Many people are hesitant to start a meditation practice because they fear it will be hard, but a new study shows that at least one form, Transcendental Meditation, actually requires very little effort.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a type of meditation that is practiced twice a day, for 20 minutes at a time. Practitioners sit with their eyes closed. Unlike other forms of meditation, it does not focus on breath work or chanting. Still other forms of meditation call for concentration, such as Zen and Vipassana styles, or open monitoring, such as mindfulness meditation and Kriya yoga.
The research on TM was published in the journal Brain and Cognition. It looked at both self-reports and brain patterns of those studying at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. It looked at 87 students who had been practicing TM for anywhere from one month to five years. Researchers observed the brain patterns while the students were in three modes: resting with their eyes closed, practicing TM, and while working on a challenging computer task.
The study found some interesting results. One was that it didn’t matter how long the students had been practicing TM. “Individuals practicing Transcendental Meditation for just one month reported the same frequency of Transcendental Consciousness experiences during their practice as individuals meditating for five years,” wrote the study’s lead author, Fred Travis, Ph.D., Professor of Maharishi Vedic Science, at the Maharishi University.
The second finding involved the “default mode network,” areas in the front and back of the brain that are active during internal thinking and self-referential activity, such as creating an autobiographical story. This network shows high activity if a person is sitting with his or her eyes closed, and lower activity when a person has their eyes open, interacting with the rest of the world. The study reports that activity in the default mode network remained high during TM practice.
“This is an important finding, since eyes-closed rest is usually used as the benchmark for default mode network activity,” wrote Travis.
“Deactivation of the default mode network indicates how much effort we are using,” Dr. Travis says. “While people may not have had the experience of effortless transcending and so do not know what it feels like to transcend, they can now see the objective high activation in the default mode network—and see that something different is happening during Transcendental Meditation practice.”
The study is another reminder that while all forms of meditation tend to get lumped together, there are in fact many ways to practice meditation, each with nuanced methods worthy of more scientific study.