Experimental phenomenology, as defined here, is the investigation of phenomenological practices and their effects on subsequent experience. Importantly, this means that experimental phenomenology stays entirely at the level of experiences. In terms of traditional experimental language, it requires that both the independent and dependent variables are phenomenological. The independent variable is a phenomenological practice, and the dependent variables are potential effects of this practice on subsequent experiences. The aim of this section is to clarify these notions in more detail. First, the nature of phenomenological practices is discussed, and differentiated from other kinds of practices. Second, the discussion turns to the potential experiential effects of these practices that are of interest, and how they may be described, explored and measured. Some basic aspects of experimental research are discussed with regard to their application in this case: active intervention, systematic variation of the intervention, and replication of effects. Finally, the importance of developing personalized phenomenological practices is discussed, as well as the striving for generalization.
The Nature of Phenomenological Practices
To engage in a phenomenological practice is to focus attention on one’s experiences rather than on the world (i.e., to shift from a natural to a phenomenological attitude, in Husserl’s terms) according to some set of instructions. Importantly, although this involves a shift of attention and attitude, it need not involve any modification of overt behavior. Basic to experimental phenomenology, however, is the notion of instructions and self-instructions, because these are what define the nature of a particular phenomenological practice.
Mindfulness meditation represents one kind of phenomenological practice. There are a number of definitions of mindfulness in the literature, and although they differ somewhat most of them mention at least two basic instructions: (1) to deliberately focus attention on some aspect of present experience; and (2) to do this with a particular kind of attitude, variously characterized in terms such as being accepting and non-judging; kind, friendly and caring; and showing openness, curiosity, and non-reactivity to experience (e.g., Kabat-Zinn 2013; Shapiro and Carlson 2017). An important aspect of this is to gently bring attention back to the present moment when getting distracted by thoughts. All these instructions are about regulating our inner experiencing, and do not have to involve any publicly observable behavior.
Some phenomenological practices, however, do involve observable behavior. This may be illustrated by comparing various breathing exercises. A breathing meditation that simply involves attending to one’s breathing just as it is, with no instruction to change it in any way, is a pure phenomenological practice. A breathing exercise where the individual is instructed to breathe in a particular way (for example, slowly or deeply), while at the same time paying close attention to the breathing, is not a pure phenomenological exercise because it also involves a change in overt behavior. It is still a phenomenological practice, however, because it essentially involves instructions about the direction of attention. On the other hand, if the instructions are only about breathing in a particular way, and do not say anything about attention or attitudes, it is not a phenomenological practice but a pure behavioral practice.
The first explicit formulation of an experimental phenomenology can be seen in the works of Don Ihde (2012), although in a completely different context than the present one—the study of perceptual illusions (e.g., the Necker cube) and how intentional variations of subjective experiencing can affect our experience of these illusions. The kind of investigation that characterizes experimental phenomenology, however, has much older roots. Work along similar lines can be found in old Hindu and Buddhist traditions as well as among antique philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome. For example, in traditional Buddhism various meditation techniques were developed to achieve sustained attention, a stilling of the mind, and “joy, luminosity, and nonconceptuality” (Wallace 2011, p.110). Similarly, the work of antique philosophers such as Epicurus and the stoics has been described to involve the development of techniques for self-care and self-improvement (Foucault 1988), and the achievement of happiness by transforming the individual’s mode of perceiving and being in the world (Hadot 2004). More generally, it can be assumed that formal or informal varieties of experimental phenomenology play a role in all kinds of therapeutic traditions.
Studying Potential Effects of Phenomenological Practices
What is required to make the study of phenomenological practices into an experimental phenomenology is that it does not rest only on the observation of what happens after engaging in a phenomenological practice, but involves an active intervention in the form of an intentional variation of such phenomenological practices. What is required to make it into an experimental phenomenology is that both the independent and dependent variables are phenomenological. If only the independent variable (i.e., the practice engaged in) is phenomenological, whereas the dependent variable is behavioral, physiological, or takes the form of self-assessment of traits (e.g., trait anxiety, or mindfulness traits/skills) on a questionnaire, this does not count as experimental phenomenology. The reason that self-assessment of traits does not generally count as phenomenological is that it does not represent phenomenological observations of present experience. Self-assessment of traits is based on the participants’ recall of, or beliefs about, how they usually function—that is, information retrieved from episodic and/or semantic memory (Klein et al. 1996). Experimental phenomenology may vary in methodological rigor and theoretical depth, depending on the extent to which it fulfills typical characteristics of experimental designs, such as variation of an independent variable, experimental control over different variables, and replication of effects.
