Thursday, June 21, 2018

Is it possible to Categorize Meditation Types?

The scientific research and categorization of the existing types of meditation is at its beginning stages. If you search for types of meditation on Internet, you will get wide range of the proposed classifiers. And most of the versatile classifications will make sense.

Today, I would like to present one of the ground base categorization, which might help to get overview on the meditation structure, approaches, allowing to focus on the category which will looks more suitable than others.

Scientists today perform a significant amount of formal research on various meditation techniques. Because the word 'meditation' is used loosely in society to describe many different activities, scientists have to be careful about how they use the term in context of research.

Dr. Fred Travis of Maharishi University of Management has been promoting a unified set of terms to categorize the many meditation techniques which exist today. In fact, he argues that all forms of meditation can be narrowed down to three types. These types are defined based on the techniques used, and these techniques correlate clearly to very specific, and distinguishable neurological responses.

To summarize, Dr. Travis encourages all researchers to utilize these three terms to describe the kind of meditation they use in their studies.

1. Focused Attention

Focusing the attention on a single object during the whole meditation session. This object may be the breath, a mantra, visualization, part of the body, external object, etc. As the practitioner advances, his ability to keep the flow of attention in the chosen object gets stronger, and distractions become less common and short-lived. Both the depth and steadiness of his attention are developed.

So, the focused attention techniques are the stereotypical 'focus your thoughts, empty your mind' techniques. These vary from starting into a single point, to counting up in numbers mentally without allowing the mind to stray. While the techniques vary, the overall effect on the brain is surprisingly similar. Focused attention meditations result in beta2 and gamma activity.

"In focused attention or concentrative style of meditations, voluntary sustained attention is focused on a given object, and attention is brought back to the object of attention when the mind has wandered."

"Beta2 and gamma activity have been reported across meditation practices from the Tibetan Buddhist, Chinese, and Buddhist traditions. Beta2 and gamma activity was reported when individuals sustained focused on an area of the body or when creating a strong inner emotion or a strong visual image, and strictly controlling the deviation of attention from that object."

"Gamma activity reflects local processing within short-range connections responsible for object recognition and so construction of the content of experience. Synchronized gamma serves as a gain control for mental processing, enabling postsynaptic potentials to integrate and so direct downstream networks to bind the elements of sensory processing into a perceptual object. Gamma band activity closely follows local changes in brain blood flow and increases synaptic plasticity important for long term memories."
"Cortico-thalamic feedback loops modulating attention operate in the beta1 frequency. Beta1 bursts shift the system to an attention state that consequently allows for gamma synchronization and perception. Beta1 activity arises from “regional” processes that develop between nearby macrocolumns. Beta1 activity has been associated with binding of sensory qualities into a unified perception, such as the integration of visual and auditory information. Increase of temporal and parietal 13-18 Hz beta1 coherence was seen across recognition tasks involving pictures, spoken words and written words. Consequently, beta1 activity during meditation practices may play a role in creating the unity of meditation experiences and could be part of all three categories."

Examples of these are: Samatha (Buddhist meditation), some forms of Zazen, Loving Kindness Meditation, Chakra Meditation, Kundalini Meditation, Sound Meditation, Mantra Meditation, Pranayama, some forms of Qigong, Zen 3rd ventricle, and Diamond Way Buddhism, and many others.

2. Open Monitoring

Instead of focusing the attention on any one object, we keep it open, monitoring all aspects of our experience, without judgment or attachment. All perceptions, be them internal (thoughts, feelings, memory, etc.) or external (sound, smell, etc.), are recognized and seen for what they are. It is the process of non-reactive monitoring of the content of experience from moment to moment, without going into them.

Open monitoring meditations result in theta activity.

"Open monitoring or mindfulness-based meditations, involve the non-reactive monitoring of the content of ongoing experience, primarily as a means to become reflectively aware of the nature of emotional and cognitive patterns."

"Frontal midline theta, which originates in medial prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices, is a neural index of monitoring inner processes. Frontal midline theta is reported during tasks requiring self-control, internal timing, and assessment of reward; during working memory tasks; and during tasks requiring memory retention and mental imagery. Frontal midline theta activity increases a few seconds before a self-initiated hand-movement and reaches a peak immediately after the movement. Theta activity dynamically coordinate central executive circuits during serial subtraction. Consequently, we expect frontal midline theta in a meditation that involves monitoring ongoing experience without high levels of control and manipulation of the contents of experience."

Examples of open monitoring meditation techniques include Examples are: Mindfulness meditation, Vipassana, some types of Taoist Meditation, Zen meditation, Sahaja Yoga, and Concentrative Qigong. Of course, others would fall into this category as well.

3. Automatic Self-Transcending

These first two meditations keep you involved in thinking. And what they do is they are developing specific cognitive skills, thinking skills that you can use after meditation. The last category of meditation involves least effort. It is called automatic self-transcending. The self, that's being transcending here is the meditation procedure itself. The other meditations involve being involved in the thinking process, so there is the knower, you are experiencing some object of experience. Meditations in automatic self-transcending actually allow the thinking process to settle down to get to being. You are actually transcending, you are going beyond thoughts and categories and experiences, and just experiencing what is the level of wakefulness which is at the source of thoughts. When you are having this type of cognitive process the attention is turned within and you are just awake, which is at a very specific frequency which is called Alpha 1. Brain waves go up and down 8 to 10 times per second. Meditation where we see this type of brain is transcendental meditation.

So, automatic self-transcending represents the state where the attention is not focused on anything in particular, but reposes on itself – quiet, empty, steady, and introverted. We can also call it “Choiceless Awareness” or “Pure Being”. Most of the meditation quotes you find speak of this state.

This is actually the true purpose behind all kinds of meditation, and not a meditation type in itself. All traditional techniques of meditation recognize that the object of focus, and even the process of monitoring, is just a means to train the mind, so that effortless inner silence and deeper states of consciousness can be discovered. Eventually both the object of focus and the process itself is left behind, and there is only left the true self of the practitioner, as “pure presence”.

"Transcending involves automatic settling down of mental activity to a state of quiescence. Since cognitive control increases mental activity, transcending procedures would need to involve minimal cognitive control—said to be automatic or effortless."

Examples of Automatic Self-Transcending techniques include Transcendental Meditation (TM), Natural Stress Relief (NSR), the Self-Enquiry (“I am” meditation) of Ramana Maharishi; Dzogchen; Mahamudra; some forms of Taoist Meditation; and some advanced forms of Raja Yoga.

Noteworthy is the fact that research has shown that "The automaticity of the TM technique is reflected in research reporting the lack of a novice/expert dichotomy among TM meditators, in contrast to research on other meditation traditions". This means that meditations in this category do not require practice or skill to master. The consciousness simply responds to the technique effectively the first time the technique is initiated in the mind.

"Alpha activity in association areas may represent liveliness of the “screen of consciousness,” which provides context for grouping isolated elements into the unity of experience. For instance, when solving a problem by intuition or insight, alpha activity increases first, followed by increases in the gamma band when the idea comes to mind. Also, cross frequency coherence—the synchrony between alpha, beta and gamma—increases with higher cognitive load on a continuous mental arithmetic task. Cross frequency coherence is considered important for integrating anatomically distributed processing in the brain"

What Meditation IS NOT

In many studies on meditation, the control group uses simple eyes-closed rest. Results of this 'technique' are then compared to the real technique. It's a lot like using a placebo when studying a new drug.

The term 'meditation' should not be confused with eyes-closed rest, or simple relaxation techniques.

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