The Study of the Psychological Effects of Meditation

A Comparison of First- and Third-person Approaches

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Work prepared in 2006 as a seminar paper for a course on The Psychological and Physiological Effects of Meditation in The Academic College of Tel Aviv–Yaffo under the guidance of Prof. Ricardo Tarrasch, PhD.

The office of great philosophy is to be a Way of Realization, and not solely a monitor of doing. . . . the eternal function of the Divine Sophia is to supply the knowing that serves being first of all and doing only in so far as action is instrumental to that being

Merrell-Wolff, 1994, p. 241 (emphasis in original)

Abstract

This study focused on the question of what is the correct methodology for the study of the psychological effects of meditation. Current studies have almost exclusively used third-person methodologies, such as passing questionnaires or cognitive tests to meditators and non-meditators. Third-person and statistical research has been problematic due to unique features of the phenomena of meditation, such as its subjective nature and its being a part of a more general, long-term transformational process. A survey of different first-person methodologies was conducted and their connection to the study of meditation was elaborated on. Next, a first-person empirical method to the study of meditation was proposed and exemplified. The first-person method was found to be sounder and to produce richer descriptions. It is suggested that the first-person approach should be used to explore the subjective aspects of meditation and to generate hypotheses for third-person studies.

Introduction

People have always sought to transcend this world. Different cultures and religions have used different means to achieve this goal, such as devotion to gods or to a God through prayer and rituals, consumption of psychoactive substances, inducing trance-like states by way of dancing, mortification, and the list goes on. Moreover, almost every religion has employed a practice of meditation, including Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and Taoism (Smith et al., 2003). Nowadays, a variety of secular techniques of meditation (e.g., Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation, Johannes Schultz’s Autogenic Training, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) are available to those not identified with any religion.

Even though meditation has been practiced over the world for centuries, it has only began receiving serious scholarly attention in the West in the twentieth century. Some psychoanalysts saw meditation, like dreams and hypnosis, as a method to access the unconscious parts of the psyche (Welwood, 1977). Jung, for instance, viewed meditation as a withdrawal from the world that provokes the unconscious in a way that facilitates psychological health (ibid). According to other psychoanalysts, notably Freud, high mystical states, like that produced by meditation, are a mere regression to the narcissistic phase of infant development (Freud, 1989). With the advent of Behaviorism, the study of consciousness in general and of meditation as a way of altering one’s state of consciousness in particular has been neglected. But by the 1960s consciousness was again recognized as an important and an investigatable facet of the workings of the mind, and thus the research of various aspects of consciousness, meditation included, was recommenced (Smith et al., 2003).

Early research tended to focus on the physiological effects of meditation. Thus, Jacobson in 1939 observed effects on blood pressure, Bagchi and Wegner in 1957 found a slowing of the rate of respiration and of the heart, and Hirai in 1960 conducted a EEG study on Zen meditation (Lamb, 2004). In the 1970s research has begun dealing with psychological effects, such as changes of personality, perception, stress and anxiety, psychological health, mental fatigue, and learning and memory (ibid), but the research paradigm was mostly modeled after Wallace’s influential physiological study from 1970 that used a large sample which was studied in a laboratory under controlled conditions (Boals, 1978). In other words, since the beginning psychological investigations were modeled after physiological studies. This is a manifestation of the attempt (that remains to this day) of psychologists to be seen as doing “exact science.” Other approaches or paradigms did exist, but they were less dominant and trendy. Examples are Walsh’s account of his meditation-related subjective experiences (1977) and Kornfield’s phenomenological study (1979). The geist of such approaches was captured well, I think, in Shapiro’s remark that “the most promising future meditation research may lie in the model of a personal scientist, using our selves as subjects—and combining the precision of Western phenomenological science with the vision of Eastern thought and practice” (Walsh et al., 1978). The following work will try to show that the best way to conduct research on the psychological effects of meditation is indeed through the use of first-person approaches, wherein the researcher is the subject of the research, and the method of investigation is also the meditation that is being studied.

What is meditation?

Before moving on to methodological considerations, it is in place to define meditation and to survey different types of meditation techniques.

The large variety of meditation techniques has made it difficult to define meditation. As Boals (1978) points out, according to early conceptualizations, meditation was a relaxation technique. This view was reinforced by physiological studies that found a pattern of effects similar to that produced by relaxation techniques, such as a decrease in oxygen consumption, respiration rate, heart rate, an increase in the intensity of slow alpha brain waves, etc. However, studies have also shown physiological effects which are quite unique to meditation, such as an increase in gamma brain waves (Lutz et al., 2004). Moreover, as Boals (1978) shows, viewing meditation as a technique that generates a “relaxation response” has some problematic consequences. First, “it does not help us much in understanding the negative consequences” of meditation (p. 148). Second, there are many different types of relaxation techniques (e.g., Yoga, Zen, autogenic training, hypnosis, progressive relaxation) and there is evidence that each technique produces distinctive physiological effects. Third, “the relaxation view of meditation does not tell us anything about the process of meditation” (p. 154; emphasis in original). Boals suggests that meditation is a cognitive process that involves a deliberate alteration and control of attention. This kind of definition was also adopted by the American Psychiatric Association, influenced by Shapiro’s definition of meditation which concentrates on focusing attention in a non-analytic way and trying not to think (Wenk-Sormaz, 2005).

Other definitions are broader. Cardoso et al. (2004), for example, views meditation as a procedure that involves the use of a clearly defined and regularly practiced technique, that results in muscle relaxation and in logic relaxation (not intending to analyzing, judging and creating the process), that is self-induced, and which uses an anchor (focusing on something specific or turning off focusing altogether). Smith et al. (2003), to take another example of a wide definition, see the control of attention as only one facet of the process of meditation, together with “controlling and regulating breathing, … eliminating external stimuli, assuming yogic positions, and forming mental images of an event or symbol.” These practices lead to an altered states of consciousness that is a “pleasant, mildly altered subjective state in which the individual feels mentally and physically relaxed. … some individuals may have mystical experiences in which they lose self-awareness and gain a sense of being involved in a wider consciousness, however defined” (pp. 207-208). Such definitions encompass different techniques and effects of meditation and thus are preferable than the more restrictive, general definition of meditation as a hypometabolic state of relaxation or as a cognitive process of controlling attention. Because meditation is a multi-faceted and diverse set of techniques, limiting its definition will necessarily result in a misunderstanding. A broad definition should not only include the activities that are the basis of different meditation techniques but also the effects of those activities.

