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The Surprising Truth: Why Not All Meditation Techniques Work for Everyone

Beth Bradford

Jul 16, 2023

Some make you feel good, some help with stress

Here’s something that may (or may not) surprise you: Not every meditation practice works. As a meditation teacher myself, I hear many people complaining about how they can’t meditate. Perhaps they’ve tried to sit down and meditate, but their minds are so full of thoughts that it becomes unbearable. I understand this, because I was that way, too.

Of course, I often wonder what people do before they attempt a meditation practice. Do they say, “Ok, I’ve heard meditation helps, so let me just sit down and meditate”? Or do they find a meditation app that offers guided meditations for beginners, only for that guided meditation to have all kinds of esoteric references and plinky-plonky music that turns them off? Or do they jump off their seat the moment it gets difficult?

Just like there are many physical activities to exercise your body, there are many types of meditations to suit your mind and mind state. I was told many years ago that you should only practice one type of meditation, but honestly, I don’t find that helpful. 

First of all, it assumes that the particular practice of meditation is a one-size-fits-all practice. I know that practices such as transcendental meditation have helped many people for years, but for others, it hasn’t been beneficial. Certain meditations are good for relieving stress, while others are good for healing relationships. Mindfulness meditation might help manage pain. Some active meditations relieve my inner sluggishness and motivate me towards action.

Second of all, some meditation practices have been handed down through contemplative communities. Although these help you maintain calm and perhaps achieve a sense of unity with the divine, they don’t do very well if your job continually presses against your patience. In other words, contemplative practices are illuminating if you don’t have much interaction with the world. I find them helpful, personally, because I live alone, but I know people with busy jobs and families might not.

Thirdly, adopting one meditation practice assumes that you’re going to be the same in every chapter of your life. I know running and walking meditations have been helpful for me, but if I only had this type of meditation, what would happen if I could no longer run? I had back surgery in 2014, which meant that I couldn’t do the physical yoga practice that calmed my mind.

Study Shows Differences in Meditation Practices

I came across this 2019 study from Richard J. Davidson’s Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The study involved 156 undergraduate students who were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions: breath awareness, loving-kindness meditation, gratitude practice, or an attention control condition. Each participant completed a 12-minute practice session, after which they underwent a stress test known as the Cold Pressor Test, which involved submerging their hand in ice water.

The findings were intriguing. While all three practices had some effect on the participants, they were not all equal in their impact. Gratitude practice, for instance, increased positive feelings, but it also led to greater reactivity to the stressor. Participants in the gratitude condition rated the Cold Pressor Test as more unpleasant and showed larger increases in negative feelings compared to the other groups.

In contrast, the participants in the loving-kindness and breath awareness conditions were more willing to donate their time afterward. These findings suggest that while gratitude practice can boost positive feelings, it might not provide the same level of stress-buffering effects as loving-kindness and breath awareness.

In conclusion, when it comes to managing stress, not all contemplative practices are created equal. Different practices may have divergent effects, particularly in the context of stress. While gratitude can increase positive feelings, loving-kindness and breath awareness may be more effective at buffering against acute stressors. 

Even if you already have a “go-to” meditation that you practice regularly, it might be beneficial to try others to help you deal with other circumstances or challenges in your life. And if you don’t have a regular meditation practice, try different techniques to see what works for you.

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