Experimental Meditation


   If credence is given to accounts of the mystic experience, we are forced to recognize that certain mystics have succeeded in achieving a special state that goes beyond the usual feelings and perceptions of ordinary life. These men and women describe an experience of union, of Unity with life or God or the Ultimate. Visions, feelings of love and similar sensate phenomena are regarded as transitional stages on the way to a higher, transcendent state – the "cloud of darkness"  — in which thoughts and images no longer exist but, instead, a new dimension is perceived. Although the lower sensate phenomena can occur regardless of religious orientation, prior training or life context, the transcendent state seems always to require long practice in contemplative meditation and is achieved only by a few. Both the sensate and the transsensate experience raise questions pertinent to the study and understanding of a wide range of psychological problems not usually associated with theological issues.

   A selective review of the mystic literature led the writer to the following general hypotheses: 1) that the procedure of contemplative meditation is a principal agent in producing the mystic experience; 2) that training in contemplative meditation leads to the building of intrapsychic barriers against distracting stimuli; and 3) that many of the phenomena described in mystic accounts can be regarded as the consequence of a partial de-automatization of the psy­chic structures that organize and interpret perceptual stimuli.

   The first hypothesis, that mystic experience is achieved through the use of the technique of contemplative meditation, was derived from noting the close resemblance between descriptions of mystic exercises from widely varying cultures and times for example, the instructions of Walter Hilton (9), a fourteenth-century Roman Catholic canon, are similar to those of Pantanjali (20), a Yogi from about the sixth century. Both described a procedure of concentration without thinking (contemplative meditation), for achieving a mystic state. Similar instructions are given by other authors of widely disparate backgrounds.

   The second hypothesis, that with long practice intrapsychic barriers are built against distracting stimuli, is derived from the consistent reports that a stage in meditation is reached in which it is no longer necessary to struggle against unwanted thoughts, feelings and perceptions: concentration becomes effortless.

   The third hypothesis, that mystic phenomena are a consequence of a partial de-automatization of psychic structures, was suggested initially by the emphasis on focused attention and not thinking found in meditation instructions and by the phenomenon of "fresh vision," described in some accounts of mystic experiences. These accounts describe seeing a new brilliance in the world, seeing everything as if for the first time and noticing beauty and details which for the most part have previously been passed by without being seen.2 The concepts of automatization and (de-automatization have been developed by Hartmann (8) and by Gill and Brenman (7). Briefly, automatization is assumed to be a basic process in which the repeated exercise of an action or of a perception results in the disappearance from consciousness of its intermediate steps. De-automatization is the undoing of automatization, presumably by reinvestment of actions and percepts with attention.

   In order to gather data on the process and phenomena of meditation, as well as to evaluate the hypotheses outlined above, an experimental study of contemplative meditation was undertaken.


   The experiment was designed according to the general descriptions of meditation, incorporating the specific instructions found in the mystic literature. The setting for meditation should be one in which there are minimal distractions, simple surroundings and a rather neutral meditative object, although the meditative object may have rich associations (such as a Christian cross). The experiment was performed in a quiet room. approximately 12 by 12 feet, with pale green walls and a beige carpet. Lighting was from two windows on one wall and one overhead incandescent fixture. In general, the colors and the lighting were subdued. The subject (S) sat in a comfortable armchair with his eyes approximately eight feet from the meditative object, which was a blue vase ten inches high, which stood on a simple brown end table against the opposite wall. To S's right and slightly behind him was a desk at which the experimenter (E) sat and on which a tape recorder was placed.

   Although in classical accounts meditation is performed in quiet surroundings, in this study, distracting sound, were deliberately introduced. The purpose was to test the hypothesis that with practice Ss would develop psychological barriers to the registration of distracting stimuli. In addition, it was assumed that a struggle against single source of distracting stimuli would provide intensive training in the process of meditation.

   Contemplative meditation requires that the subject relinquish his customary mode of thinking and perceiving. Thoughts must be stopped, sounds and peripheral sensations put out of one's mind, and the contemplation of the meditative object be conducted in a non-analytic, non-intellectual manner. This aim determined the instructions which E read to each S as S sat in the armchair directly facing the vase. The instructions were as follows. "The purpose of these sessions is to learn about concentration. Your aim is to concentrate on the blue vase. By concentration I do not mean analyzing the different parts of the vase, or thinking a series of thoughts about the vase, or associating ideas to the vase, but rather, trying to see the vase as it exists in itself, without any connections to other things. Exclude all other thoughts or feelings or sounds or body sensation, Do not let them distract you but keep them out so that you can concentrate all your attention, all your awareness on the vase itself. Let the perception of the vase fill your entire mind.

   "While you concentrate I am going to play a variety of sounds on  the tape machine Try not to let the sounds occupy your attention. Keep the sounds out so that they do not disturb your concentration. Likewise, if you find you have drifted into a stream of thought, stop and bring your attention back to the vase At the end of about five minutes [ten minute, and 15 minutes for the second and subsequent sessions respectively] I will tell you that the session is over. Take as much time as you like to stop." In general, the initial instructions had to be supplemented in subsequent sessions by additional explanation, and emphases owing to the inherent difficulty of the procedure. For example, one S revealed by his retrospective account of the meditation that he had been systematically scanning the vase. It was explained to him that his intent should be to suspend thinking about the vase, or analyzing it, so that he could perceive it as directly, as completely, as intensely as possible. The amount of supplementary instruction required varied considerably from one S to another.

