Meditation Alters Sense Boundaries

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: ) 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


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


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.



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.


Improve Emotion Regulation and Reduce Pain with Mindful Acceptance

Improve Emotion Regulation and Reduce Pain with Mindful Acceptance


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


Individuals with minimal mindfulness meditation experience can quickly learn how to moderate their brains’ responses to painful experiences and negative images using a technique called mindful acceptance’” – Christopher Berglund


There is an accumulating volume of research findings to demonstrate that mind-body therapies have highly beneficial effects on the health and well-being of humans. Mindfulness practices have been shown to improve emotion regulation producing more adaptive and less maladaptive responses to emotions. In other words, mindful people are better able to experience yet control their responses to emotions. The ability of mindfulness training to improve emotion regulation is thought to be the basis for a wide variety of benefits that mindfulness provides to mental health

Indeed, mindfulness practices are effective in treating pain in adults.


We all have to deal with pain. It’s inevitable, but hopefully it’s mild and short lived. For a wide swath of humanity, however, pain is a constant in their lives. Pain involves both physical and psychological issues. The stress, fear, and anxiety produced by pain tends to elicit responses that actually amplify the pain. So, reducing the emotional reactions to pain may be helpful in pain management. Emotional and pain experiences are processed in the nervous system. So, it’s likely that mindfulness practices somehow alters the brain’s processing of emotions and pain.


In today’s Research News article “Let it be: mindful acceptance down-regulates pain and negative emotion.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at:, Kober and colleagues recruited healthy adults and instructed them to on cue to “react naturally, whatever your response might be” and on another cue to accept. They were instructed for the accept condition to be mindful in the present moment and not judge what is happening but to accept it as it is. They then underwent brain scanning with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). While in the scanner they were presented with a cue to either react or accept their experience. They were then presented with either neutral or emotionally negative images or a warm or hot thermal stimulus on their forearm. Afterward they rated how negatively they felt.


They found that the participants rated the emotionally negative picture and the hot stimulus as more negative than the neutral pictures or warm stimulus. But after the accept cue they reported lower negative ratings to both the negative images and hot stimulus. Hence, expressing an attitude of mindful acceptance produced lesser negative reactions to negative emotional and thermal stimuli.


The brain activity to the stimuli revealed that during the accept condition there was less activity in the amygdala than during the react condition. The painful, hot, thermal stimulus produced increased brain activity in widespread regions but during the mindful acceptance condition, the activations were significantly lower. Hence, expressing an attitude of mindful acceptance produced less brain activation to negative stimuli.


It should be pointed out that the study design contains considerable demand characteristics. Instructing a participant to take on an attitude of non-judging acceptance cues the participant that less reaction is expected. This demand characteristic may account for the ratings. It is less likely, though, that it could account for differential brain activations. Of course, demand characteristics probably have their effects by altering brain processing of the conditions.


Regardless, these findings are interesting and demonstrate that a brief mindfulness instruction is sufficient to alter the participants’ experiences of and the responses of their brains to neutral and negative experiences. In addition, the instruction appears to be sufficient to alter the experience of and brain activity to painful stimuli. This suggest that the mindful acceptance instruction produced an improved ability to regulate emotional reactions and experiences of pain and the brains responses to these conditions.


It has been repeatedly demonstrated in prior research that mindfulness improves emotion regulation and reduces pain perception. So, the present findings are compatible with prior findings. The contribution of the present study is the demonstration that a brief instruction and training in taking on an attitude of mindful acceptance is sufficient to produce these effects. It remains for future research to determine if this instruction is sufficient to alter real world reactions.


So, improve emotion regulation and reduce pain with mindful acceptance.


“The ability to stay in the moment when experiencing pain or negative emotions suggests there may be clinical benefits to mindfulness practice in chronic conditions as well — even without long meditation practice.” – Hedy Kober


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Kober, H., Buhle, J., Weber, J., Ochsner, K. N., & Wager, T. D. (2019). Let it be: mindful acceptance down-regulates pain and negative emotion. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 14(11), 1147–1158.



