The research of mindfulness meditation lacks self-criticism. Has the science of mindfulness lost its mind? ask Oxford psychologists.
This post raises two major problems and recommends ways to improve the research.
The replacement of orange-robed gurus by white-collared academics who speak of the benefits of ‘being in the present moment’ is a powerful social phenomenon, which is probably rooted in our culture’s desire for quick fixes and its attraction to spiritual ideas divested of supernatural elements.
An important article, by Oxford psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm in The British Journal of Psychiatry, raises two major problems with researcher’s attempts to study mindfulness:
Two major problems with research of mindfulness
Researchers tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that individuals react differently to mindfulness techniques. Advocates present meditation as if it’s always beneficial and seldom acknowledge the practice may not always be positive.
Farias and Wikholm conclude their four page article with recommendations to improve the research and some ways to address concerns for people considering the use of mindfulness techniques.
Potential difficult psychological problems with mindfulness
Research on mindfulness (by Lomas et al in 2015) revealed that meditation practice may increase the awareness of difficult feelings and agitate psychological problems. Forgotten childhood traumas of some practitioners can suddenly confront them during meditation practice:
I saw the depth of the pain that is buried. Things that have happened to me that have not been dealt with properly. It can be very scary to know there’s that very strong thing in there. (Lomas et al)
Mindfulness practice does not add up
Two meta-analysis (studies of studies) disconfirmed the expectation that continuous practice would lead to increasing positive benefits. In other words, they did not find any confirmation that the more you practice meditation or mindfulness the more benefits you get. Apparently the expected positive changes from mindfulness plateau after only a few weeks of practice, rather than increase or accumulate over time.
There is no clear rationale for why continuous mindfulness practice would keep improving well-being or cognitive abilities.
Proponents say continuous [mindfulness or meditation] practice adds up in a mathematical way making you:
Eventually liberated from the illusion of the individual self.
These are some of the many magical things people expect from continuous practice of mindfulness and meditation.
The ‘mind gym’ can be dangerous to your health
Many people’s magical expectations of meditation techniques may be naive, but it is also dangerous contends Farias and Wikholm. Mindfulness practice is often seen as some kind of ‘mind gym’: Like brushing your teeth or going for a run to protect your health, mindfulness exercises are supposed to bring mental fitness and resilience.
Their own wishful thinking blinds most researchers and practitioners of meditation to self-criticism. Researchers mostly promote the benefits of meditation. Researchers seldom publish studies that show negative or null results. Without critical reflection on mindfulness research we stay content in our magical expectations that meditation makes us super aware, super happy, and super healthy (if not eventually liberated from illusion of self).
First, we need a clear and thorough theory of how meditation techniques work. Work not magically but practically within the human body and system. We need to identify an ‘active ingredient’, the ‘mechanism of action’, that makes the technique work (versus believing in a lucky rabbit’s foot or placebo). Second, credible research studies need to include placebo groups, control for expectations, and examine why not everyone reacts positively to meditation.
It is important that we speak openly about the potential for adverse effects in order to de-stigmatize the issue; surely the last thing we want is for a patient to feel they ‘failed’ at using a technique, when the reality is that it worked differently [or not at all]…
What do Eastern traditions say about “meditation sickness”? Who gets it and why?
“Meditation sickness” has been identified by various Eastern Buddhist traditions, and is sometimes also called “Zen sickness”, “falling into emptiness”, or “lung” (Tibetan rlung; pronounced loong).
It is not uncommon for various Buddhist masters, such as Guifeng Zongmi (780-841), a celebrated Zen master, to criticize excessive focus on meditation and achieving “inner stillness” (ningji). In Is Mindfulness Buddhist?, Robert Sharf professor of Buddhist studies at UC Berkeley, writes that Buddhist masters, like Zongmi, warned about disengagement from the world and used the term “meditation sickness” (chanbing) to criticize practices that were detrimental, mostly those techniques that emphasized inner stillness.1
Eastern masters like Zongmi, continues Sharf, were critical of practices that cultivated a non-critical or non-analytical presentness. In other words, what in today’s parlance we might call “zoning out”. We are not referring here to ordinary daydreaming or being lost in thought. Rather “meditation sickness” is a potentially harmful, even psychotic, reaction to too much immersion in meditation practice.