It is widely accepted that meditation can be divided into two main types of meditation (e.g., Washburn, 1978; Smith et al., 2003). The first type (receptive in Washburn’s terms, opening-up in Smith’s terms, mindfulness in Young’s (1998) terms) involves an effort to keep the mind free by observing everything thought and perceived in a detached manner. The second type (concentrative) involves focusing awareness on a single object. An example of the first type is Kabat-Zinn’s (2005) method, the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a meditation in which one cultivates moment-to-moment awareness. Other techniques that belong to this category are the satipatthāna and vipassanā meditations of the Buddhists, the shikan-taza of Zen, Krishnamurti’s choiceless awareness, and Gurdjieff’s self-remembering (Washburn, 1978). An example of the concentrative meditation is given in a commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras, (Hariharānanda Āranya, 1983): “[W]hen any good feeling or idea is felt in a dream, then immediately on awakening and thereafter that feeling should be contemplated upon” (p. 86). Additional concentrative techniques are Transcendental Meditation (which involves concentration on a specific mantra), Patanjali’s ashtanga-yoga, the Samatha of the Buddhists (Wallace, 1999), and the use of koans (paradoxical problems) in Zen (Shear and Jevning, 1999).

Psychological effects of meditation

A psychological effect of meditation is something that happens as a consequence of the practice which could not have occurred, or would have been much less likely to occur, without it. Many effects of psychological of meditation have already been documented, but there does not exist a framework in which we can conveniently classify them. I propose a two-dimensional model that can be used as such a framework.

The first dimension concerns the type of effect. Four such types exist in accordance with the four ways in which, in my opinion, we exist in the world. There is first-of-all the physical plane in which our body exists, in which we behave, interact with others, and perceive the environment. Note that I do not include changes in brain and body functioning in the physical plane for the present study focuses solely on psychological effects of meditation. For example, a study by Leigh, Bowen, and Marlatt (2005) found a negative correlation between meditating and smoking and frequent binge-drinking behavior. Second, there is the emotional plane that hosts our emotions and drives. Many studies have reported less anxiety in meditators as compared to non-meditators (e.g., Majumdar et al., 2002). Third, there is the cognitive plane, in which we think. An example of a cognitive effect of meditation is the reduction in habitual responding, a tendency of our conceptual activity to be done automatically (Wenk-Sormaz, 2005). Fourth, there is the mystical plane, which includes every experience which is not sensual, emotional or cognitive. Travis, Arenander, and DuBois (2004), for instance, found that meditators perceived themselves as being “independent of and underlying thoughts, feelings, and actions” (p. 409).

Another dimension of psychological effects of meditation is the time of the occurrence of the effect. Does the effect appear in the midst of meditation or does it develop gradually in the course of practice and is expressed also in day-to-day life? Effects that occur while meditating are called effects during meditation. Effects that occur because of meditation but not while being in meditation are called effects after meditation.

Using this proposed framework, it is convenient to classify the various psychological effects of meditation. One simply has to place each effect in the matrix created by the two analytic dimensions. For example, a vision that appears to one during meditation will be classified as a physical effect during meditation. A reduction in depression is an emotional effect after meditation. This framework will be used throughout this work.

Why is it important to study psychological effects of meditation?

Meditation produces many positive psychological effects. These can be divided, as we have seen above, into eight categories. Each category hosts a number of effects that are useful for some purpose. The physical effects can help persons with behavioral and physical problems. The emotional effects are of benefit for people suffering from mild emotional problems and even affective disorders. The cognitive effects can help almost anyone, and they’re especially profitable for people who need strong intellectual skills, such as schoolchildren, students, and for old people suffering from cognitive impairments. Finally, the mystical effects are perhaps not a necessity of life, but they include experiences that we all crave and which can make us happier and more satisfied with life.

By scientifically recording these effects, gradually, a complete picture will emerge, with the advantage of being able to predict which meditation technique will produce each psychological effect for every individual. Eventually, a psychotherapist, for instance, will be able to use the accumulated knowledge to prescribe a meditation therapy for her clients, much like an M.D. prescribes medicine to her patients.

Goals of the present work

The present work will not attempt to come up with a theory of meditation, nor do I believe that it is possible to create a theoretical account of meditation before all the types of meditation, its different effects, and the different experiences associated with it have been documented and understood well enough. Once we know exactly which meditation technique produces which effects for which people, only then would we be able to propose a theoretical account of meditation.

But how should we search and document the psychological effects of meditation? Working with brain imaging and other physiological measurements of brain processes that mediate the psychological effects is clearly lacking; it is like trying to understand music by studying the vibrations of a violin. Meditation, like music, is a practice that lead to experiences which are meaningful and subjective, and which cannot be captured by observing the neuronal or brain level. Thus, there are two methods we could use. Firstly, we could have a group of subjects with experience in meditation fill a questionnaire or be interviewed. The data we come up with can then be analyzed statistically and thus we obtain information about the effects produced in the subject by a specific technique. This method will be referred to as a third-person, empirical research. Alternatively, it is possible for a researcher to practice meditation and to record the effects she and other people observe in herself. This method will be referred to as a first-person research (or Introspectology). The first-person method has a couple of important characteristics. First, it is longitudinal, for the researcher meditates for a certain period of time and during this time, she observes the effects that occur in herself. Second, it is subjective since there is no separation between the subject and researcher. There is a strong and inevitable dependency between the research and the personality of the researcher.

