Choosing a Meditation

Choosing a Meditation

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:

Last Updated on April 9, 2014 by

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  1. Bob Ellal

    There are many meditative techniques in qigong; some focus on visualizing energy flowing in circuits in the body–some on just following the breath to get “behind the mind.” I do both at different times.

  2. Davidya

    Hi Bob

    Yes. One of the first things I noticed in the paper was a comparative chart. And that QiGong was in all three types. I didn’t highlight that in the post but I did notice that.

    My exposure to QiGong is limited. Mostly around the protests re: China. Adam the Dreamhealer used QiGong to tame and control his energy. He’s big on being aware of your bodies energy for healing and teaches basic techniques for such.

    The main point of the post was that different meditation practices have different results. And sometimes different purposes. It’s good to look at that when choosing a practice. While I do look at related topics occasionally, most of the focus of the blog is on the nature of reality and the development of consciousness.

    Congrats on your journey and sharing that in an ebook. Both take great courage.

  3. Bob Ellal

    Years back I would hold one standing post posture for about an hour each day, just focusing on my breath. Being aware of the breath pretty much eliminated the thought process. Sometimes I’d get beyond that awareness and reach the place of “thoughts of no thoughts.” I wasn’t aware of this until I was “jolted” back into awareness of the breath. It was amazing. I never had such calm.

  4. Bob Ellal

    Hey, man–I don’t want to imply that this “thoughts of no thoughts” phenomenon happened frequently–once in a while. But it was profound.

    I don’t know if I mentioned it on your site, but standing post meditation helped me beat four bouts of supposedly terminal lymphoma back in the early nineties. It helped me endure the pain of bone cancer and the fear of my own mortality. It reinforce my will to endure the high-dose chemo of two bone marrow transplants. I owe qigong much; I’ve been clear of cancer for almost 15 years and still practice every day.

    So on that level–energy cultivation, calming the mind and body, deep abdominal breathing to pump the lymphatic system and kick in the parasympathetic nervous system–qigong has been very effective. I began practice for a very “self-centered” goal: just to save my own skin and see my toddler sons grown into men. Mission accomplished.

  5. Davidya

    Hi Bob

    Thanks for sharing that. I’ve never had that kind of discipline.

    It’s worth noting that the mind has “levels” of thinking. From gross “surface” thoughts to increasingly more refined ones. Subtler thoughts become vaguer, more diffuse, like impressions, intuition and fine intellect. When we settle into meditation, we experience these more refined values of mind. Especially if the practice doesn’t hold us in the surface mind.

    If we then try to think on a gross level, it can be like a jolt. Like jumping up to answer the phone. This is why they suggest you have a few minutes of rest after such practices – to allow the mind to come back up the the surface. We don’t realize how deep we are.

    When we transcend or experience samadhi, thoughts stop. The breath “pauses” as well, but we’re often not aware of that unless it is clear and extended. When we come out of samadhi, the mind reengages. The fine intellect notices there are no thoughts. Then the mind begins to think about not thinking, as you describe. Like bliss, this happens on the way out of samadhi.

    After we’ve had many such experiences (clear or not), the wakefulness of samadhi begins to continue. We don’t leave it when thoughts begin. Then it stays even in daily activity. This process can take place very gradually so its hardly noticed. It’s very deeply familiar and it’s without qualities. What makes it more noticeable is when it changes something. Like when we stay wakeful during deep sleep.

    Imagine having that calm all the time, even in stressful experiences. A bed of deep peace forming a continuous platform for all other experiences. This is the beginning of enlightenment. To this add bliss, knowledge, perception, and so on… 😉

  6. Bob Ellal

    David, Attitude is important, of course. But one needs something to reinforce the attitude every day. So many people when diagnosed proclaim “I’m going to beat it.” Then the pain, and the profound sickness from chemo hits. And the will falters. One needs a mechanism to boost one’s determination–for me it was daily standing post meditation.

