The Best Meditative Techniques (8/9/22)

This reflection appeared in the newsletter on August 9th, 2022.


Today’s reflection is something of a follow-up to the last newsletter, where I talked about an overarching “approach to meditation.”  This time, I’d like to zero in on the role of specific techniques in meditation practice.

A Metaphor for Understanding Meditative Techniques

As a starting point, I think of meditative techniques as being like different routes to the airport. While most people may hop on one or two main highways (like i84 or i205 here in Portland), other people may take completely different highways, sidestreets, or perhaps the public TRAM.

There is no one right way of getting to the airport; depending on where you’re starting from and your personal inclinations, any number of possibilities work.  Similarly, there is no one best meditation method — lots of possible can get you “to the airport;” or, to deep wisdom.

To come out of the metaphor, below is a basic flowchart that captures the essence of the meditative process:

  1. Random moments of awareness (like right now consciously feeling your sitting bones touching the chair) —>
  2. Stringing together many moments of awareness (usually through a technique) —>
  3. Seeing reality more clearly (aka wisdom or “getting to the airport”) —>
  4. Deep letting go / inner freedom / the kind of peace that’s present even amidst chaos

The role of techniques is largely that step of stringing together many moments of awareness.  In other words, the more anchored we are in the present, not getting pulled by distractions, the easier it is to “see more clearly.”

My Recommendation on Which Techniques to Use

On a simple level, we want to find a technique that is both relatively obvious / easy-to-observe, and is also fairly easeful / doesn’t make us tense.

I almost always recommend starting with a body-based anchor, as it has the double benefit of being obvious and also conducive to wisdom. The four I’ve seen that seem to work best with most people are:

However, some people have body trauma that makes the above methods counter-productive, or even if not, the above methods simply aren’t obvious or easeful.  In other cases, one of the below methods is just so effective that it’s the ideal choice.  Listed are three general categories of anchors, along with two great options for practicing each category:

Sound anchors:

Verbal anchors:

  • Mantra (where you repeat a word or phrase over and over; one I like is repeating, Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha)
  • Loving-kindness meditation (of course, this is most often used to intentionally cultivate love, but, at the same time, it’s also a focus method that makes our mind less distractible)

Visual anchors:

  • Gazing meditation (where you stare at something like a candle flame or spot on the wall)
  • Visualization (where you visualize a color, image, diety, or whatever in your mind’s eye)

Again, all of the above are perfectly good “routes to the airport.”  They can all help you stabilize awareness, but if all else is equal, choose a body-based anchor.

In terms of other techniques, some people might ask, “what about open awareness, koan practice, or specific wisdom techniques?”  In my observations, while some people do well with those right out of the gate, most people tend to do better with those once they are already on “the highway” and are cruising along.  In other words, they are powerful, but aren’t the best for stabilizing awareness.

There is also something to be said for using “labeling” or “counting” as a tool to add on top of any of these techniques.  I muse these give about a 10-20% awareness boost.  More on that another time, but in brief, here’s a great article from Gil Fronsdal on labeling/noting.

How To Find A Method That Works For You & Go Deep With it

One recommendation is to try out a number of the above methods and get a feel for what clicks and what doesn’t.  In that trying-out process, you might do one method once and rule it out.  However, to really feel out a method you might want to stick with it for at least a week before experimenting with a different one.  Once you settle on your go-to method, put aside all doubt and second-guessing and treat that as your primary method for at least a month, if not 6 to 12 months, before switching it up.

Rather than doing the above, one common pitfall I see is people ping-ponging between a bunch of different methods as soon as one feels like “it’s not working” — like switching their method five times in one meditation period.  This would be like switching the road you’re taking to the airport every time you encounter a slow-down in traffic — exhausting!  Of course, there is something to be said for skillfully switching your method, like bringing in some loving-kindness when you’re feeling really down on yourself, but my observation is that people usually err on the side of too much switching.

Beyond all that, going deep is largely just about logging your hours — meditate regularly, maybe doing longer bursts of meditation, like through a course, a daylong, a couple of hours on your off day, or a residential retreat.  Having contact with a teacher who can help you refine your technique and uncover hidden obstacles is also highly recommended.


I could probably write a whole book on various aspects of working with methods, but hopefully what came through today is the value of having a specific technique to anchor your mind in the present.  The more you can do this, the more you start to develop meditative wisdom, and the more you are able to let go into peace and inner freedom.