Current psychological studies of meditation have almost exclusively used third-person methodologies, such as passing questionnaires or cognitive tests to meditators and non-meditators and using brain imaging techniques to explore neural correlates of different subjective states induced by meditation. Nevertheless, there have always been investigators using the third-person method in their studies of the psychology of meditation (e.g., James, 1950/1890; Merrell-Wolff, 1994; Kornfield, 1979; Walsh, 1977; Patrik, 1994).

The overarching goal of present work is to compare the first- and third- methods in studying the psychological effects of meditation. On the surface it may seem that the third-person method is preferable, not only since it is a much more dominant paradigm in general science, but also because it is more objective and empirical. However, since meditation is an act that produces a change in consciousness, the third-person method might be limited. Indeed, the hypothesis that underlies this work is that the preferable method of studying meditation is the subjective approach. In order to examine this hypothesis, the present study offers a methodological comparison of the two approaches. Two separate studies have been conducted. The first study used the third-person, empirical method. The second study, a first-person study, was designed to meet the deficiencies of the third-person method.

Meditation – a third-person, empirical investigation

Introduction

Many articles which surveyed the effects of meditation involved participants practicing either mindfulness-based techniques (e.g., Majumdar et al., 2002; Leigh, Bowen, & Marlatt, 2005) or concentrative techniques, such as TM (e.g., Wenk-Sormaz, 2005; Travis, Arenander, & DuBois, 2004). Only rarely were the two techniques compared in a single research design. This is only natural in our present state of knowledge, wherein we have only a fragmentary idea concerning the effects of meditation. How can we compare effects of different techniques when we are short of a clear picture of what exactly ought to be compared? Thus, a comparison of meditation techniques on the level of specific effects was not properly accomplished yet.

On the other hand, conceptual comparisons of the techniques themselves are abundant. Washburn (1978), for instance, deals with the difference between the concentrative and receptive (mindfulness) meditation techniques. Specifically, he writes about the logical relation and the practical relation between the two types of meditation and their long-term goal. In terms of the logical relation, he claims that the techniques are opposed to one another; while concentrative meditation uses focused awareness, mindfulness meditation defocalizes awareness. The practical relation is a complementary relation; if practiced together they lead to a single long-term goal. Note that Washburn does not compare the effects of the two meditations. What is implied by Washburn is that there is a fundamental difference between concentrative and receptive meditations, and this difference should manifest itself in the effects brought about by the practice of each technique.

Other approaches emphasize the similarities between the two techniques. Shinzen Young, for instance, states that “[o]n the surface they would seem to be very different, perhaps even antithetical … [B]eneath the surface differences, these two practices have a commonality that can easily go unrecognized. … [M]indfulness meditation in essence turns each ordinary experience into a mantra” (Young, 1998; emphasis in original). What this means is that while concentration on a single object, such as a mantra, is considered “concentrative meditation,” concentration on a multitude of objects is considered “mindfulness meditation.” The essence is not the nature of the object/s, but the act of concentration in itself. Osho (1997) noted that over many years he had practiced 112 different meditations and he found that each of them had the same essence, which he calls witnessing. In concentrative meditation one is a witness of a single object, while in mindfulness meditation, one witnesses a conglomeration of objects. Finally, Shear & Jevning also recognize the similarities between TM and Zen: “both use mental processes designed to annihilate themselves, whether through effort, doubt or relaxation, until a purely contentless wakeful mental state is reportedly achieved” (Shear & Jevning, 1999, p. 193).

Finding differences in the effects of the different types of meditation will serve to strengthen Washburn’s theory, for if the mechanisms of the two techniques are opposed to each other this entails a difference also in the effects observed by using only one of the two techniques. If, on the other hand, no consequential differences would be found between the two techniques, it would lend support to the claim that the two techniques are not as distinct as they seem. Of course it will not serve as proof that a relation does not exist between type of meditation and effect pattern, for an argument on no-relation between variables can only be rejected, not proved, using statistical methodology.

What is needed is a qualitative design that will allow collecting a vast amount of information on the effects of the different techniques, information that will allow generation of hypotheses regarding the differences between the two techniques to be studied systematically in more specific experimental designs. The purpose of the current empirical investigation was not only to generate a general picture of the psychological effects of the different types of meditation, but also to compare the effects brought about by Transcendental Meditation and other such concentrative meditations,1 and the effects of mindfulness meditation. It was hypothesized, in agreement with Washburn’s theory, that there will be a difference between the effects observed in meditators practicing concentrative meditation and between those practicing mindfulness-based techniques.

1 Washburn (1978) suggests that TM should be considered mindfulness-based and not be viewed as concentrative meditation because its proponents insist on that point. Thus, he proposes to view the mantra employed in TM “not [as] an object of concentration-absorption, but rather an anchor to keep attention from being captured by the objects that pass through the mind” (p. 46). But, to my mind, this is unacceptable since the concentrative mantra also functions as an anchor. The concentration-absorption is an effect and not a function.

In accordance with the scheme of analysis suggested above, two dimensions of the effects of the two meditation techniques were studied. Thus, both effects-during meditation and effects-after meditation were investigated, and effects were categorized into the four planes of human existence – the physical-behavioral plane, the emotional-affective plane, the cognitive-mental plane, and the spiritual-mystical plane. Operationally, it was hypothesized that practice of either mindfulness techniques or concentrative techniques would correlate with a different pattern of psychological effects.

Method

Subjects

Subjects were recruited through ads which were placed in several places in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and in The Academic College of Tel Aviv–Yaffo. Also, ads were put in various online forums. Overall, there were 20 participants (13 male, 7 female), whose ages ranged from 21 to 63 (M = 37.45, SD = 13.5). Subjects ranged in length of practice from one to forty years.

The subjects practiced different meditation techniques; this was allowed because the purpose of the research was not merely to discover the effects of a certain technique, but also to produce a general idea concerning the effects of meditation. The subjects were divided into two groups, depending on their most practiced meditation technique: 10 participants practiced mainly Transcendental Meditation or a different concentration-based technique and 10 participants practiced mainly different mindfulness-based techniques. In the concentration meditation group, the ages ranged from 22 to 63 (M = 43.1, SD = 15). Six of them were male, 4 female. In the mindfulness meditation group, the ages ranged from 21 to 51 (M = 31.8, SD = 10). Seven of them were male, 3 female. There was no significant difference between the age means of the two groups, t(18)=2.01, p>.05. Between the subjects who disclosed their length of practice (4 subjects in the concentrative group with a mean of 5.75 years, SD = 5.7 and 7 in the mindfulness group with a mean of 13 years, SD = 16.1) there was also no significant difference , t(9)=-.85, p>.05.

