Although they may differ considerably, most meditation practices aim to calm, or quieten the thoughts.
For those of us that have a busy lifestyle and seem to think non-stop a quieter mind can be a great relief. By better connecting to our mind and body we become more aware of what is going on internally, and as such meditation is seen by many as an empowering practice in which we take back control of our lives.
Instead of being at the mercy of our thoughts and emotions we come to understand them, and with this understanding comes positive change.
Meditation helps us to gain a different understanding and relationship to our thoughts and problems.
Some practices aim to alter our relationship to our thoughts and how we perceive ourselves.
By gaining a better understanding of our thinking processes we are less dominated by thoughts - both good and bad. By observing our thoughts we get to notice habits and patterns that may previously have been unknown. This understanding then allows us to make positive changes. Instead of constantly thinking of the past and the future we begin to live more in the now - and it is now that life is actually happening, and where real change can occur.
So what is the practice?
Many meditation techniques select something simple as an object to focus on. Depending on the technique you choose you may be doing one, or a combination, of the following techniques:
Following the breath
Many traditions have used the breath as an object of concentration. It is always available, and brings you back to "now", centering you in your body. Observing your breathing can be very grounding, and is useful as a way to interrupt habitual thinking patterns. Where you focus on depends on the particular method you are using, and also on experience - learning what works best for you. Commonly used points of focus are the rise and fall of the belly, or the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nostrils.
Observing the body
Similar to how the breath is used, the body can also be something to concentrate on. Some traditions focus on the sensations in the heart, or the belly, or perhaps between the eyebrows. Others use a scanning technique to go up and down the body, and feel what is happening throughout. At different times the various organs of the body may also be a focus of meditation.
Mantras are single words or a phrase spoken or thought repetitively. This method can have several different aims or results. For instance, it is very practical to replace a stream of negative or angry thoughts with a mantra, as this can break the chain of your thinking and also help to change your emotional state. Mantras can be used to focus our awareness on not only ourselves but our potential connection to something greater than ourselves.
These are some of the more well known and common types of meditation, but there are seemingly as many methods and techniques as there have been Masters and Teachers. Detailed instructions for all of these meditation techniques (and more) can be found in the how to meditate section.