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.


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.


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.

Spiritual Praxis

I’ve been reflecting on some of the vocabulary I use in these writings and some of the experiences I’ve drawn on in attempting to understand them. I think it’s important that I establish some of the terminology that gets used here, and the larger context in which they are framed.

Many of the writings here have emerged through my own experimentation and have had the feeling of discovery. This feels like different viewings of something comprehensive yet hidden from view. This is part of the genesis for referring to these experiments as occult or esoteric, in that they are typically more hidden from the mind’s rationalizing capabilities. In order to aid me in looking at these experiences closely and accurately, I have embraced a broad platform of human thought and experience.

Following this kind of journey has made it clear to me that liberation and understanding, so crucial for humanity’s efforts in this reality, are global possibilities which everyone contributes to. Although I am not an accredited teacher, and do not have an official teacher within a spiritual tradition, I have learned something valuable from casting my nets wide and listening to as many perspectives as possible. This type of study serves as a check on my many one-sided viewpoints.

This is why my writings have emphasized different understandings of religion and spirituality. I tend to use these concepts frequently on this site, although they elude rigid interpretation. They are used in a looser and more intuitive way. Spirituality, in my view, begins with a human investigation into topics of universal significance. These can include self-identity, love, the problem of evil, and our reason for existing. It embraces a wide range of physical and mental tools, such as reason, intuition, and meditation. It also has an ethical component which seems to be one of the most important characteristics of any kind of spiritual writing – how this type of investigation, in broadening our understanding of life, contributes to more realistic and compassionate behavior.

Religion is an extension of spirituality and shares many commonalities with it. When discussing religion, we are not only looking at spiritual teachings, but the architecture that sustains these teachings. This can include monasteries and nunneries, church gatherings, and meditation groups. It also looks at the larger social consequences of those participating in these practices and how spiritual teachings are spread through cultures. So when we are discussing religion, this is intentionally broad. It looks at human values, practices aimed at understanding the universe, and human social institutions that preserve the teachings of individuals who teach this particular kind of knowledge.

Both of these expressions are tied together in a human impulse, where, through reflection, we wish to understand our place in the world. That impulse manifests as a desire to connect to something larger than ourselves. Both spiritual and religious practices tie this impulse into what is commonly referred to as practice. Simply put, this practice is not only the techniques we use in our spiritual inquiry, but how we express what we have learned there.

The culmination of this kind of spiritual and religious study is an understanding beyond our self-image, and why this understanding is truer and more reflective of reality as a result. Many traditions have emphasized this understanding, such as the Kabbalistic map of God and the complete human; Christian kenosis and rebirth in Christ’s love; or Buddhist emphases on human action. These maps all seem to converge around deeper human awareness, how to access that, and how to ultimately transform human behavior.

This kind of analysis is found in the book Symbols of the Kabbalah by Sanford Drob, also discussed in my previous post. His excellent analysis involves the Sefirot, the Kabbalistic aspects of God’s nature. The process of the Sefirot also describes the individual contribution to something higher than oneself. This interpretation revolves around the last triad on the Sefirot, Netzach or “Endurance,” Hod or “Splendor,” and Yesod, “Foundation.” Since Netzach and Hod are understood as the “legs” on the Sefirot that correspond to the body of God, they correspond to the material expression of divine potential that hold this process aloft.

From a psychological point of view we may regard Endurance, Splendor, and Foundation as the cultural fulfillment of earlier, more individualistic psychological principles. This follows from the very names of these Sefirot; for civilization and culture are the very aspects of the human psyche that are splendorous and enduring, and which serve as a foundation for human communal life. It is not sufficient that we as humans have individual desire, intellect, and emotion; we must also build something of enduring value. Such cultural pursuits – achievements in work, the arts, religion, the family, society, etc. – are the human equivalents to God’s creation of the material world; for through them, as Hegel observed, the human spirit expresses itself and becomes concrete and real. Psychological (and psychotherapeutic) work does not begin and end with the harmonizing of conflict in one’s own inner life; it must extend to the achievement of a wider expression and balance in one’s work in the world, an achievement of something more enduring than the individual self. (225)

This seems to be what follows from the highest reaches of spiritual inquiry – questions of origin and identity, and what we can create with the time that we have. Part of this inquiry is the nebulous concept of meaning. Meaning allows us to ask and follow questions through which we can create our life. We therefore have a great deal of freedom in what we help create.

Making these realities also involves kindness, love, and compassion, which all converge at the nexus of spiritual and religious life. In the process of asking these questions, we become one with that massive outpouring of reality, and realize our connection to it, from which we are never apart.