Meditation, especially Buddhist meditation techniques, is one of the most researched mind-body therapies. There are three Buddhist meditation traditions, which include Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. This paper focuses on the psychological effects that Buddhist meditation has on human mind and practices. Current literature on the topic is reviewed, which showed that Buddhist meditation helps people who practice it to significantly improve their attention and mindfulness and has a positive effect on their feeling of happiness and self-realization. Amongst the three Buddhist meditation techniques, Mahayana and Theravada have been specifically linked to heightened levels of attention measured using tonic alertness. In addition, Buddhist meditation training enhances attention by reducing the resource demands. Buddhist meditation not only reduces negative emotions but also helps in nurturing positive emotions such as love and joy, which contribute to happiness. As regards self-realization, Buddhist meditation enables practitioners to experience self-compassion. Buddhist meditation can improve self-realization through enhancing self-esteem and self-control.
Mind-body therapies are becoming increasingly common in Western societies. For instance, in the US, an estimated 20 percent of the adult population have practiced a type of mind-body therapy during the last year (Buttle, 2014). Examples of mind-body therapeutic techniques include hypnosis, biofeedback, guided imagery, meditation, and relaxation techniques. Meditation is the most prevalent and the most researched therapy (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006). There are several definitions of meditation; however, common themes are evident. Western/secular definitions of meditation place emphasis on using a self-regulation strategy that centers on training attention. Spiritual meditation focuses on various aspects including mental cultivation by Buddhist meditation, mental development by bhavana, and mind refining by Taoism. Generally, spiritual meditation is concerned with nurturing helpful mental capacities such as concentration and calmness as well as positive emotions such as joy and love (Rosch, 2007). Spiritual meditation also concentrates on the reduction of negative emotions like anger and fear. After reviewing current literature on the topic, it is evident that due to its beneficial impact on the human psyche, Buddhist meditation helps people who practice it to significantly improve their attention and mindfulness and produces positive effect on their feeling of happiness and self-realization.
There are three Buddhist meditation traditions, which are Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. The technique of Theravada is most common in South Asia. The most popular meditation techniques under Theravada tradition are Vipassana and Shamantha (Amihai & Kozhevnikov, 2015). These two techniques place emphasis on the avoidance of discursive thought through letting an individual concentrates on a meditation object or his/her metal activity (Amihai & Kozhevnikov, 2015). In accordance with Buddhist scriptures, the meditation technique of Shamantha is concerned with training the practitioner to concentrate his/her attention in order to enable them to direct an undistracted attention to a medication object while at the same time withdrawing their attention from other things (Amihai & Kozhevnikov, 2015). Vipassana is concerned with gaining an in-depth insight into the true nature of reality and understanding the temporariness of everything in existence together with the tranquility of the mind. The Buddhist tradition of Mahayana is characterized by great compassion, which is an important enlightened component (Bowen, Bergman, & Witkiewitz, 2015). Therefore, the goal of Mahayana is to make the practitioner become enlightened. The Mahayana tradition is most prevalent in North Asia with its meditation practices similar to the Vipassana and Shamantha practices as well as other traditions such as Tiantai Mahayana and Zen concentration that is based primarily on regulating breath for one to experience the one-pointedness of his/her mind (Kozasa et al., 2015).
The Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, sometimes known as Tantric Buddhist, is a key component of Tibetan Buddhism. It often involves the use of Deity meditation characterized by focusing one’s attention on an internally generated image that is surrounded by his/her entourage. This practice has been linked to extreme sensations of body heat that allow the meditator to produce and sustain mental images of flames at particular body parts (Amihai & Kozhevnikov, 2015). Whereas all the Buddhist meditation techniques emphasize on the person being liberalized from conceptual delusions, they employ different techniques to achieve this. In particular, Buddhist scriptures reveal that Theravada meditation techniques including Mindfulness, Vipassana, and Shamantha place emphasis on ensuring that unstable mind is stable followed by nurturing a state of calmness whereby the meditator can experience the true nature of the mind in the absence of obstruction (Bowen, Bergman, & Witkiewitz, 2015). Similarly, particular Mahayana meditation practices like Zen concentration focus on aspects of sharp concentration and calmness (Amihai & Kozhevnikov, 2015). In contrast, Vajrayana meditation techniques does not put emphasis on sustaining a quiet and still mind; instead, emphasis is placed on realizing self-existing wakefulness. In addition, Vajrayana teachings state that being overly calm obstructs the meditator from realizing self-existing wakefulness. From this, it is evident that the Vajrayana Buddhist meditation is the one concerned with attention and mindfulness whereas other techniques are concerned with calmness and relaxation (Amihai & Kozhevnikov, 2015).
