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Arousal vs. Relaxation: A Comparison of Vajrayana and Theravada...

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Arousal vs. Relaxation: A Comparison of the Neurophysiological and Cognitive Correlates of Vajrayana and Theravada Meditative Practices
Abstract

Based on evidence of parasympathetic activation, early studies
defined meditation as a relaxation response. Later research attempted to
categorize meditation as either involving focused or distributed
attentional systems. Neither of these hypotheses received strong
empirical support, and most of the studies investigated Theravada style
meditative practices. In this study, we compared neurophysiological
(EEG, EKG) and cognitive correlates of meditative practices that are
thought to utilize either focused or distributed attention, from both
Theravada and Vajrayana traditions. The results of Study 1 show that
both focused (Shamatha) and distributed (Vipassana) attention
meditations of the Theravada tradition produced enhanced parasympathetic
activation indicative of a relaxation response. In contrast, both
focused (Deity) and distributed (Rig-pa) meditations of the Vajrayana
tradition produced sympathetic activation, indicative of arousal.
Additionally, the results of Study 2 demonstrated an immediate dramatic
increase in performance on cognitive tasks following only Vajrayana
styles of meditation, indicating enhanced phasic alertness due to
arousal. Furthermore, our EEG results showed qualitatively different
patterns of activation between Theravada and Vajrayana meditations,
albeit highly similar activity between meditations within the same
tradition. In conclusion, consistent with Tibetan scriptures that
described Shamatha and Vipassana techniques as those that calm and relax
the mind, and Vajrayana techniques as those that require ‘an awake
quality’ of the mind, we show that Theravada and Vajrayana meditations
are based on different neurophysiological mechanisms, which give rise to
either a relaxation or arousal response. Hence, it may be more
appropriate to categorize meditations in terms of relaxation vs.
arousal, whereas classification methods that rely on the focused vs.
distributed attention dichotomy may need to be reexamined.
From the concluding paragraph:
....

Despite the limitations, we were able for the first time to show that
Vajrayana and Theravada styles of meditation are correlated with
different neurophysiological substrates. More generally, the current
findings undermine the prevalent view that all meditation practices
bring about the same results, of enhancing cognitive performance and
reducing stress levels. Indeed, it shows that the physiological and
cognitive influences that meditations induce can vary greatly between
traditions. Even though the benefits that can follow from different
types of meditations of different traditions are often similarly
described, leading to the widespread belief that they are in fact highly
similar and that the choice to practice one meditation over another
would not greatly influence the outcome of the practice, the current
research shows not only that this is a misconception, but also that it
has greatly hindered the progress of the scientific study of meditation.
Our research shows that the large body of research on Theravada
meditation is not generalizable to Vajrayana meditation, and thus
Vajrayana practices should receive a greater emphasis in future
research. Indeed, we show that the term “meditation” is in many ways too
general, and have taken a step toward establishing a terminology that
can appropriately distinguish the various practices from different
traditions.


RE: Arousal vs. Relaxation: A Comparison of Vajrayana and Theravada...
Answer
3/27/16 2:30 AM as a reply to Dada Kind.
Very interesting, thanks!

RE: Arousal vs. Relaxation: A Comparison of Vajrayana and Theravada...
Answer
3/27/16 2:44 AM as a reply to Dada Kind.
Sounds very much like Julius Evolas description of a dry way, for example Theravada, and a wet way, ceremonial Magick. He claims that they lead to the same goal if pulled off correctly. Maybe science will prove him wrong! 

A thought though: I wonder if the persons examined where at the same stages of insight/concentration!! Might very well affect the outcome. 

RE: Arousal vs. Relaxation: A Comparison of Vajrayana and Theravada...
Answer
3/27/16 8:44 AM as a reply to Dada Kind.
I did not read the article in sooo much detail, but at first sight the procedure seems questionable.

The Theravadin practitioners were meditating on a brown pizza of cow dung




The Vajrayana practitioners (eight out of nine males) were meditating on an image of a naked deity stepping upon a naked girl



Alternative interpretation of the result: Cow pizzas are boring. Nakedity is arousing. It has nothing to do with meditation.

Procedure to test the alternative hypothesis: Show pictures of cow pizzas and naked people to non-meditators, and see if their response is one of boredom or arousal.

Besides that, a good deal of Theravada practice is on brahma viharas, which has points of connection to Deity devotion. 

RE: Arousal vs. Relaxation: A Comparison of Vajrayana and Theravada...
Answer
3/27/16 9:21 PM as a reply to Pablo CEG.
I agree. Vipassana =/= Theravada, there's so much more wealth and richness to that tradition, including visions and "powers" type stuff that just aren't as openly discussed. 

Interesting study, but I'd say the results are highly suspect, given the researchers castrated the Theravada and called it a day.

RE: Arousal vs. Relaxation: A Comparison of Vajrayana and Theravada...
Answer
3/28/16 2:09 AM as a reply to Eric M W.
This. Magick has always been a part of Theravada,  it's just being swept under the carpet by people wanting Buddhism to be "in line with science".  

It is also very hard to believe that, comparing 1st jhana to abiding in the Natural Mind, one would find that 1st jhana is relaxing and the Natural Mind is arousing. And that is regardless of the tradition one comes from. It shouldn't be too hard for someone who has been practicing vajrayana daily for ten years to enter first jhana, or, vice versa, pointing out the Natural Mind to an experienced Theravadin. One should compare techniques and states, not traditions.

And, while it makes sense to select practitioners based on years of practice, because it is an easy and objective measure, alternative metrics of development (maps) should be taken into account too.

I more or less agree with everyone's skepticism here. Representing entire traditions with one technique is an oversimplification.

But, I think this study is useful for establishing empirical evidence that different techniques can be measured to correlate with radically different neurology. This supports a nuanced view of meditation in contrast to an oversimplified mainstream view one hears that goes something like "I meditate when I ride my bike and I get like peaceful and mindful and relaxed and yoga, ya know?" Or, you could say it contributes empiricism to the claim "You get what you optimize for"

It's been awhile Eric. Where ya been?

RE: Arousal vs. Relaxation: A Comparison of Vajrayana and Theravada...
Answer
3/29/16 7:50 AM as a reply to Dada Kind.
Droll Dedekind:

But, I think this study is useful for establishing empirical evidence that different techniques can be measured to correlate with radically different neurology. This supports a nuanced view of meditation in contrast to an oversimplified mainstream view one hears that goes something like "I meditate when I ride my bike and I get like peaceful and mindful and relaxed and yoga, ya know?" Or, you could say it contributes empiricism to the claim "You get what you optimize for"

I agree. Meditation research is a very young and difficult topic, and it is a very interesting approach and improvement from this point of view.