Five participants from the mindfulness group worked in a “spiritual” trade, such as teaching yoga, healing, etc., as compares to one participant from the concentration group. The rest came from a variety of professional backgrounds. None of the participants reported any physical or mental disorder or consumption of drugs which could serve as an alternative explanation for the effects reported by them.

Instrument

The participants volunteered to fill up a questionnaire written specifically for the present research by the researcher and which consisted of four parts. All questions, besides the first part, were open-ended. The first part included demographic questions. The second part assessed the history of meditation practice. Each subject was asked to write about the techniques he had practiced, the range of practice, the length of each practice, and the number of practices per week. The third part of the questionnaire directed the participants to describe one or more experiences they had during meditation which were especially memorable to them. The last part of the questionnaire contained questions on effects observed by the subjects in their day-to-day life, after meditation.

Content Analysis

Each subject’s report was explicated and categories of effects were thus generated separately for effects-during and effects-after the practice of meditation. The effects were further divided to the four types of effects (physical, emotional, cognitive, and mystical). Eight groups of effects were arrived at and each of these contained a number of specific effects.

In the effects-during meditation category, the physical effects included less pain, improved sense perception, a relief of a physical disorder, auditory hallucinations, tactile hallucinations, not feeling the body, a sense of floating, and the slowing of breath. The emotional effects were a feeling of bliss, tranquility, lability, and better coping with negative emotions. Cognitive effects comprised improved self-awareness, memories from the distant past, easy and flowing concentration, and less thoughts. The mystical effects contained a sense of quiescence, reception of messages and images, and energy sensations.

In the effects-after category, the physical effects included less consumption of stimulants, improved sense perception, vigorousness, better human relations, a relief of pain, and less appetite. The emotional effects were less negative emotions, more positive emotions, improved self-confidence, more tolerance, more tranquility, and less clinging. Cognitive effects comprised better concentration, improved understanding, and improved learning/memory. The mystical effects contained more intuition, a neutral stance, a sense of inner strength, astral projection, improved self-consciousness, weakening of the ego,2 better creativity, and less struggle with life.

2 The “ego” in this context refers to the part of the psyche which distinguishes one as different, oftentimes superior, to others.

Each group was analyzed and a value was generated for each of the general and more specific effects indicating whether each participant reported or did not report that effect.

Statistical Analysis

A chi-square test was conducted for each specific effect and for the categorical effects to test for proportional differences between the two groups. In accordance with the hypothesis put forward, it was predicted that a different pattern of effects would be uncovered between the two groups.

Results

To test the hypothesis that there is a difference between the effects observed in concentrative meditators and between those observed in mindfulness meditators, a chi-square test comparing the proportion of each of the 8 effect categories (physical during/after, emotional during/after, cognitive during/after, and spiritual during/after) in the two meditation groups was conducted. No significant effects were found in regards to the general effect categories. However, there was a weak correlation approaching significance in the physical/after category, r=.13, χ²(1)=3.5, p=0.06. This was caused because while all members of the concentrative meditation group reported more of this effect, it was only reported by 70% of the mindfulness meditators.

Additionally, chi-square tests were conducted to compare the proportion of the more specific effects reported by each group’s subjects between the two meditations. In regards to effects-during meditation, the following significant effect was found: Eighty percent of the concentrative group reported more experiences of quiescence during meditation compared to only 10% of the mindfulness group, r=.7, χ²(1)=10, p<.01. Several differences approached significance, including more feelings of bliss in the concentrative group (80%) than in the mindfulness group (20%), and more tranquility in the concentrative group (80%) than in the mindfulness group (40%), r=.4, χ²(1)=3.3, p=.07. Also, while 30% of the members of the mindfulness group reported more reception of messages and images during meditation, none of the concentrative group reported that, r=.42, χ²(1)=3.5, p=.06.

In regards to effects-after meditation, the following significant effects were found: The members of the mindfulness group reported more tranquility in day-to-day life (80%) than the concentration group (30%), r=.5, χ²(1)=5, p<.05. Also, thirty percent of the concentration group developed a sense of vigoursness and more intuition in day-to-day life compares to none in the mindfulness group, r=.42, χ²(1)=3.5, p=.06.

Discussion

The purpose of the present empirical investigation was to generate a broad picture of the effects of meditation and a framework in which these effects can be recorded. The eight general effect categories was found to be a useful analytic tool, but it is important to remember that the list of specific effects in each of the broad categories is not exhaustive; there may be many more specific effects brought about by meditation and the question of whether some of them were not actually brought about by meditation remains open.

Concerning the question of difference between concentrative and mindfulness meditations, there were several significant findings. In the general-effect categories, concentrative meditators reported more physical effects after meditation. Specific effects-during meditation included more quiescence, feelings of bliss and tranquility in the concentrative group than in the mindfulness group, while the mindfulness group reported more reception of messages and images than the concentrative group. Effects-after meditation which were found was more tranquility in the day-to-day life of mindfulness meditators, and more intuition and a sense of vigor in the concentrative group.

Although differences were found between the techniques, these findings do not necessarily strengthen the theory of difference between concentrative and mindfulness techniques due to shortcomings of the method used. First of all, because a control group of non-meditators was not included in the present design and because this was a correlational design without a manipulation, it cannot be ascertained that the effects reported were indeed caused by the meditation. Second, because of the small number of participants and their being volunteers, it is quite hard to generalize the result of this research to the general population. Finally, this study used reports of laymen which could well me inaccurate and misleading.