Attention is considered as a form of arousal, which is characterized by the psychological and physiological state of being reactive to environmental stimuli and awake (Amihai & Kozhevnikov, 2015). In this respect, attention is typified by a heightened bustle of sympathetic system followed by the discharge of norepinephrine and epinephrine by the endocrine system. According to Amihai and Kozhevnikov (2015), Buddhist meditation is analogous to a state of deep rest such as hibernation although the person is vigilant and awake, which is often referred to as tonic alertness described by sustained periods of optimal vigilance and attention. In addition, Buddhist meditation increases phasic alertness, which is a considerable short-term boost in a person’s capacity to respond to environmental stimuli (Rosch, 2007).
Many studies have assessed the psychological impacts associated with the various Buddhist meditation techniques using psychological measures. According to Amihai and Kozhevnikov (2015), neuroimaging research studies have revealed that Mahayana and Theravada meditation techniques enhance activity in brain areas that are concerned with tonic awareness, suggesting that these two Buddhist techniques can be helpful in enhancing attention. The specific brain areas affected by these Buddhist meditation techniques include the inferior parietal lobe and the anterior insula. Shamantha and Vipassana meditation techniques have also been associated with high levels of tonic alertness among practitioners (Bowen, Bergman, & Witkiewitz, 2015). In addition, studies have shown that Theravada meditation techniques can result in tonic alertness by reducing the activity in neural structures that are more active during unfocused activities than during tasks that require attention (Bowen, Bergman, & Witkiewitz, 2015). Such areas in the brain include the dorsal prefrontal cortex, inferior parietal lobe, posterior cingulate, and ventral medial prefrontal cortex (Bowen, Bergman, & Witkiewitz, 2015).
The impact of Buddhist meditation on attention has also been studied through the use of behavioral tasks that particularly developed top assess alerting attention such as attentional network tests, whereby participants are given a narrow target bordered by distractor arrows pointing in the opposite or the same direction as the narrow target. Jha, Krompinger, and Baime (2007), evaluated the changes observed in tonic alertness among three categories of participants practicing Shamantha meditation and non-meditators (cited in Amihai & Kozhevnikov, 2015). The findings of the study showed that those who had practiced Shamantha meditation reported higher levels of vigilance and tonic alertness. Other specifically designed tasks that have been used in measuring the impact of Buddhist meditation on attention is the sustained attention ones (Amihai & Kozhevnikov, 2015; Kozasa et al., 2015). In this respect, studies have revealed that Buddhist meditation training can help in reducing resource demands, which in turn, enhances vigilance and attention (tonic alertness) (Kozasa et al., 2015).
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Mindfulness is an important concept in Buddhist tradition, whereby it is one of the noble eightfold path to achieving awakening (Buttle, 2014). Mindfulness is defined as purposely paying attention in a specific way and in the present moment. It is also important for the attention to be nonjudgmental. The awakening aspect of mindfulness has been emphasized by numerous researchers. In addition, attention has been reported as playing an important role in mindfulness. According to Buttle (2014), mindfulness comprises of two important components, which are being oriented towards the experiences in the present moment and sustained attention. Some authors perceive attention as a part of the mechanism of mindfulness whereby attitude, intention, and attention are intertwined and happen at the same time. Various studies have used diverse techniques in exploring the role that attention plays with respect to the mindfulness meditation practices. In this regard, research using behavioral data has shown that mindfulness practice increases the efficiencies in the dorsal attention system that takes part in the top down attention selection (Buttle, 2014). Other studies have shown that Buddhist meditation results in changes in the brain structures associated with attention. For instance, Buddhist meditation has been reported to increase the thickness of the brain cortex, especially in older adults, which is a suggestion that meditation can be used as a technique for offsetting the thinning of the cortex. In the same vein, Pagnoni and Cekic (2007) conducted a research study involving Zen meditators that reported no correlation between the volume of the grey matter and age, nor attentional performance and age; nevertheless, the control group reported significant correlations (cited in Buttle, 2014). The authors noted that the effect of the meditation was most profound on the putamen, which is involved in attention. Using their findings, the authors suggested that regular Buddhist practice might result in neuro-protective impacts and lessen the cognitive decline linked to aging.