  7. Davidya

    Hi Bob
    I have an inkling of the challenge as a couple of good friends have passed on from cancer. But I’ve been fortunate not to have faced the difficulty myself.

    I can see how such an experience would “reinforce” your will. As I mentioned, both your actions then and speaking out about it now show a lot of courage.

    From what I’ve seen, energy work can be a profound help in healing even seemingly terminal illness. But it does take the right attitude along with the technique. You demonstrate that.

    People often underestimate the power of their attitude. Thanks again for sharing.

  8. Hey Davidya,

    Have you gone through any transcendental meditations, and if so, how exactly does it work, or have you taken courses on it.

    I have been really apprehensive about even paying for a coarse to learn how to “meditate” because I’ve self taught to where samadhi can be reached usually at about the hour mark or can be noticed in sleep (for me its the breath and gentle heartbeat of this body, or maybe its just “the heart”)

    but is there something specific that has to be done to hit that state faster?

    I’ve always been inclined to meditate, even in earlier parts of this path, but i’ve seen that self-realization, really isn’t much different than everyday life, but is extremely different at the same time. attachments don’t seem to be where they use to (some do, but some just simply fall away). Meditation is a great tool for soothing the monkey mind, to let it know that its okay to take a break every now and then, haha.

  9. Davidya

    Hi ZK

    Yes, I learned from a teacher. My practice uses a bija mantra of known good qualities without meaning. The mind is occupied effortlessly by the mantra (basically just with attention) but is not held on the level of meaning. The mind thus naturally settles and turns within. Nothing has to be done for this to occur. They describe it as the natural tendency of the mind to move towards greater bliss when it’s not distracted by stimulus. It then transcends the practice itself into samadhi.

    I’ve run into several other teachers who teach similarly. Chopra was one, I mentioned in a prior post.

    Because it’s an experiential thing and there is no habit of effortlessness, I recommend a teacher to guide you into the experience. If there is even subtle effort, it doesn’t work. Anyone can learn to try to meditate but trying breaks it as it’s a mental process. Concentration is good for developing focus but not for transcending mind.

    I transcended in my first meditation and do so pretty much every time, usually within a few minutes. Research has demonstrated this is normal with such a practice.

    I agree on the last paragraph – the same but different. I’ve noticed that the attachments that are more active in our life can be the ones that take longer to fall away. Or they’re rooted more deeply in the identity and so don’t go until those drivers are relaxed.

  10. What I took from this, is that I ended up getting more info from TM website and found someone in my local area that was a teacher, so as soon as I get enough money I plan on learning the technique to deepen the understanding and hopefully let it unfold as it should. Once you open the door, you really can’t come back…

  11. So far, I’ve talked to the TM teacher in my city, somehow I was put on his potential scholarship list, so we will see how that plays out ($1500 for the program is a bit much for my finances)

    I also recently got a call from a lady named Gabrielle from the Deepak Chopra center and asked some questions about the primordial meditation. Found out both techniques come from the same teacher (Maharishi) however Deepaks technique is less ($375) and just focuses on different parts. Its more affordable, so I might just wait for that!

    From the story of Gabrielle, it was said that both forms of meditation activate the same parts of the brain, and have the same desired results, so it really just comes down to preference and finances. =]

  12. Oh I forgot to say, I also found a married couple in the area that teaches primordial meditation (Deepaks method) in town too, so I wouldn’t have to go out of my way for either one hehe… who would of thought that would of manifested in such a short amount of time.

  13. Bob Ellal

    The simplest, cheapest way to go? Sit on the edge of a chair, spine straight, head level as though suspended from a string from above, tongue lightly touching the roof of the mouth behind the teeth. Breathe from one’s abdomen, expanding it to fill the lungs from the bottom up, then a slightly slower exhale as the belly contracts. Just focus on the breath; always return to the breath when thoughts intrude. It’s simple, not easy, of course–and it’s free. Unless you want to send me a check for $375!