Empirical, third-person research in general has many flaws when it comes to the study of human consciousness in general and subjective states such as meditation in particular (Caspi & Burleson, 2005). Proper research that can lead us to knowledge about cause-and-effect relationships in nature requires a manipulation, which in the case of meditation is almost never possible to achieve. Taking random people from the general population and assigning half of them to a practice of meditation for 20 years is not really practical. But without it no cause-and-effect conclusions can be drawn. Moreover, empirical research requires collecting information about the subjects’ subjective experiences. Using questionnaires and even interviews to collect such information is highly problematic for subjective reports are impossible to quantize in any meaningful manner. It seems quite reasonable that in regarding to laymen, there is a permanent problem in the validity of subjective reports as a measure of subjective experiences. Most people do not take care to be as precise as possible when describing their experiences and their descriptions are oftentimes inaccurate.

Future third-person research should focus on specific effects, both in terms of a conceptual investigation of the effects through a qualitative analysis of meditators reports and in terms of a comparison across different meditation techniques. A systematic and thorough investigation would allow reaching a more decisive answer in regards to the difference between mindfulness and concentration techniques. Of course, because of the limitations of the empirical method elaborated above, our knowledge of the phenomena of meditation will never be complete before we begin using first-person methodologies in parallel.

Meditation and first-person methodology

Introduction to Introspectology

When a research method fails to provide answers in a certain field, it might be wise to move on to a different method, or at least to complement the conservative method through the use of a new one. Using first-person research may solve some of the problems of the empirical method, for here the researcher of meditation must be a person with a lengthy experience in meditation. She also has to be very acute in her perception of her subjective experiences. She has to perceive her subjectivity in an objective and clear manner, that is not distorted by emotions and bias. This solves the second problem of empirical-research, concerning self-reports of laymen. The only way to study one’s subjective materials is to have that subject be willing and able to be as objective as possible. Such a mentality is rarely found among those not completely dedicated to self-examination. Thus, scientists of consciousness are forced to serve as subjects’ of their own research, empirically and objectively self-examining their own minds and reporting their findings. A rare example of such an endeavor is embodied in Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s work, which depicts the first-hand knowledge gained through the practice of jnana yoga and the experiences of enlightenment brought about by it (see Merrell-Wolff, 1994). Merrell-Wolff documented his own transformation from normal consciousness to Nirvanic Consciousness. What one learns from reading his experiences is so much more than what we might learn from perhaps a thousand of third-person studies.

First-person studies have been promoted by various schools and individuals. One of those schools was called Phenomenology, which most simply is the study of phenomena. After Kant’s break-up of all that is to phenomena, the things that seem to exist, and noumena, the things that actually exist, it was not at all certain anymore that studying noumena is even possible because of an epistemological barrier. This caused certain individuals to turn to the study of what we can definitely have access to, namely our own perceptions. We cannot be sure that nature is as it seems to us, but our thoughts about nature and our perceptions are as real as anything can get. Williams James, who is regarded by many the father of modern psychology, regarded that as a basic premise when he stated that “people unhesitatingly believe that they feel themselves thinking, and that they distinguish the mental state as an inward activity or passion, from all the objects with which it may cognitively deal. I regard this belief as the most fundamental of all the postulates of Psychology” (James, 1950/1890; emphasis in original). He too believed that “Introspective Observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always” (ibid; emphasis in original). Indeed, no one can deny the existence of something so close, first-hand., such as our own subjective experiences. Edmund Husserl, the founder of Phenomenology, suggested that the logical entities, namely the constructs of the mind, are objective and should not be reduced to mental or physical processes (Husserl, 2004). His method involves phenomenological reductions, which is “at one and the same time, … an effective act, an immanent operation, an activity … which makes of me both an agent working at a transformation of the world via the transformation of my-self, and a state, a mode of self-observation …” (Depraz, 1999). More simply, the reduction involves a viewing of phenomena in their own terms, without regarding them as events in the real world and without trying to bestow upon them a status of reality. The advantage of the disconnection between subjectivity and objectivity that characterizes phenomenological reduction is a guarantee “that all meditation experiences receive the same watchful acceptance” (Patrik, 1994), disregarding the status of reality that we normally assign to our experiences, and whether they are thoughts, hallucinations, perceptions, or anything else.

Phenomenology then is the study of the part of existence that is accessible to our perception and knowledge plainly as it appears to us. Phenomenological data consists of everything that we can subjectively experiences, including sensations, thoughts, the sense of time, etc. There are no assumptions regarding to the causes of phenomena, just a first-person survey and categorization of different types of experiences. An example of a phenomenological investigation is Shanon’s research on the effects of Ayahuasca, which is a powerful psychoactive potion causing powerful spiritual experiences among other types of experience (Shanon, 2003). To study the psychology of Ayahuasca, Shanon has partaken of the brew dozens of times in various environments, recording his experiences and creating a typology of the effects he observed in his own experience. No third-person research could come even close to the deep understanding brought about by Shanon’s book, unless subjects would have been willing to spend a few years experiencing with the brew and objectively investigating the phenomenology of the Ayahuasca intoxication.

Although highly-criticized by those who hoped that psychology would become a natural science, there have always been many schools and individuals continued using introspection in some form or the other. In addition to Husserl’s tradition, the Würzburg school used introspection to try and figure out what happens in the mind in the midst of cognitive tasks, and Freud used introspection to gain data for his psychoanalytical investigations (Shanon, 1984).

Another example of a first-person method is Huxley’s experiments with mescaline as they are depicted in The Doors of Perception (Huxley, 1971/1959). Huxley relates the phenomenological data in a narrative, a story-like description. Indeed, this is a very convenient way of conveying data from first-person research and is very similar to the anthropologist’s description. There is much in common between first-person psychology and anthropology. Both disciplines seek to understand man, focusing either on the personal or social aspects of the human psyche. The anthropologist goes into the field, interacts with his subjects and informants, observes the people he is researching and writes a story about his experiences. Through learning about a different culture, the anthropologist’s understanding of his own culture and his own social conditioning improves. Similarly, the psychologist in the most basic level aspires to understand himself. He experiments with different states of consciousness, and once again by learning about the different and the unusual, knowledge about the normally taken for granted is reached. Another similarity between anthropology and first-person psychology is that they both seek the general and the holistic, unlike other sciences which focus on analysis and reduction. Human beings have a very sophisticated subjectivity; creating schemes, constructing theories, and trying to isolate specific variables and effects is a waste of time, to my mind. What we need is to create a rich, intimate and lucid picture of what it is like to experience something.

