Project Overview

The Varieties of Contemplative Experience research project aims to improve our understanding of the range of experiences associated with the practice of meditation, the ways such experiences are interpreted by meditation practitioners and meditation teachers, and responses to experiences that are reported as unexpected, challenging, difficult, distressing, or impairing of functioning.

The study adopts a qualitative research methodology based in extensive semi-structured interviews with more than 60 Buddhist meditation practitioners and more than 30 Buddhist meditation experts (teachers and clinicians).  Practitioner interviews are organized around the following questions:

  • Have you had any unexpected, challenging, difficult, distressing, or functionally impairing experiences that you associate with meditation?
  • How did you interpret your experiences? What interpretations were offered to you by others?
  • How did you respond to these experiences? What responses have you found particularly helpful or unhelpful?

Expert interviews follow a similar structure but query the experiences experts have observed in others, and how experts interpret and respond to those experiences.

Based upon thematic content analysis, the Varieties of Contemplative Experience project has identified more than 50 types of experiences across seven domains: somatic, affective, cognitive, perceptual, conative, sense of self, and social. The study has also led to the identification of more than 20 influencing factors—comprised of risk factors, remedies, and interpretations—that can impact the nature, duration, and trajectory of meditation experiences.

 

Publications

Lindahl, J.R. (2017) Somatic Energies and Emotional Traumas: A Qualitative Study of Practice-Related Challenges Reported by Vajrayāna Buddhists. Religions 8(8), 153; doi:10.3390/rel8080153 LINK TO PAPER

Lindahl, J., Fisher, N., Cooper, D., Rosen, R., and Britton, W. (2017). “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience: A Mixed-Methods Study of Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists.” PLOS ONE 12(5): e0176239 Full text

Britton, W. & Lindahl, J. (2015). The contemplative development mapping project: A new model for interdisciplinary investigation.  Mind & Life Institute Blog.

Lindahl, J., Kaplan, C., Winget, E., and Britton, W. (2014). “A Phenomenology of Meditation-Induced Light Experiences: Traditional Buddhist and Neurobiological Perspectives.” Frontiers in Psychology: Consciousness Research Vol. 4:973: What Can Neuroscience Learn from Contemplative Practices? Full Text

Britton, W., Lindahl, J., Cahn, B.R., Davis, J. and Goldman, R. (2014). “Awakening is Not a Metaphor: The Effects of Buddhist Meditation Practices on Basic Wakefulness.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Vol. 1307: Advances in Meditation Research: Neuroscience and Clinical Applications Full Text

 

Works in Progress

“Changes in Sense of Self Reported by Western Buddhist Meditators” (in prep, authors: Lindahl and Britton)

 

Funding Sources

The Bial Foundation: “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience”

The Mind and Life Institute: “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience”

The 1440 Foundation: “Assessing Beneficial Relationship Factors that Support Contemplative Development”

 

Media Coverage

UK's National Health Servive

10% Happier ABC New Podcast with Dan Harris 

Varieties of Contemplative Experience PLOS ONE Press Release

The Atlantic

The Dish

The New York Times