and not succumb to the pain and stress that those hard times can cause.
And so, whenever I am invited to lead a meditation session or teach mindfulness, I always lead people through grounding exercises as a gentle entry into the type of meditation I learned as a Zen practitioner. Even as a yoga instructor, my shavasana meditations were always about coming back to the now, connecting with the feeling of your body on the mat and the ground supporting you.
I believe both of these types of meditation can be beneficial. In a way, they each serve a purpose. Finding the practice that’s best for you may mean trying a few before you find the right fit.