Using introspection to study meditation is different from other things that can be studied by it, for meditation can also be seen as an exercise of developing better insight toward oneself by sharpening the faculty of attention. As Wallace puts it, “the first task in the Buddhist investigation of the mind is to so refine the attention and balance the nervous system that the mind is made properly functional, free of the detrimental influences of excitation and laxity” (Wallace, 1999). So practicing meditation offers the researchers access to the essence of their research subject, while also allowing them to attend to the nuances they see in an objective and detached manner.

In the case of the psychological effects of meditation, we are interested first of all in the question, how is the experience of meditation like and what is its influence upon us? To answer this questions, Tart (1972) has practiced TM for twenty-eight minutes morning and night for about a year and he discovered several effects: appearance of unsolved thought sequences that reduced the pressure of thoughts needing to be completely processed, loss of enjoyment of and tolerance for alcohol, an ability to silence the mind, and resistance to cold. Tart sums up by raising a few suggestions for third-person research.

I propose that in our current states of knowledge, the best way to study the effects of meditation is through a serious and long-term practice of meditation. It is granted that the effects observed by one meditator are not generalizable; the method promoted is not a one-time endeavor. Rather, it ought to be practiced by many psychologists and with regards to many different techniques of meditation. After a large corpus of such investigations is collected, only then shall we have a clear picture of the psychological effects of meditation. To study meditation, we ought first to ask the simple question of how it feels like to meditate, and then after a large corpus of such descriptions will evolve, descriptions of different researchers using different techniques of meditation, it will be time to use third-person research and meta-analysis to ask larger questions, such as which type of meditation leads to what kind of effects? Is a certain meditation effective for every type of individual? And so on. First-person descriptions are merely a starting point for more advanced research. Indeed there is a “need to harmonize and constrain them [first-person descriptions] by building the appropriate links with third-person studies” (Varela & Shear, 1999, p. 2; emphasis in original). The following section is an example of a first-person investigation of meditation.

The practice

Initially my ambition was to investigate raja-yoga, as it is elaborated in Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras and the various translations (see, for instance, Hariharānanda Āranya, 1983). For two months I have studied the text and tried to change my life habits in accordance with the teachings. According to Patanjali, before one starts meditating, one must start with a rigorous ethical training that includes a vow not to harm any living being, not to lie, not to steal, not to have sexual misconduct, and not to be greedy, as well as keeping the body and mind clean, studying, and being content. The next step is choosing a physical posture and becoming comfortable with it. Once one has a posture, one practices breathing exercises and then finally one starts to meditate by choose objects ranging from very gross and becoming gradually subtler and subtler. In February 2006 I finished the preparations and began meditating, taking the idea of a personal God and the mantra that symbolizes Him as an object of concentration. Sometimes I also visually imagined that God Himself is sitting in front of me or in my heart, chanting the mantra I was hearing in my mind. Upon noticing that my mind started to roam around, I rebuilt my imaginal object and returned to concentrate on it.

About a month after I began my practice of concentrative meditation, I took on myself the practice of mindfulness meditation. In this way, I thought, I could see if there are differences in the way concentrative and mindfulness meditation effect me. At first, my technique consisted of being conscious of the feel of the breath in the area beneath the nose and above the upper lip. In the course of the following month, I realized that in mindfulness meditation the attention does not have to be limited to a single object, but rather can free flow between objects as they naturally enter consciousness. For example, if in the midst of meditation I suddenly heard loud noises from outside, I would attend to these noises. And if a sensation of pain caused me discomfort during the practice, I would just observe that sensation.

After a month of the concentrative practice and the month of mindfulness practice, I took a month off meditation. This was done in order that a control period would be available to which I would compare the effects I observed during my practice. If certain effects would disappear during this resting month, the conclusion would be that they may have indeed been caused by the meditation.

In terms of introspective method, immediately after my meditation practice, which took place daily in different hours and lasted approximately thirty minutes, I recorded the essence of my experience and especially any extraordinary experience I had. Also, if during the months of my practice, I noticed any changes in my day-to-day life, I recorded them as well. Accordingly, the effects I discovered are divided to effects during meditation and effects after meditation.

Effects during meditation

The most standard experience in my meditation, both during concentrative practices and mindfulness practices, included a faint pain in my legs and lower back that grew stronger and stronger from minute to minute and long moments of unconscious roaming of the mind around day-to-day issues. This subjective state of affairs was regarded by me as the baseline for comparison of any effects that would appear in the course of my meditation.

I would usually think about the passing time in most meditations, for the practice was sometimes so uncomfortable and so boring that I wished it to be over. One time, however, when I was meditating, I suddenly noticed that in the periods I maintained my concentration, time seemed to pass very quickly. In no time my meditation was over and I found myself longing for more. This is in contrast to meditations in which my mind drifted off to thoughts, in which time seemed to pass very slowly. Thus, a significant effect of successful meditation seemed to be less attention to time flow.

Another effect I noticed was an increase in self-insight; thoughts that have to do with my day-to-day conduct appeared during either concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation, and helped me to understand myself better in regarding to many different issues. For example, in one of my concentrative meditations I suddenly realized all throughout the day I am almost always very self-conscious, in the sense that I try to see myself from the perspective of others, as if I am the center of their attention (objective self-consciousness). I also understood that most of the time my mind is flooded with partly unconscious automatic thoughts, almost never giving me rest. Almost never do I experience moments of silence in which I think of nothing at all. During one of my mindfulness meditation, to take another example, my introspective sense was so sharp, that I suddenly saw clearly the process of meditation and could articulate it very clearly to myself. I also noticed that whenever I become conscious of an automatic thought, it disappears, and that I do not think those thoughts, but rather that they arise because of tendencies of the past.