Active Intervention Rather than Passive Observation
The experimental phenomenology of mindfulness practices has its starting-point in observations that a specific form of mindfulness practice (e.g., focusing on the breathing with an accepting non-judgmental attitude) seems to be followed by certain kinds of consequences (e.g., an increased relaxation and clarity of awareness). Importantly, a single observation of this kind is (1) about a temporal sequence, and not about a causal relationship, and (2) subjective in the sense that it is about an apparent temporal sequence (as specified in the words “seems to” in the formulation above). By repeating this practice to see if the observations are replicated, either with the same individual or with other individuals, however, it may be possible to search for evidence of a causal relationship. Also, by replicating this kind of study with several individuals, it may be possible to turn the first subjective observation into a set of intersubjective observations.
In this process, it is not likely that a given practice will always be followed by the same type of consequences. An important research question is under which conditions the obtained type of effect appears, and under which conditions it does not. This is in accordance with the argument put forward by authors such as McGuire (2004) and Langer (2014) that hypotheses are true under certain circumstances and that the purpose of research should therefore not be just to test hypotheses, but to study under which circumstances a hypothesis is true, and under which circumstances it is not. One important aspect of this question when it comes to experimental phenomenology is personalization: what works for one specific person need not work equally well for another.
Systematic Variation of Phenomenological Practices
An important research question is what happens if various aspects of a given practice are modified. Will the effects still be the same, or will they change? By means of experimental variation of a mindfulness practice that is under study, it may be possible to draw conclusions about what is important (or essential) about a certain type of practice (without which the effects are not likely to appear), and what is less important about it (i.e., may be removed or modified with little loss of effect). This kind of research may also inform us about differences and similarities in effects between different variations of a given practice, under different conditions, and between different persons.
One reason for engaging in experimental phenomenology is that what works for one person need not work equally well for another. We are all different in various ways, and it would probably be best if practices could be personalized. This says something important about experimental phenomenology as such—one of its primary purposes is to establish what works for each person. By communicating about what works for one of us, however, we may also possibly be able to find convergences and consensus on what works for many of us—and perhaps even be able to identify some general principles for what works for all of us. That is, experimental phenomenology in mindfulness research has both idiographic ambitions (i.e., to find out what works for each individual) and nomothetic ambitions (i.e., to describe general principles for mindfulness practice).
Exploring Variations of an Existing Mindfulness Practice: the Body Scan
As an illustration, consider the so-called body scan. The body scan is part of many mindfulness programs (e.g., Kabat-Zinn 2013; Shapiro and Carlson 2017). There are many different versions of it in books and on the Internet, but the instructions tend to have some basic elements in common. First, it involves having one’s attention moving systematically through the regions of the body, often by starting from the toes and moving all the way up to the head, “paying close attention to any sensations (or lack of sensations) in this area of your body” (Shapiro and Carlson 2017, p. 158). A second element is to use the breath systematically, by “breathing into” each body area in connection with attending to it. Third, if the attention wanders off the instruction is to “bring your mind back to the breath and to the region you are focusing on each time you notice that your attention has wandered off” (Kabat-Zinn 2013, p. 96). Fourth, this way of scanning all regions of the body while focusing attention on the sensations is to be done with a certain attitude that does not only involve an active interest and a gentle curiosity towards these sensations but also a friendly, caring attitude.
