Terje Sparby and Ulrich W. Weger
Research on meditation and mindfulness is continuing to attract significant interest both within and outside of the academic community. How can phenomenology and philosophy contribute to this research? This special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies approaches this question from many different angles. There is an ambiguity connected to the term ‘meditation research’ (Sparby, 2017). It can mean, on the one hand, researching the effects and effectiveness of different meditation techniques, for instance on human health. On the other hand, meditation can be seen as a tool or an instrument that can increase our access to reality and thereby also increase our knowledge. These two forms of research can also interact if we ask, for example, whether meditation can be shown empirically to be an effective tool for increasing knowledge, or whether knowledge gained through meditation, such as psychological insights, can have a beneficial impact on health.
The articles of this special issue reflect these fundamentally different interpretations of meditation research. Furthermore, they show how input from different disciplines can help us reflect on central research challenges in relation to meditation, such as the fact that the terms we use to understand meditation can be far from clear, both on a conceptual and experiential level, and that the social context can play an important role in defining those terms. In order to create a comprehensive and interdisciplinary understanding of the practice of meditation, such challenges need to be addressed, and in our view phenomenological and philosophical approaches have not received the attention they deserve in this rapidly growing field of research. Here we will outline how philosophy and phenomenology can inform
meditation research working in conjunction with the other disciplines represented in this special issue.
Philosophy is traditionally known for attempting to clarify our understanding of concepts through suggesting, critiquing, and systematizing definitions. Again, this is a central task relating to meditation research. Philosophy can help improve our understanding of what meditation consists of, which is fundamental when it comes to the empirical investigation of the effects of meditation. It has indeed already been shown that different meditation techniques can lead to different results. For example, one recent study suggests that deconstructive techniques increase the probability of having very unpleasant experiences in meditation (Schlosser et al., 2019). But how do we decide which forms of meditation can be clustered into constructive and deconstructive techniques? In order to answer such questions, we have to negotiate what fundamentally characterizes meditation. For instance, what are the commonalities of sitting and walking meditation? We could suggest that meditation is a form of mental activity in order to differentiate walking meditation from just walking and to link it to sitting meditation. How do we define mental activity? How do we differentiate it from physical activity? And aren’t there forms of meditation that consist of non-activity? Such questions involve simple, fundamental categories — an issue which is the matter of philosophy. Additionally, we can ask: to what extent does a practitioner have to have an understanding of the aim of a meditation technique before they can be said to be performing it? I can move my arm randomly and hit a tennis ball — but this is something other than playing tennis, which requires a comprehension of the rules and acting according to them, possibly with an intention to win. Can we understand an activity if we do not understand its aim? If we accept that such an understanding is ultimately necessary for both comprehending and performing meditation, then there is a large context of meaning that needs to be taken into account when the activity and aim of meditation is investigated, such as traditional and scientific understandings of meditation, and also perhaps the whole socio-cultural context surrounding it. And how do we conceptualize the aim of meditation forms that consist of non-activity?
Albahari’s article in the present issue exemplifies an approach focused on philosophical issues, more specifically the claim that it is possible to investigate ultimate or fundamental reality, the traditional domain of metaphysics, using meditation. Considering sceptical objections to this hypothesis she aims to create more clarity with regards to our understanding of how meditation can be used as an instrument of knowledge. Weger’s article introduces the concept of processual thinking as a form of meditative enquiry. He describes a roadmap, along with possible outcomes that are characteristic of this type of processual thinking; it is an approach anchored in the anthroposophical tradition. Phenomenology in the sense of the investigation of the conditions for experience as well as actual experience has an equally important role to play. Depraz’s and Vörös’s articles consider meditation using philosophical phenomenology, looking at the different meditation forms samatha-vipassanā and shikantaza respectively. Depraz suggests that samatha-vipassanā can be understood as a way of making Husserlian phenomenology into a more concrete investigation of consciousness and Vörös shows how shikantaza can be understood as a way of de-objectifying thought while opening an access to a pre-reflective realm of experience. Hence both Depraz’s and Vörös’s contributions point to meditation when it comes to turning philosophical phenomenology into phenomenological practice.
How do we know what people actually do when they meditate? To what extent does what they do correspond to our concept of meditation? How do we differentiate actual reports of meditation experiences from traditional, conceptual, or biased understandings of meditation (Full, Walach and Trautwein, 2013)? These are just a few examples of questions where engaging with meditation experiences is essential. To do so in a rigorous way can be supported by the various first-person and phenomenological methods that intend to provide precise descriptions of experience as it is.
One of these methods is micro-phenomenology. The current issue gives two examples of two micro-phenomenological investigations. Pryzembel et al. ask whether it is possible that loving-kindness meditation — perhaps counter-intuitively — can have negative effects, and used micro-phenomenology in conjunction with psychological and biological measurements to assess this. Sparby explored the experience of attentional fixation to a meditation object, sometimes called access concentration or dhyāna, using micro-phenomenological auto-enquiry, in an attempt to clarify and enrich the traditional accounts.
Lindahl and Britton’s article is based on experiential accounts of changes in the sense of self occurring as a result of Buddhist meditation practice. It is shown that there are indeed multiple meanings to this term, and hence that meditation practice cannot be understood solely in light of an idea of dissolving the self. Kordeš et al. take an approach where a group of researchers are also the subjects being investigated, considering how meditation can be used as a way of doing research on consciousness and experience. Vogd and Harth challenge the view that it is possible to investigate experience adequately from the first-person perspective, i.e. without taking into account the social context that may influence the understanding of the experience: they show how such a dynamic can unfold by presenting a case study of someone coming to terms with their meditation experience in interaction with a teacher. Finally, the article by Ott et al. presents research that combines experiential reports with EEG-measurements in an approach that is often referred to as neurophenomenology.
We believe that these articles give a good sample of different approaches to meditation research that include philosophical and phenomenological perspectives. These approaches both complement and challenge each other. For example, even if we can justify the hypothesis that meditation can give us insight into fundamental reality, this hypothesis becomes stale if it is never accompanied by experientially based accounts of the unfolding of such knowledge. And how would such a combined endeavour respond to the claim that there is no ‘fundamental reality’ beyond a social context within which such claims are meaningful? Such questions justify the continued interdisciplinary approach to meditation research.
We wish to thank all the authors of this special issue and the Software AG Stiftung for financial support.
Full, G.E., Walach, H. & Trautwein, M. (2013) Meditation-induced changes in perception: An interview study with expert meditators (sotapannas) in Burma, Mindfulness, 4 (1), pp. 55–63.
Schlosser, M., Sparby, T., Vörös, S., Jones, R. & Marchant, N.L. (2019) Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations, PLoS One, [Online], https://doi.org/ 10.1371/journal.pone.0216643.
Sparby, T. (2017) On the nature of contemplative science and some prospects for its future development, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 24 (5–6), pp. 226–250.