By Tom Ball
Why is the Buddha smiling? Because it’s finally happened: meditation is mainstream.
Of course, the true “Buddha mind” finds reason to smile from within and is said to be unfazed by such spacetime frivolities as cultural trends, but surely the “enlightened” among us, whoever they are, must be encouraged that meditative practices are being taken up in boardrooms of corporate America, taught at YMCAs, introduced to schoolchildren around the world and even advocated within the military.
Mindfulness, Zen, the Transcendental Meditation technique and many other practices have become household words. Hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific research studies have demonstrated the efficacy of meditation for improving health, preventing disease, accelerating personal growth and even reversal of aging.
But with so many different methods of meditation available, how does one choose a suitable, effective meditation technique for oneself or one’s family? Here are some timesaving tips from a longtime meditator and 35-year meditation teacher to help you evaluate which meditation might be best for you.
Meditation techniques are not all the same!
The first step is to recognize that not all meditation techniques are the same. The various meditation practices engage the mind in different ways. Vipassna, also commonly (and perhaps loosely) known as mindfulness meditation, emphasizes dispassionate observation and, in its more philosophical form, the contemplation of impermanence, sometimes focusing on the interconnection between mind and body. Zen Buddhist practices are likely to use concentration, whether directed at one’s breath or at trying to grasp a Zen koan. The Transcendental Meditation technique uses effortless attention to experience subtle states of thought and ‘transcend’ by use of a specialized mantra. Christian Centering Prayer uses a word of worship to stimulate receptiveness to God. And this is only a small sampling of the variety of practices commonly lumped together as ‘meditation.’
Different techniques have different aims, employ a variety of procedures and naturally produce different results. In determining which technique among this wide variety of practices might best suit your purposes, start by asking yourself what you want out of meditation, and how much time you’re willing to give it. Some meditation programs emphasize regular or twice-daily practice over time to gain maximum benefit and evolve to higher stages of personal growth, while other practices are intended for an occasional inspirational boost or to chill when you’re stressed.
Another question to ask yourself: do you want a meditation practice that comes with a religion, philosophy or way of life? Many practices, such as Buddhist and Taoist practices, are interwoven into a conceptual world view that’s an intricate part of the practice-whether it’s an approach that contemplates the cosmos and human mind as inseparable elements of a single order, or a world view that strives to get beyond all dogma and see the world as it truly is, it’s still another mentally conceived world view. Other practices, such as the form of mindfulness meditation now popular in the West, or the Transcendental Meditation technique, are secular in nature and can be practiced without embracing any particular philosophy, religion or way of life.
Are you seeking to achieve inspiration and insights during the meditation experience? Meditations that fall into this category are contemplative techniques. They promise greater depth of understanding about the topic being contemplated and help the intellect fathom various avenues of thought. These types of meditations can be pleasant and emotionally uplifting, especially if there is no straining or mind control involved. Often these practices are performed with the guidance of a CD, instructor or derived from a book.
A scientific approach:
Are you looking for a certain health benefit, such as decreased anxiety or lower blood pressure? Though proponents of most meditation practices claim health benefits, frequently these claims of benefit cite scientific research that was actually conducted on other forms of meditation, and not on the practice being promoted. Yet research has clearly shown that not all meditations give the same results. If you’re choosing a meditation for a specific health benefit, check the research being used and verify that a particular benefit was actually done on that specific meditation technique and not on some other practice. While you are looking into the research, be sure the study was peer-reviewed and published in a reputable scientific or academic journal. If a study showing a specific benefit-such as deep relaxation or reduced anxiety-was replicated by several other research studies on that same practice, then the science is more compelling.
When it comes to reducing stress and anxiety, scientists have again found that all meditation practices are not equally effective. Practices that employ concentration have been found to actually increase anxiety, and the same meta-study found that most meditation techniques are no more effective than a placebo at reducing anxiety.