The body scan can be varied in a large number of ways, of which some minor variations (e.g., the order of body parts) are probably rather unimportant to its effects. Other variations, however, may perhaps have more importance for its effects. This is a matter that may be explored both by means of an informal variety of experimental phenomenology that can be carried out as part of clinical practice, and by means of a more rigorous form of experimental phenomenology that makes use of methods of descriptive phenomenology. As illustrations of the more informal variety, consider first the following three variations of the body scan:
A Tension/Relaxation Version
When person A tests the body scan, she feels uneasy and anxious and unable to relax. She responds much more positively, however, to a mindful tension and relaxation exercise, based on Jacobson’s (1938) progressive relaxation, where she is instructed to scan the body while tensing the muscles in each area of the body in turn before relaxing them, and by mindfully noticing the difference between tension and relaxation throughout the exercise.
An Open Monitoring Version
Person B finds it boring to practice the body scan in the regular fashion by systematically going through the body in a certain order. By experimenting on his own, however, he discovers that it works much better for him to proceed in a more spontaneous or impressionistic way, by focusing on the body sensations that stand out most clearly at each present moment. This may be called an open monitoring version of the body scan, because it is guided by an open monitoring (Lutz et al. 2008) of the bodily sensations that turn up spontaneously and thereby form a natural focus of attention.
A Verbal Affirmation Version
Person C has difficulties with his concentration while practicing the body scan on his own, in such a way that he tends to give up. When he is encouraged to scan the body by using verbal self-instructions of the form, “May I explore the feelings in my x (eyes, jaws, lips, neck, feet, etc.) by breathing into that part of my body”, however, he is able to keep his attention much better. One possible explanation is that when using this verbal self-instruction the person’s verbal working memory (the “phonological loop”; Baddeley 2007) is filled with information that makes it more difficult for distracting thoughts to get a hold. The words fill up working memory in a way that decreases the probability of being distracted. On the other hand, when Person D tests this version of the body scan she reports a feeling that this makes the exercise “too verbal” so that essential aspects of experiencing tend to get lost.
These examples illustrate the general principle that, even in the absence of more controlled experimental research and any more sophisticated methods for phenomenological description of these different variations of mindfulness practice, it may be valuable to have some sort of “catalog” of these, together with descriptions of different individuals’ experiences, including contradictory responses to one and the same type of practice (as in the last example). The building of such a “catalog” may proceed in two stages, first by means of clinical and other informal observations, and then by means of more rigorous descriptive-phenomenological methods. Experimental phenomenology has to take its starting-point in informal observations of existing varieties of phenomenological practices, as defined by their specific sets of instructions. Just like any science, it starts from observations made in the everyday life world. To proceed, however, it has to engage in a careful exploration of the lived practices elicited by these instructions (e.g., by the use of micro-phenomenological methods) and their effects (e.g., by the use of experiential sampling).
One thing that makes experimental phenomenology into a scientific endeavor is the intersubjective nature of this kind of study. That is, potential effects described by one person can be subjected to replication both by the same person, and by other persons. Also, any kind of conclusions that are drawn on the basis of this kind of study are hypothetical and provisional, and may have to be modified or specified on the basis of further study. This may also take the form of the construction and testing of new phenomenological practices, and the personalization of these. To illustrate this, the following example shows how a new mindfulness practice can be developed by means of experimental phenomenology: a personalized exercise in mindful driving.
Creating Personalized Mindfulness Practices
The construction of new mindfulness practices must be constrained by a definition of mindfulness, so that there can be a clear consensus that the practice in question counts as a mindfulness practice, and not some other kind of phenomenological practice. In addition to the definition in terms of attention and attitude (Kabat-Zinn 2013; Shapiro and Carlson 2017), it may be argued that a mindfulness practice must also contain an instruction that, if attention wanders off from the here-and-now, the participant should notice this without judgment and bring back attention to the here-and-now. To this may also be added that the attention should not be controlled in detail according to some highly specified procedure, of the kind that would be considered “mindless” by Langer (2014), but should be relatively freely deployed within the here-and-now. The latter is one reason why it may be ill-advised to refer to these practices as mindfulness procedures, as this would imply that what is at stake is some rather rigid routine—hence, the term used is mindfulness practices, not procedures.