Meditation disorders in Buddhist traditions
In the introduction to The Varieties of Contemplative Experience: A Mixed-methods study of Meditation-related Challenges in Western Buddhists2 we find brief descriptions from Buddhist sources of what is “meditation sickness”.
In Tibetan Buddhist traditions, nyams is a term that refers to a wide range of “meditation experiences”—from bliss and visions to intense body pain, physiological disorders, paranoia, sadness, anger and fear—which can be a source of challenge or difficulty for the meditation practitioner.
Interpretations vary in Buddhist traditions
We find in the Eastern sources that meditation-related experiences are wide-ranging and interpreted differently by different traditions. For instance:
In some Buddhist (and Hindu) lineages, meditation-related experiences are deliberately cultivated and framed as “signs of progress”. While in other lineages these experiences can be “dismissed as untrustworthy hindrances to genuine insight”.3
For example, in some Zen Buddhist lineages, makyō is a term that refers to “side-effects” or “disturbing conditions” that arise during the course of meditation practice and sometimes may be interpreted as signs of progress 4.
Zen has a long tradition of acknowledging the possibility that certain meditation practices can lead to a prolonged illness-like condition which has been called “Zen sickness” or “meditation sickness”.5
The Śūraṅgama Sūtra—a classic text of Mahāyāna Buddhism—identifies fifty deceptive or illusory experiences (skandha-māras) that are associated primarily, though not exclusively, with the practice of concentration (samādhi). The Sūtra particularly warns about pleasant experiences that lead the meditator into a false sense of spiritual progress, which results in misguided thinking and conduct.6
Likewise, “in Theravāda Buddhist traditions, progress in the practice of meditation is expected to lead to transient experiences called “corruptions of insight” (vipassanā-upakkilesā) on account of meditators’ tendency to confuse these blissful and euphoric states for genuine insight” 7.
Contemporary accounts report monks becoming “mentally unstable” in the wake of such states 8. Other stages of practice, in particular some of the “insight knowledges” (vipassanā-ñāṇa), are presented as being particularly challenging, especially in modern Asian sources 9.
The article describes twenty-five year old Megan Vogt who got afflicted with “meditation sickness” during a 10 day vipassana retreat in May 2017. “Instead of emerging from the course enlightened, Vogt exited incoherent, suicidal and in psychosis” wrote PennLive. Following her retreat, Vogt found herself in the psyche ward and wrote desperate emails to the retreat staff pleading for help. It did not help. Ten weeks later, Vogt was found dead after leaping from a catwalk on the Norman Wood Bridge, falling 120 feet. Tragic.
Westerners Dealing with Meditation “Disease”
In his Spiritual Sickness chapter in A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment Scott Carney gives Westerners’ several accounts of meditation “diseases”, including some which are fatal.
“In 2002, [Amy Cayton, a psychologist] recited mantras on a three-week meditation retreat and something started to go wrong. At night she tossed and turned in her bed, and her mind kept spinning over the same anxious ideas. At breakfast she didn’t feel like herself. By lunchtime she had trouble breathing. Then, as she hunched over a vegetarian meal, she began to gasp for air. A woman put a hand on Cayton’s shoulder and gave her a diagnosis that she had never read in any of her psychological literature. The lady gave her a concerned look and said that Amy Cayton had lung: the meditator’s disease.
“I was the sort of person who gave 110 percent to everything, and approached meditation the same way. Then lung set in and I was suddenly emotional over everything. I’d get angry over nothing, or just burst into tears. Western doctors couldn’t diagnose the physical symptoms–shortness of breath, and loss of memory. And then there was the exhaustion. The main thing was exhaustion.”
“Cayton approached Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT)…Based on Cayton’s symptoms, he suggested an aggressive regimen of Tibetan medicine. He instructed her to eat heavier foods and stop meditating for a while. It took time, but eventually her symptoms subsided.”10
The Self-Realization Fellowship is a Hindu-inspired meditation group headquartered in Los Angeles. For decades I lived within the monastic orders’ ashrams. There I was committed 110% to meditation practices as taught in the SRF Lessons. In my blog post, Blank Minds and Tramp Souls, I wrote that SRF warned of the dangers of meditating in the dark without a nightlight and of letting the mind go blank (empty).
