The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Does Meditation Foster Differentiation of Self?

Authored by:  Erik Thompson, M. A.

Licensed Psychologist-Masters

Principal, Thompson Leadership Development, Inc., and Executive Director, Vermont Center for Family Studies

“Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.”

-The Yoga Vashishtha, 6th Century BC

Bowen theorists have developed a unique set of tools for expanding personal, family, and organizational health, including seeing the group as a system, managing self, de-triangling, and strengthening overall relationship capital with original members.  More “self” decreases chronic anxiety and reactivity to others.  The experiencer is more stable amidst pressures such as praise and blame.  A less reactive member changes the emotional field of the group, effecting everyone.  I have devoted 22 years to these “technologies of self”.

Meanwhile, I have been practicing another “technology of self”, Transcendental Meditation (TM), a form of silent meditation, twice a day, for 34 years.  How complimentary are these technologies?  Can meditation become a distraction from the real work in family?  Is transcendence merely a warm bath in the milky ocean of togetherness?  In the past 7 years I have found that meditation is more than a relaxation technique.  I think it fosters differentiation.


There are many types of meditation. Dr. Fred Travis, an NIH funded meditation researcher and author of “Your Brain is a River Not a Rock”, has studied over 100 forms of silent meditation. Using sophisticated brain imaging techniques, Travis has categorized them into three groups:

  1. Focused Attention
  2. Open Monitoring
  3. Automatic Self-Transcending


Focused attention involves the effort to concentrate on a mental or physical object, such as a candle or a calm lake.  This is what most people assume meditation involves.  But open monitoring is different, it involves the effort to witness our body or mind, such as our breath, or thoughts, trying to dis-identify from them so they roll past us like clouds in the sky. This second type includes mindfulness meditation practices.

TM is Travis’ third type, automatic self-transcending, and it is quite different from the other two.  Like the Zengar neuro-feedback tool that has been explored by Bowen researchers such as Priscilla Friesen, TM does not involve trying to do anything- believe it or not.  TM is effortless and automatic.  With Zengar, a computer offers the brain feedback about its activity, which the brain is said to integrate spontaneously.  With TM a specific sound is introduced in a structured but effortless manner.  TM does not involve concentration on the sound, or contemplation of the sound.  There is no effort to try to focus the mind on the sound.  The effortless introduction of the sound has the documented effect of quieting mental activity such that TM produces a distinct state of deep metabolic rest, called transcendence.

TM has been the subject of a large body of peer-reviewed scientific studies.  In a recent review of meditation research by the American Heart Association, TM was given a superior rating for the quality of evidence that it lowers blood pressure.  A Stanford meta-analysis of 146 studies on meditation and relaxation techniques found that TM had a significant effect not merely on state anxiety, but on trait anxiety.  The NIH researcher and Georgetown Psychiatrist Dr. Norman Rosenthal has written a readable review of this literature in his book “Transcendence”.


We observe our minds to have a range of alertness.  We are not alert during deep sleep, semi-alert during dreaming states, and in a fog after an all-night flight.  But near the end of a vacation by the ocean, after getting many nights of high quality sleep, we wake up one morning and the world looks different- fresher, less threatening and more alive.  Transcendence produces a similar experience of restful alertness.  Repeated studies have documented the rest to be deeper than deep sleep.

The Vedic tradition of India, from which TM is derived, offers a definition of transcendence that uses a word central to Bowen theory.  It is known as an experience of the “Self”.  Self, according to modern Vedic experts is “pure awareness.”  Transcendental awareness is “pure” because the mind is fully awake, fully conscious, but purified of any object of attention other than itself.  Deep sleep is a condition where one has no object of attention, but also no awareness.  The state of transcendence is just the opposite; fully aware but without thoughts.

If that sounds hard to achieve, well, it actually isn’t.  Transcendence, or pure consciousness, is tasted when the mind, during meditation, naturally settles to its least excited state, where thought and breath grow quieter.  The experiencer is left alone with the experience of “Self”.  It is a natural, pleasant experience. Coming out of this state, one feels uniquely refreshed, less stressed, more whole.  Perhaps Einstein had a similar experience of self when he wrote: “There are moments when one feels free from one’s own identification with human limitations and inadequacies … Life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny; only being.”

Such descriptions, though quite precise, and supported by data, are about as useful to the non-meditator as a poem about strawberries to a hungry person.  TM is effectively learned in-person, from a rigorously trained instructor.  It cannot be learned from an article or book.

It would seem a stretch to assert that the restful alertness of transcendence fosters the connected separateness of differentiation of self.  Can TM fundamentally increase a person’s tolerance of being bumped to the outside of a triangle?  Does is effect basic self?  Is TM based in individual thinking?

I look forward to discussion of these questions in Chicago at the CFC’s “Bowen Theory and Mindfulness” conference on July 22nd.

Erik Thompson

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4 Comments on "Does Meditation Foster Differentiation of Self?"

  • I would offer a different perspective which I will be exploring in my coming doctoral dissertation. Vipassana (the earliest buddhist teaching) meditation is aimed at developing the ability to see things as they are without interference from discursive mental activity, is formed by two phases; the first which focuses attention on the sensation of the breath of the body which is concrete experience and not imaginary; and the second which is a systematic observation of physical sensations at an extremely subtle level throughout the body. This emphasis on awareness without reaction to a real and not imaginary object (sensations) allows one to develop a direct experiential knowledge that discomforts as well as comforts are temporary and so there is no reason to attach to them. The most significant result of this is a direct understanding of the biological mechanisms that underpin Bowen’s emotional system. The Vipassana tradition taught by S. N. Goenka uses a language and teaching style that may be particular suited to this type of translation into the emotional system.

    • The key being the equation of the core construct of unconscious (i.e. “emotional”) reactivity sensations on the body. Equanimity (with awareness) in this language equates to differentiation of self.

  • Lisa Moss says


  • Erik Thompson says

    Regarding Patrick Stinson’s comment, I am fascinated to learn more about “a systematic observation of physical sensations at an extremely subtle level throughout the body.” The word subtle is of interest.

    Thanks for the reply.

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