While we often get caught up in thoughts and dreams about our destination, it turns out in mindfulness practice as in life, the journey is paramount. As Gandhi taught, there is an element of means in every end and research is confirming that how we practice matters. We are discovering that different types of practices, the quality of practice, and the attitudes we assume as we engage in them, result in differential effects.
Type of Practice
Though the benefits of different kinds of mindfulness and meditation practices overlap quite a bit, we are discovering that there may be differential effects for different types of practices. The ReSource Project, a comprehensive longitudinal study on the effects of meditation, supports our understanding that meditation is an umbrella term for practices that train a wide variety of skills. A proposed classification system divides meditation into the following types: mindful observation, body-centered meditation, visual concentration, contemplation, affect-centered meditation, mantra meditation, and meditation with movement (Matko & Sedlmeier, 2019).
Though most forms of mindfulness meditation have been found to lead to increases in mindfulness, improved attention, boosts in positive affect, and decreases in negative affect, one study found that mindfulness of breathing (over body scan and mindfulness of thoughts) “helped practitioners to train more effectively their ability to disengage from maladaptive ruminative thoughts, which could be reflected in a more optimistic attitude toward the future” (Feruglio et. al., 2020). A 2017 meta-analysis suggests body scan meditation differentially increases interoceptive awareness, lovingkindness meditation is associated with increases in feelings of warmth and positive thoughts about others, and mindfulness of thoughts is correlated with greater increases in meta-cognitive awareness, or what some have called “theory of mind” skills (Kok & Singer, 2017).
One major differential factor among types of meditation that his been investigated is whether we are focusing our attention on a single “object” or whether we are openly attending to whatever arises in the field of awareness. Functional magnetic resonance imaging research (Fujino, M. et. al, 2018) showed differences in the brain when engaging in focused attention meditation (FAM) versus open monitoring meditation (OMM). While OMM and FAM both improved response to stressors and reduced self-reported distress and rumination, FAM improved participants’ abilities to reframe their experiences to change their meaning and emotional valence leading to greater emotional self-regulation. In addition, the differences observed suggest that OMM increased detachment from autobiographical memory, possibly contributing to a more non-judgmental and non-reactive attitude. Another study found that long-term meditators practicing OMM, had a significant reduction in self-reported unpleasantness, but not intensity, of painful stimuli (Perlman et. al. 2010).
Quality of Practice
A recent study supports existing evidence that the quality of formal mindfulness meditation practice, as defined as balanced perseverance and receptivity to present-moment attention, plays a major role in its beneficial effects (Goldberg et. al, 2019). Research indicates that quality of practice may be even more important than the amount of time spent in practice, and that time and quality create an interaction effect that enhances beneficial outcomes.
Receptivity in meditation has been defined as “a sense of curiosity, willingness, and/or self-compassion/acceptance… turning toward or leaning into… what is arising in the formal practice.” It’s an openness to whatever is arising without the need to change it in any way. Perseverance in meditation has been defined as the willingness direct attention, again and again, to the present moment. It’s the resolve to repeatedly return to the intended object of focus – the experience of the here and now. As with anything, the more we hone our mindfulness skills toward increasing receptivity of present moment awareness, the more quickly the fruits of our efforts ripen. Here are some questions adapted from a measure of meditation quality called the PM-Q that can be used to investigate the quality of any meditation session (Del Re et al., 2013):
- Was I willing to, again and again, guide my attention back to my present-moment experience, whether unpleasant, pleasant, or neutral, with a sense that “It‟s OK to experience this”?
- Was I able to notice any sensations in the body (expansion in the chest, tension in the belly, pain in the knee, etc) associated with my thoughts, feelings or other moment by moment experiences during meditation?
- Did I find myself struggling against (trying to avoid, push away, get rid) certain experiences, such as unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and/or bodily sensations?
- Was I actively trying to fix or change certain experiences, in order to get to a better place or feel something different?
