By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“science confirms the experience of millions of practitioners: meditation will keep you healthy, help prevent multiple diseases, make you happier, and improve your performance in basically any task, physical or mental.” – Giovanni Dienstmann
Meditation training has been shown to improve health and well-being. It has also been found to be effective for a large array of medical and psychiatric conditions, either stand-alone or in combination with more traditional therapies. As a result, meditation training has been called the third wave of therapies. One problem with understanding meditation effects is that there are, a wide variety of meditation techniques and it is not known which work best for improving different conditions.
Four types of meditation are the most commonly used practices for research purposes. In body scan meditation, the individual focuses on the feelings and sensations of specific parts of the body, systematically moving attention from one area to another. Loving kindness meditation is designed to develop kindness and compassion to oneself and others. The individual systematically pictures different individuals from self, to close friends, to enemies and wishes them happiness, well-being, safety, peace, and ease of well-being. In focused attention meditation, the individual practices paying attention to a single meditation object, learns to filter out distracting stimuli, including thoughts, and learns to stay focused on the present moment, filtering out thoughts centered around the past or future. On the other hand, in open monitoring meditation, the individual opens up awareness to everything that’s being experienced regardless of its origin. These include bodily sensations, external stimuli, and even thoughts. The meditator just observes these stimuli and lets them arise, and fall away without paying them any further attention.
These techniques have common properties of restful focused attention, but there are large differences. These differences are likely to produce different effects on the practitioner. In today’s Research News article “Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across 9 Months of Training.” See:
or see summary below or view the full text of the study at:
Kok and Singer examine the similarities and differences between the effects of body scan meditation, loving kindness meditation, focused attention meditation, and open monitoring meditation. They recruited normal adults aged between 20 to 55 and randomly assigned them to three different orders of conditions in a complex research design. Training in each meditation type was conducted for 13 weeks, including a 3-day retreat at the beginning. The participants reported daily on their feeling states, contents of thought, meta-cognition, and 2 minutes of free writing about their thoughts and feelings.
All four meditation practices contain a component of focused breathing meditation, so it’s effects can’t be separated from the other three types. They found that all four meditation practices, consistent with the published literature, produced significant increases in positive feelings, focus on the present moment, and body awareness and decreases in mind wandering.
There were also considerable differences in the effects of the meditation practices. Body scan meditation, not surprisingly, produced the greatest increase in body awareness and the greatest decrease in thoughts about past, future, and others, and negative thoughts, in other words less mind wandering. Loving kindness meditation produced the greatest increase in positive thoughts and warm feelings about self and others. Open monitoring meditation produced the greatest increase in thought awareness and decrease in distraction by thoughts. These outcomes are consistent with the targeted contents of the practices.
It appears that all meditation types have very positive consequences for the practitioner and at the same time each has its own strengths. These strengths then can be taken advantage of to affect targeted issues for the practitioner. If the problem with the individual is a lack of body awareness then body scan meditation is called for, if it’s negative feelings about self and others, then loving kindness meditation would be best, while if it’s with meta-cognition such as awareness of thoughts, then open monitoring meditation should be the choice. In this way meditation practice, can have even greater benefit for the individual.
Regardless, improve well-being with meditation.
“If you have a few minutes in the morning or evening (or both), rather than turning on your phone or going online, see what happens if you try quieting down your mind, or at least paying attention to your thoughts and letting them go without reacting to them. If the research is right, just a few minutes of meditation may make a big difference.” – Alice Walton
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Kok, B.E. & Singer, T. Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across 9 Months of Training. Mindfulness (2016). doi:10.1007/s12671-016-0594-9
Despite increasing interest in the effects of mental training practices such as meditation, there is much ambiguity regarding whether and to what extent the various types of mental practice have differential effects on psychological change. To address this gap, we compare the effects of four common meditation practices on measures of state change in affect, mind-wandering, meta-cognition, and interoception. In the context of a 9-month mental training program called the ReSource Project, 229 mid-life adults (mean age 41) provided daily reports before and after meditation practice. Participants received training in the following three successive modules: the first module (presence) included breathing meditation and body scan, the second (affect) included loving-kindness meditation, and the third (perspective) included observing-thought meditation. Using multilevel modeling, we found that body scan led to the greatest state increase in interoceptive awareness and the greatest decrease in thought content, loving-kindness meditation led to the greatest increase in feelings of warmth and positive thoughts about others, and observing-thought meditation led to the greatest increase in meta-cognitive awareness. All practices, including breathing meditation, increased positivity of affect, energy, and present focus and decreased thought distraction. Complementary network analysis of intervariate relationships revealed distinct phenomenological clusters of psychological change congruent with the content of each practice. These findings together suggest that although different meditation practices may have common beneficial effects, each practice can also be characterized by a distinct short-term psychological fingerprint, the latter having important implications for the use of meditative practices in different intervention contexts and with different populations.