Illustration: Mindful Driving
The mindful driving practice that is described below was constructed specifically for Andrew, a man in the upper middle ages, who had experienced quite severe problems with driving long distances, because he used to become quite sleepy along the way. For several years, he had used to cope with these problems by taking regular pauses now and then, and driving no longer than approximately 100 km without taking a pause. During these pauses, he would drink coffee, take a walk, or lie down to rest or sleep for a while. The problems became more acute after he had an incident of falling asleep for a few seconds during driving and waking up just in time to avoid a collision with a meeting car. As he had some previous experience with yoga and meditation, he was ready to engage in a mindfulness-based treatment specifically focused on driving. Using principles of experimental phenomenology, specific personalized instructions for mindful attention were developed successively over a number of weeks, and tested during driving shorter distances. Importantly, Andrew participated actively in shaping the details of the mindful driving instructions, so that they would suit his needs and preferences. Although this was not done as part of any research project and did not make use of any descriptive-phenomenological methodology, the rather long driving episodes made it possible for Andrew to make repeated self-observations during driving that could be put down in the form of notes afterwards, and could serve as the basis for successive modification of the practice.
In the following, the rationale and the instructions are summarized:
The rationale for the treatment. Driving a car can be done almost mindlessly, while thinking about other things or talking with passengers, with just a minimum of attention on the road and on the meeting traffic. It is sometimes described as being on “autopilot”. But driving, like everything else, also affords a valuable and exciting opportunity for mindful experiencing. The key is to focus on our being here and now, and there are surprisingly many aspects of such a focus when driving. In this specific program for mindful driving we differentiate between four different phases to shift between, each with a distinctly separate focus: the road, the traffic flow, the landscape, and the sitting.
Phase 1. The road. A first phase is to focus your attention on the roadway in front of the car, and on the experience of being in control of the car. As you attend to the road, notice its color, texture, and other visual aspects, including light and shadows, as they change continuously during your driving. Notice the contrast between the surface of the road and its surroundings, and how the road unfolds its way through the surroundings. Notice also how the road appears to you via your other senses. Notice the “feel of the road,” as you can feel the contact between the wheels and the road in the form of small vibrations in your body. Notice also the sound of the car as it is rolling on the road. You may also notice the feeling tone (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral) involved in experiencing the road, and the details of your experiences driving on this particular road. Notice how each moment brings something new.
Phase 2.The traffic flow. A second phase that you may enter especially when there is more intense traffic is to focus on the traffic flow that you are part of, and the relation of your car to the other cars on the road. Notice the cars in front of you, and the cars behind you. Notice the distance to the other cars, and changes of this distance. Notice the speed of your car, and the speed of the other cars. Notice the meeting cars, and note how it feels to meet them. Now and then, this may involve a kind of “widescreen mindfulness” of the traffic situation—having a holistic picture of the traffic situation, including the cars in front of you, the meeting traffic, and the traffic behind. Notice how it feels to be embedded in the traffic flow, with a pleasant distance to the other cars in your field of awareness.
Phase 3. The landscape. As a third phase, which you may enter especially when the traffic situation is calm, notice the surroundings, such as aspects of the ever changing landscape that you pass through. This may also involve a conscious focus on the experience of motion, noticing how it feels to move through the landscape at a certain speed. Notice how new details appear in your experience during each moment of driving. Also, be open to possible experiences of mindful pleasure related to the beauty of the surroundings and the ever shifting landscape.
Phase 4. Sitting. A fourth phase, which you may shift to now and then, involves the experience of doing all the above-mentioned things while sitting in a comfortable seat with the front window and dashboard in view. Shifting the attention to this experience of sitting in a comfortable seat inside a moving vehicle that you are in control of may sometimes be associated with an experience of surprise—as if this aspect of the driving process is often totally forgotten. Here, you may also use some elements from sitting meditation, such as feeling the neck and back of the body rising up into a more straight position.
Shifting between the phases. You may shift freely between these phases, in accordance with the changing traffic conditions. For example, although it is often natural to start in the road phase, the focus may be shifted to the traffic flow when the traffic becomes more intense, and to the landscape and the sitting when the traffic situation gets calmer. If your attention is drawn to other things, remember to gently bring attention back to the experience of driving.