Mindfulness training ameliorates clinical and self-report measures of depression and chronic pain, but its use as an emotion regulation strategy—in individuals who do not meditate—remains understudied. As such, whether it (i) down-regulates early affective brain processes or (ii) depends on cognitive control systems remains unclear. We exposed meditation-naïve participants to two kinds of stimuli: negative vs. neutral images and painful vs. warm temperatures. On alternating blocks, we asked participants to either react naturally or exercise mindful acceptance. Emotion regulation using mindful acceptance was associated with reductions in reported pain and negative affect, reduced amygdala responses to negative images and reduced heat-evoked responses in medial and lateral pain systems. Critically, mindful acceptance significantly reduced activity in a distributed, a priori neurologic signature that is sensitive and specific to experimentally induced pain. In addition, these changes occurred in the absence of detectable increases in prefrontal control systems. The findings support the idea that momentary mindful acceptance regulates emotional intensity by changing initial appraisals of the affective significance of stimuli, which has consequences for clinical treatment of pain and emotion.


Improve Sensory Discrimination with Alternate-Nostril Yoga Breathing

Improve Sensory Discrimination with Alternate-Nostril Yoga Breathing


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


alternate nostril breathing, has a long history in Ayurvedic medicine and yoga, where it’s thought to harmonize the two hemispheres of the brain, resulting in a balanced in physical, mental and emotional well-being.” – Paula Watkins


Yoga practice is becoming increasingly popular in the west, for good reason. It has documented benefits for the individual’s psychological and physical health and well-being. It has also been shown to have cognitive benefits, improving memory. Yoga, however, consists of a number of components including, poses, breathing exercises, meditation, concentration, and philosophy/ethics.  So, it is difficult to determine which facet or combination of facets of yoga are responsible for which benefit. Hence, it is important to begin to test each component in isolation to determine its effects.


Alternate nostril yoga breathing is a regulated breathing alternating between the left and right nostril that is commonly practiced in yoga. Breathing through each nostril is thought to affect its respective hemisphere in the brain producing differential effects. Recently, it has been shown to reduce blood pressure and increase vigilance and reduce perceived stress.


In today’s Research News article “Changes in Shape and Size Discrimination and State Anxiety After Alternate-Nostril Yoga Breathing and Breath Awareness in One Session Each.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at:, Telles and colleagues recruited healthy adult males with at least 3 months of yogic breathing practice. They each completed 3 sessions, alternate nostril breathing, breath awareness, and quiet sitting in counterbalanced orders. Each session consisted of three 5-minute practice periods separated by one minute. Before and after each session the participants competed measures of state and trait anxiety and completed a shape and size discrimination task involving inserting “50 coins and squares of different sizes and thickness into 5 slits of a wooden box, where each slit has been especially designed to allow a square or coin of a specific size and thickness to pass through it.”


They found that after the alternate nostril breathing session but not breath awareness or quiet sitting sessions there were significantly fewer error on the shape and size discrimination task. On the other hand, after the breath awareness or quiet sitting sessions but not the alternate nostril breathing session there were significantly lower levels of anxiety.


It would appear that alternate nostril breathing heightens awareness, increasing vigilance allowing for enhanced sensory discrimination ability while breath awareness and quiet sitting are calming reducing negative emotions. It’s interesting that different approaches to the breath have such large differences in their effects. This suggests that further research into the effects of the individual components of yoga practice may be a fruitful approach to understanding and potentially enhancing the benefits of yoga practice.


So, improve sensory discrimination with alternate-nostril yoga breathing.


Alternate Nostril Breathing effectively reduces cortisol (stress) levels, increases mental focus, enhances immunity, and decreases depression and anxiety, with quick and lasting effects.” – Art of Living


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Telles, S., Vishwakarma, B., Gupta, R. K., & Balkrishna, A. (2019). Changes in Shape and Size Discrimination and State Anxiety After Alternate-Nostril Yoga Breathing and Breath Awareness in One Session Each. Medical science monitor basic research, 25, 121–127. doi:10.12659/MSMBR.914956




Yoga breathing techniques like high-frequency yoga breathing (HFYB) and breath awareness (BAW) have been associated with improved performance in the shape and size discrimination task. A PubMed search of the literature revealed that alternate-nostril breathing has been shown to improve performance in attention tasks, but the effect on tactile perception has not been studied. Hence, the present study was designed to assess the immediate effects of alternate-nostril yoga breathing (ANYB) compared to breath awareness on shape and size discrimination and state anxiety.


Fifty healthy male volunteers ages 20–50 years (group mean ±S.D., 28.4±8.2 years) were recruited. Each participant was assessed in 3 sessions conducted on 3 separate days at the same time of day. The 3 sessions were (i) alternate-nostril yoga breathing (ANYB), (ii) breath awareness (BAW), and (iii) quiet sitting (QS), and the sequence of the sessions was randomly allocated. The shape and size discrimination task and state anxiety were assessed before and after all 3 sessions. Repeated measures analysis of variance (RM-ANOVA) followed by post hoc tests for multiple comparisons, which were Bonferroni-adjusted, were performed to compare data before and after all 3 sessions using SPSS version 18.0.


