Different Types of Meditation for Focus, Control, and Creativity

By on April 9, 2020

Let’s imagine a scenario. You are a samurai warrior, and you have been captured by the enemy. They’ve dragged you out into the middle of the battlefield, and now they’re poised to decapitate you.

What do you do?

Do you:

  1. Cower and beg for your life
  2. Sit quietly with your eyes closed and stoically accept your fate?
  3. Notice your chance at the last moment and stab your smaller blade into their foot, buying you time to escape?

Or how about this one? You are at the starting line of a 100-metre race at the Olympics. Millions of people all around the world are watching you, and years of intense training all come down to this moment.

Do you:

  1. False start twice, then trip over your feet as you set off the third time
  2. Keep a calm mind and launch off the starting block as you have practised thousands of times before

Can you keep calm during an interview or presentation? Can you stick to your goals when you’re burned out and exhausted?

If you would like to improve the chances that you could perform well in any of these situations, you can benefit from meditation. You can be the strongest, the fastest, the best fighter… but if you go to pieces under pressure, you won’t be able to tap into that performance.

Wim Hof Meditation

Meditation can help you to access 100% of your performance when you need it most. But to get there, we need to explore the different TYPES of meditation.

What is Meditation?

So, just what is meditation? There are many different types of meditation, which include everything from mindfulness and transcendental, to hakalau, and religious meditation.

While each of these has differences, they essentially boil down to the same thing: the intentional direction of thoughts and mental states. For most forms of meditation, categorized as “concentrative meditation,” this means focussing on a single internal or external stimulus.

In transcendental meditation, you may choose a mantra – a word or sound – and focus on that. Religious meditation often focusses on a prayer or a passage of text. When performing a body scan meditation, you focus on your own body as you cultivate a sense of relaxation and calm.

This practice can translate to better concentration and focus in your daily life.

In each scenario, you are concentrating on something, and it’s this practice that can translate to better concentration and focus in your daily life. That means greater focus when working on a project, or when sparring with a partner.

Mindfulness and Being in the Moment

Perhaps the most popular form of meditation right now is mindfulness meditation. This is more of a category of meditation or an approach, rather than a single method.

In mindfulness, you may focus on your breathing, your body, your senses, or your thoughts. Mindfulness meditation essentially means being aware of your own thoughts and feelings, rather than being lost in them. From there, you can then choose how and if you want to react to them. This is often described as “watching thoughts go by like clouds”.

You get to choose what NOT to focus on.

It also means you get to choose what NOT to focus on. That means you can shut out the self-doubt, the anxiety, and the distractions in order to achieve that optimal performance. This is how you can use it to overcome fear: by choosing not to focus on the worst-case scenarios, or how much it is going to hurt. You simply focus on the sensation of being in your body, or the battle at hand.

Mindfulness medtiation - types of meditation

This is something that many of us have become very poor at. Our modern lives involve rapidly switching between tasks, while being bombarded by adverts and notifications. As a result, we have become better at skimming text and switching between tasks, but worse at maintaining sustained attention.

Often we find our minds racing about things that really don’t matter in the present moment. Often we struggle to be “present” because we’re so wrapped up in work, in finances, or in other issues.

Mindfulness offers the perfect antidote to this. It reminds us to be aware of our awareness, and to choose whether we want to be in the moment, or focussing on other things. We are no longer slave to our thoughts – or at least we’re aware of the problem!

Meditation also helps us to be more self-aware and empathetic, which makes sense when you consider that you are practising monitoring your own thoughts and emotions. It should come as no surprise then, that the parts of the brain most trained by meditation are those relating to focus and self-reflection. These include the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is known to play a key role in the Executive Control Network of the brain. It also appears to improve connectivity between the dorsal and ventral attentional network, helping us to avoid distraction. Also developed is the medial prefrontal cortex, which is implicated in self-reflection and self-monitoring (study). Likewise, meditation appears to strengthen the right insula, which is related to the perception of bodily states.

In short, meditation – especially mindfulness – can improve self-awareness. This leads to greater emotional intelligence, which is a hugely important subject I’ll be addressing here soon!

Types of Meditation for Recovery

Meditation also provides a perfect opportunity to recharge.

Even if you aren’t doing anything physical, if your thoughts are racing or you’re flicking through Facebook posts, you aren’t really resting. These stimuli still produce a physiological responses, meaning that most of us now go through entire days without ever taking a moment to truly unwind – even our downtime is exhausting! Is it any wonder you feel wired and burned out by 4pm?

Some forms of meditation work particularly well when it comes to recovery, such as yoga nidra. And while nothing can replace sleep, meditation can be a useful coping method for the sleep-deprived, offering some of the same benefits.