   After the instructions were read, the tape recorder was turned on and the meditation session began. Length of the session was five minutes on the first stay, ten minutes on the second, and 15 on the third and following days. Certain Ss wished to prolong the later sessions of meditation beyond 15 minutes and were allowed to do so. In those cases the sessions lasted from 22 to 33 minutes before S terminated them spontaneously. The 12 meditation sessions for each S were conducted over a period of three weeks.

   During the first five sessions the taped auditory stimuli consisted of 15 one-minute selections, played without interruption according to the following program: music, word list, music, prose, music, poetry, music, prose, music, word list, music, prose, music, poetry, music. A different tape was prepared for each session. The volume was low but the material was clearly audible. The sixth, seventh, and eighth sessions were carried out in silence. The ninth and tenth sessions were carried out either in silence or with continuous music in the background. The eleventh and twelfth sessions were again accompanied by a tape of mixed selections of verbal material and music. In the twelfth session Ss were tested for recognition of background stimuli. The test and its results will be described below. In the thirteenth session, Ss listened to a tape without meditating and were again tested for recognition as a control procedure for the ,cognition test of Session #12.

   The classical literature on meditation em­phasizes that instructions themselves are not sufficient to orient a subject adequately in meditation nor to guide him as he pro­gresses in his meditation. The "guru," or teacher, is regarded as absolutely essential for success in attaining enlightenment. In Western religions the need for such a teacher receives lens emphasis, but it often appears that the mystic has had a strong apprentice relationship to his spiritual "instructor" or "advisor." Accordingly, this experiment was designed in the belief that Eshould not be removed from the situation. It was anticipated that unconscious aspects of S's relationship to E would play an important part in the meditation training and, possibly, in the effects observed. No attempt was made to analyze such factors, however.

   In the course of the meditation sessions E found it necessary to assume an active role, encouraging Ss to adopt the unfamiliar mode of thinking required :end allaying anxiety arising from the experience of strange phenomena. This was done primarily by emphasizing the interesting nature of the phenomena, and by pointing out to Ps that they were capable of limiting the intensity and duration of the effects that occurred.

   Immediately after each meditation session, E conducted an informal inquiry, designed to elicit information about S's affect, perception of the vase, awareness of background stimuli and perception of the landscape outside. It contained the following questions: 1) "How do you feel?" 2) (is asked to go to the window.) "Look out the window and describe what you see and the way it looks." 3) (S returns to the armchair.) "Describe the course of the session." 4) '”How much of the time were you able to concentrate so that you were aware only of the vase and nothing else?" 5) "What means did you use to maintain concentration'?" 6) "Was the sound difficult to keep out?" 7) "Can you recall any of the sounds that were played'." 8) "What thoughts did you have during the session?" 9) "What feelings did you have'." 10) "What was your experience of the vase?" 11) (Optional, introduced as sessions progressed.) "What is your intent as you look at the vase?" 12) "Is there anything you would like to add about the session?"

   Usually, Ss began commenting on their experiences without any prompting from E. After about five minutes they were interrupted, if necessary, and asked to go to the window. Most Ss spontaneously covered the topics of the questions. The entire inquiry was recorded on tape and later transcribed.

   Although meditation is usually practiced for months and years by those seeking enlightenment, practical considerations of time and the exploratory nature of the study required a much briefer period. A limit of twelve sessions was arbitrarily decided upon, in the hope that this would be a sufficient trial of meditation to provide material for Further study.

   Eight unpaid Ss were employed in the experiment. Four performed meditation for twelve sessions and four performed brief meditation control procedure. Ss were normal adults in their thirties or forties, well educated and intelligent. Most had a professional involvement in some phase of psychiatry. They were personally known to E and were selected primarily on the basis of having time available to give to the experiments. None had made a study of the mystic experience, although each recognized that meditation was connected will, mystic practice.


   Certain phenomena wore experienced to some degree by all Ss, but highly individual phenomena also occurred.


   Perception of the vase: Common to all Ss was the reported alteration of their perception of the vase. Sooner or later they experienced a shift to a deeper and more intense blue. "More vivid" was a phrase they used frequently. Ss experienced the vase as becoming brighter while everything in their visual field became quite dark and indistinct. The adjective "luminous" was often applied to the vase, as if it were a source of light. For example, subject B, Session #6, "The vase was a hell of a lot bluer this time than it has been before . . . it was darker and more luminous at the same time." A second effect experienced by Ss was an instability of the shape of the vase. This was most commonly reported as a felt change in the size or the shape of the vase, a loss of the third dimension and a diffusion or loss of its perceptual boundaries, either partly or entirely. In addition, movement of the vase was sometimes reported. For example, subject C, Session #8, "Then it seemed to change its shape rather drastically. I mean it was always in a vase ‑‑ pot shape, but there was a change symmetrically and undulating up and down more than a sideways movement." Subject A, Session #4,  "The outlines of the vase shift. At that point they seem almost literally to dissolve entirely ... and for it to be a kind of fluid blue... a very fluid kind of thing . . . kind of moving."

