“An average man’s mind is filled with countless thoughts, and therefore each individual one is extremely weak. When, in place of these many useless thoughts, there appears only one, it is a power in itself and has wide influence.” Pioneering occult theorist Mouni Sadhu emphasizes the importance of developing the ability to focus the mind to live a well ordered effective life.
In the introduction to Mental Mastery he writes ” Imagine you have an un sharpened pencil or a small stick. If you have to use either of them to pierce a piece of cardboard, you will find it difficult until the ends have been properly sharpened. Even considerable pressure exerted on an un sharpened pencil will not produce a neat hole.”
“Why? Because a simple physical law is at work. Your power has been dissipated over the whole, comparatively large surface of the blunt instrument, thus providing insufficient force to separate and remove the particles of cardboard and form a clean hole. But sharpen your tools and there will be no difficulty in piercing a whole.”
It is this analogy that he used to emphasize the importance of learning to focus the mind on the object of your choosing. Without this ability you will never be able to produce the results you are capable of or reach your goals with the highest level of effectiveness and efficiency possible.
Preventing distraction is possibly more important then the ability to focus on one thing. While these two might seems to be the same they are not. Various schools of meditation discuss both of these ideas extensively.
Most people with a cursory knowledge of meditation understand the difference between a mindfulness practice and a focused meditation. In a focused meditation the practitioner is trying to maintain nearly 100% focus on a chosen object, image or idea. The goal of this type of meditation is to engulf your mind so deeply in one image thought or idea, that nearly everything else seemingly slips out of the conscious attention of the mind.
Your mind’s tendency to deep dive into repetitive thinking and rumination is what you are looking out for during mindfulness meditation. As soon as you notice thoughts entering into your mind or the beginning of an internal dialogue you gently guide your attention back to the present.
Author Thomas Sterner discusses the practical aspect of mindfulness in the introduction to his masterpiece The Practicing Mind. In it he writes “In our overpaced and overstressed world we use the word skill to define a personal asset, at the same time our recognition of the importance of possessing many diverse skills is expanding.”
“Ironically, though, we miss the point that the ability to develop and skill as swiftly as possible, with the least amount of effort, and even to experience inner peace and joy in the process, is in fact a skill itself, and one that requires constant practice to become a part of who we are.”
“When we learn to focus on an embrace the process of experiencing life, whether were working toward a personal aspiration or working through a difficult time, we begin to free ourselves from the stress and anxiety that are born out of our attachment to our goals, our sense that “I can’t feel happy until I reach my goal”. This “goal” always takes the form of someplace we have not yet reached, something we don’t yet have but will at some point, and then we believe, all will be right in our life.”
While the range of mental practices can very widely, the chief aim of nearly any system of mental practice is remarkably similar. Most systems of mental practice are concerned with increasing your levels of equanimity. While I usually avoid using somewhat esoteric language such as the words “equanimity” or “esoteric”, in this case their use is warranted. No word more accurately describes the purpose of increasing your ability to focus or stay present then equanimity.
“Equanimity (Latin: æquanimitas having an even mind; aequus even animus mind/soul) is a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.” – Wikipedia
Perhaps the best explanation of equanimity as it applies to everyday life comes from Eckhart Tolle in his book The Power of Now. His discription is especially relevant to mental practice as it pokes fun at the mainstream interpretation of meditative practices.
“If you cannot be present even in normal circumstances, such as when you are sitting alone in a room, walking in the woods, or listening to someone, then you certainly won’t be able to stay conscious when something “goes wrong” or you are faced with difficult people or situations, with loss or the threat of loss. You will be taken over by a reaction, which ultimately is always some form of fear, and pulled into deep unconsciousness. Those challenges are your tests. Only the way in which you deal with them will show you and others where you are at as far as your state of consciousness is concerned, not how long you can sit with your eyes closed or what visions you see.”
