When I first started meditation, I simply followed whatever the guided meditation, book, or instruction I had in front of me.
I had no idea there were different types and categories of meditation, and that they differ significantly in their approach.
If you are working within a tradition – these distinctions and categories may be irrelevant. Learn from a legitimate teaching source completely, and just do it.
But many in the West are cobbling together and learning on their own, and may be conflating two common meditation techniques: concentration (or Samatha) and mindfulness (or insight).
Concentration Meditation vs Insight Meditation
If you were taught meditation as a beginner, it was likely concentration meditation. In concentration meditation you are instructed to return your attention on a single object – often the breath. As a beginner, this is a simple instruction, but often difficult to execute. You may feel you’re being whipped around in a storm.
Insight meditation, on the other hand (also known as Vipassana or mindfulness meditation), often does not ask you focus your attention on a single object. Instructions for insight meditation can vary significantly between tradition and technique, but they range from outright investigation of whatever it is you are noticing, to simply being aware of what is happening right now.
Here’s one example of a difference: If a sound or a thought arises, one insight meditation instructs you notice (and closely examine) the sound or thought. As your attention is pulled to another object, the instruction may ask you to notice the pulling – the flow of attention itself.
Meanwhile, concentration meditation (most techniques at least) instruct you to gently return your attention to your meditation object upon noticing this distraction (usually the breath).
This distinction seems small – seemingly pedantic. But in practice, the difference can be profound.
So, what’s the difference?
A common quick analogy is to think of concentration meditation as sharping your sword, and insight meditation as the using of the sword. In many Buddhist traditions, concentration is taught as sort of a primer, so that a mind can build the clarity and strength of concentration to do insight (or non-dual techniques) effectively.
However, if you’re totally confused, below I’m going to try to illustrate the difference with a more modern analogy.
If things are running slow on your phone, tablet, or computer, you pull up the task manager (control+alt+delete), and you see a number of applications and background processes running. Our minds – just like a computer – always have programs and processes running (both in the foreground and in the background).
Think of concentration meditation like your ability to bring up this task manager and close down programs hogging your computer’s resources. With this one simple exercise, you free up RAM, and everything starts to run better.
Our mind is bogged down in thoughts always going going going, just like our computers can become bogged down with applications, programs, and processes. Have enough things running, and simple tasks become a challenge. This is what Buddhists (and now psychologists) often refer to as the “monkey mind.” If you live in the 21st century, you likely know what they’re talking about: a mind always “working,” opening browser tabs, sending emails, checking texts, watching YouTube videos, worrying about your friends and family, and always looking for the next thing to go go go…
Through concentration meditation, it’s almost as if you you can boost your “system resources” by building up the skill of concentration. You ability to direct and sustain attention may grow, and your overall discursive thinking may quiet. You may not notice many big “changes” in your personality or outlook – but likely will find yourself more concentrated, thinking more clearly, and more able to focus on what’s happening right now.
But, what do you do once you have a mind/computer that isn’t completely cluttered? Welcome to insight meditation.
With insight meditation, perhaps for the first time ever, you now have the ability to poke around your computer – learn how things work and and through understanding things better, you begin to change.
It turns out, simply by poking around the computer and learning how thinks work, we discover tremendous truths about ourselves/the world (called insights).
When beginners talk about quieting their mind and improving their focus, they’re likely talking about the benefits of concentration meditation. But when you hear a long-time meditator discuss the impacts of meditation on rethinking their values, finding “real” happiness for the first time, or noticing that their personality has changed in some big way, they may be talking about insight meditation. Tara Brach famously used insight meditation to investigate and unpack her deep feelings of shame so that she was no longer unconsciously driven by them.
But just because these two styles are different , doesn’t mean they aren’t related.
In fact, the nature of their relationship is complex enough that it’s a bit beyond the scope of this simple post.
Many techniques teach that it is nearly impossible to practice insight meditation without a basic level of concentration (frequently called “access concentration”). If your mind can’t focus for three seconds, how can you be expected to discern/notice a thought, or follow a sound, let alone deeper insights? Just like with our analogy, if your computer is frozen because of all the unnecessary programs, you certainly can’t start exploring.
So, what should I practice?
It’s up to you to find a meditation technique and commit yourself to it.
Many western techniques instruct beginners to start with concentration meditation. But it’s crucial that you find a proper teaching source and learn it completely. A meditation technique is more than just “return your attention to the breath.” A lot more (ethical action, community, balanced and healthy living, etc).
In fact, some traditions may not explicitly make this distinction, whereas many of the mindfulness traditions do.