Back in the 1970’s, concentrative meditation became popular in the western world. You were instructed focus on a single word or sound (mantra) or on an object. The goal of this type of meditation is to clear your mind of all other thoughts. It is a deep form of relaxation and connection to the universe. Many people found it helpful then and still do today. Other people found it impossible to clear their mind and felt as if they had "failed" at meditation because they couldn’t stop their mind from wandering.
Another form of meditation, called nondirective meditation, does not focus on clearing your mind. Instead, you focus on your breathing and allow your thoughts to wander. In mindfulness meditation, for example, you focus on your breathing and accept that your thoughts wander. You notice the thoughts but do not judge them or react to them.
Both types of meditation are beneficial. A study completed at Harvard Medical School in 2013 found meditation reduces stress and improves health. The study, completed over five years, showed that genes linked to stress and the immune systems were affected during meditation, lowering stress levels and improving immune function. This study, unlike many previous studies, didn’t rely solely on participant questionnaires but used neuro-imaging and genomics technology to track physiological changes in the body during and after meditation.
Concentrative vs. Nondirective Meditation
Whenever you have two forms of something, the logical question is - Which is better?
Both forms of meditation are relaxing. Both provide health benefits, including stress reduction. But, according to a new study, one form allows you to process your thoughts and feelings. This is nondirective meditation.
When surrounded by noise, things and activity, your mind focuses on what is going on around you. However, when you remove yourself - or rest - certain areas of your brain become active. These areas let you process your thoughts, feelings and memories. Imagine there is a lot of activity going on around you and you close your eyes to shut out the activity so you can "hear yourself think." You need a moment to allow your mind to decipher the world around you. Being at rest is quieting the world and letting you be alone with your thoughts.
In nondirective meditation, you intentionally shut out the rest of the world, focus on your breathing and allow your thoughts to wander. According to a recent study, completed at the University of Oslo in Norway, this type of meditation opens your mind even further than resting. The same brain regions that are active during rest, become even more active during nondirective meditation, allowing your mind to better process your thoughts and feelings. In the study, participants, who were highly experienced in meditation, were tested three times: rest, concentrative meditation and nondirective meditation. The researchers found that brain activity in the "thought processing regions" was much more active during nondirective meditation than either rest or concentrative meditation.
What Does This Mean?
Meditation, in any form, helps reduce stress and anxiety. It improves your health. According to many people it makes you feel more relaxed, more at peace and more spiritual. There aren’t any side effects of meditation and it doesn’t cost anything. Meditation has been used as a self-help tool in managing anxiety by millions of people. Many therapists, including cognitive-behavioral therapists, regularly suggest their patients use meditation on a daily basis to lower anxiety levels.
But, for those people who have given up on meditation because those thoughts keep coming and they can’t "clear their mind," this study gives them hope. You don’t have to get rid of your thoughts, you simply need to notice the thought and not react. You can say, "I felt angry" without becoming agitated or judging your behavior as right or wrong. You simply notice the thought and then allow your mind to wander again.
You haven’t failed at meditation, you were doing nondirective meditation without knowing it had a name. Keep it up. Spend 10 minutes a day, sitting still, focused on your breathing and let your mind go where it wants. Try it for 30 days, 10 minutes each day. Track your anxiety levels and see if you notice any improvement.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.