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In a cartoon drawing, several people are meditating and trying to navigate a complex labyrinth. One person is running alone through a central path of doors leading directly to a glowing center. Pete Gamlen for Vox

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Meditation is more than either stress relief or enlightenment

Exploring the wider range of meditation is no longer reserved for the monasteries. The new science of meditation is just getting started.

Oshan Jarow is a Future Perfect fellow, where he focuses on economics, consciousness studies, and varieties of progress. Before joining Vox, he co-founded the Library of Economic Possibility, where he led policy research and digital media strategy.

Meditation has taken two divergent paths through the Western mind. For many, it’s a few quick, calming breaths, perhaps timed with a smartphone app, in search of a stress tonic that can soften anxiety’s edges. Along a less-traveled route, meditation remains what it long was: a deeply transformative pursuit, a devoted metamorphosis of the mind toward increasingly enlightened states.

But this bifurcated view of meditation as a relaxing practice for the masses and a life-changing practice for the committed few is deeply misleading. A spectrum runs between them, harboring experiences that are far more interesting and powerful than what the growing mindfulness industry advertises, and more accessible to average people than what tropes of arcane states like enlightenment suggest.

Given that wealthy countries like the US aren’t exactly riding trend lines toward new peaks of mental health (depression rates in American adults are at an all-time high, while young people appear in the grips of a mental health crisis), scalable ways of not just mindfully soothing, but completely re-creating psychological experiences for the better should set off sirens of general, scientific, and funding intrigue.

For the past two decades, the growing science of meditation has roughly followed the same split that ignores this middle path. Most research studies basic mindfulness as a health intervention in novice meditators, where modestly positive results have led to comparisons like exercise for the mind, or mental flossing. On the other end, researchers will occasionally strap EEG electrodes to the scalp of Tibetan monks, offering a glimpse inside the unusual brain activity of an advanced meditator.

A new band of researchers, however, is finding that you don’t need 10,000 hours in a monastery before meditation can upend your entire psychology — and yet, the current body of meditation research has had surprisingly little to say about this middle ground between stress relief and enlightenment.

As the number of meditating Americans has more than tripled in recent years, an onslaught of apps, books, and seminars helped mold the public image of meditation around the simpler and more sellable idea of mindfulness as a form of stress reduction. That image is paying off: The broader mindfulness industry was valued at $97.6 million in 2021 and is projected to triple in value by 2031. Critics call it “McMindfulness,” a capitalist perversion of meditation that deals with stress by focusing inward on the breath, rather than outward on the social structures that cause so much of that stress. Regardless of how you package it, “mindfulness programs only scratch the surface of meditation,” Matthew Sacchet, a neuroscientist, professor of psychiatry, and director of Harvard’s Meditation Research Program, told me.

Sacchet is part of a recent turn in meditation research that is putting the fuller, stranger range of meditative experiences under the scrutiny of laboratory conditions. Rather than evaluating meditation in the same way that we do therapy or drug trials, new theories from cognitive science (like predictive processing) along with new tools — such as machine learning models that read more deeply into neural activity than humans can alone — are shifting the science of meditation in the direction of grasping after the nature of the mind and the ways we might transform it for the better.

“There was this initial focus on meditation as attention and emotional regulation practices,” said Ruben Laukkonen, an assistant professor at Southern Cross University. “But over time, there’s been a recognition that in contemplative traditions, that’s not really the goal. These are side effects. When you talk to people who really take this stuff seriously, you find that there’s these layers of experience that unfold that are much deeper.”

Research labs and private companies are already developing technologies they hope can democratize access to meditation’s deep-end experiences. From psychedelics to brain stimulation, the hunt is on for ways to cut the time it usually takes to begin experiencing more profound effects. “Ultimately, our mission is to understand advanced meditation to scale advanced meditation, and we believe that this will have profound impact on individual well-being and the collective health of society,” said Sacchet.

Scaling access to the benefits of advanced meditation could offer something a little stronger (or a lot stronger, depending on how the tech fares) to the more than 100 million users who turn to mindfulness apps like Calm or Headspace in search of a psychological balm. In a world hell-bent on hacks for everything from emails to nutrition, why not consciousness, too? If deeper states of meditation can go beyond calming the mind and transform its fundamental habits in ways that dissolve stress and raise well-being, then making the process faster and more user-friendly could pay major dividends.

