Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

The authors of this article present the results of an online survey.

Future Directions in Meditation Research: Recommendations for Expanding the Field of Contemplative Science.

PLoS ONE 13(11): e0205740. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0205740

by

Cassandra Vieten, Helane Wahbeh, B. Rael Cahn, Katherine MacLean, Mica Estrada, Paul Mills, Michael Murphy , Shauna Shapiro, Dean Radin, Zoran Josipovic, David E. Presti, Michael Sapiro, Jan Chozen Bays, Peter Russell, David Vago, Fred Travis, Roger Walsh, & Arnaud Delorme

Cassandra Vieten 2

Cassandra Vieten

Helané Wahbeh

Helané Wahbeh

Michael Murphy

Michael Murphy

david presti

David Presti

Arnaud Delorme

Arnaud Delorme

Abstract

“The science of meditation has grown tremendously in the last two decades. Most studies have focused on evaluating the clinical effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions, neural and other physiological correlates of meditation, and individual cognitive and emotional aspects of meditation. Far less research has been conducted on more challenging domains to measure, such as group and relational, transpersonal and mystical, and difficult aspects of meditation; anomalous or extraordinary phenomena related to meditation; and post-conventional stages of development associated with meditation. However, these components of meditation may be crucial to people’s psychological and spiritual development, could represent important mediators and/or mechanisms by which meditation confers benefits, and could themselves be important outcomes of meditation practices. In addition, since large numbers of novices are being introduced to meditation, it is helpful to investigate experiences they may encounter that are not well understood. Over the last four years, a task force of meditation researchers and teachers met regularly to develop recommendations for expanding the current meditation research field to include these important yet often neglected topics. These meetings led to a cross-sectional online survey to investigate the prevalence of a wide range of experiences in 1120 meditators. Results show that the majority of respondents report having had many of these anomalous and extraordinary experiences. While some of the topics are potentially controversial, they can be subjected to rigorous scientific investigation. These arenas represent largely uncharted scientific terrain and provide excellent opportunities for both new and experienced researchers. We provide suggestions for future directions, with accompanying online materials to encourage such research.”

They concluded that “mystical and extraordinary experiences  are prevalent enough among meditators, and salient enough to those who have them, to warrant further scientific inquiry.” Some of the mystical experiences were feelings of peace and tranquility, feelings of joy, loss of usual sense of time, fusion of self with a larger whole, and feeling that “all is one.” Regarding these, and other experiences, it is said in the report that “the vast majority reporting having them “2–5 times” or “many times” for almost all items.”

Other experiences included alterations in vision and hearing, perception of nonphysical beings, a sense of collective energy, and ESP-type experiences. “Over half of the meditators in our sample reported experiencing clairvoyance or telepathy (perceiving information that could not have been known to them by any known physical means, but later turned out to be true) at least once. Not only that, but the majority also found the experience “somewhat pleasant” and “quite meaningful or important.”

“Discussions of the relationship between meditation practice and advanced capacities of meditators can be traced in written form back to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, published roughly two thousand years ago . . . Claims such as precognition, clairvoyance, telepathy, and mind-matter interactions are still controversial, although a growing body of literature suggests that some such claims could be supported by data . . . External physical phenomena, or objects moving by a non-physical force, physical objects appearing when they had not been there before, objects falling over, a light going out, psychokinesis (the supposed ability to move objects by mental attention or intention alone), or other physical manifestations that seemed to have no physical cause are also discussed in historical literature. Approximately one-third of the meditators in our sample endorsed having experienced something like this at least once.”

“Physical and perceptual sensations not apparently caused by the physical environment were experienced by the vast majority of our survey respondents, including: heat, cold, pressure, or tingling; seeing lights, visions, or images; lightness or heaviness, floating, out of body experiences, body parts disappearing, or feeling like the body changed in shape or size; hearing buzzing sounds, humming, or voices or music that were not in the physical environment. These are experiences that have rarely been examined in a scientific context, but were endorsed by 60–90% of our respondents.”

The authors also state: “It is important to note here again that there did not appear to be a substantially higher rate of psychological disorders in this sample than in the general population. While these experiences could be completely illusory, they also could point to aspects of human potential and reality that challenge prevailing paradigms. Western scientists may hesitate to entertain the possibility that one possible explanation for these perceptions of non-local aspects of consciousness are that they are ontologically real. In many meditative traditions, whether they are considered real or not, these experiences are discounted as potentially derailing. Patanjali and others have cautioned that focusing on such experiencing can be seductive, cause egocentricity, or become distractions . . . At the same time, there are views within some contemplative traditions that such experiences can be utilized with wisdom and compassion by experienced masters, and some highly respected practitioners of contemplative traditions have encouraged more research on such domains.”

Overall, the authors of this paper argue that, more than side effects, all these experiences “may be crucial to people’s psychological and spiritual development.” One hopes that their call for further scientific research in these areas is heard.

 

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