Generally, meditation is the act of holding our attention on an intentionally chosen point of focus. Learning to rest the mind on a single, beneficial object or topic can lead us to greater peace, happiness and ease. The difference is in the details. There are many meditation techniques.
Which type of meditation is best for you, at this moment, is likely the technique that resonates with you most. This is the meditation style you’re most likely to practice. As you read through the following list, note if there’s a type of meditation that seems to draw your attention. Note also that we might benefit from different meditation techniques at different times of day, or at different stages along our mindfulness journey.
Whatever type of meditation you choose, practice with care and gentleness, stay within your window of tolerance, and if you need to, work with a teacher or guide.
Meditation Techniques for Focus & Concentration
Typically, the mind moves habitually and reactively, flying off to any exciting object that catches our attention. The untamed, unfocused state of mind causes us (and others) pain and suffering.
Meditation teaches us to anchor the mind to a single intention. When the mind flies off, we recognize this and bring it back. Repeating this practice develops a more calm, steady mind that’s better able to stay present, focused and concentrated.
In this state of mind, productivity and the completion of tasks improves. We also become better listeners, more present in our relationships, and less vulnerable to emotional reactivity. The following styles of meditation are well-suited for improving focus and concentration.
Focused Attention Meditation
Focused attention meditation invites us to anchor the mind to a single object, and then practice holding it there. If and when the mind wanders, we return to the object of meditation as soon as we notice. The anchor to which we tether our attention can be the breath, the body, or any object such as a candle or an image.
- How To Practice Focused Attention Meditation: To meditate for improved concentration, choose an anchor for your practice. The most common meditation anchor is the breath. Set the intention to remain focused on your anchor. When you notice the mind has wandered, waste no time wondering why or criticizing yourself, just return your attention to the anchor as quickly as you can.
- Benefits: Research shows even brief focused attention practice reduces stress, improves relaxation and resilience. Focused attention practice improves our ability to narrowly focus and increases the length of time we can hold that focus. Focused attention is especially helpful for beginners, as it establishes the steady, calm foundation that’s needed for advanced meditations.
- Tips for Beginners: Focused attention is not about stopping thoughts or other distractions, those will always be there. Rather, it’s about relating to distractions in a new way, learning we don’t have to follow them.
We can develop greater focus and concentration by using mantra as the object of meditation. Transcendental Meditation(™) is one form of mantra meditation, although not all mantra meditation is transcendental meditation. A mantra is a sacred syllable or sound. Saying a mantra out loud engages the body, speech and mind simultaneously, making us less susceptible to distraction.
- How To Practice: To practice Transcendental Meditation, you need a teacher. Your teacher will give you your mantra and meditation instructions. If you don’t have a mantra, you might try repeating any brief phrase that has profound meaning for you.
- Benefits: In addition to improved focus, the benefits of mantra meditation include reduced stress and anxiety, lowered blood pressure and improved immunity.
- Tips for Beginners: If you’re new to mantra meditation, speak slowly and softly. Let your breath guide the pace of your chanting. Allow sound and the sensation of the mantra’s vibration to help you stay present.
Meditation Techniques for Anxiety & Stress
Nearly every form of meditation reduces stress and anxiety by calming and focusing the mind and grounding us in the present moment. That said, mindfulness meditation is particularly suited for calm and relaxation, especially if practiced as part of a mindfulness-based stress reduction program.
Mindfulness meditation is a secular practice that was largely popularized in the 1970’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn. His definition of mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” remains at the heart of all mindfulness practices today.
- How To Practice: Mindfulness is a simple meditation technique that includes breath awareness, mindful body scans, mindfulness of sound, and mindful eating. Primarily, mindfulness meditation is the practice of presence in this moment, just as it is.
- Benefits: Mindfulness meditation is perhaps the most studied meditation style. A robust body of research hails benefits that include reduced stress and anxiety, but also improved cognition, memory and attention and several health benefits.
- Tips for Beginners: Beginners may find it easiest to start with guided meditation. Mindfulness of breathing is among the best meditation techniques for beginners and a very good place to start.
