The 4 Fundamental Meditative States

Meditation_Ali Kaukas photo

Photo by Ali Kaukas for Wanderlust Festival

I just got back from an amazing long weekend at Wanderlust, where I took a workshop called “Meditation: The Four Phases of the Mind.”

In May, I wrote a post explaining 11 different meditation styles and techniques. While helpful and detailed, the teacher in this class, Charlie Knoles, took the overview a level up—and it’s super easy to grasp. I thought I would share his explanation.

He bucketed all of the thousands of techniques used in meditation into four broad categories, or meditative states: present moment awareness, transcendence, focused intention, and energized body-mind. All of these activate the relaxation response, but they trigger different regions of the brain and therefore have different effects on people.

Try them all and see which one feels best for you. Some types of people gravitate toward one over another. I’ll note which experiences are best for certain personality types.

Let’s dive into what these look like.

Present Moment Awareness

As the name suggests, these meditations focus on the present moment, on paying careful, close attention to everything happening while you meditate—the sensations in your body, the thoughts swimming in your mind, the noises you hear. With present moment awareness, you’re observing as everything comes and goes in your awareness.

Buddhist meditation practices such as Vipassana and Zen meditation fall into this category, as well the popular MBSR program.

Best Suited for: Beginners, Type-As, Do’ers


These are mantra-based meditations that take your mind to quieter levels of awareness into a transcendental state—where you go beyond the intellect and ego, beyond space, time and self—and gain a sense of universality, or “oneness.”

Transcendental Meditation and Primordial Sound Meditation are two types of meditation that fall into this category.

Best Suited for: Creative people, Athletes

Focused Intention

These meditations focus on the future, or bringing something about in the future, whether that be the perfect job, home, spouse, or feeling. Manifestation, creative visualization, prayer and hypnosis are examples of techniques that help you focus on a goal, a feeling, a future achievement—athletes use focused intention a lot. Imagine the basketball player visualizing himself being in the zone and scoring the winning point to help him get ready for a big game.

Compassion meditations—such as Lovingkindness and Tonglen—and gratitude meditations are also examples of styles you would find in this category, since they focus on cultivating feelings that will help you in your everyday life.

Best Suited for: Anyone who wants to have a better life

Energized Body-Mind

These are more active meditations that energize the mind and body and help you reach your peak performance state. In these meditations, you’re body is exerting effort, but your mind is totally calm. Some examples include Kundalini yoga and other strong breathwork practices, Vinyasa yoga, walking meditation, surfing, and running. The runner’s high is a great example of the result of an active meditation. 

Best Suited for: Anyone that needs an energy boost

The cool thing that Charlie pointed out, was that you don’t really have to know a lot about meditation to gain some of the benefits. They’ve done studies where a control group sat for period of time with their eyes closed. They had instructions and techniques for meditating and got great results as far as relaxation response and settling the mind.

Then the uncontrolled group sat for the same amount of time with their eyes closed, but they were given no instructions. They didn’t know how to meditate at all, but they sat quietly with their eyes closed and they STILL got some of the benefits of the relaxation response. His point here was that even if you can’t figure out which category works best for you, you really can’t fail with meditation.

*Photo by Ali Kaukas for Wanderlust Festival 

Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler is an ICF Certified Leadership and Executive Coach, certified meditation and yoga instructor, and author. She created Mindful Minutes to offer practical, relatable anecdotes and tips on how to bring mindfulness into the busyness of the digital age. Her intention is to share what she learns about overcoming her own challenges with meditation, mindfulness, and life balance while maintaining a challenging schedule and career. Learn more about Melissa here.

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