Meditation is no longer the province of Eastern cultures or â€œhippyâ€ types. The â€œWestâ€ has embraced meditation and today meditation can even be prescribed by doctors, particularly in relation to relieving conditions that relate to stress. It is wonderful that on the one hand the insights and powers of meditation are being discovered by Western societies but there are also pitfalls ahead.
When an outsider embraces an ancient tradition there is always the possibility that a superficial understanding will result. For instance simply encouraging someone to â€œmeditateâ€ misses the point that there are many different styles of meditation and that each one has different effects. This point has been highlighted in a new study which showed exactly how the different styles affect your brain.
The study identified that the Buddhist, Chinese, and Vedic traditions of meditation produce styles that can be grouped under three broad headings.
First they identified â€œfocused attentionâ€ in which the practitioner concentrates on an object or emotion. Then they described â€œopen monitoringâ€ which involves being mindful of your breath or thoughts. Lastly they came up with a category that they called â€œautomatic self-transcendingâ€ characterised by meditation techniques that transcend their own activity resulting in the practitioner “losing themselves”.
The research found that in focused attention styles of meditation (including Tibetan Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, and some Chinese Qigong) generate brain waves of the beta and gamma types. Beta waves are associated with everyday consciousness but gamma waves indicate the highest levels of focus and cognitive functioning.
By contrast the open monitoring technique (featured in Buddhist mindfulness, some Qigong, and Vedic Sahaja Yoga traditions) resulted in increased theta activity. This is the slowest of the brain waves mentioned here and is believed to be associated with creativity, dreaming and extra sensory perception.
Lastly, the self-transcending styles (including Vedic Transcendental Meditation and some Chinese Qigong) induce alpha wave activity in the brain. This alpha activity represents a relaxed and effortless alertness.
What this all means is that the various meditation styles achieve different results. In itself this is not a problem but Westerners need to keep it in mind as they embrace meditation. The different styles will lead to different spiritual, psychic, and physical effects. To lump them all together and draw conclusions about what â€œmeditationâ€ does as a whole would lead to misunderstanding and misuse.
To do this would be like saying that all ice cream is the same, when we all know that only mocha-ccino with chocolate syrup swirls is capable of inducing transcendent peace and oneness with the Universe.