This explanation encapsulates the chief aim of any type of mental practice as well as the measure of it’s effectiveness. Mental practice should enhance your ability to maintain focus and mental composure in trying circumstances. Regardless of whether or not a “trying circumstance” equates to a life and death situation or following a difficult recipe, the only difference is in degree of severity.
Training your attention should have a direct impact in your effectiveness and decision making ability in the heat of the moment. The best measure of the effectiveness of a mental practice is your own perceived level of effectiveness and composure during every day life. The method of mental practice you stick with should be the one that brings you the most results in terms of this ability. The final measure should be how realistic it will be for you to stick with your chosen method of mental practice in the long run.
As you can see, most of what makes one method of attention training better then another has to do with your individual response. Deciding what type of training you will stick to and which will give you the best results is highly subjective. In order to take a more objective look at the affects of various types of attention training your best bet is to look at the limited amounts of research on the subject.
What Are The Main Problems With The “Science” of Meditation?
One of the issues with meditation is that many of the studies done have been rife with error and faulty study designs. In his aptly names article “Research on TM and Other Types of Meditation Stinks” author John Horgan laments the lack of proper research controls and 3rd party supervision in what he sees as dubiously “scientific” studies done on meditation.
One of the main issues he discusses is the idea of bias in the expectations and reporting of studies. In many of the studies, researchers have a number of benefits they are looking out for from the outset of the study. With this attitude, researchers are quick to de-emphasize potential negatives of meditation while artificially amplifying the positive findings.
For example he writes that “meditation has been linked to adverse side effects, too, including suggestibility, neuroticism, depression, suicidal impulses, insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, psychosis and dysphoria“. Given this wide array of potential negative, it is surprising how many meditation studies seem to omit these findings.
One of the issues is that researchers looking to validate “meditation” as a therapeutic practice have a huge range of meditative practices they must choose from to study. This is one of the reasons I normally refer to a specific practice as a “type of attention training” vs. the more nebulous “meditation”. In reality, studying a type of meditation is like studying a type of exercise. The results are going to vary as much as the types.
What To Look For In Meditation Studies
While there are hundreds of different types of mediation, there are a few that have received the majority of attention from scientific researchers. I am not going to cover all of the heavily researched types of meditation here. Instead, I am going to focus on the few that best illuminate the types of studies that can be done on meditation and how to apply their findings. My hope if that by understanding what can be studied and what it means, you will be better able to make an educated choice when deciding to dedicate a significant portion of your life to one practice over the other.
Research done on ZaZen meditation is vast. The particular study I look at focuses on it’s ability to alter cardiac variability, brain wave patterns and behavioral outcomes of it’s practitioners. The first study I am going to look at is ZaZen and Cardiac Variability. If you want to follow along simply click through on the study and start tabbing between browsers as I discuss it.
In this study, the conclusion is that “These data are consistent with the theory that increased oscillation amplitude during slow breathing is caused by resonance between cardiac variability caused by respiration and that produced by physiological processes underlying slower rhythms.”
I don’t know about you, but that is a lot of words I am not immediate familiar with in that context. However, in this particular study, we don’t necessarily need to understand all of the conclusion in order to understand the chief aim of the study. In this case they are trying to determine the affects of ZaZen meditation on heart rate variability. This is apparent from looking at the name of the study.
Anyone who has been researching meditation for a while will see that heart rate variability and EEG measured brain waves are the most often used bio markers in studies on meditation. This is important as many of the benefits of meditation are directly related to the changes that take place in a practitioners brain waves and heart rate variability.
While it would be easy for someone to say that ZaZen increases heart rate variability, the truth, based on this study, is that ZaZen was shown to increase low frequency heart rate variability and increase high frequency heart rate variability. This is readily apparent from the following report “Heart rate variability significantly increased within this low-frequency range but decreased in the high-frequency range (0.14-0.4 Hz), reflecting a shift of respiratory sinus arrhythmia from high-frequency to slower waves.”
That is literally the most important take away from that study and the one you should be concerned with when trying to decide exactly what the affects of the meditative practice were.
