Researching Advanced Meditative States:
Problems of Subject Selection
by Michael Nagel MA
Published: The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 11-22, 1999.
Throughout the ages, contemplative traditions have associated meditation with the induction of extraordinary discrete altered states of consciousness (d-ASCs). The reports of these d-ASCs suggest that human nature may be endowed with remarkable capacities that are unknown to contemporary empirical science. After more than 40 years of scientific meditation research, it is not unreasonable to inquire how the couple of thousand extant meditation studies have advanced our understanding of these farther reaches of human nature.
In fact, an examination of the population of meditation studies suggests that meditation researchers have minimally advanced our understanding of these extraordinary dimensions of human consciousness. The interests of researchers cluster predominantly about the two themes of the physiology and the psychology of meditation (Shapiro and Walsh 1984). Indeed the progress in researching advanced meditative states of consciousness (AMSCs) has been so minimal that prominent researchers have remarked about the paucity.
“It’s all wonderful, the picture that’s emerged,” notes Michael Murphy (personal communication, May 24, 1996) about the progress of meditation research. “And I’m all for it. It’s important. But it’s mapping the foothills of this experience.” Also, in their classic bibliography of meditation research, Murphy and Donovan (1988) concluded that scientists have “made little effort to explore the further reaches of awareness and mastery such
Traditionally, the raison d’être of meditation has been to attain not the well-researched physiological or psychological effects, but rather the soteriological benefits associated with rarely researched AMSCs. Therefore, one must wonder with fellow researchers (Walsh 1982; Engler 1983; Tart 1990) to what extent science may have studied mostly the epiphenomena of meditation.
If AMSCs have been little studied by meditation researchers, then in the service of the knowledge that they might contribute to the understanding of the farther reaches of human nature, perhaps it would behoove us to examine an even more rarely studied topic-the methodological problems that may incline meditation researchers to eschew AMSC research. Towards this end this paper discusses a methodological problem that significantly complicates attempts to study the advanced states of consciousness of meditation: locating participants who are capable of inducing the AMSC that has been targeted for research.
The Problem of Locating Skilled Participants
Critics often fault Western meditation researchers for selecting participants with only beginning meditation experience. However, these criticisms are superficial to the extent that they ignore the methodological difficulties that predispose researchers to select novice meditators. Concerning the reliance of Western meditation researchers upon relatively novice meditators, Murphy and Donovan (1988) observe that the literature of meditation research is “built mainly around . . . meditation beginners” (p. 60). Similarly, Shapiro (1984) notes that, “Compared to ‘Eastern’ standards most Western meditators are at a ‘beginning level’ in terms of length of time spent in meditation practice” (p. 21). So too Walsh (1984) comments that, “Most experimental participants have practiced amounts of meditation which would be considered minuscule by most meditative disciplines” (p. 30). Although such comments seem deserved, too often they are made without mentioning the considerable difficulties that the researcher faces in trying just to locate one participant who is considerably skilled in meditation. But in a personal communication, M. Murphy (May 24, 1996) acknowledges that this is one of the most discouraging obstacles that AMSC researchers face.
Meditation Is a Skill
As anyone who has ever tried to concentrate upon a single thought for only 60 seconds will testify, meditation is a skill. However, in the following discussion of meditation as a skill we should guard against misconstruing meditative skill as a narrow, technical ability that can be developed by meditation practice alone without the aid of contextual practices such as ethical cultivation. This narrow view permeates the field of meditation research as is evident by the majority of researchers who assess meditation skill using the sole criterion of length of prior practice.
Nevertheless, with such a caveat, let us proceed to consider the issue of meditation skill. In general, contemplative traditions correlate skill in meditation with the ability to induce various AMSCs. Very generally, one’s progression through a sequence of meditative states such as the Buddhist jhanas requires a progressive skill in meditation. The more difficult the state is to realize, the more rare is the person with the character cultivation, depth of spiritual inquiry, and meditation experience sufficient to induce the state.
Contemporary research is replete with evidence that suggests a correlation between meditation skill and state-trait effects of meditation. Albeit the research literature neither has adequately specified meditation skill, nor has it adequately specified the factors whereby it might be measured. As previously mentioned, the research literature presumes that meditation skill is correlated with length of prior meditation experience. Despite even this crude measure, the research strongly suggests that experienced meditators do differ from relatively inexperienced meditators in the state and trait effects that they experience in meditation.
