Meditation Primer: Tranquility and Insight

Meditation is a general term that’s used for several different spiritual practices.

The goal of these practices is to bring the meditator to a state of heightened awareness and/or to bring a state of awakening or enlightenment.

If we practice with determination we can come to non-dualistic states of mind. This can lead to enlightenment.

Most types of meditation that are taught in Buddhism fall into one of two categories. They are Concentration and Insight.


This is sometimes called calm abiding or tranquility. This type of meditation can be done in several different ways. One is a mindless repetition of a word or phrase (such as OM or RAM), another is by staring at an object like a mandala or a flame (like you do around a campfire).

But there is one way that is simpler than all the others. This is the practice of following the breath. In this practice we just follow the pattern of our breathing and any time our thoughts distract us, we pull our attention back to our breathing. Often counting breaths is recommended as a point of focus, but that isn’t necessarily important. If we spend a lot of time engaged in this practice we will have better focus and we will be able to enter a deeper state of calm.


This type of meditation can also be done in several different ways. It is normally done in addition to concentration practices. In this type of meditation we are trying to deeply analyze something—often ourselves. If we were using this in breathing meditation we would minutely examine the breath that’s coming into and exiting our bodies, rather than simply following it. Another version of this is the hua tou.

In hua tou practice, we are constantly asking ourselves a question (usually a difficult to answer one like ‘who am I’ or ‘what is this’). These seem like easy questions, but it quickly becomes clear that they are not when we sit and analyze them.

Another example is the zen koan, in which a teacher asks a student to answer a seemingly nonsensical riddle, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The purpose of these practices is to challenge our delusions and force our minds to think in a nondualistic way.

With these two practices our consciousness can awaken to it’s true nature, which is luminous and free.

Insight and Concentration

A lot of people don’t realize that there are really two kinds of Buddhist meditation practice. They should realize it because they are right in the Noble Eightfold Path, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

Some people seem to think that Concentration Meditation is all there is. There are whole branches of Buddhism that don’t really practice Insight Meditation. 

Here is the difference, as I see it. Concentration Meditation involves focusing on something. Whether that is counting the breath, feeling sensations, or staring at a candle flame, these are all Concentration Meditation. The purpose is to stabilize and strengthen the mind.

Insight Meditation is something different, although the two definitely complement each other. Insight Meditation involves emptying the mind without a point of focus. It involves opening yourself up to experiencing reality as it is, to understanding the nature of things. It is a fundamental part of the Buddha’s teaching, but a lot of Buddhists don’t even know about it.

Concentration Meditation is very very good. It improves mental and emotional stability, focus, and intellect.

Insight Meditation is the doorway to Enlightenment. It improves our understanding of reality, wisdom, and our control over the three poisons (greed, hatred, and delusion).