The errors scores in the shape and size discrimination task showed a significant reduction after the ANYB session (p<0.001). A significant reduction was found in the level of state anxiety after breath awareness (p<0.05) and quiet sitting sessions (p<0.001).


The present results suggest that ANYB: (i) improves performance in a task which requires perceptual sensitivity and focused attention, but (ii) does not reduce state anxiety following this task.


Improve the Regulation of Emotions in Social Anxiety Disorder with Mindfulness

Improve the Regulation of Emotions in Social Anxiety Disorder with Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“One way to do this . . . is mindfulness meditation, in which you observe your thoughts and feelings with the objectivity of a disinterested, nonjudgmental witness. This form of mental training gives you the wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind can exaggerate the severity of a setback, note that it as an interesting mental process, and resist getting drawn into the abyss,” – Ritchie Davidson


Mindfulness practices have been shown to have a large number of beneficial effects on the psychological, emotional, and physical health of the individual and is helpful in the treatment of mental and physical illness. They have also been shown to effect a large number of physiological and psychological processes, including emotion regulation, attention, sensory awareness, decentering, and reappraisal. It is not known how mindfulness practices produce the myriad effects on the individual’s health and well-being, whether mindfulness has a direct effect or works through intermediary effects to produce the improved well-being.


There has been some research on this question, for instance mindfulness has been found to improve some symptoms of mental illness by increasing reappraisal which then affects the symptoms. In today’s Research News article “Testing the mindfulness-to-meaning theory: Evidence for mindful positive emotion regulation from a reanalysis of longitudinal data.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: ), Garland and colleagues examine the hypothesis that mindfulness practices influence social anxiety disorder (SAD) through a series of intermediaries. They postulate that mindfulness training increases attention which, in turn increases decentering, which, in turn, broadens sensory awareness, which, in turn increases reappraisal, which increases emotion regulation and reductions in social anxiety disorder (SAD).


To examine this idea they reanalyzed the data from a longitudinal study of the effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) on social anxiety disorder (SAD) to determine the temporal sequence of mindfulness effects. Participants with SAD were randomly assigned to receive either 12 weeks of MBSR or CBT group therapy or on a wait-list control condition. MBSR consists of a combination of meditation, body scanning, and yoga practices. The participants were measured pretreatment, post-treatment, and 3, 6, 9, and 12 months later for attentional control, decentering, reappraisal, sensory awareness, dispositional mindfulness, emotion regulation and positive emotions. The data were analyzed with a sophisticated multivariate path analysis.


The best fit path revealed by the analysis had excellent model fit. It revealed that both MBSR and CBT produced significant improvements in attentional control at the end of the 12-week treatment. These attentional improvements were significantly associated with increases in decentering 3 months later. Similarly, change in decentering was significantly associated with broadened sensory awareness at the 6-month follow-up measurement. In turn, the broadened sensory awareness was significantly associated with increases in reappraisal at the 9-month follow-up measurement. Finally, increases in reappraisal were significantly associated with increases in positive emotions at the 12-month follow-up measurement. In comparing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in this model, it was found that MBSR produced significantly greater decentering and broadened sensory awareness. So, both MBSR and CBT would appear effective for social anxiety disorder (SAD) but MBSR would appear to be the superior treatment.


These are interesting and important findings suggest the mechanism by which mindfulness training improves emotion regulation in patients with social anxiety disorder (SAD). They suggest that mindfulness training sets off a chain of events consisting of improved attention followed by increased decentering followed by broadened sensory awareness, followed by increased reappraisal, followed by increased emotion regulation and reduced social anxiety disorder (SAD). It remains for future research to determine if this sequence events accounts for any other of the mental or physical health benefits of mindfulness training.


So, improve the regulation of emotions in social anxiety disorder with mindfulness.


“Through your mindful acceptance, you can embrace or hold the feeling in your awareness– this alone can calm and soothe you. This is an act of self-compassion and responsiveness to your own distress, and it is so much more effective than punishing yourself for having this feeling.” – Melli O’Brien


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Garland, E. L., Hanley, A. W., Goldin, P. R., & Gross, J. J. (2017). Testing the mindfulness-to-meaning theory: Evidence for mindful positive emotion regulation from a reanalysis of longitudinal data. PLoS ONE, 12(12), e0187727.