   Time-shortening: For the most part, Ss felt that less time had elapsed than was recorded on the clock. This sense of time having passed very quickly occurred despite the Ss' occasional feelings during the meditation that the session had been going on for a very long time. For example, subject A stated, "I thought, I'm sure it must be longer and I don't know if I can keep myself concentrated on it, then when you did stop and I went back to it, it seemed as though it couldn't possibly have been ten minutes or twice as long as yesterday." If the struggle to concentrate was continuous, without periods of success, then Ss reported wearily, "It seemed like a long time."

   Conflicting Perceptions: Ss' reports indicated that they experienced conflicting perceptions. For example, in the third session, subject B stated, about the vase, "It certainly filled my visual field," but a few minutes later stated, "It didn't fill the field by any means." In the seventh session, referring to the landscape, he commented, “... a great deal of agitation ... but it isn't agitating ...it's ...pleasurable." In general, Ss found it very difficult to describe their feelings and perception, during the meditation period  — "It's very hard to put into words," was a frequent comment. This difficulty seemed due in part to the difficulty of describing their experience without con­tradiction  Part of the problem was to probably due also to the inadequacy of their descriptive vocabulary for reporting the meditation experience.

   Development of stimulus barriers: A major premise to be tested by the experiment was that with practice an Scould develop organized, stable, intrapsychic barriers to incidental stimuli, external or internal. These Ss' statements seemed to support this hypothesis: a gradual increase in ability to keep out distracting stimuli was reported. This phenomenon appeared to have two component: 1) a decrease in the distracting effect of the stimuli, and 2) a decrease in conscious registration of the stimuli. Subject A stated that what was initially an effortful activity finally, toward the end of the series, did not seem to require effort. As she put it, "shutting out" began to "come naturally." More specifically, after the sixth session, subject A reported, "I am sure that at that point all sounds were obliterated. At that point somehow everything was out of my consciousness. . . when I came back my awareness that suddenly I could hear the tape again and far whatever infinitesimal seam of time it was ...it seemed that I heard absolutely no sound ...it was as though the world was absolutely silent during that time," None of the other subjects seemed to reach this point of absolute silence but subject B, in his ninth session, stated, "I think 1 heard maybe one‑fourth of the clock ticks. I am sure I didn't hear them all. Other sounds were almost non-existent. The music changed or disappeared ... decided changes of level." (In this session the taped sounds were continuous music In the twelfth session subject B stated, “...the distractions are not intrusive in a jarring way. There is a certain amount of control ... a general ... familiarity ... a kind of learning which is it that 1 keep them out at some level." An increased ability to bar distractions from awareness was also demonstrated with respect to new, unexpected stimuli. Subject A came to the fifth .session complaining of a bad cold and expressed concern that her running nose and watery eyes would interfere with the meditation. Following the session she reported further progress in concentration and stated, “...at one point when 1 did start to cough I was aware of having a tear in my eye but then I forgot about it until, suddenly it was ,just dripping down my face."

   The least intrusive stimulus was continuous   music of homogeneous texture and low volume. Very intrusive were clear prose passages whose content was of personal in­terest to the subjects (e.g., a discussion of diet fads). The most intrusive was the change from one type of sound material on the tape to another (e.g.,  music to prose). Ss said they found that this brought them “out” each time it happened. Although this effect was still manifest toward the end of the experiment, it. too, appeared then to be less disturbing and to have a less disrupting effect. In general, Ss found that as the ex­periment progressed all distracting stimuli were less intrusive.

   Personal attachment to the vase: Very striking was the personal involvement of Ss with the vase, as judged by their reactions to the thirteenth session (listening to a tape without meditation). In order to minimize the possibility that S, would meditate, the vase was removed from the room before the session. As Ss entered and their eyes went to the place where the vase usually sat, it was apparent that its absence shocked them Subject B remonstrated with E in a half‑joking way by saying, "Hey, cut it out. Put it back. Where have you got it?" He repeatedly looked back to the former

   The location of the vase and seemed uncomfortable. "I am disappointed not to see that damn thing there, it's strange, if I look down it isn't there." He later stated that the vase had always seemed the most important thing in the room and its absence was disturbing. Subject A made no verbal comments but displeasure and some distress was evident. In a later interview, A stated, "You remember how excited I became when it first happened, as if I had found a toy? Well, this wars as if I had lost it, lost something important ...much more important than some inanimate object you're used to ... losing some kind of emotional experience ...I was nostalgic ...it was like saying good‑bye to a teacher in a course you had learned something in, had become involved in and was sorry to leave it ...the most vivid thing in the room." While listening to the tape in Session #13 subject A was less able to concentrate. than she would have expected and kept seeing the vase in her mind. After the thirteenth session she became mildly depressed. Subject C felt that the vase was very striking in its absence, and kept seeing it in his mind. In general, all Ss reacted as if they had lost something they were very attached to.

