Meditation Alters Sense Boundaries
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“higher states of consciousness are a natural development of long-term meditation practice facilitated by regular daily experience of transcendental consciousness.” – Ravinder Jerath
Millions of people worldwide seek out transcendent experiences by engaging in practices, such as meditation, yoga, and prayer. Transcendent experiences have many characteristics which are unique to the experiencer, their religious context, and their present situation. But, the common, central feature of transcendence is a sense of oneness, that all things are contained in a single thing, a sense of union with the universe and/or God and everything in existence. This includes a loss of the personal self. What they used to refer to as the self is experienced as just a part of an integrated whole. People who have had these experiences report feeling interconnected with everything else in a sense of oneness with all things. Although transcendent experiences can vary widely, they all contain this experience of oneness. Unfortunately, there has not been a great deal of systematic research on the alteration of the self, produced in meditation practice.
In today’s Research News article “Self-Boundary Dissolution in Meditation: A Phenomenological Investigation.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8235013/ ) Nave and colleagues recruited healthy adults who were experienced meditators and provided them a 3-day intensive meditation training. They had brain activity measured with magnetoencephalography (MEG) while performing 2 meditation tasks, the first to envision the boundaries between self and the external world, the second to envision a loss of those boundaries. Before and after the meditations they completed several tasks and questionnaires and a phenomenological interview regarding their experiences during meditation.
They found that the participants were able to produce altered states of self-awareness during the meditations. Analysis of the interviews yielded 6 categories of alterations; sense of agency, self-location, first-person perspective, attentional disposition, affective valence, and body sensations. They report that during the loss of boundaries meditation the participants reported lower levels of self-location, loss of body sensations, and greater experience of space. They report that participants “letting go” was the most effective technique producing a dissolution of self-boundaries. “Letting go” reduced attentional disposition and the sense of agency, that is a loss of attentional focus and sense of control of experience.
This study demonstrates that it is possible to experimentally investigate phenomenological states experienced during meditation. In particular, it demonstrates that a dissolution of body boundaries can be produced and studied in the lab. These kinds of investigations are important as a loss of boundaries is essential for the oneness experience and oneness is central to spiritual awakening. So, the study of this dissolution should help in understanding the most profound experiences of meditation.
So, meditation alters sense boundaries.
“mindfulness training alters practitioners’ experience of self, relaxing the boundaries of the self and extending the spatial frame of reference further beyond the physical body.” – Adam W Hanley
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Nave, O., Trautwein, F. M., Ataria, Y., Dor-Ziderman, Y., Schweitzer, Y., Fulder, S., & Berkovich-Ohana, A. (2021). Self-Boundary Dissolution in Meditation: A Phenomenological Investigation. Brain sciences, 11(6), 819. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11060819
A fundamental aspect of the sense of self is its pre-reflective dimension specifying the self as a bounded and embodied knower and agent. Being a constant and tacit feature structuring consciousness, it eludes robust empirical exploration. Recently, deep meditative states involving global dissolution of the sense of self have been suggested as a promising path for advancing such an investigation. To that end, we conducted a comprehensive phenomenological inquiry into meditative self-boundary alteration. The induced states were systematically characterized by changes in six experiential features including the sense of location, agency, first-person perspective, attention, body sensations, and affective valence, as well as their interaction with meditative technique and overall degree of dissolution. Quantitative analyses of the relationships between these phenomenological categories highlighted a unitary dimension of boundary dissolution. Notably, passive meditative gestures of “letting go”, which reduce attentional engagement and sense of agency, emerged as driving the depth of dissolution. These findings are aligned with an enactive approach to the pre-reflective sense of self, linking its generation to sensorimotor activity and attention-demanding processes. Moreover, they set the stage for future phenomenologically informed analyses of neurophysiological data and highlight the utility of combining phenomenology and intense contemplative training for a scientific characterization of processes giving rise to the basic sense of being a bounded self.