Most of my concentrative meditations involved a very subtle change of consciousness, which I referred to as a contemplative state of consciousness. Phenomenologically, this state can be explained as a sense of a sharpening of the internal space, leading to a better concentrative ability. I felt as if my regular diffused outward awareness abruptly became very focused, stable, one-pointed, and facing inward. I also felt as if the focus of my attention became localized in a point above and between my eyes. I seemed to be tangibly closer to the idea I was concentrating on and there seemed to be a wall in front of my face that gradually came nearer to me, blocking my perception of the objective world. Physically, my body suddenly became very relaxed upon entering the contemplative state. Most often, the contemplative state did not appear in mindfulness meditation. Rather, my focus tended to remain much more diffused. Once or twice however I did experience the contemplative state and in one of these times I experienced the wall in front of my eyes as green rather than black. This vision of a green wall in front of me lasted for a few seconds.

Even when not in the contemplative state and in spite of the bodily pains brought about by the sitting posture, I almost always entered a state of relaxation during meditation, whether it was concentrative meditation or mindfulness meditation. I could easily recognize this state when there were loud noises in my environment. These noises seemed much louder when I was deeply relaxed than when I was not. Sometimes, most often with mindfulness meditation, this relaxation became so deep and felt exceptionally soothing and pleasant. This blissful experience involved a loss of bodily awareness and a subtle sense of joy.

Once during concentrative meditation I suddenly felt as if I am on the verge of a panic attack. Unexplainably, I became very fearful. This has happened to me only once before, unrelated to meditation practice, and I was never diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or any other mental disorder.

Shortly after this fearful feeling, during the same meditation, I felt a strong current of hallucinations beginning to rise in my consciousness, and suddenly I saw something large and yellow, which I quickly and automatically repressed or at least so I felt. I thought that it was God or what my day-dreaming mind imagined as God. I became very sleepy and my stream of thought was akin to that which appears whilst trying to fall asleep. This, together with the green wall I described earlier, are examples of meditation’s capacity to induce visual hallucinations.

Many times, the thoughts that appeared in my mind during concentrative meditation were very creative. There was a flow of creative ideas that seem to be very important at the moment I was thinking them. Note however that this flow of ideas was dissimilar to the baseline state, in which my thoughts were predominantly egotistic, trivial, and quotidian. Sometimes the thoughts that passed through my mind during concentration were bad memories that included a sense of guilt or shame. This rising of repressed materials has been documented elsewhere as an effect of concentrative meditation (e.g., Tart, 1972).

In one of my mindfulness meditations for almost two or three minutes no thoughts came to my mind, except for small automatic thoughts that crept up every once in a while and seemed to be a sort of subtle mental vibrations, like spasms of the brain. But these thoughts did not interfere with my continuous attention to my breath. Perhaps this is the experience which in the East is called Samadhi (Hariharānanda Āranya,1983), or stillness of the mind. These short moments of Samadhi recurred in later meditations and were always accompanied by a sense of great serenity and bliss.

Finally, once, while in concentrative meditation, I suddenly became very conscious of the distinction between myself and the ego. I was trying to concentrate but my mind kept wandering around, and then I realized that I am in a constant battle with what one may call the ego, the individual mind, which tries to endlessly chatter. I understood there are two entities; one of them continuously thinking and the other tries to remain in silence by controlling the ego. The ego seemed to be working in an automatic fashion, while the controlling of the ego, which I identified as my real self, demands conscious effort. This distinction became especially strong when I began practicing mindfulness meditation. I realized that I must discriminate between what is myself and between what is not myself. I knew that the world is different than me, because I am not the world, I am just conscious of it, but now I knew that I was not my body or mind either, for these were also objects of my observation. I knew that who I really am is the thing that is observing, and not the things observed. Note that this was not merely an intellectual insight, for this principle, which is a recurrent theme in Eastern teachings, especially of the Advaita school of Hinduism, was not new for me; this time it was a conclusion I intuitively derived from my experience.

Effects after meditation

In the days following my practice of concentrative meditation, I noticed a change in the way I related to other people. Being a night person, I rarely am sociable and friendly during the day, and more often I am just apathetic and withdrawn, especially when I am around strangers. But this has changed. I noticed it for the first time when, waiting in a bus station, I suddenly felt a strong feeling that all the strangers standing around me are good people and that I am responsible for them and should try to be empathic and helpful towards them. This attitude of philanthropy lasted throughout the two months of my meditation and gradually became dim when I stopped meditating. Another example of this attitude was when I helped an old lady to get up on the bus on a different occasion. Usually I would try to ignore her by pretending I did not see her or just wait for a request for help, but this time I felt a strong urge to help the old lady.

The increase of self-insight affected also my day-to-day life for it became important to me to try to change my conduct in accordance with the insights that came to me in meditation. Moreover, I became much more aware of my own motives, feelings, and thoughts, even when this mental content did not necessarily put me in a good light. For example, once my girlfriend told me about a new job she got which really excited her, and I suddenly became aware that I am not happy for her for some reason. Usually, I would have just repressed this thought since it is a negative thing for one to know about oneself, but the practice of self-observation in meditation became rooted in me, and the habit remained even after I stopped practicing meditation. I became intensely aware of my limitations as well as of my strengths. I have also noticed that I am much more aware of the reason I was looking at girls. I became aware of a very subtle sense of pleasure that appeared every time I saw an attractive girl.

One of the effects of mindfulness meditation was a decrease in sexual interest, which included behavioral, affective, and cognitive elements: less sexual behavior, less craving for sex, and less thinking about sex.

After about three weeks of concentrative meditation practice, my girlfriend, who knew me better than anyone, sometimes even better than I knew myself, had remarked that I have been much less irritable lately. During the time I was practicing mindfulness meditation, I thought that I am indeed much less grumpy.

During my mindfulness meditation month, my best friend had remarked, after I told him I wish to leave the West and go live as a nomad, that it seems that lately I am much more connected to myself rather than to social norms and expectations. This made a lot of sense to me and I felt that it was true also when I went to a dancing club and felt how surprisingly free I am from objective self-consciousness, which as I said earlier was very characteristic of me before meditation and during the first weeks of my practice. Thus, a decrease in objective self-consciousness is another possible effect of mindfulness meditation.