Background and objective

The Mindfulness to Meaning Theory (MMT) provides a detailed process model of mindful positive emotion regulation.


We conducted a post-hoc reanalysis of longitudinal data (N = 107) derived from a RCT of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) versus cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for social anxiety disorder to model the core constructs of the MMT (attentional control, decentering, broadened awareness, reappraisal, and positive affect) in a multivariate path analysis.


Findings indicated that increases in attentional control from baseline to post-training predicted increases in decentering by 3 months post-treatment (p<.01) that in turn predicted increases in broadened awareness of interoceptive and exteroceptive data by 6 months post-treatment (p<.001). In turn, broadened awareness predicted increases in the use of reappraisal by 9 months post-treatment (p<.01), which culminated in greater positive affect at 12 months post-treatment (p<.001). MBSR led to significantly greater increases in decentering (p<.05) and broadened awareness than CBT (p<.05). Significant indirect effects indicated that increases in decentering mediated the effect of mindfulness training on broadening awareness, which in turn mediated enhanced reappraisal efficacy.


Results suggest that the mechanisms of change identified by the MMT form an iterative chain that promotes long-term increases in positive affectivity. Though these mechanisms may reflect common therapeutic factors that cut across mindfulness-based and cognitive-behavioral interventions, MBSR specifically boosts the MMT cycle by producing significantly greater increases in decentering and broadened awareness than CBT, providing support for the foundational assumption in the MMT that mindfulness training may be a key means of stimulating downstream positive psychological processes.

The Variety of Meditation Experiences

The Variety of Meditation Experiences


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“One can have almost any type of physical sensation during meditation in any area of the body. . .  The ticklish sensation in your heart just means that some normalization is occurring there, allowing for a more full expression of your emotions. The sense of anxiety or fear is a by-product of that clearing process.” – Depak Chopra


Meditation is a wonderful practice that has many documented beneficial effects on mental, physical and spiritual health. For the most part, people have positive experiences during meditation, but it is not all positive. People begin meditation with the misconception that meditation will help them escape from their problems. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, meditation does the exact opposite, forcing the meditator to confront their issues. In meditation, the practitioner tries to quiet the mind. But, in that relaxed quiet state, powerful, highly emotionally charged thoughts and memories sometimes emerge.


Many practitioners never experience these issues or only experience very mild states. There are, however, few systematic studies of the extent of negative experiences. In general, the research has reported that unwanted (negative) experiences are quite common with meditators, but for the most part, are short-lived and mild. There is, however, a great need for more research into the nature of the experiences that occur during meditation.


In today’s Research News article “The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: ),

Lindahl and colleagues recruited experienced adult meditation practitioners and teachers from a variety of different traditions. Meditators were excluded if they had a history of unusual psychological experiences prior to learning meditation. They conducted extensive semi-structured interviews that consisted of open-ended questions regarding meditation-related experiences. Interviews with the participants were conducted either in person, by videoconferencing, or by telephone. Transcripts of the interviews were then subjected to qualitative data analysis focusing on challenging or difficult experiences.


They found that most practitioners had experienced at least some challenging experiences. 29% encountered challenges in their first year of practice while 45% encountered them in their first 10 years. For 73% of the practitioners, challenging experiences were associated with meditation retreats, while the rest were associated with daily practice. The more meditation per day the greater the likelihood of negative experiences with only 25% who practiced for 30-60 minutes per day having negative experiences, 34% who practiced 1-9 hours per day, and 41% who practiced over 10 hours per day. One of the most striking findings was the duration of negative experiences. They were not brief or fleeting. In fact, on average they were reported to persist from 1 to 3 years and as long as 10 years.


Thematic content analysis of the transcripts revealed 59 different categories of experiences that occurred in 7 higher order domains; cognitive, perceptual, affective, somatic, conative, sense of self, and social. 73% of practitioners had experiences falling into at least 6 domains.


The Cognitive Domain consisted in “Changes . . . to mental functioning, including the frequency, quality and content of thoughts, as well as . . . planning, decision-making and memory.” Most experiences in this domain were pleasant but unpleasant experiences also occurred including inability to concentrate for extended periods, problems with memory, the disintegration of conceptual meaning structures, “mind racing,” vivid imagery, and delusional, irrational, or paranormal beliefs.