Walking meditation is generally practiced as a form of mindfulness meditation. It’s particularly helpful for stress reduction since it combines rhythmic forward movement with awareness. Walking meditation can make meditation more accessible for some by limiting the discomfort associated with sitting still.
- How To Practice: During walking meditation, we bring our awareness to the breath, the body and all the senses. By grounding our attention in the present moment, we limit the anxious energy and worry thinking that contributes to stress.
- Benefits: Walking meditation has physical, mental and emotional benefits. It helps lower heart rate and blood pressure, minimizes the hormones that cause stress and can even improve balance and creativity.
- Tips for Beginners: If you’re new to walking meditation, practice indoors or in a very quiet, controlled space. Walk slowly without shoes and choose just one point of focus, such as the sensation of your feet on the ground.
Advanced Meditation Techniques
All meditation techniques have the potential to be advanced. Even a seemingly simple mindful breathing meditation can offer us deep insights into the true nature of reality and the self.
That said, there are some styles of meditation that are better practiced once we’ve established the foundation of a calm, stable, equanimous mind. Open awareness and contemplation both make us more vulnerable to distraction, thus they are considered advanced meditation techniques.
Open Awareness Meditation
Often presented in opposition to focused attention meditation, open awareness meditation lets the object of our meditation be anything and everything that is arising in our awareness at this moment.
- How To Practice: To practice open awareness meditation, we open all our senses to the present moment. We note or observe whatever arises without attaching to anything nor pushing anything away. We do our best to give equal attention to all that is present, while staying present ourselves through the experience of the senses.
- Benefits: Often referred to in research as ‘open monitoring,’ this meditation technique helps us cultivate non-judgmental awareness, non-reactivity and discernment. This meditation type helps us detach from autobiographical memory, making it easier for us to let go of old, unhelpful stories.
- Tips for Beginners: Beginners may find it challenging to know where to place their attention. That’s perfectly ok. If feeling overwhelmed, just place your attention on the breath. With practice, the mind will settle.
Contemplative meditation practices are considered advanced because it can be challenging to discern between meditation and thinking. In contemplative meditations, the object of focus is often one of spiritual concern. Meditators might contemplate a particular virtue, zen koan, or logical problem such as, who am I?
- How To Practice: Setting a clear intention is an important part of contemplative meditation. The intention establishes the boundary of the meditation and can help us discern when we are no longer meditating.
- Benefits: Contemplative meditation styles are practiced primarily because they open the mind to spiritual insight regarding the true nature of self and reality. Like other meditation styles, they improve mental health, reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate.
- Tips for Beginners: Those new to contemplative meditation should establish a clear intention, then monitor their focus alongside their contemplation. It helps to practice under the guidance of a teacher.
Compassion practices open the heart to help us live with more grace, generosity and kindness. Loving-kindness, compassion and equanimity practices are all heart-based meditations.
Equalizing Self and Others Meditation
Equalizing self and others is traditionally practiced as a preliminary to compassion meditation. This meditation technique helps us establish equanimity so that we might apply our compassion equally to all beings everywhere.
- How To Practice: The premise of ‘equalizing self and others’ is that everyone, just like us, only wants to be happy and free from their pain. This includes our loved ones, those we are not close to, and those we find challenging.
- Benefits: This heart-opening practice helps soften our sense of separateness by reminding us of the ways in which we are just like all others. It reduces reactivity and judgmental attitudes, allowing us to offer kindness to all, equally.
- Tips for Beginners: Heart-based meditation practices can be challenging. Observe resistance as it arises, and practice self-compassion as needed.
Loving-kindness meditation, also known as metta in Pali or Maitri in Sanskrit, has Buddhist origins but is practiced by those of all faiths and beliefs. This meditation technique increases empathy and promotes care and kindness for all beings, including ourselves.