The capacity to regulate attention and to shift in a smooth way between the above-mentioned phases of mindful driving may referred to as “meta-mindfulness attention,” or in Langer’s (2014) terms “second-order mindfulness,” defined as “choosing what to be mindful about” (p. 197).
After practicing mindful driving, alternating between the above-mentioned four phases, Andrew reported that he could now drive day-long distances (600–700 km) without becoming sleepy, and with much less need to stop and take pauses except for nutritional or other natural purposes. In terms of quantitative measures, this could be seen both in subjective ratings of alertness and tiredness, and in the number of stops during Andrew’s long-distance driving. In other words, there was a clear shift of functioning from before to after the training in mindful driving, both in the degree of subjectively experienced wakefulness and the behavior of stopping and taking breaks along the way. (Importantly, Andrew was still careful to get a good night’s sleep before engaging in long-distance driving, just as he had been before, and to take pauses when needed—mindful driving was not presented as a substitute for a good night’s sleep, or for taking pauses while driving.) Andrew also reported that he could now enjoy driving in a new way, as it afforded him new visual and other sensory impressions of the road, the surrounding landscape, and the traffic flow, while sitting comfortably with a straight back behind the wheel and feeling in control of the car’s movement through the surroundings.
The mindful driving practice described above, with its rationale, was specifically designed for Andrew, and what suited him need not suit another person with similar problems. The ideal would probably be that mindfulness programs such as this are tried out in collaboration with each specific person. By involving the participant in the construction of the specific details of this kind of program, that person may also learn something about exploring new variations of mindfulness practice on his or her own. In the present case, specific details were successively added to the mindfulness driving practice, and whereas some of these were dropped along the way those who remain in the description above were those that were subjectively experienced to have beneficial effects by Andrew.
Some General Principles
The example of mindful driving illustrates several more general principles. First, it illustrates that there is an immense wealth of potential experiences to be mindful about in each present moment. Second, although mindful attention is by definition directed to the present moment, this means that mindful attention is always selective. And third, this selection may be done in different ways. For example, it can be done either directively (i.e., intentionally directing attention to some aspects of experience) or non-directively (i.e., allowing attention to unfold spontaneously to different aspects of experience) or in terms of some combination of these. This may be seen as analogous to the distinction between directive and non-directive techniques in psychotherapy (Lundh 2012).
The latter is also reminiscent of the distinction between focused attention meditation (FAM) and open monitoring meditation (OMM) (Lutz et al. 2008). Whereas in FAM practitioners are instructed to focus their attention on a specific object or event, in OMM, the practitioner is instructed to remain attentive to any experience that might arise, without intentionally selecting any particular object. Although there is selection occurring also in the OMM type of meditation, it is not intentionally regulated in the same way. FAM and OMM may be said to represent two varieties of meta-mindfulness regulation. In the present example of mindful driving, both varieties of meta-mindfulness regulation are combined. Directive influences of intentionally focused attention are seen in the fact that attention should stay within a frame of experience defined by driving; when attention drifts away from driving (e.g., into various kinds of thoughts on other things) it is gently brought back unto the driving experience. Within this frame, however, attention may be allowed to shift rather spontaneously between aspects of the four different phases described above (i.e., the road, the traffic, the landscape, and the sitting experience). Within this experiential frame of driving, attention may also now and then be intentionally directed to one phase rather than another (e.g., to the traffic situation when this becomes more intense). Experiences of sleepiness are noted and taken as signals to stay and take a pause. Altogether, this kind of mindful driving represents not a technical procedure but a skilled practice that can be trained—and it is this skilled practice, and its variations, that may be subject to experimental-phenomenological research.
To summarize, experimental phenomenology in the case of mindful driving entails (1) the construction of new variations of mindful driving, idiographically adapted to the individual, either on the basis of informal (e.g., clinically derived) phenomenological reports or based on more rigorous descriptive-phenomenological methods; (2) qualitative observations and quantitative ratings of experiential effects of such practices; (3) systematic variation of a given practice to establish the experiential effects under certain conditions and for a specific person; and (4) an attempt to formulate general principles for what counts as a practice of mindful driving.