But concerns abound. Even if profoundly altered states of consciousness are amenable to hacking (an unsettled debate), there’s hardly any evidence that today’s generation of tools is up to the task. Worse, if it is, what if accelerating the process of pulling up and shifting around the roots of consciousness just short-circuits millions of minds? And yet, without serious shortcuts, how many people will realistically devote a meaningful chunk of their daily lives to sitting quietly, doing nothing?

On one hand, the Western study of consciousness has been hamstrung since Galileo cleaved sensory experience from the scientific method, and I can think of few things more worthy of deep research. Just as studying the extremes of particle physics (say, smashing atoms of gold together to create temperatures in excess of 7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit) can reveal generalizable principles about all matter, the extremes of conscious experience are probably a good place to look for a better understanding of all minds. We have a lot more to learn about how to raise well-being, which, at its core, is a property of consciousness.

As far as defiling ancient practices with shiny new technologies or the perils of swapping gurus for algorithms, these are the fascinating, messy, indeed dangerous, and perhaps extraordinarily wonderful examples of how the dharma — the Buddha’s teachings — is adapting to a new environment. We should support this process as wisely as we can, not turn away. And how could we? The future of our minds may depend on it.

How mindfulness defined the first wave of contemplative studies

What we now call contemplative science is the interdisciplinary study of how practices like meditation, prayer, and psychedelic use affect the mind, brain, and body. Its American roots go back to at least the 1960s, when the inflow of Buddhist ideas enchanted a generation of, as the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg put it, “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” But it wasn’t just poets and hipsters; the likes of scientists and lawyers also started meditating.

Back then, there were no mindfulness apps or corporate “Zen booths” offering meditation as a reprieve to stressed-out workers. The point of meditation, as taught by transplanted Asian teachers of the time like Japan’s D. T. Suzuki and Tibet’s Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was a deep transformation of consciousness — the full force of awakening. Suzuki described Zen, which derives from the Sanskrit word for meditation, as “the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being ... it points the way from bondage to freedom.”

The idea of meditation as a means of awakening flared up and then began fading out along with the counterculture itself. The hippies’ rejection of the soulless, sexless mainstream failed to build an alternative that could last, leaving their gusto for higher levels of consciousness adrift, sailing out to the cultural fringes. In the light of modern science, the quest for higher vibrations has come to appear essentially unserious — a New Age trope. But one of those scientists-turned-meditators, Jon Kabat-Zinn, had a vision for how to bring it back into the mainstream.

Jon Kabat-Zinn seated on a couch at the THRIVE conference, holding a hand over his heart and smiling.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic, which gave rise to mindfulness-based stress reduction.
D Dipasupil/Getty Images

The son of a biomedical scientist and a painter, Kabat-Zinn earned a PhD in molecular biology in 1971. Having already established a daily meditation practice in 1966, he spent his early years at the University of Massachusetts Medical School stewing over what his “karmic assignment,” or life’s work, should be. Then, during a two-week meditation retreat in the woods west of Boston, he saw it in a 10-second vision, “an instantaneous seeing of vivid, almost inevitable connections and their implications,” as he put it. Simply: “Why not make meditation so commonsensical that anyone would be drawn to it?”

Shortly after, in 1979, he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the medical school, which eventually became the eight-week course known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and served as the format for the mindfulness boom to come. In this interpretation, mindfulness is a simple instruction: pay attention to the present moment, on purpose, without judgment. Secular and testable, MBSR offered a form of meditation fit for accountants and clinical trials, rather than hippies and communes.

Kabat-Zinn authored a few studies on MBSR in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that mindfulness research really took off. At the 2005 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, the Dalai Lama told a crowd of 14,000 conference participants (some of whom were upset by the presence of a religious leader at a scientific affair — one online petition to withdraw his invitation received nearly 800 signatures) that Buddhism and cognitive science share deep similarities. “I believe a close cooperation between these two investigative traditions can truly contribute toward expanding the human understanding of the complex world of inner subjective experience that we call the mind,” he said.

Shortly after, scientists picked up on the already existing construct of MBSR, publications on mindfulness began erupting, and the field of contemplative science sprang to life.

