I believe that meditation can be divided into four main categories than can be used subsequently to each other during practice and I will lay them out and describe them in a suggested order which might be switched around at will depending on one’s personal preference.
Recitation: This category consists mainly of chanting mantras or short prayers in a repetitive manner or reciting longer ritual prayers or passages of scripture once only. In the case of chants and mantras there may be two objectives:
a) to enforce an idea, belief or request in one’s mind such as the self explanatory Eastern Orthodox prayer-mantra “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” or the Tibetan Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” which is used to invoke help from Chenrezig Buddha, the Buddha of Compassion. An example of the second kind of recitation can be found in the ritual recitation of the Nicean Creed which is commonly recited once by the congregation towards the end of a Church of England service in order to reaffirm the theological beliefs of the Anglican Church. Another example which varies in purpose slightly is the way in which Muslims will recite passages of the Quran (which means roughly “The Recitation”) in order to memorize it and reflect on the deeper meanings of the passages, a practice that is somewhat analogous to the Protestant habit of “Meditating on the Word.” and scribbling endless reflections on the passages in the margins of their Bibles, although it should be pointed out that this is not a product of recitation per se, but a product of repeated and habitual reading in a way that is not particularly formal or organized. It may also be argued that the Chinese practice of Tai Chi constitutes a form of physical recitation although it could also fit into category b) which I am about to discuss:
b) to still the mind by means of repetition without paying attention to the meanings of the words. The Mantras “Aum” (More commonly known as the famous “Om”) or “Ah” (believed by some Buddhists to be less conditioned and more primordial that “Aum”) do not have a meaning in the same way that a word in a sentence may have a meaning but may by repetition be used by the meditator to quiet the mental chatter of his mind by focusing upon the repeated pronunciation of the Mantra, sometimes as a “warm up” before beginning a period of silent meditation. Alan Watts once said “You can see the whole Universe in boing.” in reference to these kinds of basic primordial noises and it would be perfectly feasible to use “Booooooinggggggggggggggg” as one of these kinds of deep reverberating mantras. The Sufi Muslim mystics have a related practice of saying their own name over and over again until it loses it’s meaning and becomes just a repetitive noise that has no meaning (rather like the Matt Damon puppet in the film Team America!) and this practice serves the same purpose as reciting “Aum” once the meditator has transcended the “meaning” that he normally attaches to the noises he is making. This can also be said of any of the repetitive mantras described in section a), and may also occur during the single chanting of a scripture such as the Lotus Sutra which has absolutely no intellectual meaning to someone who has not read it in their native language but which provides a series of rhythmic noises to a chanter who has memorized the entire Sutra without learning it’s literal meaning.
Concentration: This meditation technique is best known in the form of basic Zen meditation which uses one’s breath as a kind of mantra, which is to say that the process of breathing is what one focuses upon during meditation practice as a means of quieting the mind. When thoughts arise in the mind and disturb it the practitioner simply returns his focus onto his breathing. If one is doing this practice as a stand alone exercise you may say that it is rather like the Daoist practice of Fasting the Heart Mind, which is to say resting in a state in which the ego is un-stimulated by any of the normal distractions that we have available to us. This state has been described as “Resting in the Great Void” or becoming a “Stone” Buddha (the latter being a slightly derogatory term) and it provides an excellent preliminary for more difficult kinds of meditation in the same way that Recitation provides a good preliminary exercise for Concentration as well as being a valid practice in it’s own right which helps one to “Overcome the ego” as Lao Tzu said. Sometimes Concentration meditation is practiced by focusing on an “object” of some kind and this method of practice can be sub-divided into two categories:
a) Devotional Concentration. This method of concentration is more common in Theistic religions and may involve either focusing upon an object of religious significance such as the Cross or possibly upon a concept or an idea as is seen in the Orthodox practice of Kataphatic meditation in which the practitioner focuses upon something such as the sufferings of Christ (something which is often represented in a literal and graphic way in Mexican Catholicism which commonly makes use of excessively battered and bloodied Christs on it’s Crucifixes). The line between Concentration and Contemplation becomes rather blurred here and the two are separated only by the difference between Worshipful Concentration (Devotion) and Understanding Concentration (Contemplation).The Orthodox church sometimes has it’s adherents recite chants whilst focusing upon Icons of significant religious figures and this also constitutes a method of devotional concentration.
b) Non-Devotional Concentration. This method of concentration involves focusing upon mundane objects such as a candle flame or a small pebble in order to quiet the mind and these objects take the place of the breath and mantras in being the focal points that quieten the mind of the practitioner.
Contemplation: This method of meditation is used to try and gain a deep understanding of a principle or idea. In the Book of Joy by Douglas Adams it is revealed that the Dalai Lama sometimes spends up to four hours in the mornings contemplating the nature of the self using a method known as “Sevenfold Analysis” which involves mentally analyzing the relationship between one’s feeling of “self” and one’s physical and mental attributes, in other words trying to discover where the “Self” can be found (Buddhists of course assert that a permanent self cannot be found anywhere). I also tend to include the Buddhist practice of Mindfulness (similar in some ways to Orthodox Christian “Watchfulness”) in this category. Mindfulness, which can be practiced as Lying, Sitting. Standing or Walking meditation, is an export from Buddhism that has proven almost as popular as Yoga in the West, is the method of being objectively aware of one’s own thoughts and emotions as they arise in the mind and in that respect I believe that Mindfulness meditation is a method of contemplating on the nature of the mind and the self. This kind of contemplation differs from what is commonly referred to as Contemplative Prayer in Catholicism and Mystical Christianity and I believe this practice probably belongs in the category of Worshipful Concentration in that it is sometimes described as “Praying without ceasing” or “Sitting with God” which is an expression of a wish to communicate personally with God rather than an attempt to understand the nature of a particular idea. A Hindu observer might describe these practices as Bhakti Yoga which is a loving devotional practice towards one’s chosen deity. Contemplative meditation is sometimes practiced after an initial period of Recitation and Concentration because these practices help to quiet the mind sufficiently to have a productive of Contemplation upon whichever topic you have chosen to think about.
Visualization: This method of meditation is most commonly found in Tantric practices that occur in Daoism, Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism (which is blended heavily with an ancient Shamanic religion called Bon) and commonly involves generating an image of religious significance in the mind in order to induce a change in one’s character. It may argued that Visualization should belong in the in the category of Worshipful Concentration but I believe that the Tibetan Buddhist Visualization practices in particular should be categorized separately because although they do involve the visualization of Tibetan Deities, it is widely acknowledged that the Deities are allegorical in nature and are in fact an archetypal tool for inner transformation (but not a representation of one’s inner self as is sometimes the case in Hinduism). The purpose of visualizing these Deities in the “minds eye” is for the practitioner to embody the qualities of the Deity in himself rather than approaching the Deity as something external to be worshiped, although it could be argued that this kind of visualization might fall into the category of what the Hare Krishnas call “Ideal Worship” in reference to their use of statues of Lord Krishna in their devotional practices which they maintain does not constitute what Christians, Jews and Muslims refer to as “idol worship”. It is not uncommon in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism for practitioners to believe that their last thought before dying is a major contributor towards the achievement of Nirvana/Moksha (liberation from rebirth/reincarnation) and the practice of Visualization is commonly used as a form of mental training to assist the practitioner during their final dying moments (I tend to assume that the devoted members of the Abrahamic faiths also practice a kind of informal devotional visualization of some sort as they wait to meet God at the end of their lives). This kind of meditation is the most difficult to do and is mostly done by advanced practitioners and might be well be practiced after the other three kinds of meditation in this post.