Mindfulness Training Moves Participants toward Self-Transcendence
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“The sense of time changes, the sense of space around one changes, and the sense of self changes. I think we can learn a lot about the presence of these aspects of consciousness by studying instances in which they’re altered or absent, like during experiences of self-transcendence.” – David Yaden
The common, central feature of transcendent experiences 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. Contemplative practices are thought to lead to mindfulness and to eventual self-transcendent experiences. Unfortunately, there is very little systematic research on self-transcendence and its relationship to mindfulness.
In today’s Research News article “Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on Self-Transcendent States: Perceived Body Boundaries and Spatial Frames of Reference.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7968136/ ) Handley and colleagues recruited adults from a large American University who were meditation naïve and randomly assigned them to receive 5 sessions of either mindfulness or active listening training. They were measured before and after each training session for perceived body boundaries, where participants assess how strong is the boundary between themselves and the world, and spatial frame of reference, where participants assess how far their field of awareness extends beyond their body.
They found that after each mindfulness training session but not active listening there was a significant decrease in perceived body boundaries and significant increases in spatial frame of reference. Further they found that the greater the decrease in perceived body boundaries the greater the increase in spatial frames of reference. They also found that the increase in spatial frames of reference produced by mindfulness training were mediated by decreases in perceived body boundaries.
These results suggest that mindfulness training relaxes the boundaries between self and the world and extends the size of the field of awareness beyond the body. This suggests that the experience of self is highly malleable and expanded by mindfulness training. Since, transcendent experiences involve a dissolution of the boundaries between of the self, producing the experience of everything as one, mindfulness training appears to lead in that direction. Hence, the results suggest that mindfulness training can lead in the direction of self-transcendence.
So, mindfulness training moves participants toward self-transcendence.
“mindfulness training can cultivate self-transcendent experiences through the process of decentering from internal phenomena.” – Adam Handley
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Hanley, A. W., Dambrun, M., & Garland, E. L. (2020). Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on Self-Transcendent States: Perceived Body Boundaries and Spatial Frames of Reference. Mindfulness, 11(5), 1194–1203. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01330-9
Mindfulness training is believed to encourage self-transcendent states, but little research has examined this hypothesis. This study examined the effects of mindfulness training on two phenomenological features of self-transcendence: 1) perceived body boundary dissolution, and 2) more allocentric spatial frames of reference.
A sample of healthy, young adults (n=45) were randomized to five sessions of mindfulness training or an active listening control condition.
Results indicated mindfulness training decreased perceived body boundaries (F4,172=6.010, p<.001, η2=.12) and encouraged more allocentric frames of reference (F4,168=2.586, p=.039, η2=.06). The expected inverse relationship was observed between perceived body boundaries and allocentric frames of reference ((β=−.58, p=.001)), and path analysis revealed the effect of mindfulness training on allocentric frames of reference was mediated by decreased perceived body boundaries (β=.24, se=.17, CI: 0.11 to 0.78).
Taken together, study results suggest that 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. Future studies are needed to explore the psychophysiological changes that co-occur with phenomenological reports of self-transcendence and the behavioral consequences following self-transcendent experiences.