Researchers have correlated a variety of physiological state effects with experience in meditation. During meditation, experienced meditators have been found to have EEG profiles that differ from relatively inexperienced meditators (Akishige 1974; Kasamatsu and Hirai 1984; West 1980). For example, Das and Gastaut (1957) discovered that experienced meditators were able to generate relatively higher amplitudes of faster EEG rhythms. Hirai (1974) who studied the EEG of Zen monks with 22 to 55 years of experience noted that the more experienced monks were able to generate rhythmical theta trains. Notes Hirai, “When we reflect on the reason why a series of EEG changes does not occur in the case of some disciples, it seems sure that there is a relationship between the experience in meditation and the grade of EEG changes” (p. 30). In addition to EEG profiles, the blood chemistry of experienced meditators also has been found to differ from inexperienced meditators. For example, experienced meditators experienced a significant decline of cortisol during meditation (Jevning and O’Halloran 1984). Advanced meditators also were found to have higher catecholamine levels (Murphy and Donovan 1988, (citing Lang, R., Dehob, K., Meurer, K. et al. (1979))). So too experienced meditators demonstrate capabilities that are more advanced than inexperienced meditators in areas such as autonomic activation (Corby, Roth et al. 1984), autonomic learning aptitude (Bono 1984), metabolic self-regulation (Benson, Lehmann et al. 1982; Benson, Malhotra et al. 1990), pain control (Murphy and Donovan 1988, (citing Pelletier, K.R. & Peper, E. (1977)))), and postural stability (Ikegami 1974).
Besides these physiological state effects, researchers also have found a variety of psychological state and trait effects that are correlated with meditation experience. Forte et al. (1987) studied the dimensions of meditative experience reported by three groups of vipassana meditators with varying levels of prior experience: beginners (with an average 29 months prior experience), intermediate (33.57 months experience), and advanced (50.40 months experience). They determined that the different groups experienced differently such dimensions of qualitative experience as attention, thinking, memory, imagery, body sensations, emotions, time sense, reality sense, sense of self, perception, and interpersonal context. Other researchers have determined that experienced meditators differ from relatively less experienced meditators in these other respects. Experienced meditators report different qualitative experience (Kohr 1984; Brown and Engler 1986; Brown and Engler 1986), are more susceptible to adverse effects (Otis 1984), and have increased attentional absorption (Shapiro 1980).
Despite the preponderance of evidence that supports a correlation between the amount of prior meditation experience and the state and trait effects that experienced meditators realize, there is also conflicting evidence. Shapiro (1984) cites Cauthen and Prymak (1977) as having found experienced meditators showed no significant differences in measurements of respiration, galvanic skin response, body temperature, and heart rate. More relevant to our examination of the relation between prior meditation experience and the ability to induce AMSCs is Deikman’s (1966; 1990) classic study that found that after only 12 weekly 30-minute meditation sessions several relatively inexperienced participants reported that they experienced altered states of consciousness. Reported Deikman (1990),
These Ss did not have a sense of ineffable communication with the absolute, of profound illumination into the nature of Reality, nor of being in a state of Unity. However, their accounts do suggest that important basic elements of the mystic experience were achieved. (p. 255)
Deikman’s (1990) findings remind us that, while there exists significant empirical evidence to suggest a correlation between meditation expertise and the ability to induce AMSCs, there are exceptions. Moreover, numerous accounts of spontaneous mystical states in the world’s literature (Bucke 1901/1969; James 1902/1982) confirm that no obvious preparation needs to have occurred before the mystical can breakthrough into everyday consciousness. Nevertheless such spontaneous mystical states have yet to be shown to be either the same as or different from profound ASCs induced by meditation. Although the study of spontaneous mystical states is not within the domain of this essay, given that its focus is the ASCs that are induced specifically by meditation, spontaneous mystical experiences remind us, as does Deikman’s study, that the induction of AMSCs sometimes may not rely upon meditation skill or any causal factor, except grace.
Skilled Meditators Are Rare to Find
If meditation is a skill, then AMSC research requires participants who are sufficiently skilled so as to be able to induce any AMSC that has been targeted for research. For example, the researcher who would study the state effects of the fourth Buddhist jhana will learn nothing, if the researcher selects beginning meditators or experienced meditators who are incapable of inducing even access concentration (an initial vipassana AMSC) . Although AMSC research depends upon participants who are advanced meditators, the locating of advanced participants is one of the major methodological problems that inhibits AMSC research.