For, according to SRF, meditating in the dark or letting your mind go blank (empty) could allow entry of tramp souls to come and possess your body and mind. Demonic possession: A spooky belief, that filled me with fear to be sure. Apparently that was the best SRF could do, provide a childish superstitious diagnosis of psychoses as supernatural demonic possession, instead of warn us like adults that intensive meditation may cause temporary or permanent psychological damage.
What’s causes and cures meditation sickness?
For some people the promise of “enlightenment” pushes them to forsake people around them and risk their lives and sanity. These tend to be the people who get afflicted with meditation sickness. The cure is apparently to meditate less or stop meditating, engage with the world around them, and see a medical professional. The best cure could be prevention: Doubt and critical examination of the promises of enlightenment, nirvana, or samadhi. The connection between intensive meditation and mental instability is unclear. People who get meditation sickness appear to be the most sincere seekers and intense meditators.
Study shows meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists are underreported and adverse experiences such as anxiety, fear, or paranoia are common.
Most studies of meditation we read or hear of trumpet the benefits of contemplative practices. Meditation practices, especially mindfulness–a Buddhist-derived method, has become a popular form of health promotion. However, we seldom read or hear in the Western media and literature about the challenges with meditation-related experiences.
PLOS One published The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE): A Mixed-Methods Study of Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists. Researchers cataloged 59 meditation-related experiences, which included challenging, distressing, and impairing situations which occurred to meditation practitioners.
To conduct the VCE study, researchers from Brown and Santa Barbara Universities recruited a total of 73 meditation experts and practitioners from Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan.
This post provides a summary and comments on the VCE study.
Study of Meditation-Related Challenges with Western Buddhist-Meditators
For the VCE study, participants were asked to describe, in their own words, and to offer their own explanations of their meditation-related experiences. Participant’s responses to the researcher’s questions were cataloged. A catalog was compiled of 59 meditation-related experiences and used to categorize each of the participant’s reported experiences. Then each reported experience was weighted as a percentage of all the experiences reported by study participants.
For example, the three categories of meditation-related experiences most widely reported were:
Fear, anxiety, panic, or paranoia (82%)
Positive affect (75%)
Changes in self-other or self-world boundaries (53%)
Three interesting meditation-related challenges reported by study participants had to do with:
Inability to concentrate for extended periods, or problems with memory (executive functioning)
“Mind racing” as it’s commonly called or increased cognitive processing speed
Feelings ranging from bliss and joy to fear and terror
With my nearly two decades as an ordained monk practicing meditation, I found this VCE comment interesting:
Scrupulosity or obsessive and repetitive thoughts about ethical behavior, was primarily a concern for practitioners in a monastic context… p11
Researchers were neuroscientists, psychologists, and religious scholars
The five authors/researchers of the VCE study are from Brown University and University of Santa Barbara. The five are university professors each specializing, respectively, in a field of neuroscience, humanities, religion, or psychology.
The researchers from Brown University’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory (CLANlab) study contemplative, affective, and clinical neuroscience, specifically related to meditation practices. Co-directed by neuroscientist and clinical psychologist Willoughby Britton, Ph.D., and religious studies scholar Jared Lindahl, Ph.D., the lab researches the effects of contemplative practices on cognitive, emotional, and neurophysiological processes in both clinical and non-clinical settings.
Participants were practitioners and experts of Buddhist-meditation
The VCE researchers recruited a total of 73 meditation experts and practitioners from Buddhist traditions: Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan.
The criteria for selecting the study’s 73 participants was:
Minimum 18 years of age
Meditation practice in a Buddhist tradition
Ability to report on meditation-related experience that was challenging, difficult, or distressing or impairing.
The criteria for excluding participants was:
History of unusual psychological experiences prior to learning meditation (eg. substance abuse or mental illness)
Mixed practice history that included non-Buddhist practices
Presence of medical illness that might account for challenging experiences.
Thirteen of the original 73 participants were eventually excluded from the final study results. (The final results were based on 60 participants). The participants were asked structured questions in an interview format lasting from 45 to 120 minutes.
