Analytical Meditation: Story, Thought, and Emotion

woman’s head swirling with colorful clouds

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Most people are familiar with meditation on the breath using the techniques of mindfulness. This type of meditation, called stabilizing meditation, focuses your mind and brings your awareness to the present moment. But did you know there’s another type of meditation called analytical meditation, that instead of clearing the mind, fills your mind with stories and images that actively transform it?

What Is Analytical Meditation?

Most of the guided meditation techniques we explore in the Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment Podcast are this second type of meditation practice, called analytical meditation. Of the two different types of meditation, this second form is deeply elaborated in Tibetan Buddhism’s Lamrim Tradition.

Analytic meditation can be defined as using an active stream of thoughts, images, and emotions to gradually steer our minds toward beneficial habits. With enough practice, these thought patterns become second nature. While stabilizing meditation calms the mind, analytic meditation changes the mind.

Analytic meditation can be defined by its use of a rich narrative stream of thoughts and images that engage our emotions and creativity to gradually steer our minds toward beneficial habits. With enough practice, these thought patterns become second nature. While stabilizing meditation calms the mind, analytic meditation changes the mind.

A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment adapts this form of Buddhist analytical meditation to a secular form.

Stabilizing meditation calms your mind

Stabilizing meditation is the meditation you’ve already heard about, and likely the only type of meditation you thought there was. It’s a type of meditation popular in guided meditation apps like Calm, Headspace, and Ten Percent Happier. In a stabilizing meditation session you focus on an object to calm your mind and slow down your thoughts.

The most common object for stabilizing meditation is your breath. The way you breathe reflects your inner state. It’s quick and shallow when you’re nervous, slow and steady when you’re calm. Since your breath is always with you, you can meditate anywhere and anytime in your daily life.

Analytical meditation changes your mind

In contrast, with the lesser-known type of meditation called analytical meditation, you deliberately fill your mind with thoughts and emotions. Analytical meditation is like a mental movie or podcast that takes your mind on a narrative journey to cultivate the best qualities of a human being. 

One of the encouraging things about analytical meditation is that many people—even the first time they try it—can focus 100% on the experience without distraction. Because an analytic meditation’s story changes from moment to moment, it more easily keeps our interest. 

Stabilizing meditation, on the other hand, can remain elusively difficult, where most people are only able to focus single-pointedly for just a few seconds, even after years of practice.

young adult asian woman and black man meditating outdoors in calming and analytical meditation
You can’t tell from the outside, but inside there are two different types of meditation: stabilizing meditation that calms the mind by letting go of thoughts, and analytical meditation that changes the mind by deliberately cultivating beneficial thoughts.

Guided analytical meditations are like stories

Because it takes advantage of our love of stories, an analytic meditation can be as effortlessly engaging as watching TV or listening to a podcast. 

Some say that human beings uniquely evolved to learn from stories like this. Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens argues that stories teach us important lessons for survival without having to repeat others’ tedious experiments or painful mistakes. And his theory is backed up by recent neuroscience.

The effects of analytic meditation can make the difference in daily life between mindlessly moving through the day, or being mindfully present in every moment; between a day of distracted disconnection or one of heartfelt connection.

Types of analytical meditation

Examples of analytical meditation include love, compassion, wisdom, patience, generosity, impermanencesuffering, and death. Not all of these sound like beneficial states of mind. However, as the Dalai Lama teaches, contemplating topics like suffering and death with the right attitude can be wholly beneficial. 

Meditating on impermanence helps us become less attached to worldly things by understanding that we’ll eventually lose them or grow tired of them. Meditating on death gives us the energy to make the most of life by realizing we could lose it at any moment. Meditating on the world’s suffering helps us escape our self-centered view and open our hearts to others.

Visualization in analytic meditation

A special kind of analytical meditation involves visualization, where vivid imagery is used to strengthen the power of constructive emotions.

In Tibetan Buddhism, visualizations can involve multi-armed deities, which at first I didn’t understand. But my brother, who’s also a Tibetan Buddhist, explained to me that the Buddha is the ultimate action figure—an embodied representation of enlightenment that helps train the mind of a Buddhist by visualizing an ideal being with perfect concentration and compassion.

“The Buddha is the ultimate action figure.” Embodied archetypes idealize qualities we we want to cultivate in ourselves. Whether it’s the Buddha’s compassion and inner peace or Iron Man’s ingenuity and bravery, what you regularly contemplate changes how you think. (Japanese Ushiku Daibutsu Buddha, Iron Man © Marvel via Shutterstock).

Today, our culture isn’t focused on deities but on superheroes like Iron Man. If Iron Man inspires you to be your better self, sure, meditate on Iron Man. But a more down-to-earth meditation is to visualize ourselves: picturing who we could become if if we perfected a human being’s full potential for good. 

Imagining what it would be like if we could take away others’ pain; imagining that we could give everyone on earth everything they need: these are forms of meditation honed over a millennium in Tibetan Buddhism. These guided meditations were transmitted in secret for generations, until teachers like The Dalai Lama opened them up to us and the world. 

Each week we explore these powerful techniques together in guided meditations that you can listen to in A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment’s podcast.

Analytic meditation forms good habits

Whether it’s meditating, watching movies, or scrolling through Instagram, any new habit you adapt gradually changes your mind. The most common change associated with meditation is mindfulness: becoming more aware of what and how you think. 

Through practicing analytical meditation, it becomes possible to distinguish the thoughts from the thinker, and to gradually bring about a more present, accepting, controlled state of mind. You become able to let go of your negative characteristics and deliberately choose what to think, say, or do, rather than compulsively following your urges.

When you hear and understand these benefits of meditation, you become curious and motivated to actually meditate as part of your daily life.

Further Listening

If you’d like to give it a try now, sample our first guided meditation, “Stabilizing the Mind and Watching Thoughts,” which lets you experience each form of Buddhist meditation: stabilizing meditation on the breath, and a powerful analytic meditation that probes the nature of mind with and without thoughts.

Further Reading

How to Meditate, Kathleen McDonald. Crystal clear instruction on traditional Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditation techniques by a senior western nun, one of Lama Yeshe’s original students.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari. On the evolutionary importance of story to humanity.

Wired for Story, Lisa Cron. On the neuroscience that supports our human need for stories, and their value for survival.


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