Imagine, for example, the level of skill that is required of a meditator who has perfected the realization of the more advanced states of Tibetan Tantric meditation, when Brown (1984) writes about the basic stages of practice, “The yogi cannot advance to the fundamental [italics added] concentrative meditations until he can uninterruptedly maintain awareness of all his inner experience and outer actions 24-hours per day” (p. 289). How frequently will we find such an ability to concentrate in the general population of meditators? Persons who possess the meditation skill that is required to induce the more exalted AMSCs are as rare to find as those states are difficult to realize.
Just how rare in the general population are participants whose religious genius can induce the most extraordinary AMSCs, such as Buddhist nirvana? Concerning the arhat, or person who has attained the fourth and final stage of enlightenment in the vipassana tradition, the Buddha (Dharma Publishing Staff 1985) notes, “The one who has conquered himself is a far greater hero than one who has defeated a thousand times a thousand men” (p. 55). Similarly, Goleman (1972) reports of the attainment of other supernormal capabilities associated with meditation skill that the classic Buddhist Visuddhimagga text estimates, “Only one person in 100,000 or one million will achieve the prerequisite level of mastery” (p. 16).
Nan (1993), a Buddhist-Taoist teacher, confirms the rarity of high attainment, “Out of ten thousand men who cultivate practice, not one realizes the fruit of enlightenment” (p. 171). Kornfield (1992), a psychologist, former Buddhist monk, and meditation instructor, concurs, noting about the third stage of enlightenment in the vipassana tradition that, “I’ve probably met only a handful of people, in all of my travels around the Buddhist world, that would claim to have that level of experience” (p. 24).
Granted, the above citations are speculative, and not every AMSC to be researched requires the same meditation skill as does nirvana, and not every AMSC study requires that its participants be as enlightened as a Ramakrishna. Nevertheless empirical studies corroborate the claims of contemplative traditions that the meditation skill required to induce even the less extraordinary AMSCs is found only infrequently in the population of meditators. Brown and Engler (1986) reported that of 30 participants attending a vipassana meditation retreat during which they meditated for 16 hours a day for 3 months, one half of the participants showed no formal progress, 3 perfected “access concentration” (a beginning level of concentration), and 1 attained “equanimity.”
Kornfield (1992) reported that at 3-month vipassana retreats, of 100 retreatants, perhaps 20 will experience “pseudo-nirvana” (a minor state) and 12 will experience “high equanimity” (1 stage short of stream entry, as described by the classical texts). Elsewhere (1976) he estimates that 95 percent of 3-month retreatants will experience various blissful phenomena associated with jhanic concentration; 35 percent will report very high states of concentration and initial insight. He also reports (1976) anecdotally that of 200 persons attending meditation retreats at the Burmese monastery where he taught and studied for a year, perhaps 3 percent experienced all the stages of insight reported in the classic Buddhist literature. So too, Goldstein, a vipassana meditation instructor, suggests that of 100 three-month retreatants, perhaps 1, or maybe 2, will experience the initial nirvana moment of stream entry (J. Goldstein, personal communication, May 27, 1996).
There is some evidence that suggests Asian meditators may develop meditation skill more rapidly than their Western counterparts. Several studies report that, compared to Western meditation students, significantly more Asian vipassana meditation retreatants attain the higher levels of concentration and insight (Kornfield 1979; Engler 1983; Brown and Engler 1984; Engler 1986; Epstein and Lieff 1986). For example, Engler (1986) reported, “Asian [vipassana] practitioners progressed much more quickly, even though they spent considerably less time in the intensive practice in retreat settings. The majority had done only one or two 2-week retreats before experiencing First Enlightenment” (p. 27). Indeed Brown and Engler (Brown and Engler 1986) reported of their Asian participants,
According to teacher ratings, 5 subjects had attained first enlightenment, 4 had attained second, and 1 had attained third. In interesting contrast to the Western group of meditators, most of these Asian yogis had a minimum of prior retreat experience. Most of their practice was done at home in the context of daily family life and vocational activities. In all but one case, the actual experience of enlightenment did occur during a retreat, but a retreat of short duration and often the only retreat the individual had done. The length of time from first beginning practice to the experience of enlightenment ranged from six days to three years. (p. 172)
A variety of factors may contribute to the reported poor progress of Western vipassana students. Engler (1986) speculates that the poor progress might result from: (a) poor personality organization, (b) fascination with the contents of consciousness, (c) inability to concentrate and, (d) practicing meditation in isolation. Epstein and Lieff (1986) attribute the poor progress to the failure of Western society to provide adequate social outlets for the resolution of psychological issues. Of course, there may be other factors. Yet whichever the causes, one Asian vipassana meditation teacher describes the result as, “Many Western students do not meditate. They do therapy” (Brown and Engler 1984, p. 252).