Mindfulness meditation is another type of meditation that has been rigorously studied throughout the medical community. Most mindfulness meditations are based on the Buddhist concept of Sati. Sati has to do with having an awareness or a full comprehension of what is going on.
In mindfulness based meditation, practitioners attempt to maintain an open, nonjudgmental focus. Practicing this type of focus is believed to confer many beneficial affects.
The first study I am going to look at comes from Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital. This study attempted to determine exactly how the brain changes in response to repeated bouts of this type of meditation.
One of the important things to remember when looking at any meditation study is that you cannot take for granted the benefits the study suggests are good for the practitioner. In this study for example, researchers write about additional grey matter forming in the frontal lobe of the brain without detailing exactly why that is a desirable effect of meditation.
“Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.”
Based on the above, it is easy to assume that a lack of grey matter in the brain structures that would make people stressed is a good thing. Similarly you can assume that an increase in grey matter in the structures associated with positive feelings and self control is also good.
“The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”
however, without knowing exactly what grey matter does that might be beneficial, it’s hard to know how important these changes might be. It’s also important to now what amount of training was required to produce these changes and the amount of additional grey matter that was produced.
While the study does not detail the amount of addition grey matter that was produced, it does discuss that amount of time participants spent meditating. According to the study, participants spent an average of 27 minutes per day for 16 weeks practicing.
At this point it’s important to at least find out a little bit more about this grey matter that the study keeps emphasizing. according to Princeton researchers, grey matter consists of consists of the physical structures that supports nervous system communication within the body. Accordingly, it appears that additional grey matter strengthens the function of the nervous system in the regions it occupies.
Finally we have confirmation about what the researchers seem to be alluding to in the study. The nervous system areas with the most grey matter have a greatly reinforced functional ability. Therefore the strictures associated with self regulation, that are strengthened with meditation will become stronger.
According to this study, it looks like mindfulness based meditation, in as little as 30 minutes per day, can have a profound impact on brain modeling and nervous system regulation.
Companies Founded Supporting Meditation:
One clear indicator that one type of meditation over another might be useful is the amount of successful companies that exist to support a certain type of meditation. For example, while researching mindfulness meditation for this article, I came across a number of companies that were founded to support mindfulness practice.
Living mindfully is a UK based training company that offers information and training based on mindfulness meditation. While browsing through their offerings I noticed that they even have a UK based network of mindfulness based instructional groups.
Headspace, founded in London and headquartered in Los Angeles is one of the most visible meditation training companies. Though the company has offered many other services since it’s inception, their meditation training app has been their premeir product. Headspace even has a 10 day free trial that allows you to get a feel for the guided meditations without committing to purchasing the app.
As you can see, a quick search for the type of meditation you are interested will reveal the commercial success of that type of practice. While this is obviously not an absolute test for what type of meditation will ultimately be effective, it is a good gauge for what has been effective for the largest numbers of people.
Given the commercial success of some types of meditation over others it is fair to assume that the more successful forms of meditation are more likely to work. I still believe it’s a good idea to give multiple forms of meditation a try, but If you wan’t to be as efficient as possible, I would start with one that has had some commercial success.
Heart Rate Variability Training:
The idea of “letting the market decide” is especially true in devices that can be used to assist people in meditating. Heart Rate Variability Training Devices are becoming more and more popular. The U.S. Military and major medical organizations have assisted in spreading these devices throughout the institutional and consumer population.
For example, I first discovered the EmWave heart rate variability trainer while I was in-processing to my first duty station in the U.S. ARMY. While I was in processing I was made to do an introductory session on one of the heart rate variability trainers. I quickly realized that I was woefully deficient in whatever biomarker the devices were measuring.
I had seen the device detailed on Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Executive site, but had thought the device was a gimmick. After seeing in recommended by Dave and then used during in-processing in the ARMY I started to believe that there might be a little more to these devices.
At this point I want to emphasize that my process involved many of the fact checking procedures I have been pointing out throughout the article. Both the in-processing counselors information about the devices as well as the information I read on Dave Asprey’s website was not enough to convince me of the device’s efficacy. I continued to fact check and learn more about how the devices worked and what they actually measured.
