The Varieties of Contemplative Experience and the Meditative Marketplace

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. (1-2)

The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE) is an important and scholarly article that aims to expand public knowledge of Buddhist meditative practice and its range of possible effects.  Willoughby Britton is one of its contributors and has played an active role in the contemplative community.  She will be familiar to those of you who’ve read this article and have heard of Cheetah House, a place where those experiencing the abrasive effects of meditation can rest and recuperate.  VCE is a landmark study and anyone interested in starting meditation, creating a meditation group, or bringing meditation into the workplace should read it.

I have written several times on the broad spectrum of experiences brought on by my own meditative practice.  I have been practicing meditation daily for around nine years, and in that time I’ve experienced things that were life-changing, amazing, and positive.  Other parts of the practice pushed me into an extremely intense and profound dialogue with parts of myself that I had not yet fully processed or integrated.  Pursuing meditation on my own compounded these difficulties, and I lacked both community resources and a context for what I experienced.

That is why studies such as VCE are so necessary right now, especially given the current state of meditation in America and its position as part of a wider consumer culture.  Mindfulness is an example of a meditation practice that has gone mainstream and has been disseminated as a solution to a wide range of problems.  Meditation has therefore settled into an uneasy polarity with the marketplace at large, and is in many respects being bought and sold like any other commodity.  There is unfortunately still a lack of public dialogue and resources around these types of practices.

One of the main arguments of the article is that the “positive” effects of meditation are widely reported and emphasized, while “adverse” effects are little understood or appreciated by the wider public.

While these sources are often assumed to be indicative of ‘the effects of meditation,’ the focus on positive health-related benefits represents only a narrow selection of possible effects that have been acknowledged within Buddhist traditions both past and present. (2)

On the one hand, this is perfectly understandable, since capitalism has brought many esoteric religious teachings into the marketplace at an extremely rapid rate.  There is a public reckoning with these teachings that is similar to what is happening currently with psychedelics.  There is still some debate within various circles as to the merits of these kind of substances, but it seems that there is a general shift of opinion happening in this domain.  However, with psychedelics, the public seems to be much more cognizant of their dangers than practices such as mindfulness.

The situation with mindfulness and meditation is as if psychedelic substances were widely available and popularized without any kind of meaningful guide to the inner territories they explore.  I find it difficult to believe that mindfulness can truly be marketed as a wholly safe practice in light of studies such as the VCE.  The article provides an extremely interesting image in the form of a table of different types of meditation experiences of novice and seasoned meditators.  I have experienced many of these throughout my practice, and information like this table is a good general indicator of what the student can expect as they progress, and will hopefully become more prevalent as the public discourse around mindfulness begins to shift.

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The marketing of meditation and esoteric religious practices to a wider community than they were intended has both profound challenges and opportunities that are still being addressed.  The more I have studied meditation-based texts, the more I have appreciated their power and insight.  I have also come to a subtler understanding of the reservations that many of these texts express with their knowledge coming under wider public scrutiny.  This may be one reason why these kinds of practices were reserved for a select few, in ensuring that the student had the necessary training to use this practice in the most beneficial way possible and navigate the types of difficult terrain the VCE describes.

Maps of this terrain are very useful because they help the student understand these experiences in certain ways, as well as giving the student a basis to weather their many internal storms.  An example of this kind of system is found in the book Steps to the Great Perfection: The Mind-Training Tradition of the Dzogchen Masters A step by step process is laid out, giving the student different nodes to focus on, and giving them different kinds of trainings to engage in throughout.  Examples of some of these practices are impermanence, nonconceptuality, and the Buddha’s virtues (7). The author then proceeds to give different kinds of methods (including some pretty intense visualizations) to more fully understand each of these instructions.

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While I don’t think that a system is necessary for every practitioner,  with them the student is less likely to get lost or focus on the things that don’t lead to a more refined practice.  And even with a practice as seemingly simple and straightforward as mindfulness, any sustained amount of time spent observing our own mental processes is bound to bring up plenty of ancient, hard to integrate material.  The more students and teachers become aware of the wide range of experiences that can occur in any kind of meditation, the more robust our public discourse will be at handling these kinds of situations.

The VCE fills this role admirably and widens the lens of the possible effects of contemplative practice.  I hope that more people who are utilizing meditation read VCE and give it the attention it deserves.  And as someone who in many capacities has gone it alone for almost a decade of meditation – please don’t go it alone.  Find people you can dialogue with and a teacher who can help put things into perspective – until you reach a point that you can decide whether that specific perspective is still needed.

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