However we should be cautious about generalizing from the experience of vipassana meditators to the experience of meditators from other contemplative traditions. Vipassana, a method of mindfulness meditation, discourages interference with the flow of psychic content within the stream of consciousness. Yet concentrative meditation encourages interference with the stream of consciousness by redirecting attention to the chosen object of meditation. By allowing psychic content to arise without interference, mindfulness meditation may exacerbate the hypothesized vulnerabilities of Western meditators in a way that concentrative meditation might not.
To summarize, depending upon the AMSC that has been targeted for research, participants who are qualified to induce that AMSC can be quite rare to find. Yet they are not impossible to find. Evidence suggests that skilled meditation participants may be found more frequently among the population of Asian meditators. Nevertheless, Asian traditions and Asian teachers also assert that meditators who are capable of inducing the more extraordinary AMSCs are rare to find.
Several Implications for Research
If meditation is a skill, then of import to AMSC researchers are the claims of contemplative traditions that it is quite rare to find in the general population the degree of character development, depth of spiritual inquiry, and extent of meditation practice that is required to induce many of the AMSCs that we might target for research. Therefore,
1) Depending upon the difficulty of inducing an AMSC, for all practical purposes, some AMSCs may not be researchable, if we cannot find participants who are capable of inducing them.
2) The presumed small number of participants who might be skilled at inducing a target AMSC would threaten the internal validity of empirical studies by weakening their statistical power of statistical measures.
3) The presumed small number of suitable participants also might jeopardize the ability to conduct empirical AMSC research using experimental and quasi-experimental quantitative designs. Such designs require control groups. Yet there could be an insufficient number of qualified participants to constitute both experimental and control groups, each with a large enough number of participants to assure statistical power.
4) The presumed small number of qualified participants also might threaten the external validity of empirical studies. Of which population would the self-selected, highly skilled sample of meditators be representative? To which population could the experimental results be generalized?
Given the extreme difficulty of locating participants who are qualified to participate in AMSC research, it is unclear how an empirically based explanatory science of AMSCs derived by quantitative methods could develop. For those AMSCs for which no qualified participants can be found, there cannot be any inquiry, scientific or otherwise. For other AMSCs for which only a very few qualified participants can be found, the low number of qualified participants would prohibit the application of various statistical measures that contribute to the development of an explanatory science.
However a low number of participants would not prohibit the development of a descriptive science of AMSCs made possible by the application of human science research methods (e.g., phenomenology, qualitative interview, and case study).
Prospects for Research
In respect to subject selection, the prospects for AMSC research are uncertain. While there are opportunities for future researchers to improve upon some of the difficulties that I have discussed, the opportunities for improvement may be constrained by the inherent natures of AMSCs that can render them so difficult to induce. At this nascent period of AMSC research, it would seem unreasonable to presume that either an explanatory or a descriptive science of all AMSCs is possible. Rather, it may be more reasonable to presume that some AMSCs may not be researchable and others may be researchable, pending methodological improvements.
In retrospect, the paucity of AMSC research accurately reflects the methodological difficulties that AMSC researchers face. It would be premature to speculate how and whether these difficulties can be overcome. Nevertheless, one thing is certain–our initial, imperfect efforts to answer the many questions about AMSCs may be of value, because even at this beginning stage of research a variety of methods may be necessary to advance our understanding of the farther reaches of human nature.