  14. Bob Ellal

    Yes, I agree a teacher is essential. In the beginning one’s imagination can be a rampaging elephant (or a monkey chattering), the mind disconcerted that its continuous miasma of thoughts is being “interrupted.” A teacher will recognize this. That’s why it’s good to not have too many concepts up front–keep it simple. Ask a qigong master the “whys and hows” and he respond “just practice.” An evolution of experience.

    I’ve used both the following the breath technique and other chi visualizations designed to stimulate glands. I suspect using a mantra is similar to visualizing energy circuits–tricking the “monkey mind.” What bothers me is the costs. What bothers me is when yogis and their acolytes preach spirituality over materialism, then live in mansions and drive Bentleys–thanks to the contributions of their students. I find that hypocritical.

  15. Davidya

    Hi ZK
    If you search Chopra here, you’ll find reference to an experience i had with him. During a talk, he taught the entire audience how to meditate. A little more complex than TM and he did so without preamble and little followup remarks. Many people were oblivious to what he had just given them.

    I understand Primordial is a technique taught through TM for special purposes. The main meditation is a little different. You’ll also note the article above observes that each technique is a little different so you can’t point to one technique and say it has the same effects as another. Similar perhaps, but not same.

    From what I understand, TM is expensive because they’re using the funds to support international programs for world peace. It’s more than worth the price. But I also appreciate affordability.

    So yes, preferences and finances – and what is supported to manifest 😉

  16. Davidya

    Hi Bob
    Yes, there are techniques like this you can learn online for free and so forth. And each has their own benefits. But what I’ve seen after decades of practice is people who use focus techniques like this continue to have benefits. Some continue to have experiences. But people who use effortless techniques continue to wake up. That’s the point of this blog, so that’s why I suggest it.

    Because we’re so used to doing and trying, effortless takes a bit of experience. Real easy but also real easy to mess up. That’s why a teacher is best for most of us. A cost, but what cost enlightenment?

  17. Bob Ellal

    Hey, man–there’s nothing wrong with money; we all need it to live, even gurus and monks. It’s the “love of money that is the root of evil.” Back in ’93 during my first bone marrow transplant a nurse gave me a flyer for Chopra’s Aryuvedic retreat in nearby Lancaster, MA. The cost? $3,000 for five days, not covered by insurance. That crushed me, as Chopra’s ‘Quantum Healing’ inspired me to delve deeper into the mind/body connection (although he was off on his physics). I felt he had “sold out;” that spiritualiy was only for the rich. I know it costs $5,000 today for a week at his Wellness Centre. How many can afford that? Why should a personal mantra cost $400? It’s not right.

  18. Davidya

    Hi Bob
    The cost issue is an interesting buggaboo in the west. Certainly, there have been a few wealthy gurus who didn’t practice what they preached but they were largely the exception. In the east, the community supports it’s gurus to live a monastic life (although curiously that’s driven by misinterpretation – that being a monk is the only way.) but in the west, they have to pay their way. Yet we expect the same free rules. I’ve found that people don’t tend to value what they get for free.

    I would simply suggest you not judge a practice by it’s cost. For example, Chopras is a reasonable cost but not as widely available. TM is rather expensive but the teachers don’t make a big living and the money is multiplied many-fold, supporting hundreds of school kids overseas and thousands of pundits. In fact, there’s 1,000 of those pundits in the US doing daily world peace yagyas. This stuff is being done on a scale not seen since “mythical” times. Not a perfect organization but they have remarkable goals.

  19. Bob Ellal

    You make a good point about our healthcare system; the idea that we are solely biochemical machines to be recalibrated by a continous flood of pills–revolts me.

    Chopra, however, is resorting to the same tactics as his mentor, Mahesh Yogi: “yogic flying.” Any siddhis one encounters during meditation progress–at least from the Taoist/Buddhist perspective–should be acknowledged, but not dwelt upon, as they are easy for the ego to grasp onto. They shouldn’t be used as a marketing tool: “Study with me and you can have paranormal powers–and be special.” I see the same thing in the qigong world with masters doing demos of their powers. Some are out-and-out fakes; some are delusional. Some have the goods. But demonstrating these things is a mistake: they can be easily repeated by good stage magicians. Then people believe that the whole thing is fake and worthless. When the value of qigong or meditation is not about spiritual parlor tricks; it’s to become a healhier person in all aspects.