The impacts of meditation on attention are likely to influence affective control and emotional processing (Rosch, 2007). In this respect, empirical studies have reported that spiritual meditation, including Buddhist meditation, lessens typical responding (Amihai & Kozhevnikov, 2015). Some studies have suggested that brain attention training used in Buddhist meditation reduces emotionally reactive behavior among people practicing this meditation therapy (Buttle, 2014). Nevertheless, the effects associated with spiritual meditation are non-linear. For instance, Buttle (2014) showed that meditation experience reduced the amygdala activation (linked to emotion), with the relationship being presented in an inverted U-shaped curve with respect to meditation experience and attention activation, which is orienting, engaging, and monitoring. The study indicated that meditators having an average of 19000 hours meditation exercise reported significantly higher attention activation when compared to non-meditators. However, meditators having a mean of 44000 hours of meditation exercise showed significantly less attention activation when likened to non-meditators. Other studies have also affirmed the non-linear relationship existing between attention activation and spiritual meditation experience. For instance, Buttle (2014) reported that brain areas which take part in vigilant attention (tonic alertness) tend to be more active among meditators during their early training stages when compared to non-meditators. In addition, expert meditators have less attention activation, which can be attributed to the fact that they have become more proficient and require less effort in attention activation during later stages (Buttle, 2014).
Buddhist meditation techniques have also been reported to positively affect happiness and self-realization (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006). Therefore, spiritual meditations such as Buddhist meditation have the main objective of achieving emotional rebalancing among the practitioner. In particular, Buddhist meditation techniques seek not only to lessen destructive emotions but also to nurture positive emotions such as compassion, love, and joy to the extent whereby these positive emotions become unconditional, thereby contributing to happiness. Through Buddhist meditations, a practitioner is supposed to discipline his/her mind by ensuring that it is devoid of negative emotion. According to Walsh and Shapiro (2006), a vital long-term consequence of Buddhist meditation is that it can increase the happiness set point, which is often assumed by psychologists to be constrained by genetics. There is empirical support for the positive impact that Buddhist meditation has on contributing to happiness. For instance, meditators tend to exhibit reduced levels of depression, hostility, and anxiety coupled with higher levels of subjective well-being, which are positively correlated to happiness. Moreover, expert meditators tend to show outstanding levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex as well as a distinctive high gamma electroencephalogram (EEG) profile when nurturing compassion (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).
Apart from happiness, Buddhist meditation has also been linked to positive well-being and self-realization. In this respect, spiritual meditation, particularly Buddhist meditation, is a self-actualization approach for enhancing qualities associated with sympathy and understanding (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006). Self-compassion is an important aspect of self-realization that has been linked to Buddhist meditation. Self-compassion is concerned with being kind as well as understanding oneself during situations of failure or pain instead of being overly self-critical (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006). It is also concerned with viewing one’s experiences as being a fragment of the broader human experience instead of perceiving them in isolation. Buddhist meditation nurtures self-compassion by enabling practitioners to hold painful feelings and thoughts through mindful awareness (Kozasa et al., 2015). According to Walsh and Shapiro (2006), mindfulness therapy can be helpful in the modification of personality variables such as trait anxiety, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness, and extraversion. Moreover, owing to the fact that Buddhist meditation is a form of self-regulation strategy, studies have shown that those who practicing it have higher levels of self-esteem and self-control. Walsh and Shapiro (2006) also pointed out that Buddhist meditation enhances interpersonal functioning and fosters maturation since meditators have higher scores with respect to defenses and coping skills, self-actualization, consciousness state and stage, cognitive and moral development, and ego. Buddhist meditation values and nurtures transpersonal states whereby the sense of identity goes beyond the individual or his/her personality to entail broader aspects which are associated with life, humankind, and the cosmic universe. Buddhist meditation also fosters self-actualization by striving to achieve motivational shifts, wherein meditators are supposed to shift away from the distractions associated with selfish desires towards embracing altruistic motives (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).
From the discussion, it is evident that Buddhist meditation helps practitioners to significantly enhance their attention, mindfulness, and results in positive feelings associated with happiness and self-realization. Among the three Buddhist meditation techniques, Mahayana and Theravada have been specifically linked to heightened levels of attention measured using tonic alertness. In this regard, these Buddhist meditation techniques increase activity in brain areas linked to tonic alertness. Moreover, Buddhist meditation training enhances attention by reducing the resource demands. With respect to happiness, Buddhist meditation not only reduces negative emotions but also helps in nurturing positive emotions such as love and joy. As regards self-realization, practitioners can experience self-compassion with the help of Buddhist meditation. Buddhist meditation can enhance self-realization through improving self-esteem and self-control.