1. The extent to which scientists have ignored the study of meditative d-ASCs is illustrated by a cursory review of meditation bibliographies. I examined six meditation bibliographies for references in abstracts and titles that related obviously to meditative d-ASCs. I tallied the total number of references in the bibliography and the number of apparent meditation d-ASC references. Granted, the method is crude and the results are unscientific; nevertheless, they are suggestive. In Timmons and Kamiya’s 1970 bibliography of meditation and related topics, there are 325 references of which six explicitly pertain to research on meditation as an altered state of consciousness, e.g., “States of meditation and trance in Indonesian tribes,” (Pfeiffer, 1966) “Samadhi and hypnotism” (Sasamoto, 1962). In 1974, Timmons and Kamiya published an addendum to their first bibliography listing 90 new references of which four explicitly pertain to the research on meditation as a d-ASC. Perusing the bibliographies of two classic anthologies of meditation research (Shapiro and Walsh, 1984; West, 1987) which list more than 600 and 560 references further confirms the dearth of research related to meditative d-ASCs. So too Murphy and Donovan’s (1988) classic bibliography of meditation research, covering the years 1931 through 1988, references more than 1,200 works of which 51 self-evidently pertain to the study of d-ASCs related to meditation. Given the subjectivity of evaluating bibliographic references on the basis of titles and abstracts, I am certain that a different examiner of these bibliographies would tabulate the references differently. Yet despite these differences, I am certain also that another examiner also would conclude that there is an obvious paucity of research related to the d-ASCs that occur in meditation.
2. This oversight persists. Schlitz and Lewis (1995) report the results of a 1995 conference on meditation research sponsored by the Institute of Noetic Sciences. The conferees resolved that the future of meditation research should advance along the following lines: healing, educational reform, personal psychological growth, expanding business productivity, broader scientific understanding including an appreciation of introspection, and enhanced exceptional performance such as in sports and art. Noticeably absent is a category which recommends, as an end in itself, research on extraordinary dimensions of meditative consciousness. Given that such research might elucidate the farther reaches of human nature, it might be deemed as worthy of consideration as expanding business productivity through meditation.
3. Exemplifying such a distortion of the subject of meditation, Pelletier and Garfield (1977) comment: “It is well at this point to distinguish the practice of meditation from special experiences of mystical union or ‘satori.’ These dramatic states have probably been overemphasized in the meditation literature [italics added]” (p 162). Their perspective is erroneous in that Western research on meditative d-ASCs has been minimal (and more so at the time of their publication) and Eastern contemplative traditions advocate meditation explicitly for the soteriological benefits that are supposed to derive from the state and trait effects resulting from such experiences.
4. Other additional methodological problems of significance in meditation research are qualifying and recruiting candidates for such research, in-state data collection, and post-state data collection. These problems are discussed in Nagel (1997).
5. For example, Kohr (1984) identifies participants with high prior meditation experience as meditators with at least one prior year of meditation experience and a schedule of four meditation sessions a week during the month prior to experimentation. Contrast this with Hirai (1974) who studied Zen monks with 22 to 55 years of daily practice.
6. The idea of inducing a targeted AMSC by means of a mindfulness meditation technique such as vipassana is dubious. Progress in vipassana is sustained by one’s ability to be attentive to each moment of consciousness as it arises. Thus, vipassana teacher Shinzen Young (personal communication, April 1, 1996) has characterized vipassana practice as a “radical permissiveness” that permits each mind moment of the stream of consciousness to be experienced without conscious interference. As such, the vipassana meditator neither produces nor targets any AMSC. Yet, this very noninterference with conscious experience is itself a skill that is the fruit of character cultivation, spiritual inquiry, and practice. Without such skill, the vipassana meditator could not progress to or open to (induce) the more advanced stages of practice.
7. A rough correspondence can be found in some contemplative traditions. In Buddhism and Hinduism, for example, skill in meditation could be said to be correlated with amount of prior experience in character cultivation, spiritual inquiry, and meditation practice, although, they might add, not necessarily in this lifetime. And so they might explain instances of relatively sudden enlightenment in this lifetime as the fruit of considerable prior experience.
8. In practice, a vipassana meditator will practice mindfulness and concentrative methods of meditation, although at different times (Kamalashila 1992). Theravadin Buddhists rely upon samatha (concentrative) meditation to cultivate and maintain the attentional stability that is required for vipassana meditation. Samatha also may be practiced to invigorate the vipassana meditator’s energy or motivation with the experience of various jhanas. During a meditation sitting or a retreat, a vipassana meditator may switch back and forth between mindfulness (vipassana) and concentrative (samatha) practices as he or his meditation teacher may deem it necessary. Generally, research reports of vipassana meditation do not mention this distinction. Nevertheless, the general distinction between mindfulness and concentrative meditation forms that is being discussed in this paragraph does hold.
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