My answer to this question would be you’d only think all forms of meditation were the same if you think differences are irrelevant. My entire working life is based on understanding difference. I think it’s true of all holistic and integrative practices that understanding the uniqueness of a personal story, told by an individual within their distinct context, is the core focus. But I’ve wondered, just what is different between TM and Mindfulness practice? They seem very different to me. They involve different methods. So it wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out they had different effects on the brain, and hence on the body too. Well, here’s some fascinating research which is beginning to clarify just what the differences are. It starts with a description of three “types” of meditation practice – Controlled focus; Open monitoring; Automatic self-transcending, then goes on to explore different brain wave patterns associated with each, different mind-body changes and the published research on the effects of different practices. The summary is as follows –
- 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
My personal experience is greatest with the third category. I practice TM for 20 minutes twice every day. I’ve explored some Mindfulness meditation with colleagues at work over recent months (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is one of the services we offer at the Centre for Integrative Care in Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital) But I’ve no experience of the first type – controlled focus. My first take on this research is that I’m encouraged to know that it’s good to engage in more than one kind of meditation practice. If loving kindness and compassion meditation increases the amount of love, kindness and compassion in the world I’m all for it. If Mindfulness also reduces negative rumination as it suggests in this research, then that strikes me as also a very good thing. And if TM can lower blood pressure, reduce chronic anxiety and lower stress hormones like cortisol, then that’s good too.
I do enjoy a scientific exploration of how something might work, but I also think that we are all different and it’s likely that we will all experience different meditation practices differently. It is a subjective human experience as well after all! I know Dan Siegel, of Interpersonal Neurobiology fame, claims that there is plenty of evidence to show that Mindfulness meditation increases the size and function of the integrative fibres of the mid prefrontal cortex. He also says that just 10 minutes a day of breath awareness will produce measurable change in integrative neurons.
Are you convinced yet? If you haven’t done it yet, maybe a month from now as you think ahead to 2011, making meditation part of your daily life should be part of the changes you might want to make. (you know what I’m talking about – resolutions!)