Problems with VCE study
The VCE study, like most meditation-related research, is flawed, inconclusive, and has numerous weaknesses.
Common problems with meditation-related research and this VCE study, include:
Small sample size. VCE study included 57 participants in the final results.
Values (good or bad) of experiences were colored by the interpretations of subjects/interviewees.
Participants can interpret an experience as either positive or negative.
There is a wide range of interpretations about the meditation-related experiences. Interpretations can vary between persons, teachers, or meditation traditions.
The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE): A Mixed-Methods Study of Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists aimed to increase our understanding of the adverse effects of contemplative practices. The authors hoped to provide resources to promote health and to raise awareness of potential damaging effects of meditation-based practices.
While the VCE study offers unique insights into underreported challenges related to meditation, this paper is only a preliminary examination of the field. It does not provide conclusive evidence of the severity of benefits or problems with meditation-related experiences. However, we could draw a few conclusions.
Challenges related to meditation are typically underreported
Not everyone who practices meditation experiences health-promoting benefits.
A significant percentage of meditation-related experiences, in the VCE study, were challenging, distressing, or temporarily or permanently debilitating. At least one of the study participants reported meditation-related experiences that required medical support or hospitalization.
The 31 page (not including data tables and Supporting Information files) paper is available at:
Meditation systems often instill followers with harmful ideas of superiority.
The attitude of superiority by meditators, yogis, and avatars is morally, spiritually, and scientifically bankrupt. Violence or agression need not be overt or expressed physically to be harmful. Destructive ideas, even notions of passivity, can breed indifference and incite actions of hostility towards others, especially outsiders. Meditation and yoga, as a spiritual ideology, as a soteriology1, has embedded within it harmful superiority complexes.
This article examines harmful superiority complexes within meditation and yoga practitioners, within their systems of ideologies and soteriologies.
Soteriology is the study of religious doctrines of salvation, liberation, or release:
In Hinduism is the primary concept of moksha (liberation, release).
In Buddhism is the primary aim of liberation from suffering, ignorance, and rebirth.
In Mysticism, generally, is the primary notion of liberation of soul or self through union with a transcendent being.
Many meditation practitioners have one or more of these soteriological aims or goals. If not, top of mind, then somewhere in the background is the desire or seeking of liberation, release, or salvation from suffering, ignorance, and rebirth.
Nothing wrong with the desire to reduce suffering or ignorance. However, systems of yoga and meditation that promise liberation often also instill followers with superiority complexes and psychic conflicts.
Psychic conflict and superiority complexes
First, in this article we use “complex” to describe a group of emotionally laden ideas that are repressed that cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior2. Superiority3 in this article is defined as an exaggerated sense of one’s importance that shows itself in the making of excessive or unjustified claims.
Superiority complex, then, is an explicit or implicit attitude of superiority that conceals feelings of inferiority and fears of failure.
Yogis, masters, and avatars (exalted persons supposed to be enlightened, compassionate, and “One” with everything) and their followers usually proclaim that yoga (their particular spiritual ideology or practice) is the highest, ultimate, and superior path for humanity.
The ideological or soteriological systems of yoga and yogi-masters typically proclaim to achieve for practitioners “Oneness”, inclusion, and compassion towards all beings. While in actuality there are internal conflicts. Everything outside their particular yoga system, tradition, or ideology is seen as inferior, illusory (Maya, Satanic), and ultimately worthless.
Yoga scriptures illustrate superiority complexes
To illustrate the ideological superiority complexes embedded within yoga systems, consider the following examples:
Shiva, the Hindu god of yoga, in the Rasārṇava4condemns all other forms of yoga or religious practice, not sparing even the six major philosophical schools of Hinduism–which allow liberation with release from the body upon death5:
“The liberation that occurs when one drops dead is indeed a worthless liberation. [For in that case] a donkey is also liberated when he drops dead. Liberation is indeed viewed in the six schools as [occurring] when one drops dead, but that [kind of] liberation is not immediately perceptible, in the way that a myrobalan fruit in the hand [is perceptible] (karamulakavat).
