What Type of Meditation Is Best?
A review of the literature makes the choice clear.
Posted June 9, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Meditation is meant to be a daily, lifelong practice to improve your mind and body. As a primary-care internal medicine specialist for over 35 years, I have often prescribed meditation to my patients. Many of them will tell me that they already meditate. When I ask them how they practice meditation, I get a wide variety of answers. Some say they pray; some say they repeat an affirmation with their eyes closed; one patient told me that he turns down the lights and stares at a candle as he drinks beer until either he or the candle are out!
A common assumption among my patients is that all forms of meditation produce the same benefit. Are they correct? As a physician, I’m called upon to guide patients to the most effective treatment. Based on my review of the scientific literature, I have concluded that there is one type of meditation that is most effective and that is what I recommend to patients.
In my view, the best way to categorize each of the various types of meditation is based on the EEG patterns produced in the brain during its practice. This is an established way to divide meditation types which reflects fundamental differences in the techniques and the clinical outcomes. Based on these studies, there are three basic types of meditation: Focused Attention, Open Monitoring, and Automatic Self-Transcending.
I used this categorization method to review and interpret the scientific literature via a Google search looking for studies that compared, head-to-head, at least two of the different types of meditation. I then looked at each arm of the studies to see if it was possible to pigeonhole the type of meditation employed in the study into one of the three basic meditation types. I favored meta-analysis studies (which group a number of published studies together) because they tend to draw more powerful conclusions.
Three Basic Types of Meditation
Focused Attention is practiced by trying to hold the attention on a specific thought or bodily process, such as mindful body scanning or focusing on one’s breath; it is associated with high-frequency EEG brain waves called gamma (20–50 Hz) which typically occur when you're actively involved in processing information and learning. Zen meditation, visualization-type meditation, Samatha meditation, and loving-kindness meditation are examples of Focused Attention.
Open Monitoring is done by observing awareness. Practitioners train themselves to notice their thoughts and feelings without reacting to them. They learn to accept their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judgment, and focus their awareness on the present moment rather than on mental distractions. Open Monitoring is associated with much slower EEG brain waves called theta (4–7 Hz), which occur, for example, when the mind is solving a math problem. Vipassana meditation, Insight meditation, and many types of mindfulness meditation are examples of this type of meditation.
Automatic Self-Transcending happens when the meditator gently thinks a sound, such as a mantra, in an easy, effortless way just as they would think any other thought. It is associated with alpha brain waves (8–10 Hz), which are found in relaxed state of mind, eyes closed, without being asleep. The most prominent form of this type of meditation is Transcendental Meditation (TM).
Research Comparing the Three Types of Meditation
If meditation is meant to be a lifelong practice, you would likely want the type of meditation you practice to improve the life you live, and potentially even lead to a longer, healthier life.
A three-year study comparing the three different forms of meditation showed that elderly subjects who were taught Automatic Self-Transcending improved the most compared to two other meditation techniques (mindfulness training and a mental relaxation program) and compared to a non-meditation control group. The subjects who practiced Automatic Self-Transcending (TM in this study) lived longer and had better improvement in their systolic blood pressure, cognitive flexibility, mental health, and self-ratings of aging. All the types of meditation were better than the control group—they worked—but one worked better than the others.
I also reviewed a meta-analysis comparing all techniques on which trait anxiety had been previously studied. The subject populations included in the study were college, high school, adult, psychiatric or drug abuse patients, children, adult prisoners, juvenile offenders, and the elderly. Subjects with initially high and low levels of anxiety were also studied. The techniques studied were the Transcendental Meditation technique (Automatic Self-Transcending), a form of Focused Attention, a form of Open Monitoring, and various placebo techniques.
The study found that the Transcendental Meditation program had more than twice the improvement in reducing trait anxiety as the other types of meditation. All the other techniques scored no better than a placebo except the Focused Attention meditation group, which turned out to be less effective than a placebo in this study.
Another meta-analysis of 42 studies comparing Transcendental Meditation (Automatic Self-Transcending), various forms of Open Monitoring, and placebo techniques showed that Transcendental Meditation technique fosters significantly greater self-actualization. This meta-analysis found that practice of TM increased self-actualization three times more than the other forms of meditation, and that the placebo techniques did not significantly increase self-actualization. Again, meditation in general was shown to be effective in increasing self-actualization, but the forms were not all equally effective.
There is substantial evidence that psychosocial stress contributes to hypertension and that decreasing stress improves both measures. A meta-analysis reviewed the published literature on this subject. The study found that among stress reduction approaches in the various studies, only the Transcendental Meditation was associated with significant reductions in BP.
Based on my review of the aforementioned scientific data, it is my conclusion that the Automatic Self-Transcending type of meditation is superior to Focused Attention meditation and Open Monitoring meditation. This is the form of meditation I recommend to my patients.