My skepticism started to subside once I learned that the devices had originally been used to diagnose the cardivascular functioning of patients after experiencing a traumatizing event such as a stroke. The devices were also used for performance increases by Russian cosmonauts to help predict train their ability to relax under pressure. The below excerpt comes from the training company Caden who manufacturers a Heart Rate Variability device similar to the one sold by Heartmath.
“Resonance was developed through the study of Heart Rate Variability, pioneered in the Russian cosmonaut program in the 1960s. Scientists found that paced Resonance breathing enabled the cosmonauts to control their heart rate patterns, and was very effective in helping them thrive under the physical and mental stresses of work in space. After this initial breakthrough, dozens of additional studies were performed showing similar benefits for submarine operators, fighter pilots, and others working in extreme environments.” – Caeden
As you can see, the concept of heart rate variability training actually has quite a bit of clinical research. Once I understood the origins of the technology, I began to accept that it “might” be useful. Honestly I wasn’t really convinced after a couple of other interesting things happened.
After using Heartmath’s EmWave device consistently, I noticed that I was not forgetting things nearly as much as I used to. Specifically I noticed that I had not misplaced my keys at all. While this is something that might not seem like a big deal, this type of everyday inattention is something I used to notice quite a bit. What I started to realize was that I was slowing down and paying more attention to what I was doing in everyday life much more then I used to.
Finally, I was exposed to heart rate variability trainers again while working with members of the U.S. ARMY’s special operations community. Heart Rate Variability training was a mandatory part of the introductory training for special operations. While it was not a huge part of the curriculum, members of a few of the special operations courses were introduced to the technology and given the opportunity to use it as they progressed through the various phases of a few of the courses.
At this point I had anecdotal evidence from my own experience that this type of training worked, social proof from the use of the technology in both in-processing and special operations training as well as multiple “authorities” that seemed to support the technology. This was the point at which I began to become pretty much sold on the efficacy of this type of training. While this type of training might still be smoke and mirrors, at this point I would be that it’s not.
The Secret Reason Researching Meditation Is Helpful
The point of that last section was to demonstrate how a mix of sources can be useful in ultimately determining what type of meditation can be helpful. In retrospect I think I might have been a little too hesitant to pursue anything that might be highly commercialized.
Realistically, the most highly useful products and services, including instruction are all going to be commercial. This isn’t a bad thing. All the information you read on a blog, or the instruction you get in a training course has been refined to provide you with the most value. For the most part, when exposed to the realities of the market, most products in the “mindfulness” space will either thrive or die. For this reason you can trust that most of the most common products are services are around for a reason.
While some of the services might have an unfair advantage due to contracts with the government or large research organizations, the majority of consumer products are around because they are good. As for the studies mentioned earlier, the important take away is to research anything you don’t understand.
Research studies are written to serve other researchers in the filed. For this reason, it often takes a little extra work to determine exactly what the researchers were trying to test and what their findings ultimately mean. However, if you can get past performing a small amount of background research you will easily be able to discern the essence of the study.
Understanding these studies is important because it is the easiest way to sell yourself on the benefits of an attention training practice. In fact, this same process can be used to sell yourself of nearly any habit you are trying to change. I might have to write a whole article on the process.
Needless to say, content marketers use studies all the time to sell people on workout programs, products, supplements even furniture. Why not use this same highly effective process to sell yourself on a behavior you want to change?
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this article and are one step closer to deciding what type of attention training practice you are going to try. If you enjoyed this and would like to start selling yourself on the benefits of training your attention right away you can check out my article on how to use deep thinking to understand cognitive dissonance.
If you want to learn about how attention training can help you improve your physique read this. And last but not least, if you are suffering from depression, anxiety or ADHD you need to learn how to cut through negative rumination and it’s negative effects on the central nervous system. In this article I discuss how to permanently change your thinking. Alright, enough for one article, seriously, I hope you enjoyed that.