In The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, explains that the Hindu yoga god, Shiva, continues in the Rasārṇava to emphasize that the yogic quest is superior to all other religious practices:
Liberation [arises] from gnosis (jnana), gnosis [arises] from the maintenance of the vital breaths. Therefore, where there is stability, mercury [sexual fluid of Shiva] is empowered and the body is stabilized. Through the use of mercury one rapidly obtains a body that is unaging and immortal, and concentration of the mind. He who eats calcinated mercury (mrtasutaka) truly obtains both transcendent and mundane knowledge, and his mantras are effective.
It is now known that exposure to mercury and its compounds causes hydrargyria or mercury poisoning, which may lead to peripheral neuropathy, damage to or disease affecting nerves, which may impair sensation, movement, gland or organ function, or other aspects of health, depending on the type of nerve affected. Perhaps to the Raseśvara the symptoms from mercury poisoning and nerve damage was believed to be a sign of spiritual achievement, liberation, and superiority?
Greater than followers of other paths?
The Bhagavad Gita, Song of the Lord, is a part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. In it the Lord Krishna, who is proclaimed a great yogi and avatar (Lord come to earth to save humanity), extols the superiority of yogis.
“Such an one ranks Above ascetics, higher than the wise, Beyond achievers of vast deeds! Be thou [a] Yogi, Arjuna! And of such believe, Truest and best is he who worships Me With inmost soul, stayed on My Mystery!”6
Famous yogi guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, claimed he was a channel of Krishna/Christ- Consciousness in his interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita, God Talks with Arjuna:
“The Lord Himself here extols the royal path of yoga as the highest of all spiritual paths, and the scientific yogi as greater than a follower of any other path”7.
Shiva, Krishna, and the mahesvaras (great yogis or avatars) belittle other religious systems and practitioners as inferior. Meditation practitioners are led to believe they and their particular techniques are superior, and that all followers of other systems are inferior.
Implanting superiority to get and keep followers
Meditation and yoga traditions and systems use their Super Men (avatars and masters), like Krishna, Shiva, and spiritual gurus, to impose their values and implant their superiority complex into their yoga followers.
The spiritual Superman (avatar or master) proclaims all other systems of liberation (soteriologies) are inferior, “worthless” in an effort to get and keep followers. All other people who do not practice the Guru Lord’s version of “royal” yoga (meditation techniques) are explicitly and implicitly deemed inferior, ignorant, or damned–doomed to wander in darkness of Maya.
Instilling fear in followers
Fear is instilled in followers of these systems. The system, with the spiritual authority at the head, needs to ensure its continuance by keeping followers, and fills them with ideas that instill fear should they consider leaving the system. Remember these are ideological systems: built and maintained on ideas. They are not dependent on physical proximity or even actual adherence to practice.
Feelings of guilt for questioning the system is one way to prevent you from leaving. Followers when trapped inside these systems of ideas justify their loyalty to the system, group, or teacher to protect themselves from questioning their doubts and repressed feelings.
Competing for followers
Yogis, avatars, and spiritual masters compete for followers. It’s not enough to follow any system of yoga or meditation. Theirs is superior. Their followers are told they are superior. It has to be this way for this system to survive, to keep its followers. If gurus or yoga systems are not perceived by their followers as superior to any others, why follow that particular ideology, system, or meditation practice?
The “others”–followers of other systems to liberation–are therefore condemned as inferior by the “superior” meditators, yogis, and so-called spiritual masters of a particular system. Or, at best the “others” and their inferior systems are pitied (with condescending “compassion”) as those other peoples are in “reality” lost, ignorant, and part of the mindless masses.
To err is human. We often believe our team or tribe is the best (superior) and everyone else’s is inferior to ours. That in itself is not the problem. Repression of superiority complexes and the lack of awareness of followers is the problem.
Overcoming superiority complexes of yoga and meditation systems
Superiority complexes, like we discussed above, are often implicit or explicit within the ideological or soteriological systems followed by meditation practitioners. Repressed within these systems followers often have hidden feelings of insecurity and feelings of failure. By transforming feelings of inadequacy or inferiority into superiority complexes, these systems pretend to be more spiritual, to be greater than others. The harm and dangers lurk in this repression of inferiority that pretends to be superior.
