Many people have a tendency to lump all meditations together as more or less equivalent. Even teachings will point to research on other techniques as an example of what their practice does. As a result, When someone chooses a path, they focus on the teaching or teacher rather than the technique. The concepts rather than the results.
For myself, I’ve found it’s a good idea to choose the technique itself more carefully. Just because the teacher has seen the light doesn’t mean they know how they got there. Or more importantly, how they can help you get there. The Bhagavad Gita tells us we pick up our progress where we left off in prior births. (6.43) So we have to look at the broader results of a practice – not just a few exceptions.
Practices are often deeply rooted in people’s paradigm; belief systems, cultures and traditions. This creates resistance to apparent questioning and research. Plus, it hasn’t helped that science itself has failed to differentiate practices. But at least we don’t have to trek for years in the mountains to research a decent teacher now. 😉
In recent research on meditation, Lutz has proposed 2 types: Focused Attention, including various contemplation and concentration techniques, and Open Monitoring, science for Mindfulness. This is based on the specific effects each generates. Recently, a paper was published in Consciousness and Cognition* proposing a third category, Automatic self-transcending; effortless techniques that transcend their own practice.
(It should be noted here that the study is a compilation of related research focused on traditional practices for which there is suitable data. It does not include many popular techniques.)
This paper focused on brain patterns as they reflect the cognitive processes used, the degree of control, and the objects of the practice. They suggest brain patterns could provide an objective way to differentiate practices and their respective benefits.
Focused Attention is characterized by increased EEG gamma and beta2 power and coherence, illustrating increased powers of concentration. This study included Loving Kindness, QiGong, Zen (3rd ventricle), and Diamond Way practices. They involve “voluntary and sustained attention on a chosen object“. With sustained practice, coherence is generated in the respective EEG band. Over many years, such practices may result in “effortless” concentration (Samadhi Parinama) and thus transcendence or samadhi. This is the key point I’ll come back to shortly.
(there were of course variation between techniques – this is a general description of the categories)
Open Monitoring, characterized by theta activity, included Vipassana, ZaZen, Sahaja, and concentrative QiGong. Otherwise known as mindfulness, it involves “non-reactive monitoring of the moment-to-moment content of experience.” This also created increased coherence over time, but in the theta band. I’ve heard this practice is partly to encourage awareness of the observer or witness; who is monitoring.
Automatic Self-Transcending or “effortless” meditation is characterized by alpha1 activity and coherence. Alpha1 activity indicates wakefulness. It included Transcendental Meditation and one case study of a 45 year QiGong practitioner. It is “marked by the absence of both (a) focus and (b) individual control or effort .” It is designed to transcend its own practice into samadhi. (hence “transcendental”)
All meditations seemed to increase coherence and power in their respective EEG bands but some took much longer to achieve. The first two categories keep the practitioner involved in the practice itself and thus in the mind. This does not lead to transcendence or samadhi consistently unless there is very long practice. In fact, it is widely taught that lifetimes of practice are required.
Readers of this blog know I recommend the third category, an effortless meditation. My recommendation was based on results I had seen in myself and others, including how easily such practitioners awaken. This research points to some science to back this up.
The reason is very simple. It is transcendence or samadhi that leads to awakening because transcendence is the experience of infinite Being/ Tao/ Brahman/ source. Repeated experiences of samadhi lead to purification of the physiology and habituation of the experience. The more and the sooner you get them, the better for progress. Plus, what you do get stays with you. Whatever the surface experience of life, we could say you’re building a savings account in the divine.
Note here that I’m not talking about accumulated flashy experiences in meditation. Early samadhi experiences are often vague and diffuse, like a vague blank spot when thoughts stop. But physiological research tells us it’s happening, whatever the subjective experience. It is only with increased practice that clarity dawns.
The research article said that “brain wave patterns reach high levels during TM practice after a few months practice, and that progressive changes in EEG patterns are seen in activity after the meditation session, reflecting experience-related neuroplasticity integrating the meditation experience with daily activity”
When we’re able to sustain the relative states of waking, dreaming and sleep along with the inner wakefulness of samadhi, we come to the first stage of awakening, what is called Self Realization or Cosmic Consciousness.
Notably, there is now enough people with this experience that research is underway to describe it in scientific terms. And that’s a fine thing indeed. It’s no less than moving enlightenment from a mythology into an objective reality.
This article is not meant to discount any practice. Each has it’s benefits. I simply wish to point you to what seems to be the most direct route for most people who seek enlightenment in this lifetime. Whatever practice you feel is right for you points to what you need at the present time for your journey. Just keep moving down the pathless path. Home is as close as the center of your heart. 😉
*Travis, F., & Shear, J. Focused attention, open monitoring and automatic self-transcending: Categories to organize meditations from Vedic, Buddhist and Chinese traditions. Consciousness and Cognition (2010) Sorry – that link broke. Try this: drfredtravis.com/downloads/Travis_preprint.pdf