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Study: Mindful meditation works. Now, how to navigate the most popular options?

mindfulness class—–

Many begin­ner med­i­ta­tors, myself includ­ed, start out with a mind­ful breath­ing med­i­ta­tion: one breath in, one breath out, the mind wan­ders, you bring it back.

Armed with an app guid­ing me through this med­i­ta­tion, I prac­ticed duti­ful­ly for sev­er­al months—but even­tu­al­ly I fell off the wag­on. It just stopped feel­ing right for me.

I didn’t know there were oth­er types of med­i­ta­tion to try. That’s why a new study pub­lished in the jour­nal Mind­ful­ness is so encour­ag­ing: It com­pares four dif­fer­ent types of med­i­ta­tion, and finds that they each have their own unique ben­e­fits. Mind­ful breath­ing isn’t the only place to start—and it’s not the end of med­i­ta­tion, either.

Researchers at the Max Planck Insti­tute recruit­ed more than 200 adults in Ger­many who hadn’t med­i­tat­ed before to par­tic­i­pate in a nine-month mind­ful­ness train­ing. It taught four types of med­i­ta­tion:

  • Breath­ing med­i­ta­tion: A prac­tice where you focus your atten­tion on the sen­sa­tions of breath­ing.
  • Body scan: A prac­tice where you focus on each indi­vid­ual body part in turn, from head to toe.
  • Lov­ing-Kind­ness med­i­ta­tion: A prac­tice deigned to fos­ter pos­i­tive feel­ings of love and care, ini­tial­ly toward a close loved one and then extend­ed to your­self, oth­ers, and even­tu­al­ly the whole world.
  • Observ­ing-thought med­i­ta­tion: A prac­tice that teach­es you to notice as thoughts arise, label them—for instance, as pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, focused on your­self or others—but avoid get­ting absorbed in them.

The pro­gram was split into three three-month mod­ules, with breath­ing med­i­ta­tion and body scan taught togeth­er. Each mod­ule includ­ed a three-day retreat and two-hour week­ly group ses­sions, plus five days a week of prac­tice at home. Before and after every med­i­ta­tion ses­sion, par­tic­i­pants filled out online ques­tion­naires about their thoughts and feel­ings in the half hour before the med­i­ta­tion and dur­ing it—providing a snap­shot of how the prac­tice impact­ed their minds.

Dur­ing every type of med­i­ta­tion, par­tic­i­pants report­ed feel­ing more pos­i­tive emo­tions, more ener­getic, more focused on the present, and less dis­tract­ed by thoughts than they did before beginning—perhaps thanks to the atten­tion train­ing that’s com­mon to all med­i­ta­tion. But that’s where the sim­i­lar­i­ties end­ed.

Dur­ing body scan, par­tic­i­pants saw the biggest increas­es in how aware they were of their bod­ies (unsur­pris­ing­ly) and the sharpest decline in the num­ber of thoughts they were hav­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly neg­a­tive thoughts and thoughts relat­ed to the past and future. Lov­ingkind­ness med­i­ta­tion led to the great­est boost in their feel­ings of warmth and pos­i­tive thoughts about oth­ers. Mean­while, the observ­ing-thought med­i­ta­tion seemed to increase par­tic­i­pants’ aware­ness of their thoughts the most.

Par­tic­i­pants had been split into three groups, one of which learned only lov­ingkind­ness med­i­ta­tion (my per­son­al favorite) for three months. But doing this prac­tice with­out a foun­da­tion of more basic med­i­ta­tion didn’t seem to be prob­lem­at­ic. In fact, though they had slight­ly more neg­a­tive thoughts dur­ing lov­ingkind­ness med­i­ta­tion than the oth­er groups (who had already learned mind­ful breath­ing and body scan), they saw an even big­ger rise in their warm and pos­i­tive feel­ings.

As the researchers point out, these find­ings offer insights to would-be med­i­ta­tors and men­tal health prac­ti­tion­ers. If you’re tack­ling a spe­cif­ic issue—say, feel­ing dis­con­nect­ed from your body, in con­flict with oth­ers, or plagued by rumination—then you can choose to try body scan, lov­ingkind­ness, or observ­ing-thought med­i­ta­tion (respec­tive­ly). Pre­vi­ous research also sug­gests that the observ­ing-thought med­i­ta­tion has an advan­tage in reduc­ing our judg­men­tal atti­tude toward oth­ers.

The type of med­i­ta­tion mat­ters,” explain post­doc­tor­al researcher Bethany Kok and pro­fes­sor Tania Singer. “Each prac­tice appears to cre­ate a dis­tinct men­tal envi­ron­ment, the long-term con­se­quences of which are only begin­ning to be explored.” In fact, this study is part of a larg­er inves­ti­ga­tion called the ReSource Project, which is also exam­in­ing how these dif­fer­ent med­i­ta­tions affect brain struc­ture, stress, and social behav­ior.

But if you’re look­ing for broad ben­e­fits, any of these types of med­i­ta­tion could help you cul­ti­vate pos­i­tiv­i­ty, ener­gy, and focus. In that case, whichev­er med­i­ta­tion you’re like­ly to stick with is prob­a­bly the best choice.

StudyPhe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal 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)

  • Abstract: 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…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-thoughts 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…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.

kira_newmanKira M. New­man is an edi­tor and web pro­duc­er at Greater Good, and the cre­ator of The Year of Hap­py, a year-long course in the sci­ence of hap­pi­ness. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism.

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