I am not saying all practitioners or all yoga or meditation systems have superiority complexes.
What I am saying is followers of these systems are at higher risk of repressing their feelings through claims of superiority, having all the answers, following an infallible authority or unchallengeable system. Hence the popularity of articles hyping the “scientific” benefits of certain meditation methods.
Feelings of being “chosen”, “special”, or greater that others can be an indicator there is superiority complex. If one person or system is superior, then the other must be inferior. A system, like yoga or meditation, that claims to be superior, infallible, and unchangeable is a potentially harmful ideology.
Ideological superiority = This is a natural, human trait, but dangerous thinking. The yogis, avatars, or spiritual masters are not exempt (indeed in this article we’ve shown them to often be the perpetrators) of needing and competing for followers who seen them as superior to others, especially to other spiritual systems or techniques. Anyone claiming to be superior to others or to be a part of an infallible, unchallengeable system is at increased risk or harming themselves and others. Awareness of this fact is an important step towards doing less harm to oneself and others.
Image #1: “Alchemy” by Riding on a comet is licensed under CC BY 2.0
4 “Raseśvaras, like many other schools of Indian philosophy, believed that liberation was identity of self with Supreme lord Shiva and freedom from transmigration. However, unlike other schools, Raseśvaras thought that liberation could only be achieved by using mercury to acquire an imperishable body.” Wikipedia. Accessed May 24, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raseśvara].
Meditation is an example of how our experience changes as our understanding changes. Often meditation has been thought of as producing paranormal or supernatural experiences. As we learn more about the brain, psychology, and physiology in meditation, its effects are seen as normal or natural, though some experiences may seem extraordinary.
What are the effects of meditation on our senses and perceptions?
In this post we’ll explore the effects of meditation and discuss three psycho-physiological concepts—habituation, inhibition, and proprioception–and how understanding these three concepts can change our understanding of the effects of meditation from something supernatural to natural.
Let’s begin our discussion with how meditation is monotonous stimulation and involves habituation.
Monotonous stimulation and meditation
Our nervous system is designed to respond to stimulus change. After awhile we stop noticing continuous, unvarying stimulus. The diminished sensitivity of our senses to a constant stimulus is known as habituation.1 For example, when we first hang a new picture on our bedroom wall we are stimulated upon entering the room and notice the new picture. After a while though we don’t notice the picture at all. Habituation is when we cease to respond to stimulus after repeated exposures.
Most of meditation practice involves monotonous stimulation. Meditation involves habituation. The meditator sits in one pose, concentrates on or repeats one thought, mantra, visual image, breath, and so on. With habituation, with unvarying, monotonous stimulus over time our nervous system “habituates” and ceases to be aware of the stimulus. Excessive practice of meditation can produce a physical, mental, and emotional withdrawal from people or activity.
Sometimes with withdrawal, depersonalization-derealization occurs when you persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that you’re observing yourself from outside your body or that you have a sense that things around you aren’t real, or both. [Read my post on Depersonalization and Derealization.]
Later we discuss how habituation relates to understanding meditation experiences. Next we explore inhibition and meditation.
Inhibition and meditation
The mental ability to tune out stimuli that are irrelevant to the physical or mental task at hand is called inhibition. Occasionally when concentrating intently on one task at hand you may have noticed you forget time, space, and may not even hear noises such as a doorbell or phone ring. Cognitive inhibition can be experienced wholly or partially, intentionally or unintentionally.2 Inhibition, in physiological psychology, refers to the suppression of neural electrical activity.3 Inhibitory neurons, inhibit or block the activity of other neurons. Inhibitory neurons, writes Andrew Neher in Paranormal and Transcendental Experience, in essence cancel our awareness of a stimulus.4
Meditation practice can produce habituation and inhibition. Adept meditators may, through inhibition and habituation, be unresponsive physically and psychologically to stimuli such as loud noises that normally would startle or cause involuntary reaction. A coveted by-product and goal of meditation practitioners is sensory withdrawal and deprivation.
