Almost all types of meditation provide physical relaxation to a greater or lesser degree. Muscles relax; blood pressure is lowered; skin resistance increases, and so does the peripheral distribution of blood. These changes are associated with bodily rest and have been amply documented in scientific studies.
There are two basic types of relaxation: closing and opening. Closing relaxation often creates a feeling of well-being but detaches the mind from underlying issues. Such relaxation may be obtained by active concentration or directed meditation techniques, or even from narcotic drugs, alcohol or benzodiacepins such as Valium. Opening relaxation, on the other hand, facilitates balanced access to unfinished unconscious processes, and thus modifies mental structures and their influence on perceptions and actions. Such relaxation can contribute to what some psychologists call ‘regression in the service of the ego’. This involves a shift in mental functioning towards greater freedom, more spontaneity, and an increase in self-accessing and self-accepting behaviour.
Use of attention: Directed versus non-directed approaches
We now come to one of the most essential distinctions between meditation practices: the difference between what we may call (1) directed techniques (or concentration techniques), which tend to be strongly state oriented, and (2) non-directed techniques, which tend to be process oriented.
The act of concentration is inherent in directed techniques, while a free-floating state of mind is characteristic of non-directed approaches.
The various schools of meditation give specific, yet very different directions about the use of attention during the practice. They may vary from intense concentration at one end of the spectrum, to mindfulness somewhere towards the middle, with free mental attitude at the other end.
In concentration techniques, the point is to stand porter at the entrance of the mind and allow nothing undesirable to get in. Often the goal is to get rid of all thoughts.
The various kinds of Buddhist meditations such as vipassana, chan and zen meditations are often referred to as mindfulness meditation. However, mindfulness is not a unified concept; it comprises a spectrum of mental attitudes ranging from the highly focused and concentrated, to intermediate attentiveness, to some states that resemble the free mental attitude of Acem Meditation.
Directed methods aim to achieve control over pre-defined functions, such as relaxation of the right arm or leg. Involuntary mental activities like thoughts and feelings are viewed as distractions, and one of the goals of directed meditation techniques is to keep these below the level of awareness.