   Pleasurable quality: All Ss agreed that the sessions were usually pleasurable, valuable and rewarding. Although one S "forgot" a testing appointment following a significant experience in the previous session, he returned and completed the series. All Ss achieved the 15 minutes or longer meditation period, even those who experienced some anxiety. When displeasure with the procedure occurred, it seemed to be due to 1) anxiety over the loss of controls required, 2) a feeling of failure to perform as expected.


   Merging: "Merging" was reported by subject A, who from the very beginning reported striking alterations in her perception of the vase and her relation to it. She reported, "One of the points that I remember most vividly is when I really began to feel, you know, almost as though the blue and I were perhaps merging, or that vase and I were. I almost got seared to the point where I found myself bringing myself back in some way from it.... It was as though everything was sort of merging and I was somehow  losing my sense of consciousness almost." This "merging" experience was characteristic of all of this S's meditation sessions, but she soon became familiar with it and ceased to describe it as anything re­markable. Following the sixth session she reported. "At one point it felt . . . as though the vase were in my head rather than out there: I knew it was out there but it seemed as though it were almost a part of me. “ "I think that I almost felt at that moment as though, you know, the image is really in me, it's not out there." This phenomenon of "perceptual internalization" did not recur although she stated that she hoped it would.3

   In subsequent sessions subject A described a "film of blue" that developed as the boundaries of the vase dissolved. It covered the table on which the vase sat and the wall behind it, giving them all a blue color. In the tenth session the "film" became a "mist," and in the eleventh it became a "sea of blue." She reported after the eleventh session, "I am convinced now that what I initially... called merging was this kind of thing that happened (now) for practically 30 solid minutes." (By thus time subject A was allowed to terminate the meditation "when it feels completed.") She experienced some anxiety during the session in that "it lost its boundaries and I might lose mine too" and described the general experience as "I was swimming in a sea of blue and I felt for it moment I was going to drown..." However, despite the anxiety it occasioned, she felt that the experience was very desirable.

   A related phenomenon was reported by subject C in the tenth session, "...I felt   this whole complete other plane where I was nothing, I mean where my body was nothing, I wasn't aware of my body, it could not have been there and I wouldn't be surprised."

   Radiation: In the ninth session, subject C reported: "It started radiating. I was aware of what seemed like particles... seemed to be coming front the highlights there and right to me. I seemed fascinated with that. I felt that it was radiating heat. I felt warm from it and then realized that it was all shut out, that everything was dark all around, a kind of brown, lavender, eerie color and it was during this incandescent kind of radiating inner glow thing I could feel my pulse beating in my head and then there was ... a twinge in my penis, I could feel my pulse beating in my penis and in my temples ...I felt that there was a light coming down from above, too, that something was happening up there and I started getting an erection and this thing danced and it was very active. It moved, it pulsated and it also jumped around like this. It seemed like many colors around the edges of the table." (During this experience the vase appeared to him in a variety of different colors.)

   De-differemtintion: Whensubject B looked out the window in the sixth session (the first session without taped sounds), he gave the following description: "I don't know how to describe it, it's scattered. Things look scattered all over the lot, not hung together in any way. When I look at the background there is much in the foreground that is kind of drawing my attention. A very strong word would be clamoring for my attention. It isn't really clamoring but I don't really know how to say it, I can't settle down on any one thing .... It looks like a call for attention from all over the lot and no way of looking at the whole or any individual part of it." (Somewhat later.) "This session strikes me as quite different .... The view didn't organize itself in any way. For a long time it resisted my attempt to organize it so I could talk about it. Their were no planes, one behind the other. There was no response to certain patterns. Everything was working at the same intensity ...like a bad painting which I didn't know about until I got used to it so I could begin to pick out what was going on in the painting, I didn't see the order to it or the patterning to it or anything and I couldn't impose it, it resisted my imposition of pattern." The characteristics of this experience might be summarized as: 1) resistance of the stimuli to visual organization, 2) all stimuli appearing at equal intensity, 3) all stimuli actively calling for attention at once. Subject B's description suggests that the experience resulted firm a de-automatization of the structures ordinarily providing visual organization of a landscape (30-500 feet). The ability to focus attention selectively and the normal figure-ground relationships were apparently de-automatized. It should be noted that subject B did not experience the room itself in this way.

   Transfiguration: In Session 7 (the day after the de‑differentiation episode), subjects B's perception of the landscape might be termed "transfigured." He described very few objects or details but instead talked mostly in terms of pleasure, luminescence and beautiful movements. For example, "the building is a kind of very white ... a kind of luminescence that the fields have and the trees are really swaying, it's very nice . . . lean way over and bounce back with a nice spring-like movement. The sky behind them now is also very filled with light, there's a very blue patch in the sky ...there are a couple of blue patches in the white, it's ionic remarkable  — quality to it." Again, "The movements are nice, the brightness is. I would have thought it was a terribly overcast day but it isn't. (The sky was a white overcast with some patches of blue.) It's a perception filled with light and movement both of which are very pleasurable. Nobody knows what a nice day it is except me." Subject B later stated, "It was corning in to me in a sense, I wasn't watching myself watching...the antithesis of being self-aware." In succeeding sessions there seemed to be a gradual decline from the enhanced perception of Session #'7 and a gradual diminution in the amount of light and pleasure perceived in the scene.

