The word meditation describes practices that self regulate the body and mind by engaging specific attentional traits. Most cognitive-behaviorists consider these practices as a subset of those used to induce relaxation or altered states such as hypnosis, progressive relaxation, and trance-induction techniques.

Interestingly, cognitive-behaviorist Jonathan C. Smith, who had developed an extensive research program on meditation as part of his Stress Institute at Roosevelt University in Chicago, originally conceived of meditation as just a special form of relaxation, but latter completely reversed his theory, and now considers relaxation a subset of meditation.

Given that regulation of attention is the central commonality across the many divergent methods, meditative styles can be usefully classified into two types: mindfulness and concentrative, depending on how the attentional process is directed. Most meditative techniques lie somewhere on a continuum between the poles of these two general methods.

Mindfulness practices, also known as insight (Skt. Vipasyana; Pali Vipassana), involve allowing any thoughts, feelings, or sensations to arise while maintaining a specific attentional stance: awareness of the phenomenal field as an attentive and nonattached observer without judgment or analysis. Examples include Zen, Vipassana, and some Western adaptations to mindfulness meditation.

Concentrative meditational techniques, also known as calm abiding (Skt. Samatha), involve focusing on specific mental or sensory activity: a repeated sound, an imagined image, or specific body sensations such as the breath.

The development of a transcendent observer’s perspective on their mental contents is an implicit or explicit goal of most meditative traditions.

Although these perspectives make it difficult to classify a given meditative practice as purely mindfulness or concentrative meditation, the two styles overlap in their approach toward similar goals. The former requires the maintenance of attention in a state of open perceptivity, and the latter requires narrowing of attentional focus. Mindfulness-based practices tend to encourage a continual return to an attentive set that is characterized by open, nonjudgmental awareness of the sensory and cognitive fields and include a meta-awareness or witnessing of the ongoing contents of thought. Concentrative techniques incorporate mindfulness by allowing other thoughts and sensations to arise and pass without clinging to them and bringing attention back to a specific object of concentrative awareness.

Thus, the methods used to elicit specific states may differ across practices, but the results similarly produce reported trait changes in self-experience: eliciting shift toward expanded experience of self not centered on the individual’s body schema and mental contents.