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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]
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.[4]

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.[6]

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.

1. Orme-Johnson, D.W., and Walton, K. (1998), "All approaches to
Prevention are not the Same," American Journal of Health Promotion,
May/June, [5]: 297-298.

2. Ibid

3. Rainforth M, Schneider R, Nidich S, et al: Stress Reduction
Programs in Patients with Elevated Blood Pressure: A Systematic Review
and Meta-analysis. Current Hypertension Reports [9] 520-528, 2007

4. Eppley, Abrams, & Shear, Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45,
957-974, 1989.

5. International Journal of Neuroscience 14: 147–151, 1981;
Psychosomatic Medicine 46: 267–276, 1984; International Journal of
Neuroscience 46: 77–86, 1989; International Journal of Neuroscience
13: 211–217, 1981; 15: 151–157, 1981; Scientific Research on
Maharishi's Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi Programme:
Collected Papers, Volume 1: 208–212, 1977; Volume 4: 2245–2266, 1989.

6. Eppley, Abrams, & Shear, Journal of Clinical Psychology, 45,
957-974, 1989.

Author's Bio: 

Tom Ball earned a BA in Western Philosophy from Maharishi
University of Management, an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia
University, and a PhD in Peace Studies from Maharishi European
Research University. He has enjoyed a rich career of lecturing and
teaching meditation across the US and around the world, and is a
writer for The David
Lynch Foundation.
, Doctors
on Meditation