Advanced Meditation Alters Consciousness and Our Basic Sense of Self

 

An emerging science of advanced meditation could transform mental health and our understanding of consciousness.

Millions worldwide practice mindfulness meditation, not just for their mental health but as a means to enhance their general well-being, reduce stress and be more productive at work. The past decade has seen an extraordinary broadening of our understanding of the neuroscience underlying meditation; hundreds of clinical studies have highlighted its health benefits. Mindfulness is no longer a fringe activity but a mainstream health practice: the U.K.’s National Health Service has endorsed mindfulness-based therapy for depression. Mobile apps have brought meditation techniques to smartphones, enabling a new era in meditative practice.

The approach to research on meditation has been evolving in equal measure. Looking back, we can identify distinct “waves.” The first wave, from ap­­prox­imate­ly the mid-1990s into the early 2000s, assessed meditation’s clinical and therapeutic potential for treating a broad set of psychological and physical health concerns. The second wave, starting in the early 2000s, focused on mechanisms of mindfulness’s effectiveness, revealing why it yields benefits for mental health that are at times comparable to those achieved with pharmaceuticals. Meditation science is now entering a third wave, exploring what we call ad­­vanced meditation—deeper and more intense states and stages of practice that often require extended training and can be experienced through increasing mastery. University research programs are being established to study these altered mental states, similar to new academic endeavors to investigate the merits of psychedelic drugs for personal well-being and a variety of medical conditions.

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