Are all meditation techniques the same?

by Ken Chawkin on September 22, 2010

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As doctors increasingly prescribe meditation techniques to patients for stress-related disorders, scientists are gaining a better understanding of how different techniques from a wide variety of traditions, both modern and ancient, produce different results.

A new paper published this past summer in Consciousness and Cognition discusses three categories to organize and better understand meditation:

1. Focused attention—concentrating on an object, idea, or emotion;

2. Open monitoring—being mindful of one’s breath, thoughts or feelings;

3. Automatic self-transcending—meditations that transcend their own activity

Each category was assigned EEG bands, based on reported brain patterns during mental tasks, and meditations were categorized based on their reported EEG.

”The idea is that meditation is, in a sense, a ‘cognitive task,’ and EEG frequencies are known for different tasks,” said Fred Travis, Ph.D., co-author, and Director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management.

eeg-patterns-differ-transcendental-meditation

Focused attention, characterized by beta/gamma activity, included meditations from Tibetan Buddhist (loving kindness and compassion), Buddhist (Zen and Diamond Way), and Chinese (Qigong) traditions.

Open monitoring, characterized by theta activity, included meditations from Buddhist (Mindfulness, and ZaZen), Chinese (Qigong), and Vedic (Sahaja Yoga) traditions.

Automatic self-transcending, characterized by alpha1 activity, included meditations from Vedic (Transcendental Meditation) and Chinese (Qigong) traditions.

Between categories, the included meditations differed in focus, subject/object relation, and procedures. These findings shed light on the common mistake of averaging meditations together to determine mechanisms or clinical effects.

Brainwave-Traces-EEG

Click to enlarge

”Meditations differ in both their ingredients and their effects, just as medicines do. Lumping them all together as ‘essentially the same’ is simply a mistake,” said Jonathan Shear, Ph.D., co-author, professor of philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Dr. Shear is also the author of several books on meditation, including the well-known book, The Experience of Meditation which presents an introduction to the major meditation traditions of the world.

”Explicit differences between meditation techniques need to be respected when researching physiological patterns or clinical outcomes of meditation practices,” said Dr. Travis. ”If they are averaged together, then the resulting phenomenological, physiological, and clinical profiles cannot be meaningfully interpreted.”

Web references:
Talk by Dr. Travis, “Are all meditations the same?”
Transcendental Meditation Brain Research

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  • DR.DAVE O’CONNELL

    WHY DON’T WE ALSO RECOGNIZE THE MUTUAL GOALS OF THE VARIOUS CONTEMPLATIVE TRADITIONS AND COORDINATE OUR GOALS-WHY DO IT ALONE?HOLINESS COMES IN MANY FORMS.WE HAVE TO BE CAREFUL THAT THIS DOES NOT BECOME A VARIANT OF”MY GOD IS BETTER THAN YOUR GOD”,IE ,MY MEDITATION IS SUPERIOR TO YOURS.THATS DIVISIVE.ASK AN ACCOMPLISHED ZEN ROSHI WHAT 30 YEARS OF ZAZEN FEELS LIKE!! WE NEED THE WHOLE WORLD TO DO THIS.FORGET 7,000-WHY NOT THINK BIG LIKE MAHARISHI-7,000,000!.I HAVE FRIENDS WHO PRACTICE SIDDHA YOGA,A TRAPPIST MONK, A CARTHUSIAN MONK COLLEAGUE AND JAPANESE ZEN BUDDHIST FRIENDS.PEMA CHODRONS GROUP HAVE A POWERFULL APPROACH.LETS ALL MEDITATE TOGETHER.LETS FINALLY GET TO STAGE 2 FLYING!!!

    • http://www.tm.org/blog/meet-the-bloggers/#orsatti Mario Orsatti

      Thank you for your comment. There is clearly no “one way” to experience life’s underlying source and goal.

      Even without specific practices of meditation history records experiences of the transcendent level of Being by people of penetrating insight–saints, sages, poets, artists, scientists and humanitarians–into the essential nature of reality, the ground state of all human experience.

      Each and every way that leads human awareness toward the transcendent unity of life is of inestimable value to humanity, and is worthy of honor and respect. Any practice that helps someone to experience the field of Being is making an important contribution to the betterment of society.

      The fact that the TM technique is easy to learn by people of all ages, backgrounds, and learning abilities, and has been the subject of a large amount of scientific validation, has made it a natural choice for millions of people who are seeking this profound experience. However, scientific investigation into the efficacy of the TM technique should not be interpreted to lessen or ignore the tremendous value of the many, many other approaches to “transcending.”