The brief moments of Samadhi I experienced during the mindfulness meditation month left me with a feeling of joy and high spirits even in day-to-day life, while I was not meditating.

Finally, while I was practicing mindfulness meditation I noticed a weakening of compulsions. Before I started to meditate I always used to experience annoying compulsions, things that I felt I must do and that if I did not do would make me anxious. I began to perceive myself as free from myself. I became more serene and less agitated. But this attitude gradually diminished over the control month, and I became more and more anxious, agitated, and worried.

Discussion

The first-person research I conducted for three months provided a very detailed and multifarious portrayal of the experience of both concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation as it was for me.

Physical effects during concentrative meditation included a state of relaxation and visual hallucinations. The only physical effect during mindfulness meditation was the state of relaxation. Cognitive effects during both types of meditation included less attention to time flow, and in mindfulness meditation I had also experienced sometimes a brief stillness of the mind. During mindfulness meditation, the only emotional effect was blissful experiences, and during concentrative meditation I experienced a gentle panic attack. Mystical effects during concentrative meditation included an increase in self-insight, a contemplative state of consciousness, a flow of creative ideas, rising of repressed materials, and a distinction between myself and the ego. During mindfulness meditation the only mystical effect was an increase in self-insight, although I did experience a little of the contemplative state.

The only physical effect after mindfulness meditation was a decrease in sexual interest. Cognitive effects after mindfulness meditation included self-observation, a decrease in objective self-consciousness, a feeling of joy and high spirits, and a weakening of compulsions. The only cognitive effect after concentrative meditation was self-observation. In terms of emotional effects, both types of meditation made me less irritable, but only concentrative meditation seemed to create in my an attitude of philanthropy. Finally, both types of meditation had a mystical effect of an increase in self-insight.

Although the pattern of effects brought about by each of the meditation techniques was different, I feel cannot reach a conclusion in regards to differences between concentrative and mindfulness meditation. It may be argued that if I would have continued practicing concentrative meditation for another month I would observe all the effects that I experienced during my mindfulness meditation practice, for they might be effects that do not appear until a few weeks of practice. Also, it is possible that if I would have started with mindfulness meditation and not with concentrative meditation, I would have experienced the same effects I experienced in the first month or effects different than those I observed in the second month. In other words, there is no way to be sure that the type of meditation made any difference to the effects I observed.

Future introspectological investigations should focus not on a comparison of various techniques, but on a thorough and deep study of a single technique. After several papers of this sort are published on each of the techniques, only then would it be possible to compare the techniques. For example, after several researchers provide a description of the effects of mindfulness meditation and several other researchers provide descriptions of their experience with concentrative meditation, a meta-analyst would find the commonalities inside each technique, which represent the real effects of the meditation (since they occurred to all the practitioners of the same technique), and compare them across techniques. This comparison is the only way to adequately answer the question regarding the differences or lack of differences between mindfulness and concentration meditation.

Conclusion

The purpose of this work was to answer the question of what is the correct methodology for the study of meditation. To answer this question, two separate studies were conducted which tried to see if there are any differences in the pattern of psychological effects produced by mindfulness meditation and concentrative meditation. One of these studies was done from a third-person perspective and the other from a first-person perspective. Both studies had their limitations. The third-person study did not provide answers in regarding to question of causality. It is not at all certain that the effects reported by the participants were indeed caused by the practice of meditation and not due to other factors. As we have seen the reason for this is that without using a manipulation, which is almost impossible to use with a large sample from the normal population, one can never answer any questions regarding causality, but only discover relation between variables. Another important limitation was that the subjects’ reports may have not been reliable and accurate. Most laymen do not seem to have the time and desire to record all the psychological effects they observe in themselves in a rigorous manner.

To solve these problems, it was suggested to move onto a different research agenda, one that does not sanctify the values that stand in the core of the natural sciences, such as objectivity and quantification. The first-person introspectological research is a program of study that places the researcher in the center of the investigation. The meditation researcher is a person who is willing to take on himself the manipulation needed to determine causality relations. He practices a certain technique meditation for a long time, while recording as accurately and objectively as is possible all the psychological effects he observes in himself. It is a subjective research that leads not to a list of numbers, but to a large picture, a rich description of the effects of a certain type of meditation. The major limitation of the present first-person study was that it was not long enough and it is not possible to generalize its results to the population.

These limitations can easily be overcame if other researchers will take on themselves the task of devoting much of their time to meditating and examining their selves to monitor any changes. Once many such descriptions will be available, we will be as certain as possible that effects that were reported by different researchers practicing the same techniques are probably real effects of those meditations and not some random occurrence having to do nothing with the practice. Eventually we will have in our possession a map of different meditation techniques and the effects that they may produce for different types of people. This map will have a very important impact on the ability of psychotherapists to help their clients. For example, in the present research I found that meditation caused my compulsions to reduce in their strength. Perhaps this suggests a therapy for people suffering from OCD.

Third-person research however is still important even in the case of meditation, granted that is properly conducted. A psychologist working in a mental asylum, for instance, may divide a group of patients suffering from OCD to two groups, giving a mindfulness meditation therapy to one of them and assigning the other group to a control treatment. In this way, meaningful third-person research may test specific hypotheses generated from first-person research. Note however that even in this case, statistics and quantification must be given away. One cannot reduce the experience of an OCD patient to a number representing his healthiness. Rather, the dependent measure would have to be a complex evaluation by each patient’s psycotherapist.

In sum, continuing to use third-person research, but in a more appropriate manner than it is done at the moment, and complementing it with thorough first-person introspectological investigations of the psychological effects brought about by specific meditation techniques done by individual researchers-meditators, will guarantee, I reckon, that in a few years from now our knowledge of the effects of meditation will drastically improve and so will our ability to implement the knowledge to the improvement of the psychological well-being of both people suffering from mental disorders and normal people.

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