“For 20 years, there were a lot of single-arm trials [without controls like placebo groups or randomization] showing MBSR, in its various forms, can actually help improve health outcomes,” said David Vago, a founding neuroscientist at the International Society for Contemplative Research.

Now, as the research matures into controlled studies and meta-analyses, meditation is losing a bit of its luster. It’s beginning to look more like just another decently effective medical intervention. A 2021 systematic review of 44 meta-analyses found that mindfulness was mostly on par with cognitive behavioral therapy or antidepressants in terms of treatment effects (mindfulness was superior in a few categories, however, including treating depression and substance abuse).

That’s still good news, but it’s hard to see how something that works about as well as Prozac or a therapist offers the “seeds of a necessary global renaissance in the making,” as Kabat-Zinn has written, let alone the end of suffering, as the Buddha taught.

“So we’re left with this big question,” Vago said. “Is the goal of meditation to reduce our perceived stress or symptoms of anxiety? Are those the true goals of the practice? I would say not. But that’s how the medical model has been used to test the efficacy of meditation.”

Everyone I spoke to agreed that there’s more to meditation than just another somewhat effective health intervention. But discovering what more, exactly, will require a different set of questions and tools than what delivered the current generation of mindfulness research. And the past few years have seen a proliferation of precisely that.

The next generation of contemplative science is here

Just as the mindfulness era began with the establishment of a university center, a contemplative science focused on psychological transformation is growing its own institutions.

Sacchet is expanding the Meditation Research Program into a larger operation — the Center for the Science of Meditation — that aims to conduct gold-standard research on the deep end of meditation experiences. “These types of experiences are often described as transformative,” Sacchet explained, “that is, as laying the foundations for new ways of being, which may include updated understandings of meaning in life, and increased capacities for joy, happiness, and general well-being.”

Laukkonen, who focuses on the cognitive neuroscience of meditation, said that ”we have new theoretical frameworks that can capture contemplative effects. That’s a huge shift because it’s really hard to appreciate states that don’t fit into your theoretical paradigm.” Adding to the new theories are new scientific tools and gizmos. “The analytical techniques are getting more sophisticated, which allows you to ask questions that you couldn’t ask before. All these things feed into each other.”

He described how ongoing research is using machine learning models to decode and measure meditative “depth” or the “expertise” of one’s practice, opening a new frontier of understanding. Rather than simply studying the outcomes of mindfulness practice, they’re peering into the real-time processes.

In a 2021 paper, Laukkonen and his colleague Heleen Slagter suggested that one way to think about the depth of meditation is the degree to which the mind is engaged in abstractions or conceptual thought. They describe meditation as a process of deconstructing engrained habits of mind “until all conceptual processing falls away, unveiling a state of pure awareness.”

On that basis, by training machine learning models on brain activity across a variety of tasks that involve conceptual thinking, Laukkonen hypothesizes that we could teach the algorithms to recognize the neural signatures of conceptual thought in general. Then, we could use those models to measure the degree of conceptual thought present in any brain state, such as during meditation. The rough idea is: the less conceptual thinking (or abstraction), the deeper the meditation. “That’s where the field is moving toward, trying to identify mechanisms or biomarkers for change and progress. We’re starting to map that out,” Vago said.

Tibetan monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche in traditional garb and Richard Davidson in a Western suit smile with their hands in prayer.
Tibetan monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, left, and Richard Davidson, who founded and chairs the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Edward Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Alongside new theories and technologies, ancient claims of unbelievable meditative states are being observed under the scrutiny of scientists in controlled settings for the first time. A few thousand years ago, the Mahāvedalla Sutta (a scripture of Theravada Buddhism) described one such state that advanced meditators could enter at will — nirodha samāpatti, or cessation attainment. Think of cessation, also scripturally described as the “non-occurrence of consciousness,” like voluntarily inducing the effects of general anesthesia. Consciousness switches off without a trace, while the basic homeostatic operations of the body — temperature, heartbeat, breathing — remain online.

The scripture says meditators can predetermine a length of time to “go under” merely by setting an intended duration, like an internally fashioned alarm clock. That duration is said to be able to stretch up to seven days, provided their body can last that long. After setting the intention, they settle into meditation, and the light of consciousness switches off. When it returns, meditators were said to emerge crisp and refreshed, with elevated senses of clarity and vitality (decidedly unlike the woozy return from anesthesia).