The Perceptual domain consisted of ”changes to any of the five senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste and somatosensory processing” and interoception and proprioception. Unpleasant experiences in this domain included hypersensitivity to stimuli, illusions, hallucinations, dissolution of perceptual objects, distortions in time and space, and sensations appearing dreamlike, as if in a fog.


The Affective domain consisted of changes in the type, frequency, or intensity of emotions. For many the affective experiences were pleasant including bliss and euphoria, sometimes verging on mania. But, unpleasant experiences were very frequent and involved both increased and decreased emotionality including anxiety fear, panic, re-experiencing trauma, irritability, anger, and paranoia with 82% reporting it. For some flat affect occurred with a loss of swings in emotion.


The Somatic domain consisted of “changes in bodily functioning or physiological processes.” Unpleasant experiences in this domain included sleep disruption, feelings of pressure, tension, and hot and cold, electricity like voltages or currents through the body sometimes resulting in involuntary movements.


The Conative domain consisted of “changes in motivation or goal-directed behaviors.” Unpleasant experiences in this domain included loss of desire for previously enjoyed activities and loss of motivation to achieve goals.


The Sense of Self domain consisted of “changes in how a practitioner conceives of himself or herself over time.” Unpleasant experiences in this domain including a dissolution of boundaries between the individuals and others and the environment, loss of a sense of ownership of thoughts, emotions and agency (the doer), and loss of a sense of self entirely.


The Social domain consisted of “changes in interpersonal activities or functioning, including level of engagement, quality of relationships, or periods of conflict, isolation or withdrawal.” Unpleasant experiences in this domain included problems re-integrating into society after a retreat or intensive practice, impaired functioning at work or with family, and doubt and loss of faith. In fact, many of the negative experiences bled over into everyday life affecting all social interactions.


These findings need to be kept in perspective as most experience with meditation are pleasant and positive and even the negative experiences are mainly brief and manageable. But the results emphasize that it’s not all what people are led to believe. It can turn unpleasant or even ugly. It is important that this be taught and managed in the meditation community. In the monasteries this is well understood and managed. But in the secular world, these negative experiences are rarely taught, understood, reacted to properly, or managed. For many negative experiences can lead to stopping practice, but for others they can lead to grave psychological harm. It is important that the practitioner be made aware of these possible experiences before they begin, so they are better able to understand them a handle them astutely.


Meditation should not be engaged in blindly without proper instruction. It can produce great benefit but sometimes great harm. In order to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm proper education and management is needed.


Emotions that come up during meditation represent one of two things: 1) undigested past negative emotions that are rising up to be processed, or 2) a present-moment experience of raw emotion from something happening now, which can be positive or negative. Either way, it can make for an uncomfortable meditation and is one of the most common reasons people stop meditating.” – Trista Thorp



CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Lindahl, J. R., Fisher, N. E., Cooper, D. J., Rosen, R. K., & Britton, W. B. (2017). The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE, 12(5), e0176239.



Buddhist-derived meditation practices are currently being employed as a popular form of health promotion. While meditation programs draw inspiration from Buddhist textual sources for the benefits of meditation, these sources also acknowledge a wide range of other effects beyond health-related outcomes. The Varieties of Contemplative Experience study investigates meditation-related experiences that are typically underreported, particularly experiences that are described as challenging, difficult, distressing, functionally impairing, and/or requiring additional support. A mixed-methods approach featured qualitative interviews with Western Buddhist meditation practitioners and experts in Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan traditions. Interview questions probed meditation experiences and influencing factors, including interpretations and management strategies. A follow-up survey provided quantitative assessments of causality, impairment and other demographic and practice-related variables. The content-driven thematic analysis of interviews yielded a taxonomy of 59 meditation-related experiences across 7 domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective, somatic, conative, sense of self, and social. Even in cases where the phenomenology was similar across participants, interpretations of and responses to the experiences differed considerably. The associated valence ranged from very positive to very negative, and the associated level of distress and functional impairment ranged from minimal and transient to severe and enduring. In order to determine what factors may influence the valence, impact, and response to any given experience, the study also identified 26 categories of influencing factors across 4 domains: practitioner-level factors, practice-level factors, relationships, and health behaviors. By identifying a broader range of experiences associated with meditation, along with the factors that contribute to the presence and management of experiences reported as challenging, difficult, distressing or functionally impairing, this study aims to increase our understanding of the effects of contemplative practices and to provide resources for mediators, clinicians, meditation researchers, and meditation teachers.

