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Research on experiences of Non/Buddhist meditators?

Research on experiences of Non/Buddhist meditators?
vipassana research mind and life institute comparing meditators of various religions theory ladenness
10/15/16 1:03 PM
I have wondered, to what extent do our beliefs influence what we experience, or proclaim to experience, on the cushion? -- especially during vipassana, i.e. the meditation designed 

to increase the speed, precision, consistency and inclusiveness of our experience of the quick little sensations that make up our sensory experience.

Mainly, I have wondered, do meditators who already take seriously the Buddhist doctrines of impermanence, suffering, and no-self subsequently claim in greater percentage to have during vipassana experiences confirming those doctrines than do other meditators -- say, Christian, Muslim, or agnostic?

I heard this has been tested, at least in The Mind and Life Institute. But I can't find anything. So I will be grateful for further tips.

RE: Research on experiences of Non/Buddhist meditators?
10/16/16 1:31 PM as a reply to Vlastimil Vohánka.
Hi Vlastimil,

I don't know about the research you are looking for but here's my 2 cents. There is a saying: Each system turns blind to itself. This is often true as followers of systems become biased which can and does affect their actual practice, that is their bias distorts their actual experience (and fortunately it can go the other way around as well). I don't think there is a way around this and everyone will get biased to some degree at some point.

If we look at this matter from the broadest possible viewpoint, only buddhas in buddhism get free of this possible trap. And that doesn't happen too often.

RE: Research on experiences of Non/Buddhist meditators?
10/20/16 1:26 PM as a reply to Vlastimil Vohánka.
I also want to ask you about something more theoretical. The issue is, to what extent do our beliefs influence what we experience, or proclaim to experience, on the cushion?

Somebody replied by email: Clearly they have some effect, but what they influence far more is how we interpret events. There are clear correlations with certain beliefs and people doing certain techniques, so it is hard to entirely rule out bias in this field of inquiry. Still, certain techniques will lead to certain effects regardless of beliefs. Plenty of people who do a Goenka retreat have wildly different beliefs, and yet very similar effects occur among good practitioners who follow instructions. Similarly reproducible effects are found for those who do Mahasi techniques with diligence regardless of belief structure. I had nearly no idea what to expect when I first started noting, and yet, when played a scratchy tape of expected effects towards the end of the retreat, I had had most of the expected results in order despite me having no idea they were normal or expected experiences.

I have wondered, do meditators who already take seriously the Buddhist doctrines of impermanence, suffering, and no-self subsequently claim in greater percentage to have, during vipassana, experiences confirming those doctrines than do other meditators -- say, Christian, Muslim, or agnostic practitioners of vipassana?

The reply continued: It would be hard to sort out belief-technique correlations, as they are clearly real. Still, there seems to be something mechanical about certain techniques simply leading straightforwardly to certain phenomena regardless of whether people believe in or even want those phenomena. Why do you ask, BTW?


I replied:

I'm asking because I'm a philosopher. And one with some doubts about the Buddhist doctrines of impermanence, suffering and no-self.

I'm beginning to meditate more intensively than I used to and I am curious if that will -- automatically -- make me more Buddhist. Are you suggesting that it won't? Even that one must be in some (which?) sense inclined towards the Buddhist doctrines to eventually see their truth during vipassana? That would sound like the adage of St. Anselm of Canterbury, believe so that you may know. A bit suspicious, I hope you will grant. emoticon


He replied:

Well, from a vipassana point of view, the Three Characteristics are definitive.

Impermanence of sensate phenomena is basically incontrovertible. Find a permanent sensation from a sensate point of view: clearly impossible in the long term to even a superficial thinker and impossible in even the shortest possible perceived term to any diligent practitioner. One down, two to go.

Suffering: this one is trickier. While essentially every practitioner, including the Christians and Hindus, will rapidly admit to noticing a ton of suffering, challenges, and complexities that have had to be tolerated in practice, the real definitive proof of this one at the depth the Buddha was pointing to doesn’t come until the first time the core perceptual dualistic illusion untangles and reality shines forth in its pristine form, at which point the contrast between the mode in which we are stuck in the tense knot of dualistic illusion and the pristine, simple, straightforward mode of Awakening is so stark as to leave no doubt about what this truth means and how important it is.

No-self: First, the materialist perspective nails this one in spades: all phenomena flux according to impersonal laws. Still, even strict materialists somehow make some weird exception for their thoughts, feelings and sense of perspective, but this is a profound error, as, clearly perceived, it all happens on its own, and any sense of will totally vanishes into natural causality. This is not only the expected result, it works in practice. Even the best Christian practitioners speak of this, as their will dissolves into that of God, and their sense of isolation and individuality merge into the Divine Marriage.

What do you consider the viable alternatives to these simple premises?


I replied:

1. Ad impermanence. I concede a claim which I call

(C) At least_during_ vipassana, at least the_little_ sensations making up larger sensation Gestalts (e.g. of chairs) do not last for even a second.