Types of meditation

Advanced Meditation Goals

Mindfulness can also be extended to the rest of our daily lives – even when not meditating. We can be more “in the moment” and less lost in our thoughts when spending time with family, or when taking a nice walk. Stop for a moment and feel the breeze on your skin, admire the flowers you’ve been ignoring. Get out of your own head.

Indeed, many forms of meditation aspire to help their practitioners eventually reach a state of constant calm and bliss as they go through their daily activities, such as Tai Chi.

Flow state transcendental meditation

If you get good enough at concentrative forms of meditation, such as transcendental meditation, this can eventually lead to the experience of “ego death”. Here, your sense of self is lost, leaving you with the liberating feeling of being completely in the moment similar to a flow state.

This can eventually lead to the feelings of being “one with the universe,” but actually that particular experience is simply caused by specific areas of your brain shutting down while others remain active. In this case, you are losing perception of your body in space, creating the sensation of expanding into the ether.

This can take years of practice however.

The Danger of Living in the Now

But this is where I think some people can get carried away. While there are benefits to being “in the moment” and free from your inner critic, I’m not a fan of the trend toward demonising all forms of self-talk. After all, it is through self-talk that we are able to plan for the future, critique our performances, and daydream. And self-talk isn’t always negative! In fact, my inner voice is nothing but supportive…

(Thanks little guy!)

The default mode network – or imagination network – is the network of brain regions that lights up when we are absent-mindedly daydreaming. This is of great importance when it comes to planning for the future, creative problem solving, and more. Most people credit the default mode network with Einstein’s theory of relativity, for instance.

Eisntein ideation

I actually think this mental state is just as important as a sense of presence, depending on the situation.

Likewise, it can sometimes be useful to be anxious and aroused; such as when eustress (the positive, motivating forms of stress) encourages us to get out of a bad job or relationship. There is a real danger of corporations prescribing mindfulness and meditation like “happy pills” to keep workers docile and content, even when their jobs are menial and unstimulating. Is it a big surprise that corporations invest a large amount of money in precisely this kind of training?

Eustress is also what motivates us to work toward projects and goals rather than let the deadline creep up.

To me then, the goal of mindfulness should not be simply to become more “in the moment,” but rather to be better at selecting the appropriate mental state for the situation and your goals. To become generally more aware of your own thoughts and state of mind.

In doing that, you can take conscious control over the kind of mental state you choose to be in at any given time: be that present, or thoughtful.

Lesser-Known Types of Meditation for Focus, Brain Power, and Heightened Senses

And that’s why it’s so useful that there are many different forms of meditation. These include forms that actually encourage the mind to wander!

Other meditation practices vary based on what you focus on. This is what you hear about far less often: because when you direct your attention toward a particular sense, feeling, or skill, you can actually train and improve that ability.

Productive Meditation

Take productive meditation for instance – another of the lesser-known types of meditation.

This is a form of meditation that involves meditating “on” a problem, creative endeavour, or question. This can often be performed in an active manner while doing something else, such as going on a long walk. Countless thinkers from Darwin, to Tesla, to Jung were known to take similar “inspiration walks.” The concept of productive meditation specifically was suggested by Cal Newport in his book Deep Work.

productive meditation

This is something I’ve practiced myself for the longest time. I used to look forward to going to bed because I would choose a project I was working on and then simply explore it from every angle as I lay there.

Big Idea Thinking

I also like to use “big idea thinking” as a form of meditation (which I call Big Idea Meditation). Here, you take a hypothetical problem or question that is absolutely huge in scope and then apply your best problem solving skills to it. Where did the universe come from? How would you go about solving world hunger? What would happen in the next Bond film if you were asked to write the script?

These types of meditation still qualify as meditation. You are still focussing your mind on one thing to the exclusion of others. And this allows you to step outside of stressful moments, and to improve your ability to focus on a task. It’s possibly why I find it relatively easy to sit and type 10,000 words in four hours – because I’ve practised shutting out everything except my creative endeavor.

But where this differs from, say, transcendental meditation, is that you are also flexing your creative thinking and problem-solving muscles. Of course, in the case of productive meditation, this can also help you to actually solve whatever problem you have – making it one of the most powerful tools for professionals in particular.

Now, what if you alternated between this kind of deep thought and calm mind with your meditation practice? So that you could think deeply and creatively at work, then switch to being calm and present when you need to relax?

Hakalau Meditation for Peripheral Vision and Reflexes

We can likewise use meditation to train the senses, as in hakalau meditation. This form of meditation involves engaging your peripheral vision and gazing absently without fixing your attention on any one point. This has a calming effect – as I discussed in my previous posts on flow states – but it also helps you to hone and sharpen that peripheral vision. In other words: you become more observant and better at taking in entire scenes instead of single points in space.