  • DAVID O’CONNELL,PH.D.,MS,CFC,DABPS

    THANK YOU MARIO!
    MY CENTRAL POINT IS THAT IT MAY TAKE A UNIFIED ,EFFORTLESS EFFORT TO BRING ON A SIGNIFICANT SHIFT IN COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS.THERE IS NO 8,000 GROUP.I WISH THERE WAS.IF THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE ,YOU DO WHATEVER IS NEEDED. BUDDHA EVEN SAID YOU MUST BE AS MOTIVATED AS A MAN WITH HIS HAIR ON FIRE IF YOU WANT ENLIGHTENMENT!MY READING OF MAHARISHIS’ “SCIENCE OF BEING” INDICATES HE WAS INTERESTED IN ASSISTING ALL WORLD RELIGIONS AND SYSTEMS TO FIND THE TRANSCENDANT IN THEIR PARTICULAR TRADITIONS.LETS DO IT!BEVANS COMMENTARY ON THE SURANGAMMA SUTRA ( AND THE TAO) OF CHAN BUDDHISM INDICATES BUDDHA TAUGHT THE EQUIVALENT OF TM-HE ALSO TAUGHT OTHER APPROACHES WHICH WE HAVE TO ASSUME ARE AS VALID,OR HE WAS TEACHING DISTORTED TRUTHS ALONG WITH THE TRUE WAY.AS A ROMAN CATHOLIC BOY,I REMEMBER EARLY EFFORTS TOWARD ECUMENISM WITH OTHER RELIGIONS.UNFORTUNATELY,LITTLE WAS GAINED.MY THOUGHT IS THAT AN INTEGRATED WORLD EFFORT WITH OTHER PATHS MAY PROVE VERY USEFUL IN THIS LIFETIME.AS A CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST AND TRAINER,I MEET MANY WHO PRACTICE OTHER MEDITATIVE APPROACHES ACROSS THE USA.I ALWAYS RECOMMEND TM ,PRESENT THE RESEARCH (IE,FRED TRAVIS’S STUDIES),AND I AM CAREFUL TO AVOID ARROGANCE AND ALIENATION OF PRACTITIONERS OF ALTERNATIVE PATHS.THE GREAT TRADITIONS WERE FOUNDED IN REMOTENESS AND IN A WORLD OF SPARSE COMMUNICATION AMONG PEOPLES.THAT IS NO LONGER TRUE.THE QUESTION IS,I THINK, HOW TO PRESERVE PURITY WHILE PROMOTING UNITY AMONG ALL VALID APPROACHES.
    THANK YOU FOR YOUR THOUGHTFUL RESPONSE.
    DR. DAVE

  • http://theuncarvedblog.com/ Ken Chawkin

    Thank you both for these comments. This assumption can sometimes be made that ‘our technique is better than yours,’ but Dr. Travis never meant for it to come across that way. As a scientist, he and Jonathan Shear submitted a paper to introduce a 3rd category, one that was being overlooked in the literature. In an attempt to standardize an understanding of the research on the different meditation techniques, they hoped to shed light on something different and unique going on during such practices. They wanted to give other researchers something different to consider, and to extend such attempts at categorization to give us all a better understanding of how the mind can naturally function during meditation. Conclusions would be left to the scientists, or readers in this case.

    Anyone who is regularly following a meditation practice is contributing something good to their life, and to their environment. Dr. David O’Connell is right in that respect. And Mario Orsatti makes it clear ‘transcending’ is not an experience unique to any one particular approach.

    However, as far as I know, the TM Movement is the only one that has specifically organized and demonstrated the power of a group meditating and performing the TM-Sidhis together, including Yogic Flying, and scientifically measuring the lowering of negative trends, like crime and war deaths, and the increase of positive ones. Over 50 studies have been conducted and a percentage of them have been published in peer-reviewed journals. The fact that TM is so standardized, and anyone practicing it can get results, made it practical to perform such experiments. For a more complete understanding of one such experiment conducted in Washington, DC in 1993, read Dr. John Hagelin’s article in SHIFT magazine: “The Power of the Collective

    With that kind of proof, it seemed necessary to want to perpetuate such a positive thing, on a scientific basis as well. Thanks to the Settle Foundation it became possible. Now into the 4th year of the Invincible America Assembly, such devoted practitioners have made this a profession. People trained in Maharishi’s programs can now perform this service on a daily basis for their own enlightenment and the peace and coherence of their nation. This takes a lot of organizing and commitment, something the organizers and participants have willingly dedicated themselves to.

  • nathanrules8

    Hi Manjaree. I am not aware of any specific research like that. The closest thing is comparison of other meditations here: http://www.tm.org/blog/research/meditation-research-conference/

    Let me know if you are able to find something! Sounds very interesting.

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