  20. Davidya

    Hi Bob
    The Ayurvedic spa near here is expensive as well. It’s basically the nature of private health care. I agree Chopra has gone new age and a little flaky with his science. Not as bad as some of them though. As for “sold out”, thats kind of a value judgment. He has found a niche that is getting a different paradigm to a much larger audience, like Tolle. I would not say his paradigm is very complete, but it is a stepping stone.

    As for the mantra, that’s not what you pay for. Its the facility and the instruction. As I mentioned before, that’s the part we need to learn.

    I understand your disappointment and not being able to access better health care. But was that his fault? Or the backwardness of a system that doesn’t support wellness?

  21. Davidya

    Hi Bob
    One of the things its good to remind ourselves is that any teacher is still a person. We won’t always agree with them and sometimes they’ll make mistakes.

    It’s good to recognize the weaknesses of any given teacher but focus on what they have to offer. We can easily focus on others opinions or critiques. The net is full of guru bashing sites. Better to focus on the value and leave the rest. That’s how you see if it offers you value.

    I agree that we should not focus on effects or abilities that arise in practice. Avoid things that engage the ego. People who present abilities walk a fine line between proof and creating the wrong motivation, including in themselves.

    I don’t believe Chopra teaches Patanjali’s book 3 techniques but the TM group does. And yes, Patanjali also warns against using them for personal gain. That said, he goes on to outline specific techniques. According to the TM folks, the point is to help clear those channels and test ones progress. But it’s all based in transcendence. That may not be your cup of tea but people I’ve spoken to who do this find it greatly enlivens their spiritual development and bliss. Aside from a few early demos, I don’t believe they do it in public anymore.

    I agree with your general points but lets not make this personal. Lets focus on value. You are of course welcome to your opinion, but the point of this post was categories of meditation.

  22. meditator


    I would love to know more about what you think are the differences between TM and Shikantaza. In my mind, Shikantaza (open field of awareness) seems to be ‘more’ effortless when compared to TM? I don’t know much about TM other than it being a mantra meditation.

    Your blog is fantastic. No exaggeration when I say that it’s changed my life.


  23. Davidya

    Hi Meditator 😉

    Sorry but I don’t know anything about Shikantaza. Wiki tells me it’s a Japanese term for Zazen. The study classified Zazen as Open Monitoring type. That sounds a little like you describe it. Effortless mantra meditations are quite different in technique, basically a vehicle to take the mind within and then transcend it. However it sounds like they both have the same purpose. Both culture open awareness.

    I’m not sure you could say one thing is more effortless than another. It’s either effortless or it’s not. According to the TM folk, effort holds the mind in itself, making transcending it more difficult. It’s always a good sign if a technique uses natural mechanisms rather than pushing against what is there.

    Thanks. Glad you’ve enjoyed the musings.

  24. meditator

    Thanks for the comment. I sometimes wonder whether it’s best to simply set the intention at the beginning of meditation, and then allow the mind to focus on the object ‘effortlessly’.

  25. Davidya

    It depends on what you’re doing. Effortless mantra meditations don’t use an intention, simply natural tendencies. An intention is also mind.

    Intentional techniques suggest you make a clear intention and then let it go. Act as if.

    Some interesting research on both group intention and group meditation without intention and the effects they have.

  26. Davidya

    Hi Paul
    Yes, I understand that when they brought in a new requirement for recertification of TM teachers, some stepped out and continued to teach something similar under a new name. England also had a batch of teachers split away. The challenge then of course is determining quality. One fellow offers a CD, for example, skipping my recommendation for personal instruction.

    And there is a subtle but profound value to receiving instruction from a long tradition – especially if you wish the path to support you through full enlightenment. Some transitions are much easier with a history of understanding; the Mahavakyas and post unity instructions, for example.