Attitudes During Practice
Our beliefs and attitudes are so very important to our wellbeing, and this is also true for the quality of our meditation practice. For example, post-traumatic growth (PTG) refers to perceived benefits or changes in self-perception, interpersonal relationships or life philosophy after experiencing a traumatic event. A 2020 study by Vasquez et. al. found that believing in the fundamental goodness of the world, openness to the future, and sense of common humanity were associated with PTG, while suspiciousness, intolerance of uncertainty, and anxiety about death were associated with post-traumatic stress and consequent impairment. I suspect this is also true of meditation practice.
Although I haven’t been able to find any research on this, anecdotally the attitudes with which we approach our practice seem to impact the outcome. In meditation, our attitude includes how we think and feel about the practice and our relationship to it, which in turn impacts how we react to it and interpret our experience of it. Jon Kabat-Zinn and others have identified a number of beneficial attitudes that are cultivated through practice, but also support, help us persevere in, and sustain practice over the long term. These include things like patience, non-striving, trust, kindness, and curiosity. If we are overly harsh and demanding, suspicious and fearful, or impatient about seeing results, we are unlikely to persevere. Even if we do manage to persevere, practicing with unhelpful attitudes may merely serve to reinforce the problematic habits, biases and assumptions that motivated us to try meditation in the first place.
All this being said, I think a quote by Dr. Richard Davidson, who pioneered now famous research on the brains of Buddhist monks, is very telling. He said he has never monitored the efficacy of his own mindfulness practice in his many neuroimaging studies of meditators. He said he would rather trust his own “internal signals” in regards to his personal practice. Indeed, the ancient wisdom that the modern practices of mindfulness spring from has been called ehipassiko, which in Pali means “come and see for yourself.”
Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging. – Bob Sharples
Del Re, AC, Flückiger, C & Goldberg, S & Hoyt, W (2012). Monitoring mindfulness practice quality: An important consideration in mindfulness practice. Psychotherapy research: journal of the Society for Psychotherapy Research, 23.
Feruglio, S., Matiz, A., Grecucci, A., Pascut, S., Fabbro, F., & Crescentini, C. (2020). Differential effects of mindfulness meditation conditions on repetitive negative thinking and subjective time perspective: a randomized active-controlled study. Psychology & health, 1–24.
Fujino, M., Ueda, Y., Mizuhara, H. et al. (2018). Open monitoring meditation reduces the involvement of brain regions related to memory function. Sci Rep 8, 9968.
Goldberg, S. B., Del Re, A. C., Hoyt, W. T., & Davis, J. M. (2014). The secret ingredient in mindfulness interventions? A case for practice quality over quantity. Journal of counseling psychology, 61(3), 491–497.
Goldberg, S. B., Knoeppel, C., Davidson, R. J., & Flook, L. (2019). Does practice quality mediate the relationship between practice time and outcome in mindfulness-based stress reduction? Journal of Counseling Psychology.
Kok, B & Singer, T. (2017). Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition,and Interoception Before and After DailyPractice Across 9 Months of Training. Mindfulness (2017) 8:218–231.
Lohani, M. (2020). A Longitudinal Training Study to Delineate the Specific Causal Effects of Open Monitoring Versus Focused Attention Techniques on Emotional Health. Complementary Therapies in Medicine 53, 102525.
Perlman, D. M., Salomons, T. V., Davidson, R. J., & Lutz, A. (2010). Differential effects on pain intensity and unpleasantness of two meditation practices. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10(1), 65–71.
Singer, T & Engert, E (2019). It matters what you practice: differential training effects on subjective experience, behavior, brain and body in the ReSource Project. Current Opinion in Psychology, Volume 28, pp. 151-158.
Trautwein, F. et. al. (2020). Differential benefits of mental training types for attention, compassion, and theory of mind. Cognition, Volume 194.
Vazquez, C., Valiente, C., García, F. E., Contreras, A., Peinado, V., Trucharte, A., & Bentall, R. P. (2021). Post-Traumatic Growth and Stress-Related Responses During the COVID-19 Pandemic in a National Representative Sample: The Role of Positive Core Beliefs About the World and Others. Journal of happiness studies, 1–21.