   After the experiment had been concluded, subject B said, about looking out of the window, "What stands out in my mind are the organized occasions and the disorganized ones. The organized ones which then tended to organize themselves in various ways about the center which seemed dominant or on planes which seemed a way of kind of organizing it. The disorganized once are kind of scattered."

   In summary, the group of four Ss, taken together, present a continuum ranging from subject A, who had the most intense personal experience and the least difficulties with the method, through subject D, who reported the fewest phenomena and had the greatest difficulty complying with the instructions. Subject D reported phenomena of lower intensity than the other Ss, required more sessions of practice and instruction before "he noticed any effects, and did not report, any striking individual phenomena. Common to all or most Ss were: 1) perceptual changes relating to the vase (darkening of hue, increased color saturation loss of the third dimension, changes in size and shape, blurring or dissolving of outlines and movement of the vase itself), 2) development of a personal attachment to the vase, 3) modification of the state of consciousness, 4) increased ability to "keep out" distracting stimuli. and 5) a general feeling that the sessions were pleasurable and valuable. Phenomena which were apparently individual responses to the procedure were: 1) merging unit perceptual internalization, 2) radiation with beat effect and sexual stimulation, 3) de-differentiation of the landscape, and 4) transfiguration.


   Incorporated in the design of the experiment was a test of recognition utilizing the word lists included in the background tape material. The test was based on the work of Schwartz and rouse (17, p. 22), who found that on a multiple‑choice recognition test, Ss tended to choose dose associates of "forgotten" test words. On the basis of their findings, it was expected that in the meditation experiment, registration of the word list without awareness would be revealed by a significant choice of close associates.

   During the twelfth session, Ss were interrupted in the midst of meditation immediately after the obeying of the second word list. They were given a multiple-choice recognition test containing the words that had just been played and instructed to "see how much your mind remembers" by checking any words that sounded as if they had been on the list.

   The next day, the thirteenth session. Ss were tested sitting at the desk with the vase removed from the room and the instruction given: "This time I want you to listen to the tape and try to remember what you hear.” After the second word list of that tape was played, Ss were again given a recognition test.

   As a control for the effect of practice in meditation, a second group of four Ss was given the procedures of Sessions 12 and 13 only.

   In all eight cases, S was able to recognize more words when he was not meditating. There was no significant difference, however, in the ability of practice and control Ss to recognize words played while they were meditating, and no significant choice of close associates. An S's report that he had no memory of the word list was not necessarily related to his score on the test.



   Ss’ reports support the hypothesis that the procedure of contemplative meditation is a principal agent in producing the mystic experience. On the basis of the mystic literature, two classifications of mystic experience were distinguished: "sensate" experiences of strong emotion, vivid perception or heightened cognition, and "transcendent" experiences beyond the usual modes of affect, perception or cognition (4). The reports is of these Ss are analogs of the sensate mystic experience and, in the case of subject A, who continued further meditation sessions beyond the conclusion of the ex­periment itself, a possible preliminary phase to the transcendent state.

   Subject B's experience of the landscape is the seventh session (see above) is similar to descriptions of untrained sensate mystic experience. William James. for instance, cites the following: " ...everything looks new to me, the people, the fields, the trees, the cattle, I was like a new man in a new world" (12, p. 244). "It was like entering another world, a new state of existence. Natural objects were glorified. My spiritual vision was so clarified that I saw beauty in every material object in the universe" (p. 244). "The appearance of everything was altered, there seemed to be, as it were, it calm, sweet cast for appearance of divine glory in almost everything" (p. 243). The difference between subject B's report and those of the untrained persons cited by James might depend on the present, of a religious viewpoint in the latter. The "luminescence" and "beauty" reported by subject B may be equivalent to "divine glory" as descriptive terms, and if subject B had been a mystic yearning to be touched by God, his vision of the landscape on that day probably would have see seemed to him like a divine communion,

   Another analog is subject C's experience of the "radiation" of heat from the vase, as well as pulsations in shape, lighting and color, felt as sexually exciting and pleasurable (see above). Richard Rolle, a fourteenth‑century English mystic, wrote, "... I was sitting in a certain chapel, and while I was taking pleasure in the delight of home prayer or meditation, I suddenly felt within me an unwanted find pleasant fire. When I had for long doubted from whence it came, I learned by experience it came from the Creator and not from the creature and I found it ever more pleasing and full of hope..." (13, p. 57). Other Western mystics have described a "sweet fire," a vivid physical experience that often hits strong sexual implications. If subject C were a Christian mystic contemplating a statue of Christ or the Virgin Mary, he might well have reported his experience in religious terms.

   In the Vedantic literature, particularly in the Yoga of Pantanjali (20), there is great emphasis on the independence of the mind find the location of the percept in the mind of the beholder. It is emphasized that objects exist but that our ideas about them are functions of our mental operations. The perception of the world as distinct from the self is regarded as false, but through the practice of meditation a true perception of reality may be achieved. Subject A's experience of the vase being in her head rather than in the external world (see above) could readily produce or support the Yoga philosophy.

