What are meditation and relaxation techniques that affect consciousness?

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Psychologists regard meditation and relaxation techniques as possible means for reducing stress, improving mental and physical health, and expanding conscious awareness. Some of these techniques may help psychology fulfill its goals of developing the mental potential of individuals and improving social behavior.
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Forms of meditation have been practiced in many cultures throughout the ages. Traditionally, meditation techniques have been used to cultivate self-realization or enlightenment, in which higher levels of human potential are said to be realized. Traditional meditation techniques as well as modern techniques of relaxation are often used today for more limited purposes—to combat stress and specific problems of physical and mental health. There is also growing interest, however, in the greater purpose of meditation to achieve higher states of human development.


The various techniques of meditation practiced today derive from diverse sources. Some, such as yoga and Zen Buddhism, come from ancient traditions of India and other Asian countries, having been introduced in the West by traditional teachers and their Western students. Others originate in Western traditions such as Christianity. Some relaxation techniques taught today were adapted from these traditions, whereas others were invented independently of meditative traditions. For example, Edmund Jacobson introduced a progressive relaxation technique in 1910 and advocated its use to the medical profession and the public for more than fifty years. His research found progressive relaxation helpful for a variety of stress-related problems. Jacobson’s rather elaborate procedure, which could require up to six months of training, was adapted and shortened by Joseph Wolpe in his book Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition (1958). Later, Douglas A. Bernstein and Thomas D. Borkovec, in Progressive Relaxation Training: A Manual for the Helping Professions (1973), further adapted progressive relaxation. These programs require a qualified therapist to teach the relaxation technique. A different approach, autogenic training, derived from self-hypnotic techniques by Johannes Schultz, has been used widely, especially in Europe, since the 1930s.

The approaches of various meditation techniques differ greatly. Most techniques involve sitting quietly with the eyes closed. In some techniques, however, the eyes are kept open, or partially open, as in Zazen practice of Zen Buddhism. Other “meditative” techniques, among them tai chi and hatha-yoga, involve physical movement. Techniques of meditation may be classified according to the way in which mental attention is used during the practice. In some techniques, one focuses or concentrates attention on a specific thought, sensation, or external object. Such concentration techniques train the mind to ignore extraneous thoughts and sensations to remain quiet and focused, as in the Theravadin Buddhist tradition’s second stage of practice. Other techniques, such as mindfulness or insight meditation, allow the mind to experience all thoughts and perceptions without focusing on a specific object. In these techniques, the goal is to remain aware of the present moment without judging or reacting to it. Both concentration and mindfulness techniques may be employed in different Buddhist practices. In another approach, contemplative meditation, one thinks about a philosophical question or a pleasant concept such as “love,” contemplating the meaning of the thought. This technique is employed, for example, in some Christian practices to produce tranquillity in the mind.

Relaxation techniques take various forms. In progressive relaxation (PR), muscles are consciously tensed and relaxed in a systematic manner. PR is often combined with pleasant mental imagery in a directed manner called guided imagery to produce physical relaxation and a calm mind. Relaxation strategies are often employed in programs of systematic desensitization to reduce stress responses to frightful or anxiety-producing situations. Autogenic training, another major approach to relaxation, employs an adaptation of self-hypnosis to change the body’s functioning. This self-regulation can be very effective, as can biofeedback, which uses scientific instruments to reveal specific physiologic information. While observing signals from the instruments, one consciously manipulates bodily functions to achieve more normal states. In clinical settings, biofeedback is more effective when combined with relaxation and psychotherapeutic techniques than when used alone. Relaxation techniques such as these produce physical and mental relaxation and give the individual some control over physiological processes such as breathing and heart rate. They also result in lower levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline.

Though often confused with these approaches, transcendental meditation, commonly called TM, involves different mechanics. In TM, one uses a sound without meaning, selected for its soothing influence on the mind. This process does not involve concentration, because the sound is used effortlessly. This use of a sound allows one’s awareness to shift from the surface level of thinking to subtler levels of the thinking process, and ultimately to transcend thinking and experience a state of silent, restful alertness without thoughts, bodily sensations, or emotions. This inner wakefulness is called transcendental consciousness or pure consciousness. TM is taught in accord with the ancient Vedic tradition of India. Each tradition of meditation has its own understanding of the goals of long-term practice. Though the theme of gaining pure consciousness is shared by several meditative traditions, it cannot be assumed that all techniques of meditation produce the same results.

Potential Benefits

There has been considerable controversy over the years about whether meditation and relaxation techniques differ significantly in the relaxation they produce or in the cumulative effects of their long-term practice. The use of meta-analysis—statistical comparison of the results of many studies—has produced interesting results in this area. Meta-analyses can reveal trends not observed in individual studies and can control for effects of such variations in methods as sample size, study period, and observer bias by combining results from different sources. Because meditation techniques differ and because most meditation studies have been done on TM, these meta-analyses have tended to focus on potential differences between TM and relaxation.