It hardly follows, and I have never seen so in vipassana, that at least two following things do not last for a second or much longer: the Gestalt structures, and the truth-value of the claim (C) itself! I've discussed this a bit with a fine philosopher named Wm. Vallicella, who's been a non-Buddhist meditator for many years. ...

Anyway, it also hardly follows that the little sensations do not last when one is _not_ doing vipassana. Maybe vipassana is just a technique making one progressively incapable of having lasting sensations?

2. Ad suffering. Here, I cannot say, for I have not advanced in my practice that far. But again, in the first place, is the claim under consideration that anything whatsoever that could, even in principle, happen to me, like in heaven or in my next incarnation, would _have_ to be, with sheer necessity, painful in some respect? If so, then I doubt that claim. So far I see no convincing evidence for anything that sweeping and metaphysical.

3. Ad no-self. Take again the sensation Gestalts of chairs. The little sensations in them come and go, but the Gestalt structures itself remain, at least for somewhat longer. Likewise, (most of) the cells come and go, but the body-whole itself may well remain. Or perhaps one is not the body but the mind, connected to the body. What would make this body or this mind self-same or persistent, give the flux of change? There are several philosophical theories about that, all well aware of the flux. I am not sure which, if any, is correct. But nothing I know intellectually or from the cushion excludes that some is.

RE: Research on experiences of Non/Buddhist meditators?
10/20/16 10:48 AM as a reply to Vlastimil Vohánka.
Interesting conversation. 

If you consider Buddhism to be an immanent position then impermanence might make more sense. You seem to assume a transcendent ideology e.g. that truth is immaterial. 

Any truth claim you can make is a relative claim. If you try to define things exactly you will run into the limitations of langauge. Truths only have meaning in the cultures that create them. The "truth" is not the same as the process/form it describes. 

You seem to assume that insights are only experienced during meditation. Insights can be integrated into everyday experience. Understanding non-self does not stop when you get off the cushion.

Impermanence in the material sense is well supported by science. For me the insight worth understanding is impermanence in relation to the soul. Investigating the concept of identity and the nature of experience leads to an understanding that there is no soul. Your experience is conditioned by many things, including for example having a brain that is functioning, when that ceases you cease. 

Regarding suffering you are assuming a transcendent philosophy. I think the core teachings e.g. anatman and dependent origination make more sense from an immanent position. The claim is not in regards to everything you can imagine e.g. an afterlife. The claim is in regards to your experience. Again it is very linked to non-self for me. You will suffer and die, that is the nature of human existence. The idea of non-self opens a way to escape this, if there is no identification with the suffering and the death then there is no suffering or death in the way it is conventionally understood.

The third point regarding non-self is intimately linked to the first two for me. Basically it is saying that we misunderstand what the self is. That on one level there is a body, memories, stream of consciousness that we call the self. On the other hand all of those things can be investigated to understand they are impermanent, changing and induce suffering. With further investigation the self takes on a much broader definition, there is the "little self" that the ego is worried about. There is a broader self that sees the distinction between the self and other as artificial. For example I am who am I because of a shared language, the language does not reside in me, it is a shared social construct. My experience of something like the color red is conditioned by how the color red is used in my culture. I am the systems that socially construct my experience. The idea that I am only my mind and body is a misunderstanding.

The idea of labelling something as self is like labelling any object. Consider the sun, it seems permanent but it is changing all the time. The sun of 1 billion years ago is not the same sun of today. In a few billion years the sun will envelope the earth. The sun is continually changing. We give it a single name and at the time scales we experience it seems to be a constant. For everday purposes treating the sun as a constant does not create an issue, but a deeper understanding allows for deeper knowledge of cosmology.

Labelling the self has similar issues. On one level the self is a useful concept and acting in the world requires being able to interact with people/systems with a limited understanding of what the self is. On the other hand exploring the nature of self can lead to experience non-self where there is no suffering (conventional experience).

The problem I see most "philosophers" having with this, is understanding it is the nature of experience itself, not the content of experience that Buddhism is pointing at. Western philosophy typically assumes we all experience conventional life in the same way. After epxloring meditation it seems clear that we can modify the nature of experience. In this regard non-self is not something you can prove, it is something you can live.

RE: Research on experiences of Non/Buddhist meditators?
10/20/16 12:28 PM as a reply to Vlastimil Vohánka.
I suggest you look at some of Jeffrey Martin's research at He has studies on attainments of meditators from many different religions as well as from agnostics and atheists. 

RE: Research on experiences of Non/Buddhist meditators?
10/20/16 1:44 PM as a reply to Mark.
Mark, mostly I disagree or think we are talking cross purposes. Too little time and too little common background (at least in terms of vocabulary) between you and me. Peace.

Jack, thanks for the link. This seems as a pertinent interview intro:

RE: Research on experiences of Non/Buddhist meditators?
10/21/16 10:31 AM as a reply to Vlastimil Vohánka.
If you haven't looked at it try:

RE: Research on experiences of Non/Buddhist meditators?
10/21/16 1:48 PM as a reply to Jack Hatfield.
Very good, but the sample is small. Just 50 people. Hard to justify that the results are approximately true also in general.