- How To Practice: Loving-kindness meditation is often practiced in the form of sending well-wishes to others. Common phrases include, ‘may you be well,’ ‘may you be happy,’ ‘may you be safe’ and so on. We can send these wishes to loved ones, to strangers, to those who present us with challenges, and also to ourselves.
- Benefits: Metta meditation helps us become kinder and less self-centered, improves positive emotions associated with others, and increases our overall happiness.
- Tips for Beginners: When meditating on your feelings for others, it can help to begin with someone you have no strong attraction or aversion to. Over time, you can work with those with whom you are more intimate.
Meditation Techniques for Beginners
Those who are new to meditation may find it helpful to begin with a guide. Nearly any meditation technique can be practiced with a guide. In this format, a live teacher, audio or video recording gives us instructions and prompts throughout the meditation practice, to help us stay focused.
- How To Practice: Choose a teacher or recording and listen in a safe and quiet space where you can be free from distractions. Select the meditation style that best matches your personal intention for practice.
- Benefits: Working with a guide can help us learn a new style of meditation. A guide can also help keep us focused on the intention. Guided meditation can be calming, stabilizing and heart-opening.
- Tips for Beginners: Do your best to balance the outward focus of listening to the guide with attention to your inner experience and how the meditation feels in your body.
Visualization meditations use creative imagery to help us find calm, fall asleep or develop insight. Visualization is an excellent meditation technique for beginners because it gives the mind a job to do, limiting distraction.
- How To Practice: When working with visualization, set an intention or use a guide. Try your best to create a felt sense of the imagery, using the eyes of the heart versus the eyes in your head.
- Benefits: Visualization meditations have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression and help alleviate chronic pain.
- Tips for Beginners: As you begin, it’s ok if your visualization is fuzzy or lacking detail. Do your best to maintain focus and you’ll find you can hold the visualization more easily over time.
Meditation Techniques for Better Sleep
Body Scan Meditation
The body scan meditation is a type of mindfulness meditation, although it may also be practiced with an intention of gratitude, self-compassion, or to relax the body in preparation for sleep.
- How To Practice: To practice a body scan meditation for sleep begin at the head then slowly scan toward the feet. As you place your attention on each part of the body, invite in a sense of calm and relaxation.
- Benefits: Evidence shows the mindful body scan is an effective means of inducing and improving sleep, even for those with chronic pain or other sleep disorders.
- Tips for Beginners: Practice the body scan for sleep while lying down in your bed. Find a gentle balance between remaining focused, yet allowing yourself to drift off to sleep.
Sleep meditation is any meditation technique that’s practiced with the intent to help you fall asleep sooner or sleep more soundly.
- How To Practice: Many sleep meditations are in the form of guided practices. Using a guide allows you to relax your focus, and drift off to sleep as you are ready.
- Benefits: A consistent meditation practice at any time of day improves sleep onset and sleep quality. Sleep meditation can be especially helpful for addressing ruminative thinking and preparing the body for sleep.
- Tips for Beginners: When meditating to fall asleep, try not to force the process. Stay present as much as possible, focusing on sensation in the body versus whether or not you’re asleep yet.
Daily Meditation Techniques to Try
Meditation can be practiced formally while standing, walking, seated or lying down. Mindful meditation techniques can also be practiced while living our daily lives. The key is to allow yourself to be fully present, no matter the activity you’re engaged in. To integrate mindfulness into daily living, try the following:
Meditation is a grounding, calming practice that stabilizes the mind and offers us more clarity and presence. These qualities benefit our lives by making us more kind and less reactive. We become better focused and make decisions more easily. We become more capable of remaining present with ourselves and others, no matter life’s circumstances.
While the benefits of various meditation techniques differ slightly, each offers the above general outcomes, as long as we practice consistently. So, the meditation style that is best for you is the one you are most likely to practice every day. Choose the type of meditation that encourages curiosity and makes your heart sing.
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja Sur, Mexico. In addition to online offerings, she teaches donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific coast. She is a certified 500-hour Remedial Yoga and Applied Mindfulness Advanced teacher with Bodhi Yoga Spain under the Independent Yoga Network (UK).