- Interoceptive meditation involves turning attention inward by closing one's eyes and focusing on breathing and bodily sensations.
- Exteroceptive meditation involves focusing attention outward, such as on a still point on the wall or candle flame.
- Meditating with a mirror can calm oneself, externalize internal states, and balance interoceptive and exteroceptive awareness.
Science-based approaches to how meditation works and its effectiveness distinguish between the two types of meditation. First, interoceptive meditation practices involve turning one’s attention inward—typically by closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing and bodily sensations.
By contrast, exteroceptive meditation practices involve focusing attention outward and maintaining an open present moment awareness of your surroundings. For example, exteroceptive practices may include focusing on a still point on the wall or a candle flame.
Choosing the best meditation style for you
It depends on your natural tendency to be either internally or externally focused and the situation you find yourself in. As I’ve discussed previously here, there are different habits of self-awareness, internal and external, that can profoundly impact your well-being. A meditation practice that is the opposite of your habitual style of self-awareness might help you balance your perception.
If you tend to be more internally focused, you are typically more aware of your body sensations, breathing, heartbeat, skin surface temperature, emotions, and thoughts. As a result, you may tend to disregard what’s happening in the environment around you. Having an internal focus can be beneficial to monitor your health, emotions, and physical reactions, but too much internal focus can lead to excessive anxiety in situations like public speaking. An internal focus often heightens internal states. So if you’re feeling anxious, you may become even more anxious by focusing inward. And increased sensitivity to internal states like digestion or breathing can be intrusive and disrupt your ability to maintain focus on daily activities.
So, an interoceptive meditation practice might not be the best way to manage anxiety because focusing inward will heighten the experience of your internal state. For example, many people report that their mind wanders more when they also close their eyes during meditation.
If you are anxious, you may want to try an exteroceptive meditation to take your attention off your uncomfortable internal state. By keeping your eyes open and focusing on a fixed point in front of you, you’ll be able to anchor your attention outside yourself instead of riding the waves of internal sensations. Over time, a regular exteroceptive meditation practice can help you increase your focus and concentration for everyday cognitive tasks by simply intending to do so.
As Dr. Andrew Huberman points out1, interoceptive and exteroceptive awareness is on a continuum. A simple way to discover where you fall on the continuum is to close your eyes and try to count your heartbeats. If you find it easy to do, you probably tend toward an interoceptive bias.
You may be naturally more exteroceptive if you find it difficult to discern your heartbeats or internal bodily sensations. So, an interoceptive meditation practice might be best for you. If you struggle with being in touch with yourself and find your mind wandering to external matters, you might have an exteroceptive bias. If you neglect your health and body signals that you need rest or food or a bathroom break, for instance, then practicing an interoceptive form of meditation might be very beneficial. By practicing slowing down, closing your eyes, and breathing mindfully, you’ll develop more awareness of your body sensations and emotions. With practice, you’ll be better able to read and interpret these signals over time.
Practicing both interoceptive and exteroceptive meditation
Practitioners of "mirror meditation" can find a balance between the two states.
By meditating in front of a mirror, you focus your attention outward, using your image as a focal point. You can also focus on body sensations while gazing at yourself. For example, you can do slow, deep breathing and watch your collarbones and the front of your body rise and fall with your breath. You can also observe the facial expressions externalized in the mirror as you feel them internally.
Using a mirror in your meditation practice has many benefits. First, many people experience a bit of a mismatch between what they see in the mirror and what they feel inside. For example, you might look sad in the mirror but not be aware that you feel sadness. Or you can feel quite anxious internally, but there is no sign of anxiety as you look at yourself. From practicing mirror meditation, many find greater integration of their internal and external states. This balance helps meditation practitioners be aware of their internal states and the external surroundings without becoming overwhelmed.
Achieving a balanced, calm awareness of yourself and your surroundings can keep your mind from wandering and heighten a sense of well-being. Mirror meditation can help you achieve this balance.
Tara Well, PhD, 2023