Meditation has been around for thousands of years. As an umbrella term, ‘meditation’ can evoke an incredibly diverse set of practices and techniques, from simple relaxation and breathing techniques, to more intense versions of cognitive manipulation like suggestibility and hypnosis. And while there are certainly commonalities across disciplines, not all meditations are the same.
In the United States and the rest of the Western world in particular, there are two main practices that have swept the nation: Mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation (TM). From meditation retreats, to books and courses and apps, there are hundreds of ways to choose and learn one of these practices and begin reaping the mental and physical rewards. But which should you choose? If you’ve learned one, is it worth moving on to the other? We’ll delve into exactly what these practices are and what sets them apart, look at which is best for beginner meditators, as well as what health benefits you can expect to see with both to ultimately help you answer what type of meditation might be the best for you and get you started on your meditation journey.
If you have ever practiced yoga, then you have probably tried some form of mindfulness practice. There is still some confusion as to whether mindfulness is a practice, or a way of being. In other words, do you practice mindfulness techniques and exercises, or is it a word to describe living one’s life mindfully or more intentionally? Simply put, the answer is both. While mindfulness does describe becoming more intentional and present in your everyday life, there is also a specific mindfulness practice, complete with mindfulness exercises and meditations.
As a way of being, mindfulness simply describes living in the moment. Much of our day is spent worrying about the future or the past, feeling anxious about upcoming deadlines or worrying about and regretting something that we did weeks, months, or even years ago. Indeed, on average people go through about 60,000 thoughts per day. The nature of the mind is to wonder and wander, but the result is that we don’t spend very much time in any present moment.
Mindfulness teaches us to catch our brains racing through thoughts and slow down. By training the brain to simply observe what is happening in the present moment we switch to observing what is happening around us without over analysing, attaching meaning, or considering the implications of that observation. We are able to perceive curiously and more easily accept what is happening without judgment or recourse.
Traditionally a Buddhist form of meditation, the practice of mindfulness equips you with exercises to help put a lifestyle of mindfulness into action. Studies have shown that only ten minutes of mindfulness practice a day, in which you typically focus on your breath and return your thoughts when your mind wanders, can have real impacts on stress management. The idea behind this practice is that if you train your brain to begin observing and accepting your feelings and thoughts in the moment without attaching layers of meaning to it, you will find it easier to accept, respond to, and move on from bad thoughts, distractions, emotions, and hurtful actions. Also, because your mind can’t be in two places at once, keeping your thoughts on the present prevents your brain from regretting or feeling anxious over the past or the future – which creates the anti-stress and anti-anxiety benefits for your body and mind.
Transcendental Meditation (TM)
While mindfulness meditation involves training one’s mind to be in the present moment, transcendental meditation, or TM, doesn’t involve any manipulation of your thoughts or mind. TM is said to be a natural and simple process, wherein you take advantage of your mind’s existing relaxation and silencing process to get rid of stress and rejuvenate the mind.
Transcendental Meditation comes from the Vedic tradition, and takes around 20 minutes twice a day, during which you give your active mind a chance to settle down to experience increasingly quieter levels of thought, until it reaches the deepest, most settled level of the mind, transcendental consciousness. As the mind settles down to reach this state, the body also experiences a profound state of rest, eliminating deeply rooted stresses and anxiety. After the 20 minute period, the practitioner is more energetic, creative, and generally more lively.
So how does this work? From the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep, the mind is active and there is a conscious stream of thought rushing through the mind. During the practice of TM, you learn how to effortlessly experience a special, highly orderly impulse of thought. At increasingly settled and silent levels of awareness, you begin to ‘transcend’ even the quietest impulse of thought.
What are the respective benefits of Mindfulness and TM?
The mainstreaming of mindfulness practice has also had the effect of increased rigorous scientific study on the topic. There are now thousands of studies showing the benefits of mindfulness and TM. Brain imaging techniques have shown how both mindfulness and transcendental meditation change brain patterns, with the effect of reducing stress, anxiety, and pain, and increasing creativity. One 2015 study pooled data from more than 20 brain imaging studies which showed that after 8 weeks of daily practice, mindfulness increased neuronal activity in the anterior cingulate cortex – leading to increased capacity to resist distractions, inhibit impulsivity, and make correct answers as compared to non-mindfulness meditators. A another clinical trial showed decreased blood pressure reactivity to stress than those in a control group. Many other peer reviewed studies have shown a host of other mental and physical benefits, including improved focus and cognitive performance and reducing biomarkers for inflammation.
Transcendental meditation has also been studied rigorously, and has been shown to have potentially life-saving results. In one 5-year study on patients with established coronary heart disease, there was a 48% reduction in death, heart attack, and stroke in subjects in the TM group as compared to controls. Another trial found a significantly greater effect of TM in reducing trait anxiety than other medical and alternative treatments, including mindfulness and other meditation practices. More research has found that TM can reduce blood pressure, increase insulin resistance (especially useful for those living with diabetes), as well as reduce anxiety, negative emotions, and neuroticisms while aiding learning. The American Heart Association has even gone so far as to release a statement calling for physicians to consider TM as a treatment for high blood pressure.
So, Which to Choose?
On the surface, the practices of mindfulness and transcendental meditation might seem quite similar – but there are important differences to consider. The main difference between the two practices is that while the goal of mindfulness is to focus one’s mind on the present moment; whether that be on your breathing, or some other sensation or thought, while the goal of Transcendental Meditation is to transcend thought completely in order to experience a silent form of consciousness, where you are aware but without an object of thought.
The evidence that TM can protect against heart attack and stroke is unique to this meditative practice in particular. However, both TM and mindfulness have been shown to provide real benefits for reducing stress and anxiety.
What might be most interesting to those deciding which meditation technique to pursue is the different ways in which each is taught and learnt. Mindfulness meditation may have a more intuitive process for beginners, as meditators are encouraged to practice focusing their thoughts on one thing only. It is however well recognised that this process can be quite difficult, and that reaching a point to which a person can live mindfulness in their everyday lives takes time and practice. Mindfulness trainers frequently evoke the idea of brain re-circuiting when talking about the practice, as the mindfulness practices try to ‘rewire’ the brain.
On the other hand, transcendental meditation requires some more control over the mind. TM requires going beyond surface level thoughts, a level at which we still operate when practicing mindfulness, and transcending passed into a more silent depth of consciousness. In addition, regular transcendental meditation will produce mindfulness in your everyday life spontaneously – as you learn to dive into the restful alertness in TM, you automatically and naturally become more mindful and present in your life. In one 3-month randomized controlled trial, study subjects practicing TM reported significantly greater increases in mindfulness than waitlist participants.
Regardless of whether you incorporate one or both of these into your life, you should consider getting Spire. Spire tracks your breathing and sends you signals when you are slipping into a state of stress. This keeps your mind centered and provides a sense of control throughout the day. Remember to keep things simple and consistent – and get ready to reap some amazing mental and physical rewards.