September 24, 2010
In her recent article on the Huffington Post, writer Jeanne Ball discusses the findings of various scientific studies on meditation. Of the many interesting points in the piece, she notes an "emerging paradigm" in which researchers, through measuring the electrical activity in the brains of subjects as they engage in different meditative techniques, have identified three major categories of meditation. The three categories are "controlled focus", "open monitoring", and "automatic self-transcending."
*Controlled focus: Classic examples of concentration or controlled focus are found in the revered traditions of Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, Qiqong, Yoga and Vedanta, though many methods involve attempts to control or direct the mind. Attention is focused on an object of meditation--such as one's breath, an idea or image, or an emotion. Brain waves recorded during these practices are typically in the gamma frequency (20-50 Hz), seen whenever you concentrate or during "active" cognitive processing.2
*Open monitoring: These mindfulness type practices, common in Vipassana and Zazen, involve watching or actively paying attention to experiences--without judging, reacting or holding on. Open monitoring gives rise to frontal theta (4-8 Hz), an EEG pattern commonly seen during memory tasks or reflection on mental concepts.3
*Automatic self-transcending: This category describes practices designed to go beyond their own mental activity--enabling the mind to spontaneously transcend the process of meditation itself. Whereas concentration and open monitoring require degrees of effort or directed focus to sustain the activity of meditation, 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 pattern of this category is frontal alpha coherence, associated with a distinct state of relaxed inner wakefulness.4
Some techniques may fall under more than one category: Guided meditation is controlled focus if the instruction is, "Hold attention on your breath." But if the instructor says, "Now just watch your thoughts, letting them come and go," then you're probably doing open monitoring--and your EEG would say for sure.
She further elaborates on these three types in a section titled "Different practices, different results"
For example, research suggests that concentration techniques may improve focusing ability. A study on advanced Buddhist monks--some of whom had logged more 10,000 hours of meditation -- found that concentrating on "loving kindness and compassion" increased those feelings and produced synchronous gamma activity in the left prefrontal cortex -- indicating more powerful focus.
The effect of open monitoring or non-judgmental observation is said to increase even-mindedness in daily life; studies on mindfulness-type practices indicate better pain management and reduction of "negative rumination."
For relief from stress, research suggests that an automatic self-transcending technique might serve you better than a practice that keeps the mind engaged in continuous mental effort. Because of the natural mind/body relationship, the more deeply settled the mind, the more deeply rested is the body. Studies show that the deep rest of "transcending" calms the sympathetic nervous system and restores physiological balance -- lowering high blood pressure, alleviating chronic anxiety and reducing stress hormones such as cortisol.
Read the complete article here.