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  41. Jesper

    Hi David

    What is the difference between just being and doing TM?

    I often feel like I get deeper by just being and listening to Lorne – more bliss, deeper and more peace.

    However, I have this idea that doing TM will help my worldly life more or in ways that just being won’t. Is there any thruth to that?


    1. Hi Jesper
      Listening to Lorne isn’t just being, it’s being with or darshan.

      Just being, if I understand you, is a little like mindfulness. What is being mindful, or being? Is it mind, noticing itself? Is it consciousness? Is there enough clear presence for for it to be self-reflective awareness? This makes a difference for results.

      TM is quite distinct and Lorne recommends it. TM is basically an effortless technique that allows the mind to settle down and then transcend itself. This leads to samadhi or culturing presence. The restfulness also allows the body to shed contraction and resistance. Within a few months, the brain shows signs of increased presence.

      There is a ton of research demonstrating improved IQ, better marks, better health, reduced aging, better ability to accomplish, lower stress, and so forth.

      So yes, overall it improves clarity and quality of life. And it helps lay the ground for clear, smooth awakening.

      1. Jesper

        Hi David

        Thanks for the response.

        I don’t really practice mindfulness, but if you mean being=being mindful, then I think it is something else. It is more like being without mind, if that makes sense.

        I find it difficult to describe what I experience, but what happens is a small continual surrender that takes me deeper and deeper while experiencing some bliss from the top of my head and heart. I also start to let go of emotions. Plus that bliss is likely to go with me during the day.

        The reason I asked is that what I experience listening to Lorne feels similar to what I experience during TM, but I often get deeper faster. But then I was thinking that a mantra might have some benefits that just getting “deep”/transcending has – even though I get equally deep with both approaches. Does that make sense?

        1. Hi Jesper
          Thanks for clarifying. Many people do discover what might be called techniques of attention naturally as the clarity and depth grows. They can’t really be taught to most – the ground has to be cultured first.

          But yes, I’d agree the mantra will have benefits that darshan won’t and vice versa.

          I’d also be careful about judging depth subjectively. It can feel the same but as consciousness effectively has infinite depth, can be relatively distinct.

          1. Jesper

            Hi David

            Great, thanks.

            “I’d also be careful about judging depth subjectively. It can feel the same but as consciousness effectively has infinite depth, can be relatively distinct.”

            Yes – A reason why I asked you was also that I found it difficult to know the depth for certain when the state isn’t stable. So a little feedback was nice.

  42. Daniel Skedelj

    Hi david,
    Have you read Adyashanti `s book on meditation?
    He focuses on just being the awareness and not on a focusing method like a mantra. He also has many guided meditations.
    It seems his approach is different?
    All the best

    1. Hi Daniel
      I’ve seen it but don’t subscribe to the approach as I don’t see it being as effective. For example, to just be the awareness, there has to be enough clear awareness present to even do it. If not, it’s just the minds idea of being present. It’s the same issue with some mindfulness techniques.

      So yes, quite different. Adya is from the Zen tradition but stepped somewhat out of the lineage due to circumstances.

      Samadhi/ turiya/ transcendence is the key to a deep spiritual practice as it takes you to source and cultures being awareness. An effortless meditation like I describe is not a “focusing” method as described in the research. Such techniques tend to keep one in the mind more.

      Source is what both cultures awakeness and cultures purification and refinement for the fullness of the unfolding. For example, you see much less of describers like “no-self” and “emptiness” with the above culturing.

      It can seem like a small difference in approach but it makes a big difference in results long term.

  43. Here’s a list of the benefits of transcendence from TM that have been studied in scientific research. They also summarize journals that have published the research and institutions that have done it.

    Turiya or samadhi is a 4th state of consciousness. This was established by research in the 1970’s but is yet to gain widespread acceptance. This means it’s huge benefits to quality of life continue to be missed by many.

    It’s fundamental to Yoga and Vedanta but the understanding has also been lost in many spiritual traditions.

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