   Even more striking was the report of subject A from a session (#21) conducted after the end of the experimental series. It is possible that she entered a preliminary phase of the "transcendent" state, and that what she describes is an analog of the trained‑transcendent mystic experience. She reported that a diffuse blue occupied the entire visual field and that she felt merged completely with that diffuseness. She had a sense of falling, of emptiness, of loneliness and isolation as if she were in a vacuum. Her sudden realization that there were absolutely no thoughts in her mind made her anxious and she searched for thoughts to bring herself back. "It was as if I leaped out of the chair to put the boundaries back on the vase ...because there was nothing there . . . the vase was going and I was going with it..." This description is strikingly similar to that found in "The Cloud of Unknowing;" where the author states, "And [to] do that in thee is to forget fill the creatures that over God made and the works of them, so that thy desire be not directed or stretched to any of them, neither in general nor in special .... At the first time when thou dost it, thou findst but a darkness and as it were a cloud of unknowing, them knowest not what..." (13, p. 77).

   What I have described are analogs of mystic experiences, not true mystic experiences. These Ss did not have a sense of ineffable communication with the absolute, of profound illumination into the nature of Reality, nor of being in a state of Unity. However, their accounts do suggest that important basic elements if the mystic experience were achieved, and this in turn suggests that contemplative meditation as a psychological technique is a central element in the production of the trained mystic experience.


   The hypothesis that training in contem­plative meditation leads to the building of intrapsychic barriers against distracting stimuli was supported by the subjective re­ports but not by the recognition test. All Ss in the practice group reported an improvement in their ability to keep out of awareness internal and external stimuli that were potentially very distracting. These stimuli were internal as well as ex­ternal, were often rich in meaning, and were sometimes accidental intrusions into the experimental situation (e.g., subject A’s head-cold). The combination of increased effectiveness and decreased effort suggests that psychic, structures were established to keep out stimuli more efficiently  — more work accomplished with less effort. (The automatization of such structures could conceivably account for the transition to effortless contemplation reported by mystics.) The recognition test data, however, did not show a difference between the practice and control groups. In view of the improvement in keeping out stimuli reported by Ss, it seems probable that this test was not a measure of the existence of stimulus­ barrier structures. The question must then be asked: "By what process is an incoming stimulus barred from attention while still registering sufficiently to permit recognition?" The data do not supply an answer, so far.


   The concept of de-automatization would appear to be specifically demonstrated in the experience of de-differentiation reported by subject B as he looked out the window. His description of the unorganized stimuli "clamoring" for his attention and “no way of looking at the whole or any individual part” is very similar to the quality of visual experience reported in Von Senden's (19) survey of cataract patients seeing for the first time. It is precisely each a perceptual condition that would be expected in the absence of automatic processes responsible for organizing visual stimuli. Of course, in the case of subject B, considerable organization of vision was still present as compared to the Von Senden accounts; yet it seems clear that a partial disorganization, if deautomatization, took place briefly as he gazed out the window. The ability to focus attention selectively and the perception of normal figure‑ground relationships would appear to have been affected.

   The alteration of ego boundaries experienced by subject A, and the release if sexual feeling in the case of subject C, might be viewed as a de-automatization of self-object differentiation of affect controls, respectively. Similarly, the loss of the third dimension of the vase, the diffusion of its boundaries, and its increased intensity of color is consistent with a de-automatization of formal organization of visual stimuli resulting in a shift to a more direct, less organized sensory experience.



   The changes in perception of the vase which most Ss reported would seem to be composed of elements of color adaptation, color contrast and color summation. For example, color summation is suggested by the diffuse film of blue that subject A reported, which in later sessions completely occupied and filled the field of vision. Color adaptation would similarly seem involved in S's perception of the vase. However, Cohen, in an experiment using binocular trichromatic colorimeters reported that "the course of adaptation to color consists of a gradual but never complete loss of saturation, of no change in hue, and of an increase in intensity" (3, p. 110). In contrast to his results, saturation of the vase in the meditation experiment was often reported to be increased, with a shift in the hue toward purple. Although the conditions of the Hochberg (10) experiments (color adaptation using a Ganzfield) are not duplicated here, the darkening of the visual field and the shift in hue of the vase seem in accord with his finding that red or green adapted to black or dark gray. Yet the over-all darkening of the meditation room "as if the lights had been turned down," was accompanied by an increased "luminous" and "vivid" quality of the vase. "It was as if light were coming from it." This finding does not parallel Hochberg's results. Thus additional central processes must probably be considered to account for the meditation color phenomenon. Experimental evidence for central factors over and above the mechanisms of neuronal adaptation is provided by Pritchard (16) in his studies of the stabilized retinal image. "When a subject views a pattern in a stabilized condition, he can still alter the amount which lie perceives in a certain region of the pattern by deciding to transfer his attention to that region." This finding is relevant to an understanding of meditative concentration, far the allocation of attention appears to be, the principal process involved in meditation, above and beyond the more peripheral processes of adaptation and summation.4