Sensory withdrawal and deprivation
Sensory isolation, similar to sensory deprivation—such as floatation tanks, extreme fasting and sexual abstinence—can produce altered states of awareness and transcendental experiences. Short-term sessions of sensory deprivation may be relaxing and conducive to meditation. But extended sessions of sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, and depression.5
Meditation, like other religious rituals such as holy rolling (whirling dervishes), chanting, and prayer with repetitive and monotonous stimulation, can produce habituation, inhibition, and sensory withdrawal and can produce anxiety, hallucinations, and bizarre thoughts.
A simple experiment may demonstrate to you the effects of habituation and inhibition: Stare intently and unblinkingly at one still object for a few seconds or a minute. As your gaze remains fixed on a singular stationary object without moving your eyes you may produce the sensation of hovering outside your body or expanding into space outside of your body. Through non-blinking, non-moving of your eyeballs you can maintain an unvarying and monotonous stimulus and may feel an altered state of awareness. Your location of your mind and body in space—proprioception—has been altered.
Out of body, out of mind—proprioception and meditation.
Our perception of body location and movement in space relies on receptive sensations—proprioceptors—“in the inner ear and in the muscles, tendons and joints of the body”.6 The perception of stimuli related to one’s own body posture, position, equilibrium, and internal condition or sensation is proprioception.
People who have proprioceptive disorders have difficulty knowing where their body is in space, difficulty understanding physical boundaries when interacting with other people or objects. When our proprioception is altered we may also lose our sense of gravity, feel a weightlessness or extreme heaviness of our body.
When one or more of our senses—even one eye or ear—is not functioning properly we lose our sense of balance and distance from objects and ourselves. We may bump into objects, lose our sense of direction in space, or may fall down or injure ourselves.
I used to wear contact lenses to correct my nearsightedness. Occasionally I would get pink-eye, a common eye infection. Then I would remove my contact lense from my infected eye, keeping one lense in my healthy eye. With my vision lopsided, my ability to judge distance between my body and objects in space—my proprioception—was altered. With good vision in one eye only my proprioception was altered. It was not uncommon for me to bump my head in low doorways or to smash my toes into furniture. Maybe observers thought I was a klutz or drunk from bliss from meditation?
Natural or supernatural effects of meditation?
During meditation, when the body is still and when habituation and inhibition are operating, proprioceptors sometimes stop signaling a sense of body and mind location. When that happens our awareness of body and mind changes. We may feel a sense of “self” expansion, levitation, or a “pure” consciousness detached from or hovering outside the body.7 You may have experienced this feeling when falling to sleep. Or, as you wake up and before your awareness or sensation has fully returned to your body.
Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak when waking or falling asleep. The Mayo Clinic estimates there are more than 3 million US cases of sleep paralysis each year.8 Perhaps you have experienced sleep paralysis. I have. The experience can be terrifying. As I lay awake I panicked: paralyzed, unable to move, a lump of flesh in bed. Within moments though I was able to muster the will to move my limbs. What a relief to be able to move again.
Some people may interpret temporary paralysis, habituation, and proprioception imbalances as “out of body” experiences, astral projection, or altered states of awareness.
Meditation experiences as natural phenomenon
If our premises are that meditation is a “gateway” to supernatural or paranormal dimensions then that’s what we interpret or make our experiences mean. But, when we understand natural, ordinary sensations—such as habituation, inhibition, and proprioception—we are less prone to interpret these sensations as paranormal or supernatural.
Probably so-called samadhi, nirvana, or cosmic consciousness experiences are partially or wholly caused by a combination of habituation, inhibition, and proprioception imbalances.
The psycho-physiological concepts of habituation, inhibition, and proprioception don’t explain all the effects of meditation. Mystery not fully solved. However, by understanding these concepts we may better understand many meditation experiences as natural phenomenon. Through understanding habituation, inhibition, and proprioception we have alternative and plausible explanations for what many believe are paranormal and supernatural effects of meditation practices.
Top image credit, Ryan Somma, Flickr, CC BY 2.0. 1 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25 2 “Cognitive inhibition.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_inhibition. 3 “Inhibition.” Britannica. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/inhibition-psychology. 4 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25 5 “Sensory deprivation.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensory_deprivation 6 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25 7 Ibid. 8 “Sleep Paralysis.” Mayo Clinic and Google. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://g.co/kgs/z2HyyL.