Contemplative practice can occasion powerful psychological experiences. Yet few empirical studies have investigated whether their occurrence is associated with intensive meditation-based interventions. Here, we assess the prevalence of profound, meaningful, and mystical experiences in experienced meditators during a month-long insight meditation retreat compared to a control group of similarly experienced meditators.
Participants completed the 100-item States of Consciousness Questionnaire (SOCQ) and the Mysticism Scale before and after a 3-week period of intensive retreat or daily life. Multivariate distance matrix regression was used to compare multivariate profiles of responses on the SOCQ and to describe which items contributed most to differences between groups at the end of retreat. Changes in self-reported mystical dimensions of experience were also directly compared between retreat and control participants.
The retreat and control groups differed over the training period in their multivariate profile of individual experiences. Retreat group participants reported a greater extent of profound insights, powerful emotional experiences, and non-ordinary sensory or perceptual events compared to experienced meditators not on retreat. Retreatants also reported greater levels of specific dimensions of mystical experience, including internal unity, transcendence, sacredness, noetic quality, and deeply felt positive affect, relative to control participants.
These findings support the idea that intensive periods of meditation training are associated with a range of profound and mystical-type experiences. Increased access to these experiences may be one path by which immersive periods of contemplative training contribute to psychological or spiritual development, though the long-term consequences of such experiences remain to be fully understood.
This study is part of a larger investigation that was registered on clinicaltrials.gov (#NCT03056105).
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The data that support the findings of this study are available in the OSF repository and can be found at: https://osf.io/p6a29/
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We thank our research participants and the Spirit Rock Meditation Center staff and teachers: Christine Owens, Jim Rodgers, Sean Fargo, Jack Kornfield, James Baraz, Guy Armstrong, Heather Martin, Tempel Smith, Sally Clough Armstrong, Max Erdstein, John Travis, Winnie Nazarko, Lila Kate Wheeler, Pascal Auclair, and Trudy Goodman. We also thank the Anubhuti Retreat Center and Program Manager Elizabeth Padilla, Katherine MacLean for her early contributions to study planning, and Anahita Vieira and Jennifer Pokorny for their help with data collection and study implementation.
This work was supported by Fetzer Institute grant #2191 and the John Templeton Foundation grant #39970; gifts from the Nancy Driscoll, Hershey Family, Baumann, Tan Teo Charitable, Owsley Brown III Philanthropic, and Yoga Science Foundations; and an anonymous individual donor all to Clifford D. Saron.
All procedures performed in this study were approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of California, Davis.
Informed consent was obtained from all participants involved in the study.
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Zanesco, A.P., King, B.G., Conklin, Q.A. et al. The Occurrence of Psychologically Profound, Meaningful, and Mystical Experiences During a Month-Long Meditation Retreat. Mindfulness 14, 606–621 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-023-02076-w