Reaching different states of mind

A group meditating amid Buddhist sculptures at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM).
PHOTO: Reaching different states of mind

Meditation has long been associated with stress relief, but a recent study by researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has shown that the meditation practised in Vajrayana Buddhism, which is predominant in Tibet, can enhance brain performance.

It also demonstrated for the first time that the meditation styles done according to Vajrayana and Theravada traditions influenced human physiology and behaviour differently. The former creates a state of arousal while the latter creates a relaxed state.

In contrast to relaxation, arousal is a physiological and psychological state of being awake or responsive to stimuli, say the researchers.


The Theravada form of Buddhism is dominant in Southern Asia. The meditation done in that tradition has been shown in previous studies to lead to a relaxed state.

In the Vajrayana tradition, the meditation done is a "really active kind of meditation" and the monks feel really refreshed after it, said Associate Professor Maria Kozhevnikov from the department of psychology at NUS' faculty of arts and social sciences, who conducted the study with her colleague, Dr Ido Amihai.

Referring to their findings, she added: "Expert meditators were able to boost their cognitive performance after just one meditation session. It resulted in an expanded awareness state that may last for about half an hour."

Both Theravada and Vajrayana traditions use various types of meditation techniques. They may sometimes be similar.

What Prof Kozhevnikov showed in the study was that "despite some surface similarities between the practices of both traditions, Vajrayana aims to bring about a state of arousal (sympathetic system activation) while Theravada aims to bring about a state of relaxation (parasympathetic system activation)".

"Theravada is exoteric teaching, so anyone can learn it; while Vajrayana involves esoteric, secret teachings. The latter requires taking vows, initiations and meditation practice," said Prof Kozhevnikov.

In addition, during the teaching of Theravada styles of meditation, the teachers usually emphasise the importance of relaxation, while in the Vajrayana tradition, teachers emphasise the state of "wakefulness", she said.

The difference between the Theravada and Vajrayana meditation practices lies with the motivation of the practitioner, said Ms Alma Ayon, a meditation teacher who is currently based in Nepal.

"The Theravada practitioner aims to be free from suffering and to be liberated from mental afflictions and ignorance, mainly for himself," she explained.

"The Vajrayana practitioner also aims to achieve the same freedom from suffering and enlightenment, but he does so for the benefit of all beings by using the methods that can lead them to enlightenment in one lifetime, in order to help liberate other beings from their suffering."


Prof Kozhevnikov, who is from Ukraine but had spent much of her life in the United States, started her research a decade ago.

Her interest was piqued after she participated in a Life and Mind meeting in Boston, where the Dalai Lama and Tibetan scholars met with Western neuroscientists for a dialogue about the mind and brain.

For the study, she and Dr Amihai collected electrocardiographic (EKG) and electroencephalographic (EEG) responses from experienced Theravada practitioners from Thailand and Nepal, as well as top Vajrayana practitioners from Nepal.

An EKG records the heart's electrical activity while an EEG measures and records the electrical activity of the brain.

The duo also measured the monks' behavioural performance on cognitive tasks and observed a dramatic increase in performance on cognitive tasks, such as memory tests, immediately after Vajrayana styles of meditation, but not for the other type of meditation.

The findings suggest that Vajrayana meditation could be especially useful in situations where it is important to perform at one's best, such as during a competition.

The researchers are planning to investigate whether permanent enhancement to the brain could occur after long-term practice. They are also looking at how non-practitioners can benefit from such meditative practices.

"Vajrayana meditation typically requires years of practice, so we are looking into whether it is possible to acquire the beneficial effects of brain performance by practising only certain essential elements of the meditation," said Prof Kozhevnikov.

"This would provide an effective and practical method for non-practitioners to quickly increase brain performance in times of need."

This article was first published on Nov 13, 2014.
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