The Made-up “Real”


“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” ~ Albert Einstein


“The light of memory, or rather the light that memory lends to things, is the palest light of all. I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it. Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water.” – Eugene Ionesco
Dreams are purported to be not real. They are thought to be constructions of our nervous system that occur during an altered state of consciousness termed sleep. But, they appear and feel very real. While the dream is in progress we experience it as completely real. Things happen mostly in real time. We visualize people, places, and things in great detail and hear sounds and voices. We even feel emotions. What’s different about a dream in comparison to what we call reality?


In actuality, much of what we experience during so called “reality” is not real, but a construction produced by our nervous systems. We experience color in our visual world, but in fact there is nothing in the physical world that has color. Our eyes take in different wavelengths of light, electromagnetic radiation with different distances between peaks. That is all. There is nothing colored here. But our eyes have three different receptors that respond to different ranges of wavelengths. Our brain then interprets the activity of these receptors as different colors. In fact it is a complete illusion. What we think we see and experience is in fact not there.


Our everyday thoughts, day dreams, and fantasies we recognize as not a reflection of reality. But nevertheless they constitute a constructed experience. Our brain is completely capable of constructing experiences that are similar to those that we label as “reality.” Could it be that this labelled “reality” is in fact just another constructed experience?


The great physiologist and philosopher, Johannes Müller, pointed out that we are not directly aware of the natural world, but rather what we are aware of is the state of our nervous system. In other words, our awareness is simply of what is going on in our nervous system. It is constructed by brain processes. Is this any more real than the dream?


It is clear that we can make up experiences and perceive them vividly. The great question then becomes how much is “real” and how much and which ones are mental constructs. This question has had a range of answers from the materialist who suggests that there is objective reality to the Zen master who suggests that there is no reality other than pure being.


If all that we are aware of is the state of our nervous system is that, at least, an objective reality? Dreams are produced by internal brain activity that lacks an external referent. These are apparently very “real’ to the dreamer, but most would agree that they are not “real.” Drugs can produce very “real” experiences but most agree that they are not “real.” But are these experiences not just a construct of altered brain activity produced by sleep systems or altered chemistry, respectively? If our sleep systems or altered brain chemistry can produce an untrue “reality” what does this imply about the “reality” produced by our usual brain chemistry? Does it not imply that the nervous system is at best an unstable platform for the expression of “reality” or that our awareness itself does not present to us the “real?”


The only thing that we conclusively know to be real is our personal awareness of the immediate moment. Everything else is just a memory or a fantasy. That experienced moment is ever changing, mutating, arising and falling away. It cannot be held onto. So, the only thing that we know to be real is ephemeral, a puff of smoke blown in the wind. But, is this phantasm real or is it created in our awareness? Is it a reflection of an objective reality or a compelling hallucination? Does it have substance beyond experience?


We have arrived at the point of concluding that the only “reality” that we can know to be real is an ephemeral experience of a present moment and that even this is perhaps only a continuing experience of the ever changing state of our nervous system that we know is not an accurate depiction of any external physical state of environmental energies. To be sure, this is a very tenuous grasp at something “real.”


Doesn’t it make more sense to admit that awareness is the only “reality?” What enters awareness is simply what we experience regardless of its origin. Does it really matter if it is reflective of an external “reality” or simply all made up? It is simply our “reality” and it may not need to be anything more. Seeing it this way, the question becomes irrelevant.


 “I’m more convinced each day of the complete unreality of the material world and the supreme vitality of the invisible world of spirit.”- Paul Russo


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


The Power of the Mind – Concentration Without Action Improves Tactile Sensation


“The mind has exactly the same power as the hands: not merely to grasp the world, but to change it.” – Colin Wilson


The mind is powerful. It senses and interprets our world, plans for the future, solves problems, and even writes these words. The mind can even adjust itself depending upon the environment. We know, for example, that practicing almost anything can result in the nervous system changing to make it better at the task in a process called neuroplasticity. This is even true with meditation, where practice changes the nervous system (see


But, can the body adapt to the mind? Can our minds change our senses just by thinking about it and not actually practicing it?  Meditation can make the brain more efficient at processing sensory information (see Meditation can also improve our sensitivity to internal sensations, interoceptive awareness (see So, is it possible that meditative focus on a sense solely can improve the sensitivity of that sense?