Need meditation to lower your blood pressure? The Transcendental Meditation technique is the only mind/body practice that has been shown both in independent clinical trials and meta-analyses to significantly lower high blood pressure in hypertensive patients. To determine if a particular form of meditation has scientific evidence supporting a specific benefit, you can do a search at PubMed or through Google’s academic search engine, Google Scholar. There are over a thousand peer-reviewed studies on the various forms of meditation, with the Transcendental Meditation technique and mindfulness meditation being the most extensively researched practices, respectively.
How much time do you have?
Another consideration is how much time it takes to master a particular meditation technique. Some meditation practices require many years to master and to achieve their stated purpose-or even get a glimpse of the goal-while other practices may take only a few months or even a few minutes to produce intended results. For example, relaxation CDs can have an immediate, soothing effect-it may not be nirvana, but in some cases relaxation is all that’s promised. If you don’t have the patience to persist in a practice that takes many years to attain success, it makes sense to choose a technique that requires less or no effort.
Along these lines, does the meditation practice you’re considering require the ability to concentrate? If you have a hard time focusing for prolonged periods, or suffer from ADHD, you may find it frustrating to attempt a concentration type of meditation. Remember, scientific findings actually indicate that concentration techniques, though they may improve focus in some cases, can actually increase stress and anxiety.
Meditation and the brain:
Want to meditate to enhance brain functioning? There are several types of meditation CDs marketed on the Internet as “scientific technologies” for improving your brain. If you look past the marketing slogans (“Meditate deep as a Zen monk-instantly!”) to see if there are any peer-reviewed scientific research studies verifying such claims, don’t be surprised if you don’t find any. This doesn’t mean the CDs will not improve your brain-perhaps they will-but I hesitate to recommend such unproven methods, especially if they feign to be scientific when they are not.
Speaking of meditating deep as a Zen monk, brain researchers have reported EEG alpha coherence in the frontal brain area during Zen meditation-as well as during the Transcendental Meditation technique (which shows EEG coherence throughout the entire brain). Neuroscientists theorize this to be a positive effect, because the prefrontal cortex (PFC) “oversees” the whole brain, and having a more coherently functioning PFC should improve overall brain performance. Thus there’s evidence from neuroscience that certain meditation practices may be good for your brain. If the barrage of meditation CDs on the market that claim improved brain functioning were to show such prefrontal EEG alpha coherence, that might lend some credibility to their promises of improved brain function. Advances in neuroscience in recent years, and an influx of new scientific data on brain patterns during meditation, may soon expose claims of brain enhancement as true or false, based on what’s happening in the brain during meditation.
Meditate for Relaxation:
If it’s relaxation you want, research shows that the body’s relaxation response can be induced in many ways-even by just sitting with your eyes closed and listening to soothing music. Because of the intimate connection between mind and body, the deeper you go in meditation and the more settled your mind becomes, the deeper is the state of rest for the body. Contemplation practices-one of the major categories of meditation techniques-like concentration practices, have their own particular and distinct effects on mind and body. Because contemplation and concentration practices keep the mind busy-engaged in a particular activity or mental task-they are not most conducive to the mind’s settling inward, and thus will not bring the deepest rest and rejuvenation to the body. Some methods, such as the Relaxation Response, Christian Centering Prayer, or relaxation CDs often employ a mixture of both contemplation and concentration, depending on how one approaches the practice. Beware: there’s no evidence that contemplation or concentration practices such as these will actually lower high blood pressure or significantly reduce anxiety. Easy listening meditation CDs that don’t require much active engagement on the part of the mind-especially ones that do not use guided voice instructions that keep the mind engaged in the realm of meaning and contemplation-may be your best bet if you want some mild relaxation and a little emotional upliftment.
I say “mild relaxation” because meta-studies of all available research on levels of rest during mind-body practices shows that most meditation practices, including the Relaxation Response technique, do not provide physiological relaxation any deeper than simple eyes-closed rest.
