Meditation’s second course, with a side of binaural beats

“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” – Zen Proverb

I learned to meditate in about a year, thanks an app called Headspace.

In the app, founder Andy Puddicombe guides you through meditations while giving advice for managing our emotions. He also covers meditation basics like mindset, attitude, and simple breathing techniques. As someone new to meditation, Headspace was new and exciting.

Yet despite my affinity with the app, and despite my well-established meditation habit, I lost interest after completing all the Headspace instructional packs.

Determined to continue the practice, I set out to meditate twice daily for 20 minutes, using no audio props. This approach worked for about a week, before I realized that my meditation sessions had transformed from often-blissful experiences to me sitting there lost in perpetual thought. My unspoken goal of “learning to meditate without training wheels” backfired.

I’d been overly reliant on Andy’s audio cues, and expected that I’d be okay with them. But what’s more, and what I hadn’t known when I dropped the app, is that Headspace primarily teaches one form of meditation.

I wasn’t even aware that there was more than one type of meditation, or that it mattered at all. But in fact, there are many kinds and – when it comes to getting the benefits of meditation – it does matter

There are a handful of meditation traditions, each of which defines meditation in its own way. It’s easy to get lost in these definitions, but remember that the map is not the territory; the definitions of meditation, though divergent, are just different descriptions of the same thing.

One helpful definition comes from a research paper by Lutz, Davidson and colleagues (Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation). They roughly define meditation as:

“a family of complex emotional and attentional strategies developed for various ends, including cultivating well-being and emotional balance.”

This basically means that meditation isn’t just one thing, and it can achieve different life goals. For now, here’s an overview.

Breaking Down Meditation

Different kinds of exercise can do different things for you body. For instance lifting heavy weights is most effective for developing muscle strength, whereas high repetitions are more beneficial for muscle hypertrophy (bulking). Knowing this, exercise trainers create training schedules tailored to the individual’s fitness goals.

Similarly, meditation strategies serve various ends, and it can be helpful to break meditation down into two broad types of training: Focused Attention and Open Monitoring. Note that one is not better than the other. For now, they may just be helpful labels for the particular skill at hand.

Also note that any one particular type of meditation practice (e.g. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Transcendental Meditation (TM) or Zen Meditation) may contain both F.A. and O.M. strategies. This is like other kinds of performance training. For instance wrestling requires not only powerful fast movements (strength) but also sustained endurance (cardio).

Focused Attentional Meditation (FAM)

Focused attention meditation involves focusing your attention on a single object for a period of time. This can be a sound, an image, a feeling, or even (yes) a thought.

FAM has been found to build your ability to focus in on the task at hand and keep other distractors at bay.

What’s really interesting is that, when neuroscientists examine what focused attention does for your brain, they find changes in key brain areas responsible for engaging your attention (visual cortex), and monitoring (frontal lobes).

Additionally, they found a decreased activity in those areas that are responsible for emotional reactivity (the amygdala).

girl screaming bloody murder from a hijacked amygdala

Less of this.

This means that over time, meditators who trained in focused attentional techniques were less emotionally reactive and better able to stay on task. One cool finding was that the more you practice attention, the less demanding it becomes on your brain.

Open Monitoring Meditation (OMM)

Open monitoring meditation involves monitoring all aspects of your experience. The goal is to do this in a non-reactive way, simply observing what thought patterns and which emotion patterns naturally arise within you.

As opposed to FAM, wherein the meditator focuses on a single object, in OMM the opposite is true: there is almost a total lack of focus on any one thing, but a complete openness to all thoughts and feelings.

OMM increases your ability to better monitor your bodily state, and have a more evenly distributed ability for attention (not too focused on one thing).

When researchers examine what is happening in the brains of those people who train in open monitoring meditation, they find increased activity in areas typically responsible for labeling emotional states (ventral, or lower, frontal lobes), as well as decreases in the regions commonly associated with excessive self-focus (middle frontal lobes).

Headspace Meditation

Both meditation approaches work to reduce stress and improve the quality of our lives. They are also complementary, and most types of meditative practice combine the two techniques. Headspace is no exception, using focused attention meditation in its Focus pack, and open monitoring mediation in Creativity, saying:

In a 2012 study at Leiden University, Netherlands, scientists reported that “open monitoring” meditation (non-reactive observation of your thoughts over time) promoted “divergent thinking”, a type of thinking that allows many new ideas to be generated.

In fact, OMM is the approach used in almost every Headspace pack. This works very well, allowing Headspace users to be open to their experience in ways they may never have been before.

While this approach is effective at removing the “cognitive rigidity” that gets in the way of creative thinking, it’s also an easy way to get totally lost in thought. Fortunately, Andy’s soothing voice occasionally reminds us to return to the present moment. It’s jussst the right amount of mental guardrail to prevent the mind from teetering into the unconscious abyss.

…And it’s this gentle safeguard that I lost when I parted with Headspace. I immediately noticed the effects in my work and relationships, feeling less focused at work and more scatterbrained in conversation.

Perhaps, I thought, an over-reliance on Headspace’s OMM style was the culprit. Indeed, a recent study at the Leiden Institute of Brain and Cognition supports this notion:

Certain meditation techniques can promote behavior to vary adaptively from moment to moment depending on current goals, rather than remaining rigid and inflexible. [In a recent study], compared to participants who performed OMM, people who performed FAM were significantly better in adapting and adjusting their behavior from moment to moment.

Anxious to get my meditation sessions back on track, I considered downloading the app again and simply recycling the same old material. Not an ideal solution, but better than wasting 45 minutes a day being totally distracted.

I also considered adding in a third daily meditation, and even extending my sessions to an hour each. That’s a big part of my waking life spent sitting and meditating.

There had to be a better way, and indeed there was: binaural beats.

Binaural Beats and Meditation

Years ago, I’d played around with binaural beats and isochronic tones, haphazardly listening to different audio tracks on YouTube. Without getting into too many details, binaural beats are simply sounds that – when listened to with headphones – put our brain at a certain wavelength, a process called brainwave entrainment.

Different brain wavelengths are associated with different emotions and levels of wakefulness, which make binaural beats a nifty way to “hack” into mental and emotional states on command.

Meditation has similar effects. Tibetan monks have been shown to activate gamma brainwaves on command, a type of frequency associated with unconditional compassion.

And while unconditional compassion may be a tad ambitious for the casual meditator, there’s no doubt that meditation is a useful way to experience and become familiar with different emotional states.

This is where binaural beats come in.

Firstly, binaural beats entrain our brains to experience different wavelengths, ones that we may not experience in normal daily life. Thus we can experience the mental and emotional states that come with a particular wavelength, become familiar with those feelings, and increase the likelihood that we will experience them more often in our lives.

Second, binaural beats allow for focused attention meditation. With a constant background humm of the beats, there is a single object gently focus on throughout the meditation.

At the suggestion of a friend, I downloaded the Binaural app and began to play the beats during my meditations. The app is very basic (just plain frequencies, no frills), yet very effective.

The change was instantaneous. Almost immediately, my meditations were back on track, and walked after each one feeling calm and accomplished.

In conclusion

Though it’s early to pass any judgement on this experiment, thus far, combining binaural beats with meditation has been a simple hack to get the full value of meditation without needing too much audio guidance.

It is, in effect, a nice “next step” after the Headspace app. By their combined utility, I should be able to, once again, feel that blissful presence during and after my meditation sessions.