In today’s Research News article “Enhanced tactile acuity through mental states”

Philipp and colleagues explore the question if meditative focus without any overt action can change sensory sensitivity. Participants in a four day Zen meditation retreat were either asked to engage in open-monitoring meditation during the retreat (control condition) or for three days to be completely aware of the spontaneously arising sensory perception in their right index finger and then engage in open-monitoring meditation for the last day (sensory focusing condition). They found that at the end of the retreat only the sensory focusing group showed improved tactile sensitivity in the right index finger.


These results are quite remarkable. Neither group practiced feeling with the finger. The entire process was done in the mind by just focusing on the sensation. Yet, sensitivity increased without practice just based upon a mental focus. So, the mind can change the body, even without actually doing anything except thinking about it.


It can be speculated that the mental focus actually produces increased activity in the neural areas responsible for tactile sensation (the post-central gyrus) which in turn results in a neuroplastic response growing the brain area and increasing its connectivity. This would then make the individual more sensitive to the appropriate tactile stimulation. It will remain for future research to establish whether this is indeed what happens.


Regardless, focus the power of the mind on what you want improved.


“The human body is a machine which winds its own springs.” ~Julien Offroy de la Mettrie, L’Homme Machine


“Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus.
Our bodies are our gardens to which our wills are gardeners.”
~William Shakespeare, Othello

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


See Things as They Are with Mindfulness

“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” ― John Lubbock


There are two ways that we can process sensory information; top-down or bottom-up. The idea of top-down perception is that perception is an active process involving selection, inference and interpretation. In other words what we are thinking or expecting effects how we experience the world. On the other hand the idea of bottom-up perception is that perception is a simple interpretation of the exact stimuli that are present in front of us. In other words we build our world view from the stimuli present.


Top-down processing, sometimes known as motivated perception, results in seeing what we expect to see or what we’ve been trained to see. Hence, our perception is colored by what we’ve experienced in the past and what we expect to see in the current situation. This can produce something that psychologists term a perceptual set. It is “a perceptual bias or predisposition or readiness to perceive particular features of a stimulus“. – Gordon Allport


Perceptual set works in two ways where the individual focuses attention on particular aspects of the sensory data based upon his/her expectations and where the individual has learned how to classify, understand and name selected data and what inferences to draw from it. So, what we perceive is not necessarily exactly what is there. Rather it’s what we want it to be. So, if you’re expecting to see a friend approaching you may initially perceive a stranger to be your friend.


Mindfulness practice has been shown to make the brain more efficient in sensory and perceptual processing (see In addition, mindfulness practice is devoted to present moment awareness; seeing things just as they are. So, mindfulness practice may be seen as practicing bottom-up perceptual processing. It also schools the individual in non-judgmental awareness which is the antithesis of top-down processing. So, it would be expected that mindfulness would increase the likelihood of bottom-up processing and reduce the likelihood of top-down processing.


In today’s Research News article “Be open: Mindfulness predicts reduced motivated perception”

Adair and colleagues investigate this notion by correlating the level of mindfulness of the individual with their tendency for top-down processing. They found that the higher the level of mindfulness the more likely that the individual will perceive bottom-up and the less likely that they will use top-down processing.


Hence, mindfulness does what it is purported to do, helping us to see things as they are and not what our minds are telling us that they should be. In a previous post (LINK TO Free Your Mind with Mindfulness – with RN Kuo) we discussed the fact that meditation tends to free thought processes from prior training and experiences. Today’s Research News suggests that mindfulness also frees our perceptual processes. This suggests that mindfulness is liberating and puts us in closer contact with what is; experiencing the world more accurately and thinking more clearly about what is.


So practice mindfulness and see things as they are.


“In this treacherous world

Nothing is the truth nor a lie.

Everything depends on the color

Of the crystal through which one sees it”

― Pedro Calderón de la Barca


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Feeling Feelings: Getting in Touch with the Body

Most of us spend the majority of our lives lost in thought. Even when we become aware of our surroundings it is principally of the sights and sounds surrounding us. It is usually only when something is very wrong that we become aware of our bodies, what is called interoceptive awareness. We are generally unaware of the signals from our bodies such as the breath, movements in the GI tract, heart beats accompanied with surges in blood pressure, the sensations from our muscles and joints, even the sensations from our skin. Adding to the lack of awareness of our bodies we are also unaware of our implicit beliefs and attitudes about our bodies and the emotions that accompany these attitudes.