   The experimental procedure and setting suggest a similarity to hypnosis and raise the question of whether the phenomena are due to the same process. As discussed by Gill and Brenman (7), three of the main features of hypnotic induction are: 1) extensive limitation is placed on S's sensory intake; 2) S's bodily activity is strictly limited; and 3) stimulation is provided of a particular and narrow kind. The first two features are found in the meditation procedure. With regard to the latter point, the music selections played on the background tapes, the simple meditative object, and the repeated instructions might all be viewed as such narrow stimulation. However, the prose and poetry selections were different for each session, were varied in type, and were often rich in meaning. A fourth point mentioned by Gill and Brenman, the attempt to alter the quality of the bodily awareness of S, was not part of the meditation procedure. The absence of this feature is in accord with the absence in the meditative Ss of vivid spontaneous changes in body experience which Gill and Brenman believe are the most prominent phenomena of hypnotic induction. A striking similarity between hypnosis and the meditation experiment concerns the expectations of S. Gill and Brenman wrote, "During the course of the steps of any successful hypnotic induction process, the hypnotist progressively persuades the subject that he is gradually losing control of himself and that thus control is being responsibly taken over by the hypnotist. Usually implied, though sometimes explicitly stated, is the promise to the subject that if he permits the hypnotist to bring about the deprivations and losses of power we have discussed, he will be rewarded by an unprecedented kind of experience; the precise nature of this experience is usually left ambiguous. Sometimes the implication is that new worlds will be opened to him, providing an emotional adventure of a sort he has never known" (7. p. 10). All Ss in the present meditation experiment revealed by their comments a more or less vague expectation of this sort. Two of the meditation Ss used the term "hypnotic" to characterize some aspects of their concentration process. Clearly there are certain similarities in the physical setting, the expectations of S and the relationship to E in the two procedures.

   In spite of these similarities, the phenomena of meditation seem to represent a state of ego organization different from that associated with hypnosis. The intense affective phenomena often found in the hypnotic induction period did not occur in the meditative sessions. Except for feelings of surprise or fear at the occurrence of a new phenomenon, Ss' emotional intensity could be described as mild. Subject C did experience a combination of physical and mental excitement during the most vivid of the perceptual phenomena but even this does not seem comparable in quality to the more intense hypnotic phenomena "ranging from the relatively minor explosions of uncontrolled weeping to the enactment of waking nightmares on a level of symbolism and with a quantity of feeling very similar to that known to us only in dream‑life, poetry, or fairy tales" (7, p. 19), found sometimes in the induction period of hypnosis. The surrender of will power, which is the cardinal feature of the hypnotic state, is encountered in meditation only insofar as S renounces his normal intellectual activities  — he does not consciously feel that he is turning control over to E. As in hypnosis, this renunciation itself is undertaken voluntarily, but the meditation Ss seem always to have been aware that they were able to bring themselves back at any time that they wished, whereas in the hypnotic state fluctuations in the depth of hypnosis appear to take place involuntarily (1).

   The basic difference between hypnosis and the classical mystic experience is the difference in the experience itself. Hypnotic experiences do not appear to have the in­effable, profound, uplifting, highly valued quality of the mystic state and are not remembered as such. It may be argued that the difference is a function of suggestion. Orne has studied the nature of the hypnotic process and proposes that "the behavioral characteristics of hypnosis can be understood in terms of the subject's previous knowledge and the cues transmitted during the process of induction" (14, p. 1098). The hypothesis might be advanced that the phenomena of experimental meditation and of the mystic experience in general represent, as Orne suggests of hypnosis, "an historically developed artifact occurring along with a process, the essential behavioral manifestations of which are little known" (p. 1098). Thus, the difference between hypnosis and contemplative meditation might lie in the differing expectations of Ss and the "demand characteristics" of the two situations. Coe (2, p. 253) has pointed out that the form and content of the mystic experience is usually congruent with the mystics' cultural and religious background; to put it simply, a Yogin will have a Nirvana experience, while a Roman Catholic will report communion with Christ. Such an hypothesis of demand characteristics, however, is not consistent with the fact that the highest mystic experiences are similar in their basic content despite wide differences in cultural backgrounds and expectations. These similarities are 1) the feeling of incommunicability, 2) transcendence of sense modalities, 3) absence of specific content such as images or ideas and 4) feeling of unity with the Ultimate. Lower forms of mystic experience do embody specific content related to each S's beliefs, and the absence of religious motifs from the accounts of Ss performing meditation as a psychological experiment indicates a definite role of S-expectation in determining the presence of or absence of the secondary features of mystic experiences. However, the phenomena common to all Ss do not permit such an explanation. Also, there are reasons for believing that the idiosyncratic phenomena such as "merging,' where neither a function of Ss' knowledge of the role of meditator, nor of the total demand characteristics imposed by the experimenter and the experimental design. To begin with, the occurrence of the phenomena of "merging;' "radiation" and the like surprised both S and E. One S was sufficiently alarmed to end the phenomena by shifting her attention. On the other hand, the "de-automatization" effect was not noticed by subject B as being a special event, whereas it seemed of great significance to E. In addition, the two Ss (A and C) who took to the procedure with greatest facility and interest, developed markedly different effects. Finally, the later experience of subject A, clearly a further development of "merging," appears to be a preliminary phase of the Unity phenomenon of the transcendent mystic experience. This S had no conscious knowledge of the mystic literature and her retrospective account emphasized the strangeness, the unexpectedness and the startling quality of her experience.

