September 24, 2010

Researchers Point to Three Major Categories of Meditation

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.

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wsking's picture

Wow! I thot so! This article is proof of something I have wondered about my whole life. Thank you so much for writing it.

David Lynch is an artmonk | In Otherhood's picture

[...] Examples of other “automatic self-transcending” techniques include “Zazen evolving into shikantaza (just sitting), the ‘beyond’ technique of Shambhala, shamatha without support.” [...]

Morning Star Dhamma's picture

It should be noted that Jeanne Ball is a proponent of TM, a technique that is taught on a fee basis, starting at $1,500. (Please see Her article appears to state that TM is "transcending" is a way that other meditation practices are not. I'm skeptical about this position.

The best starting place, as the Buddha taught, is to become well grounded in basic Sila practice, basic morality practices. From that standpoint, one might find a good meditation teacher (there are plenty of free opportunities out there), and progress according to one's kamma.

Best wishes.

Clark Strand's picture

Very interesting. As usual, however, I find myself marveling at how limited such studies always end up being.

Much more research is needed to determine, for instance, what is happening to the brain during (1) a practice like the Jesus Prayer, which is synchonized with the heartbeat and the breath and which typically allows for a much broader range of emotional and somantic "responses" than one typically finds in Buddhist or Hindu-style seated meditation, or perhaps (2) the Jewish practice of hitbodedut--speaking aloud to God in the middle of the night as a vocal, freeform meditation conducted during hours when the body produces levels of prolactin on its own that would otherwise have to be elevated through meditative "effprt" of one kind or another.

And, then, there's the whole matter of chanting meditation as performed, say, by members of the Soka Gakkai. I find myself wondering about the reluctance to look at the physiological and endicrinological effects of a practice done in one form or another by a majority of the world's Buddhists (i.e., devotional chanting), as opposed to one performed by only a fairly select group (seated meditation)--whether it's those who have meditated for 10,000 hours or more, or those who meditate regularly to any extent, a demographic group which is always in the extreme minority in any Buddhist culture, although in America the ratio is naturally somewhat higher. I'm just sayin...

Nathan's picture

Thanks David!

David's picture

Zazen evolving into shikantaza (just sitting), the 'beyond' technique of Shambhala, shamatha without support.

Nathan's picture

What would another (non-TM) example of "Automatic Self-Transcending" be?

sanghadass's picture

The four stages of awakening:
1. Stream-enterer
2. Once-returner
3. Non-returner
4. Arahant

DaveS's picture

4 Stages from Hindu perspective:

1. Pure body (nervous system - conscious level).
Benefit: witnessing body, experience thoughts in speech center of subtle body, etc.
2. Pure subtle body (chakra body - subconscious level, dreaming stages).
Witnessing dream stages, experience thoughts in speech center of causal body, etc.
3. Pure causal body (intellectual body - unconscious level, deep sleep stages).
Witnessing deep sleep, speech center of supracausal body/blue pearl/nimita,etc.
4. Cosmic consciousness, enlightenment, etc.)
Whereas the dreaming man is conscious thruout the body the enlightened man is conscious thruout the universe.
Note: several higher levels but will stop here....

DaveS's picture

Other examples that also involve the use of the mantra with the in and outbreath would be techniques from the Siddha (Swami Muktananda) and Kriya Yoga (Swami Yogananda) movements. These techniques unlike TM set up a rhythm with the manta in a detached, effortless manner allowing the movement of the mind to go into and out of the four levels of Samadhi. The fourth level is non-dualistic merging of the mind into the Buddha-nature, luminous mind or Pure Consciousness. This is a non-experience but the after effects can be dramatic once surfacing especially if remaining at that level for several minutes or longer. TM involves no such rhythm and takes the mantra as it comes in an effortless way with the same effects.