Laukkonen, Sacchet, and their colleagues met someone who claimed they could enter cessation on command and was willing to do so in a lab. While they’re still processing the data, a preliminary publication of their findings suggests nirodha samāpattiat least for 90-minute stretches — may not be as outlandish as it sounds.

In a recent but separate pilot study conducted by Sacchet, he found that right before an advanced meditator has micro-cessations — referred to in the ancient texts as “nirodha without the samāpatti the alpha band of brain activity (the major rhythm of brain activity in typical, waking adults) begins winding down. It’s at its lowest immediately following the nirodha, which only lasts maybe a second or two. Then alpha activity begins climbing again, returning to normal levels in less than a minute.

The preliminary data on the full nirodha samāpatti found the same pattern. Leading up to cessation, alpha activity began dropping. It bottomed out during cessation and rose again afterward. While these patterns aren’t enough to confirm the full account of cessation, they do look like a plausible neural correlate for temporarily extinguishing consciousness.

Being able to train one’s mind to manually switch off consciousness for some predetermined period does not weave seamlessly into conventional understandings of human psychology. Maybe, like bears, there is some evolutionary value in short periods of mental hibernation. Or maybe, buried in the deeper folds of consciousness, there are capabilities unrelated to survival that can help improve well-being anyway.

If the ordinary egoic sense of consciousness evolved for environments where a constant hum of fight or flight mentality helped keep us alive, advanced meditation may offer a way of reprogramming some of these inherited tendencies that no longer serve us in our comparatively new evolutionary environments, like discarding clothes that no longer fit. The same goes for psychedelics.

Advanced meditation for everyone?

“My hope is that ultimately, this work will contribute to bringing advanced meditation out of the monastery,” Sacchet said, describing its “incredible promise for moving beyond addressing mental health issues, toward helping people thrive.”

To do that, meditation probably needs to reach more than a sliver of humanity, which could be a problem: Many people do not like to meditate. One infamous study found that many participants would rather administer electric shocks to themselves than sit quietly doing nothing for 15 minutes. And 15 minutes is on the low end of meditation periods, even for basic mindfulness. Although unusual states can arise at any point in one’s practice, it’s common for those endeavoring toward the deep end to spend an hour a day or more in meditation. Some devote entire lifetimes. Multiple, even, if you’re into reincarnation. Who’s got time for that?

But if American culture is obsessed with anything, it’s optimization. Can we get the same or more outputs from fewer inputs? Can we automate any part of the process? Research labs and venture capitalists alike are already exploring whether the more transformative fruits of contemplative practice may be had quicker, easier, and more efficiently than through decades of patient meditation.

One label for this optimization effort is “spirit tech,” a mixed bag consisting mainly of brain stimulation, neurofeedback, and psychedelics. This isn’t new, precisely — mantras, monasteries, and robes are forms of spirit tech that have been used for generations. But today’s emerging options seem closer than ever to making a meaningful dent in the barriers that have kept the masses from experiencing advanced meditative states for themselves.

A young woman sitting at a table in a home with her hands in prayer position while she wears virtual reality goggles.
A young woman meditating with the aid of virtual reality goggles.
Getty Images

One of the spirit tech frontiers is transcranial ultrasound stimulation, a method Jay Sanguinetti, an assistant professor, and Shinzen Young, a celebrated meditation teacher, are working on as co-directors of the SEMA Lab (Science Enhanced Mindful Awareness) at the University of Arizona. In prior research, they showed that targeted bursts of ultrasound can alter brain connectivity. Now, they’re exploring whether sonicating — the fun word for targeting ultrasound waves — a brain into configurations known to correlate with deeper states of meditation can accelerate the process.

Standing at the precipice of democratizing access to sudden bursts of deep meditation experiences is exciting. The less glamorous risks that might come with a shortcut to the depths of contemplative practice, not as much. While very rare, these can range from anxiety spikes to psychotic breaks. Young told a meditation student about “falling into the Pit of the Void,” one of the ways Buddhist tradition describes how intense experiences can go wrong. Until the professor of psychiatry Willoughby Britton’s research on adverse meditation experiences, or “dark nights of the soul” (later rebranded as the varieties of contemplative experience study), there was little clinical support for those suffering from negative meditation experiences.