If you want really deep relaxation, you need a meditation practice that takes you to the deepest, most transcendental level of your Self.
Secular or non-secular:
Certain meditation practices may conflict with your religion or beliefs. The practice of meditation, though found in almost every religion, has been predominantly associated with traditions of the East. Some of these practices require adherence to beliefs of Eastern philosophy, while others are merely mechanical practices (like watching your breath) extracted from those cultures and applicable to anyone. Granted, the East has much to offer the West-and vice versa-and most people find it possible to incorporate an Eastern-derived meditation practice from an age-old tradition without sacrificing their own personal belief system.
I could never sit like that!
A practical consideration: do you need to sit in a prescribed position to do a particular meditation practice? The popular image of a meditator in leotards sitting cross-legged in full lotus position may have you thinking, “I could never do that.” Don’t be discouraged. Even if you are unable to sit like a pretzel or for an extended period without back support, there are meditation practices that do not require any particular position and are best practiced in your most comfortable easy chair. Some forms of Zen and mindfulness are even practiced while walking!
Selecting a teacher:
Do you need a meditation instructor or guru? That may depend on the depth-or height-to which you aspire. The higher meditative states are not so readily achieved by instruction techniques learned from a book or CD. The very act of reading and self-instructing can interfere with your innocence and ability to get beyond the active, surface levels of the mind. This requirement for innocence during meditation is beautifully underscored in the classic little book entitled, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” by Shunryu Suzuki. It can be a challenge to be innocent when you’re simultaneously playing the roles of expert teacher and diligent student.
And then the question arises: how do I know I’m doing it right? Without the expert guidance of an experienced teacher, how can you know? In the great traditions of enlightenment, such as Buddhism, Taoism and the Vedic tradition, meditation was learned from sages who passed it on only to students who preformed sufficient austerities and showed receptivity and aptitude for learning. The act of “initiation” was considered sacred and the student showed great reverence for the teaching. Kings would give half their kingdoms or more to charity, just to earn the honor of studying with a master teacher of meditation-hoping thereby to gain liberation or enlightenment, full awakening to the true nature of life. Such was the regard for meditation in ancient times. These days, though many people may profess to be meditation teachers, they may not have the expertise you are looking for if you are serious about practicing meditation and committed to gaining higher consciousness and enlightenment. Check the teacher’s credentials and degree of training. Does the instructor represent a venerated tradition of meditation? Is the teacher upholding the purity and effectiveness of tested and proven procedures? Is the teacher directly connected to the lineage of a great, enlightened master who passed on to them the correct instructions for effective practice?
How much should I pay?
Some people claim that because meditation is a spiritual practice, it should be given out for free, and in many cases it is. You can pick up a meditative technique as part of many yoga classes, from a library book or a friend’s CD. But many meditation courses require a course fee. Some teachers charging for meditation offer a structured course that includes follow-up and personal support-thus there is overhead and educational expenses. Remember the wise adage: you get what you pay for. If you are looking for regularly scheduled group meetings at a meditation center and ongoing follow-up, you may need to pay for that amenity. There is nothing unspiritual about paying for a service that directly benefits your health and wellbeing. In the West, where materialism dominates, it is new to think of paying for something we cannot hold in our hands. If you find cost a stumbling block to learning meditation, look at the cost effectiveness of the practice and what it will bring in terms of healthcare savings and increased efficiency and quality of life. And look into what the organization does with the money; the organization may be a legitimate non-profit supporting a humanitarian cause that you agree with, such as promoting world peace.
Deliberate-and Jump within!
The bottom line: assess your personal needs and strength of intention to incorporate meditation into your life. Be realistic about your abilities and the requirements of the practice. Do your homework-most meditation programs have a Website. And if you know someone practicing a type of meditation that interests you, ask for a personal testimonial. Evaluate the claims and the scientific proof behind those claims if there is any. Check the track record of the teacher and the organization. Then join the millions who are turning within to change themselves and the world.