Self-reports of experienced meditators

Most meditation techniques can be seen as practice in introspection. Therefore, one should expect experienced meditators to have very high introspective accuracy because of their improved attentional capacity and cognitive control (e.g., Cornelissen 2011; Lutz et al. 2008), an expectation that is backed by some empirical evidence. For instance, Fox et al. (2012) examined meditation practitioners with a range of 1-15,000 hours of meditation experience and found that overall meditation experience was a good predictor for individual introspective accuracy. The results of introspection by very experienced meditators were the main source for the theories of meditation contained in Indian texts. So, it seems reasonable that contemporary experienced meditators would also be a profitable source for the development of a theory of meditation. There is already an abundance of such accounts in the books written by spiritual teachers, but there are several pitfalls if introspection is done without some outside control. It might, for instance, be difficult to separate one’s own experiences from information and insights taken from other sources (books, conversations with teachers and fellow meditators, interpretations of experiences, etc.). To access theory-relevant knowledge of experienced meditators successfully, researchers probably need at least some basic meditation experience and special (learnable) skills in guiding unbiased introspection (Vermersch 1999; Wallace 1999).

First attempts to extract a theory of meditation in this way indicate that meditators’ introspections are largely consistent with Indian theoretical approaches but go well beyond book knowledge (Eberth et al. 2015a). In general, this method seems to be a good complement to both the theories extracted from ancient Indian thought systems and Western approaches to explaining meditation. Obviously, such an approach is restricted to mental processes we have access to, but this access is potentially far better than usually assumed. For instance, Petitmengin-Peugeot (1999) demonstrated that people can be guided to become aware of the process of intuitive experiences, and Petitmengin et al. (2013) showed that expert guidance greatly facilitated the detection of decision processes that people are usually unaware of.

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