Are you looking for a meditation technique? Millions of Americans look for instruments to look inward. As a nation we have tried to fix our problems with everything from psychotherapy and Prozac to positive and political thinking. Now people everywhere are ready to close their eyes and dive – not to escape, but to be more fully.
Having given meditation conferences for 25 years, I find that listeners no longer have to be convinced of the practical benefits of meditation. But people often ask, “Are not all meditation techniques basically the same?”
Experts in the venerated traditions of meditation have always marveled at the subtlety of the mind, appreciating its capacity for penetrating response and sensitivity to different mental procedures. The great masters of meditation have recognized that several techniques involve the mind in different ways and naturally produce different results. With advances in neurophysiology, scientists now identify the differences between various meditation practices.
The Myth of the Relaxation Response
The old “scientific” myth that all meditation practices induce the same, the general state of physiological rest – called “the relaxation response” – has been superseded. Although many practices provide relaxation, decades of research show that not all techniques produce the same physiological, psychological or behavioral effects 1
Recently a doctor came to me to learn meditation. He had learned “a technique” of relaxation response in a medicine class during his training at Harvard. He took to meditation the promise of going deeper into consciousness – access to the hidden, higher potentialities of the mind. I enjoyed the relaxation technique, but I longed for a deeper experience and understanding.
Examining the scientific journals, the doctor came to the same conclusion reached by eminent meditation researchers: the “relaxation” model was based on inconclusive evidence and had never been justified. Hundreds of studies published on meditation techniques show different effects of different practices-from measures of rest much deeper than “relaxation response” to physiological states not different from dropping into an armchair.
A paradigm that emerges: three main categories of meditation
There are laboratories that have studied meditation in different universities in the country – such as Yale, UCLA, University of Oregon, UW Madison and Maharishi University of Administration. Their contributions have helped researchers identify three main categories of techniques, classified according to EEG measures and the type of cognitive processing or mental activity involved:
· Controlled approach: classic examples of concentration or controlled approach are the venerated traditions of Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, Qiqong, Yoga and Vedanta, although many other methods involve attempts to control or direct the mind. The focus is on a meditation object – such as breathing, an idea or image, or an emotion. The brain waves recorded during these practices are typically at the gamma frequency (20-50 Hz), which is always seen how much one concentrates or during active cognitive processing. 2
· Open Contemplation: These conscious practices, common in Vipassana and Zazen, involve contemplating or actively paying attention to experiences – without opinion, reaction or expectation. Open contemplation gives rise to frontal theta waves (4-8 Hz), an EEG model commonly seen during memory tasks or reflection of mental concepts. 3
· Automatic Transcendence: This category describes practices designed to go beyond one’s mental activity-allowing the mind to spontaneously overcome the process of meditation itself. While concentration and open contemplation require degrees of effort or directed focus to sustain meditation activity, this approach is effortless because there is no attempt to direct attention – no controlled cognitive processing. An example is the Transcendental Meditation technique. The EEG model of this category is frontal alpha coherence, associated with a distinctive state of alert 4 inside at rest.
Some techniques can be classified into more than one category: directed meditation is a controlled approach if the instruction is, “Keep your attention on your breathing.” But if the instructor says, “Now just observe your thoughts, letting them come and go,” then he is probably performing open contemplation – and his EEG would say it ..
Different practices, different results
Without scientific research (or until we have an adequate cell phone to measure our EEG and biochemistry), the meditative states and their effects are subjective. Brain research, along with conclusions of psychological and behavioral effects, gives a more objective framework to health professionals or anyone to determine which meditation technique could be the most beneficial with a given objective.
For example, research suggests that concentration techniques can improve the ability to focus. A study of advanced Buddhist monks – some of whom had performed more than 10,000 hours of meditation – found that concentration on “kindness and compassion” increased those feelings and produced synchronous gamma activity in the left prefrontal cortex – indication of focus more acute.
It is said that the effect of open contemplation or observation without judgment increases the equal attention in daily life; Studies of conscious-type practices indicate better pain management and reduction ” of negative rumination .”
For reduction of stress and anxiety , research suggests that a technique of automatic self-transcendence can serve better than a practice that keeps the mind engaged in continuous mental effort. Because of the natural relationship of mind / body, the more deeply seated the mind is, the more deeply rested the body is. Studies show that deep rest “to transcend” calms the sympathetic nervous system and restores the physiological balance – lowering hypertension, relieving chronic anxiety and reducing stress hormones, such as cortisol.
More research is necessary to verify the benefits of the controlled approach, but there are numerous studies of practices of mindfulness and practices and automatic self-promotion, with more than 600 studies for the technique of Transcendental Meditation exclusively.
When meditation becomes a new frontier of scientific research, more and more people realize the enormous potential of the mind to govern health and well-being. I discover that most meditators do not care anymore that a technique could come from the roots or have roots in a spiritual tradition – their main concern is that the practice works, and science can help to clear the doubt.
Americans adopt meditation in order to compensate for a life that has been plugged into electricity, directed outward and over stimulated, and we return to something as simple as our own inner silence.