In the mid-1980s, some researchers asked whether simply relaxing with the eyes closed would produce the same level of physiological rest as meditation. A meta-analysis of thirty-one studies showed significantly deeper rest during TM than during eyes-closed rest as indicated by breath rate, basal skin resistance (a measure of stability of the autonomic nervous system), and plasma lactate (a chemical in the blood related to stress).

Individuals practice meditation or relaxation techniques for many different reasons, particularly for relief from anxiety and stress. Both scientific research and anecdotal evidence on some of these techniques indicate that they may produce significant benefits to physical and mental health and to the quality of life as a whole.


People often use relaxation techniques to relieve specific problems. For example, progressive relaxation has been demonstrated to reduce high blood pressure, headaches, insomnia, and anxiety; to improve memory; to increase internal locus of control (being in control of oneself); and to facilitate positive mood development in some people. When used in conjunction with muscle biofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) has been effective in treating alcoholism. Autogenic training has also been shown to be effective in many of these areas. These techniques find wide application in psychologists’ offices, in hospitals, in schools, and in institutions. For example, medical practitioners teach relaxation techniques to patients for pain management and anxiety reduction, for the control of asthma symptoms, and for treating migraine headaches. Studies have also shown that relaxation improves the concentration abilities of severely intellectually disabled adults and increases academic performance among grade school children.

Of the various meditation techniques, transcendental meditation is the most widely practiced in the West. The standardized method of teaching and uniform method of practicing TM make it particularly suitable for scientific study, and more than five thousand studies have delineated the effects of TM. In a study of health insurance statistics published in 1987 in Psychosomatic Medicine, for example, two thousand TM meditators showed 50 percent less serious illness and use of health care services than did nonmeditators over a five-year period. Risk factors for disease, such as tobacco and alcohol use, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels, also have been found to decrease among TM meditators. In 1994, psychologist Charles Alexander found that TM proved to be an effective treatment for substance dependence.

There is also some evidence suggesting that meditation is more effective than relaxation techniques. For example, a meta-analysis of 144 independent findings published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in 1989 indicated that the effect of TM on reducing trait anxiety (chronic stress) was approximately twice as large as that produced by progressive relaxation, other forms of relaxation, or other forms of meditation. This was the case even when researchers statistically controlled for differences among studies in subject expectancy, experimenter bias, or quality of research design.

Although meditation is usually considered an activity that affects only the individual practitioner, studies have been performed that suggest that the influence of meditation can extend beyond the meditator to the environment. Such findings are controversial, with many scientists summarily dismissing the possibility of any correlation between meditation and external events. Respected journals have published such studies, however, because the methodologies used were deemed scientifically sound. More than forty studies have found improvements in social conditions and prosperity when a small proportion of the population involved practices TM. For example, in 1999, British researchers Guy Hatchard, Ashley Deans, Kenneth Cavanaugh, and David Orme-Johnson reported that crime rates in Merseyside, England, dropped by 13 percent when the local TM group grew to a certain size. This drop in crime was sustained for the following four years of the study.

Meditation and the Science of Psychology

The field of psychology was born with the hope that it would someday provide a complete account of human nature. William James , the founder of American psychology, in seeking ways to promote psychological growth, attempted to study elevated states of consciousness and suggested that meditation might be a means to cultivate their development. Few psychologists pursued this direction, however, until advances in bioengineering and the introduction of standardized forms of meditation and relaxation allowed psychologists to study consciousness in the laboratory.

Studies of self-actualization conducted by Abraham Maslow also renewed interest in meditation. According to Maslow, self-actualizing persons are individuals who display high levels of creativity, self-esteem, capacity for intimacy, and concern for the well-being of the world community. They seem to have mastered living happily in a complex world. Maslow believed that self-actualization was the pinnacle of psychological development, and he found that some adults spontaneously had “peak” or transcendental experiences. Sometimes these experiences produced abrupt changes in people’s self-perception and significantly advanced their psychological development. Recognizing that meditation might produce such transcendental experiences, Maslow strongly encouraged research on meditation as a means for developing self-actualization.

With the recent development of appropriate scientific methods, alternative states of consciousness such as meditation and relaxation have once again become the focus of much research. Meditation and relaxation are the subject of thousands of studies each year. These studies investigate a wide range of psychological variables, from social development and self-actualization to brain activity.

The various types of meditation are based in ancient systems of philosophy or religion and therefore have ultimate purposes beyond those of strictly psychological approaches to personal development. Whereas self-actualization typically refers to the development of one’s unique individual self, Vedic philosophy describes the potential for realizing a transcendental self in the growth of “higher states of consciousness” beyond self-actualization. Through repeated transcendence, one is said to experience this transcendental self as a limitless field of intelligence, creativity, and happiness at the source of the individual mind. In higher states of consciousness, the transcendental self comes to be fully realized and permanently maintained in daily life. In the Vedic tradition, the enlightened are said to enjoy freedom from stress and to find life effortless and blissful.


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