Even now, Daniel Ingram, a former emergency room physician and author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, cautioned, “there’s basically a long, slow trainwreck happening between people getting into these experiences and the clinical mainstream just not understanding them.”

Notably, in a promotional video for their research, Young narrates: “If you’ll pardon my French, we are scared shitless of this technology.” And yet, as in the world of AI, they’re building it anyway. The hope is that they’re able to do so in a more prudent manner than others — profit-seeking companies, especially — who are eager to rush their brain-zapping technology to market before carefully assessing the risks.

Vago told me that support systems help to navigate these experiences. Once you zap — or sonicate — someone into a brain state associated with deep-end meditation, enlightenment doesn’t simply lock into place. He said that “psychedelics and brain stimulation technology will get us there fast, but you have to know what to do with it. If you don’t have the proper setup, and you didn’t do any meditation to stabilize the mind, you could have adverse effects that leave you feeling dissociated and lonely. It takes scaffolding.”

There are also questions of efficacy. Even if you can quickly techno-boost someone into a sudden burst of enlightenment-like states, are they really experiencing the same thing as someone who patiently meditated for years to get there? Should meditators seek to enter some predefined brain state by any means possible, or does the path you take make a difference?

“If you get people into these states, then you give them the impression that that is the goal state. Then they come into their meditation practice with a complete misunderstanding of what the purpose is according to any of the classical instructions, and they spend their meditation trying to get into a state, which prevents all of the interesting and useful transformations from happening. So it’s a paradox,” as Laukkonen put it.

In his view (held by many others I spoke with), contemplative traditions do not describe meditation as a practice for getting into funky states of mind; these are side effects. Instead, meditation is about deep transformations in the ordinary ways that consciousness operates, developing altered traits rather than merely altered states, as others in the field have put it. Still, maybe certain altered states are more conducive to finding and stabilizing altered traits than others.

Contemplative traditions have embraced paradox as a central element of their teachings. Optimizing around a paradox, however, is tricky business. You might wind up reinforcing the very construct of the self that meditation aims to deconstruct. Laukkonen still approved of research into spirit tech from a basic scientific perspective. But, he added: “It’s really about freedom and liberation. And what is liberating about chasing different states of consciousness, and not enjoying the one that you have?”

Contemplative science needs scalable bureaucracy

Whether the widening field of contemplative science will drum up an American desire for freedom and liberation, who knows? “What people want,” said Ingram, “is a long, happy, good life most of the time. The problem is that we don’t actually know what leads to that.” We’ve done large, multigenerational studies on heart disease, and deep, epidemiological inquiries into diet and nutrition. But major spiritual experiences that leave people forever transformed, that pull up suffering from its roots in deep psychological habits? We don’t have much peer-reviewed research on those.

As contemplative scientists are now diving in, Ingram hopes that public health officials will follow. Alongside deeper scientific knowledge that could help scale interest in advanced meditation, supporting those already having these experiences requires better clinical support. Ingram, Sacchet, and Vago are all members of the Emergent Phenomenology Research Consortium (EPRC), a network of scholars and practitioners aiming to foster deeper dialogue between clinical care, public health, and the deep end of human experience. Their vision is deeply bureaucratic, that unholy road into the heart of modern institutions. They want new diagnostic codes, updated medical textbooks, more informed public health guidelines, and insurance reimbursement procedures.

More broadly, Ingram emphasized that spreading the knowledge contemplative scientists may glean from studying advanced meditation will require better packaging. We have ideas like biological taxonomies and genetics that provide a shared basis for cross-cultural understanding and exploration of universally relevant fields. “We need that for the deep end of spiritual experience,” he said. “What works as well in Riyadh, as Rome, as Rio, as rural Alabama? What’s the functional, scalable essence?”

It’s possible that what matters most in the murky terrain of advanced meditation will forever elude scientific measurement, mass uptake, and bureaucratic integration, at least to some degree. But the growing field of contemplative science is poking around to see where the boundaries may lie. As the best spiritual teachers all emphasize, rather than taking anyone’s word for it, we should find out for ourselves.

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