To exemplify this, just for a moment start paying attention to the sensations coming from the contact of your clothing with your skin. You were in all probability totally unaware of these sensations until your attention was directed toward them. Now notice the feelings from your facial muscles. Are they tense, relaxed, or something in-between. You probably were not aware of their state yet they can be good indicators of stress and your emotional state.

This can be a real problem as interoceptive awareness is extremely important for our awareness of our emotional state which is in turn needed to regulate and respond appropriately to the emotions. Being aware of the state of our bodies is also important for maintaining health, both for recognizing our physical state and also for making appropriate decisions about health related behaviors. Interoceptive awareness is even fundamental to our sense of self and world view.

Obviously it is important that we find ways to improve our poor body awareness. Most contemplative practices focus attention on our internal state and thus should improve our body awareness. But, in fact there is little empirical evidence on the issue. In today’s Research News article “Differential changes in self-reported aspects of interoceptive awareness through 3 months of contemplative training”

Bornemann and colleagues examine the effect of a 3-month training employing focused meditation and body scan meditation on interoceptive awareness. They found significant increases in five of the eight scales of interoceptive awareness compared to a control group.

It was found that meditation and body scan practice improved the regulatory aspects of interoceptive awareness. These include Self-Regulation which is the ability to control distress by paying attention to sensations from the body, Attention Regulation which is the ability to focus in a sustained way on the sensations from the body, and Body Listening which is the ability to gain insight into the physical and emotional state by listening to the signals from the body. These are important skills involved in being able to not only be aware of body sensations but to use these sensations to better understand and control their internal state and physical wellbeing.

Contemplative practice also improved Emotional Awareness, which is the ability to be aware of and understand the connection between body sensations and emotions, and Body Trusting, which is experiencing one’s own body as a safe place. These are also important abilities as they allow us to trust in the usefulness of the information from the body to better understand and control our emotions.

It is interesting that the contemplative practice did not increase Noticing of body sensations such as heart beat and breathing. Rather it appears to markedly improve our ability to use the information from our bodies to understand and regulate our emotional or motivational state. This is very important to our wellbeing both mental and physical. It puts us better in control by providing the signals we need to be better able to regulate our state.

These improvements in interoceptive awareness could also explain to some extent how mindfulness practices produce their well-documented significant improvements in physical and psychological health and wellbeing. It simply makes us better able to respond to and control our bodies and our emotions.

So engage in contemplative practice and learn how to feel your feelings and benefit your body’s signals.

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Make the Brain more Efficient with Meditation

Meditation has been shown to alter the nervous system. It changes the size of brain areas, their connectivity, and their activity. It even appears to protect the brain from the degeneration that normally occurs with aging. These changes are thought to underlie meditation effects on physical and psychological health. These effects of meditation were reviewed in a previous post

The increased connectivity between brain areas implies that meditation may make the nervous system more efficient, processing information faster and more effectively. But, the prior studies do not directly measure information processing efficiency. In today’s Research News article “Neurophysiological Effects of Meditation Based on Evoked and Event Related Potential Recordings”

Singh and colleagues review studies that have used the electrical signals from the brain to track how fast and effectively sensory information is processed in the brain during meditation. They report that the research indicates that indeed the brain processes this information more efficiently while engaged in meditation.

There were two different types of improvements reported with meditation. The first is simple processing on sensory events, sending the signals from the sensory organs to the cortex where complex processing occurs. They found that this simple level processing was improved during meditation.

The second type of processing is more complex and involves making decisions about the sensory information. This type of processing was also found to be improved in meditators. There was improved attention and switching of attention, greater perceptual clarity, lower automatic reactivity to the information and its emotional content, greater emotional acceptance, and lower anticipation and fear of pain. These results are remarkable and suggest that meditation increases the efficiency of the brain, improving the distribution of limited brain resources.

How can such a simple practice such as meditation have such profound effects upon the nervous system. In meditation, information processing is greatly simplified and focused. By reducing intrusions and the onslaught of complex sensory experiences, thoughts, implicit speech, and ruminations, meditation may allow the brain to focus on a reduced number of tasks and thus learn to process them simply and more efficiently.

It is also the case that the nervous system adapts to the kind of processing that it’s asked to do in a process called neuroplasticity. By reducing the complexity of processing the brain may improve and allocate its resources to focused tasks, improving its speed and effectiveness in processing them. Simply put, by making the world simpler, with fewer distraction or discursions the nervous system can better learn how to effectively make sense of what’s present.

So, meditate and make the brain better.

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies