Meditation for Everybody: 7 Styles to Try

If you’ve considered taking up meditation but don’t know where to begin, start here to find the technique that’s right for you.

If you’ve considered taking up meditation but don’t know where to begin, start here to find the technique that’s right for you.

A good deal of mystique has grown around meditation, yet it is one of the most natural of our human capacities. You’ve no doubt had moments in your life when you were not thinking or analyzing your experience, but simply “going with the flow.” In these moments, there was no past or future, no separation between you and what was happening. That is the essence of meditation.

Contrary to a common misunderstanding, meditation is not a limiting or narrowing of our attention so much as it is a focusing on what is relevant. Our attention can be narrow, as in observing our breath, or broad, as in cooking a five-course dinner. When the mind is able to focus on what is relevant to what is happening now, we experience ourselves as being at one with what we perceive. This experience is deeply joyful, as we become freed from the illusion that we are separate from everything else in the universe. In fact, meditation isn’t a withdrawal from life but a deeper, fuller presence in life.

Another popular misconception holds that meditation is merely about the mind. In fact, meditation causes real physiological effects that have been measured by researchers. It has been shown to decrease oxygen consumption, heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure and increase the intensity of alpha, theta, and delta brain waves—the opposite of the physiological changes that occur during the stress response. Most interesting, research done in Japan in the 1960s showed that veteran meditators not only experienced an increase in alpha waves (indicating a state that is both relaxed and alert) but could also maintain that state with their eyes open—something nonmeditators generally can do only with their eyes closed.

It is this ability to be both extremely relaxed and alert that best describes the meditative state. Countless practitioners over the millennia have discovered that they could achieve this state through the cultivation of focus and presence—in other words, concentration: not teeth-clenching determination but rather gentle attending to the object of attention.

7 Meditation Styles to Try

Sample the following basic practices and you’ll no doubt find that the possibilities are limitless. Pick a method and give it a trial run for a week or two before trying another. Suspend for the time being any judgment or doubt, and treat whatever negative reactions arise as mere thought patterns to let go. Then, if you like, try another method. Eventually, you will most likely want to commit to one and go into it wholeheartedly.

Conscious Breathing

This is a basic yet profound concentration practice. Simply bring your attention to the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils. Keep your awareness on the duration of each breath, and when the mind wanders from the breath, just notice that and bring your attention back to the sensations of the breath. If the mind seems very distracted, you may find it helpful to label each breath “in” or “out” and each thought “thinking.” Try not to control your breath or visualize it; simply note the sensation just as you feel it.

Mantra Recitation

Mantra, another effective way to cultivate concentration, has been used by many spiritual traditions. Mantras can be one word or syllable or a phrase. Christians often use the mantra “Christ have mercy,” while the Hebrew Shma (hear) is used by many meditating Jews. Other common mantras include Om, Amen, and Om mani padme hum (meaning “The jewel is in the lotus”). If these feel too “spiritual” for you, choose a simple word like peace and see how that works. With mantra practice, you can just keep repeating the mantra silently, or you can synchronize it with your breath.

Visualization

Visualization requires you to develop your inner vision by first gazing at a simple geometric shape (such as a circle or a triangle) and then closing your eyes, attempting to hold the image in your mind’s eye. Eventually, you can work with yantras and mandalas (intricate geometric figures that have been used since ancient times as meditation tools) or you can visualize a spiritual guide or being that has meaning for you. You can also just imagine a peaceful space that you can rest in while meditating.

Lovingkindness Meditation

Lovingkindness Meditation (metta bhavana) strengthens concentration while also cultivating insight and transforming how we relate to ourselves and others. Metta is the Pali word for “love,” and bhavana literally means “cultivation.” In this practice—which was taught by the Buddha and is found in Theravada Buddhism and some Tibetan Buddhist traditions—you direct love and kindness first to yourself, then to loved ones, neutral people, difficult people, and all beings throughout the world.

To do this practice, it helps to center yourself with some conscious breathing first. Then, drawing your attention to your heart center, recite to yourself phrases such as, “May I be happy,” “May I be peaceful,” and “May I be free from suffering.” When you have practiced with yourself for a while, you can bring the image or sense of one or more loved ones to mind, and direct the phrases and energy of love to them: “May you be happy,” “May you be peaceful,” and so on. Next, move on to neutral and then difficult people—it helps to work with those who have caused minor pain before working with the really difficult ones! Finally, try radiating loving kindness to all beings.