   The considerations discussed above do not rule out the presence of unconscious expectations on the part of Ss nor unconscious as well as explicit expectations an the part of E. For the reasons given, however, it seems that the phenomena cannot be adequately explained as due to suggestion, and a careful examination of the transcripts gives one the strong impression that a unique process is involved. 


   The meditation procedure also invites comparison with experimental sensory deprivation. In meditation, a narrowing and decrease in variation of the stimulus field are created, rather than sensory depriva­tion as such. However, the meditation instructions aim towards a situation in which very little meaningful information is taken in by Ss. Homogeneity of external stimulation is established by environmental condi­tions, but the narrowing of the perceptual field is accomplished primarily by S's own psychological actions. It is interesting that many studies point to the absence of meaningful stimuli as the primary determinant of deprivation phenomena (18). A very important difference between the two procedures is that meditation involves an active striving for a definite goal (see the meditation instructions), while sensory deprivation foster, and creates complete psychological passivity.

   The phenomena reported by the meditation Ss are similar in a number of respects to those encountered during and immediately after sensory deprivation: alterations in ego boundaries with accompanying feelings of estrangement; increased brightness of color: movement of stationary objects; and apparently idiosyncratic "hallucinations." It should be noted, however, that these effects occurred during the meditation and not when Ss turned the attention once more to the room and E. In the case of subject B, who experienced an apparent perceptual change in the nature of the landscape after meditation, this change was not the sort described as occurring after periods of deprivation. The sharp transition from the meditation state to the "normal" condition may be an indication of how completely the meditative state is under the control of S himself, in contrast to the deprivation procedure which is imposed upon S. It was clear that the meditation Ss could control the rate of progression of phenomena as well as the extent of stimulus limitation which they experienced.

   The meditation procedure and that of sensory deprivation both reveal a continuum between Ss who can abandon them­selves to the required state and Ss who seem unable to adapt (6, 11). In contrast to Ss' usual experience in sensory deprivation, the meditation experience was generally felt to be pleasurable, rewarding and positively valued, even by those who did not seem able to adapt to it. No restlessness was observed and distress was momentary or absent.

   It should be emphasized that sensory deprivation, even when enjoyed by S, is not the same experience as that recorded by mystics, and in the aspects mentioned above is different from the phenomena of experimental meditation.


   The meditation procedure described in this report produces alterations in the visual perception of sensory and formal properties of the object, and alterations in ego boundaries  — all in the direction of fluidity and breakdown of the usual subject-object differentiation. The phenomena are consistent with the hypothesis that through contemplative meditation de-automatization occurs and permits a different perceptual and cognitive experience. The changes in perception of the vase (increase in color intensity, loss of the third dimension and diffusion of boundaries) are in the direction of the undifferentiated visual experience of Von Senden's patients. The meditation Ss, however, showed all appreciation for the "richness" and esthetically pleasing elements in the experience. Subject B's "de-automatization" episode was followed by his experiencing the landscape as transfigured with light and movement, as being pleasurable and beautiful. De-automatization is here conceived as permitting the adult to attain a new, fresh perception of the world by freeing him from a stereotyped organization built up over the years and by allowing adult synthetic and associative functions access to fresh materials, to create with them in a new way that represents an advance in mental functioning. The search of the artist to find a new expressive style play be viewed as the struggle to de‑automatize his perception and the evolution of styles is accordingly necessary to regain vivid, emotionally significant experience. The struggle for creative insight in all fields may be regarded as the effort to de-automatize the psychic structures that organize cognition and perception.

   In this sense, de-automatization is not a regression but rather an undoing of a pattern in order to permit a new and perhaps more advanced experience. The crayfish sloughs its rigid shell when more space is needed for growth. The mystic, through meditation, may also cast off, temporarily, the shell of automatic perception, of automatic affective and cognitive controls ill order to perceive more deeply into reality. The temporary nature of mystic de-automatization is seen in the episodic course of the mystic's progress toward Union. Mystics report achieving ecstatic peaks of experience succeeded by a fading away (re-automatization) until another high moment restores the state, The general process of de-automatization would seem of great potential usefulness whenever it is desired to break free from an old pattern in order to achieve a new experience of the same stimulus or to open It perceptual avenue to stimuli never experienced before. The effects of LSD and mescaline, the "break-off phenomenon of high altitude flights and other related phenomena, may be due to a partial de-automatization of a mode or modes of perception and cognition. Such de-automatization achieved through external environmental changes appears to be more transient and less transcendent than those produced by individual efforts over long periods of time, however.

   A most striking finding of the, meditation experiment is the ease and rapidity with which the phenomena were produced. Comparable phenomena have required more or less elaborate procedures of sensory deprivation or the use of potent drugs. In this study a natural environment was employed and process was performed by Ss themselves. In less than half an hour, phenomena occurred that in other contexts have been described as "depersonalization," "hallucination," "delusion" or "visual distortion," "intensification" and the like. Such rapid, intense effects point to a capacity, undo, minimal stress conditions, for alteration in the perception of the sinful and of the self far greater than what is customarily assumed to be the case for normal people. This capacity may he a principal resource fur creative synthesis and for the experience of new, highly significant aspects of reality.

   The procedure of experimental meditation appears to be a valuable research tool and research problem in its own right. Further investigation is planned.

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