Trataka Meditation for Eyesight and Focus

As for more general eyesight and focus, trataka meditation – a form of gazing meditation that involves watching a flame or small object – may be useful. I could not find any studies assessing the effectiveness of this tool, but there are a lot of anecdotal reports and it makes sense.

Simply: to improve your ability to focus your gaze, practice doing exactly that! This is something I will be trying, seeing as I have a tendency to zone out and need to stay better connected to the world around me. I have done too much big idea thinking, and not enough trataka!

Batman meditation

The thing to recognize here, is that when we focus on a sense, we activate many brain regions that are involved with sight. This encourages brain plasticity, helping us to better use those skills at will during daily life.

Image Streaming for Visualization

Another example is image streaming. This exercise isn’t typically considered meditation, but it meets all the criteria.

Here, you focus on your own mind’s eye as you allow different spontaneous imagery to appear. You then describe what you see aloud, without attempting to influence what you are seeing at all. This can help you to visualise things with greater clarity, which can actually be useful for enhancing your working memory, as well as your problem solving and artistic skills.

Samurai Insight Meditation

Insight meditation is meditation that focusses on a particular emotion, memory, experience, or goal. A great example is self-compassion meditation, that teaches practitioners to focus on feelings of self-love and appreciation. At the other end of the spectrum is samurai meditation, which involved meditating on the subject of death in order to overcome any fear of it, as described in the Hagakure. This effectively works like exposure therapy. What else could you meditate on? Confidence, assertiveness, positivity? Fear of attempting a backflip?

Samurai grip

I’ve also discussed the benefit of using bodyscan meditations and other kinaesthetic or moving forms of meditation to improve the mind-muscle connection. By focussing on the feeling of the muscles, you may be able to improve proprioception and even fibre recruitment.

Mental Arithmetic

Dual n-back training is one of the best methods available for training your working memory, but what if you were simply to perform mental maths instead? Take five minutes and simply focus on math problems. You’ll be carrying numbers over and storing results from each step, thereby flexing your working memory. You’ll also be challenging yourself to focus on things you find dull and boring, which is useful if you find your mind wandering during conversation or long instructions. Ever asked someone for directions and then not bothered to listen to the answer?

Speed math types of meditation

If this is starting to sound removed from meditation, consider that according to fMRI, the practice will actually help to train the very skills and accompanying brain areas. The practice has been shown to train the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and even to directly benefit emotional control and combat depression (reference).

Non-Directional Meditation

Moreover, there is a whole category of meditation that doesn’t involve focus at all: non-directive meditation.

Such types of meditation include Acem, which allow the mind to freely wander. What’s interesting, is that this activates the default mode network moreso than merely being at rest.

While we might consider this to be antithetical to focus, it still involves the same determination to enter a particular mental state, or to think in a particular way, without distractions. Essentially, you are focussed on “not focussing.”

What’s great about these types of meditation is that it turns out letting our mind wander is also extremely good for us. When you aren’t consciously directing thoughts and instead letting them flow in a form of free-association, it seems that the brain is actually using this opportunity to better organize thoughts and memories – just as it does when we are dreaming.

As such, people who use this kind of free-form meditation appear to exhibit improved creativity, and greater goal-oriented behavior (reference, reference). It could possibly even be used in a manner similar to yoga nidra to help stave off the deleterious effects of sleep deprivation.

Conclusion: Combining Types of Meditation for Superior Results

The take-home from all this is that there are lots of types of meditation and you can benefit from all of them.

Using yoga nidra, transcendental meditation, or non-directive meditation can provide a rest for your mind that is almost as effective at sleep. Mindfulness meditation and insight meditation can help you to become more aware of your own thoughts and feelings, improving emotional intelligence and the way you interact with others.

Tatraka or vipassana can help you to focus harder during conversations, and potentially even enhance your eyesight. Mental math can increase your focus and self-control, while also developing working memory.

Meditation and Body Language

Use any of these and you will benefit from greater self-awareness and focus. But combine them, and you will create a more adaptable mind and enjoy countless different mental benefits.

Perhaps we should include multiple types of meditation in a mental workout, just as we combine different types of exercise in a strength training regime?

Whatever form of meditation you choose, you will be taking conscious control over your thoughts, and gaining awareness of your own mind. Eventually, you’ll come to know yourself far more intimately, which can result in much greater self-control, productivity, and efficiency.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

2 Comments

  1. Rodrigue says:

    Thanks for the article!

  2. R. Matias Gomes Vieira says:

    Good content. Keep it up!

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