There are many definitions of meditation, but perhaps the most resonant one comes from neuroscientist Vinod Deshmukh:
Meditation is the art of being serene and alert in the present moment, instead of constantly struggling to change or to become.
In a world where it seems impossible not to constantly worry about the past, the future, a million other external stressors, it can be difficult to pause the noise and just breathe. But that’s exactly what meditation is for.
And no, it doesn’t mean you have to sit like a statue for an hour! You can meditate while you walk, talk, or listen to music. You can do it for five minutes or five hours. Research has proven the beneficial effects of meditation on cognitive function, regulating emotions, improving attention, and reducing stress. It can even influence the way our brain networks function!
Here are eight meditation techniques you can try, each with transformative potential for your life.
In focused meditation, you choose something simple on which to train your internal attention, such as your breath, to tune out other thoughts. When other thoughts creep in, simply let them evaporate, and gently bring your attention back to your focal point. Dismiss any frustration or self-judgment over these thoughts drifting in—it’s completely natural.
You can utilize an external point of focus instead of your breath, like a candle flame, a repetitive sound, or counting beads on a string. These focal points can help you achieve a sense of presence in your meditation. Focusing on your nose or belly as you breathe in and out also helps to keep thoughts at bay.
PERFECT FOR: Those who are new to meditation or just want to keep it simple
Visualization involves picturing a positive scene, image, or person in your life and training your mental attention on immersion in this scene. Another method is to visualize yourself in positive circumstances, like success in a particular area of your life or recovery from an injury or trauma. This can enhance feelings of peace and happiness and reduce stress and anxiety.
PERFECT FOR: Those suffering with anxiety or depression…or simply need a momentary escape to recharge.
Transcendental or Mantra meditation
During transcendental meditation, the meditator repeats a mantra aloud that is meaningful to them. A mantra can be an affirming statement like “I am a positive and present being” or a simple sound like “Om.” When working with a teacher, they may determine the mantra for you based on their analysis of what is best for you. Like all forms of meditation, chanting a mantra can help you feel more alert and present, and it’s been clinically demonstrated to reduce stress, anxiety, and even hypertension.
PERFECT FOR: People who find silence or total stillness uncomfortable…or just vibe with the physical sensations of sound.
Body Scan Meditation
This form of meditation involves scanning your body, head to toe, for pain, tension, or anything out of the ordinary—or just to reconnect with yourself. It can be done by gently tightening and relaxing one muscle group at a time, imagining a gentle wave flowing through the body releasing tension, or simply bringing your attention to each part.
This can be a great way to actively relieve tension in areas like the neck and shoulders, and research suggests it may even help with chronic pain: participants in a 2012 study who performed a daily 10-minute body scan for eight weeks reported a significant decline in chronic pain.
PERFECT FOR: Those suffering chronic pain or anxiety, especially before bedtime, or those seeking a better sense of connection to their bodies.
In movement meditation, the practitioner trains the focus on their physical actions during gentle forms of movement like yoga, tai chi, or walking. To try it, simply bring your attention to each motion and its sensations, without judgment or internal commentary, during the movement activity of your choice. Over time, this will cultivate a more positive mind-body awareness and deepen your connection with the present moment.
A 2013 study of 75 participants with high levels of psychological distress found that those who practiced 10 minutes of mindful walking daily experienced less stress and anxiety and improved quality of life, compared to those who did not.
PERFECT FOR: High-energy folks who struggle to sit still even for a few minutes.
The most popular form of meditation in the West, mindfulness is the simple act of paying attention to whatever you’re doing—i.e. “being present.” Seems pretty simple, but a Harvard study found that people spend nearly half their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, which can lead to unnecessary anxiety and worry that degrades our quality of life.
There are many forms of mindfulness meditation, all with the simple goal of just being, rather than judging, opining, or otherwise tangling with your inner thoughts. A simple way to start is the “5 Senses Practice”: During any simple task you’re completing, like brushing your teeth or washing your dishes, pause to consciously identify its sensory effect on each of your five senses—what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting, and touching.
PERFECT FOR: Those who aren’t ready for hyper-focused meditation but want to be more present in the moment.
Spiritual meditation is a practice meant to develop a meaningful connection with something greater, deeper, and more metaphysical than the self. That might be a defined “higher power” or simply the vastness of the universe. Many of the meditation techniques listed previously can be tied into a spiritual meditation, like expressing gratitude to the universe through a mantra. Spiritual meditation aims to connect you to your soul and move you beyond the limited concept of a single identity.
PERFECT FOR: Those for whom the measurable, physical world just isn’t enough.
What types of thoughts come up when you think about the difficult people in your life? Probably not the kindest ones…but what if you choose to send them love anyway? That’s a meditation all its own.
During loving-kindness meditation, you direct positive thoughts and phrases towards yourself and others—even strangers. This can be an effective practice for resolving inner conflicts and strengthening feelings of empathy and acceptance. Simply sit quietly, breathing deeply, just like the previously described practices, and repeat a message of compassionate kindness. You can repeat this message in your mind or aloud, but the longer you do it, the more deeply it will manifest, leaving you feeling warmer, happier, and more connected with the world around you.
Talk about a case in point: A 2015 study proved that practicing loving-kindness can literally reduce racism. In the study, 71 white males were asked to look at photos of people from different races. They repeated loving-kindness phrases for 7 minutes a day with the aid of a recorded tape and reported lower levels of racial bias after the practice than before they began.
PERFECT FOR: Really, everyone, but especially those who are struggling with difficult emotional relationships.
How Should You Begin a Meditation Practice?
If you’re new to meditation, you can begin any of the techniques above with a 5-minute practice every day. Do so in a quiet place, preferably in the morning, before all of life starts crowding into your mind. You may feel an immediate boost from your very first practice, or it may take a few tries to find your meditative groove, but all it takes is a few minutes every day to get on the path.
If having a roadmap would help you on your way, guided meditation—i.e. listening to the voice of a person guiding you through the course of a meditation—is a perfect starting point. Recorded, guided meditations are available via podcasts, apps, and tons of other places online.
Most importantly, don’t quit if it doesn’t go the way you think it will! You probably won’t achieve enlightenment, feel high on the universe, or levitate in your first go. Meditating may even tap into unexpected emotional swells. The most important thing you can do is just keep at it, even if only in increments as small as 5 minutes a day. In time, your meditation practice can provide immense clarity, relieve stress, help you process difficult emotions, and improve your quality of life—it’s science.