Meditators as expert collaborators

In the section on custom-tailored measurement, we argued that meditation research would profit from a “second-person” approach, in which a researcher who is both knowledgeable in qualitative methods and in meditation research collaborates with an experienced meditator. Such a collaborative research effort can of course be done in many ways and using many kinds of designs, including single-case experimental designs as described in the earlier section. Especially for examining cognitive processes of very advanced meditators, the most promising design might, however, be a researcher-meditator dyad that is based on true equality (and possibly interchangeability) in the roles of researchers and meditators.

Such a collaboration between experienced meditators and researchers (who are also meditators) might be the only way to explore very specific questions, especially those that deal with the ultimate aim of meditation according to the original Indian approaches, termed enlightenment, liberation, nirvana, or moksa, among other names. But irrespective of the research question pursued, the collaborative endeavor would have several advantages compared to the traditional researcher-participant set-up. First, research on advanced topics of meditation needs a trusting relationship between researcher and meditator, which might be fostered by shared experiential background. Second, such a common background would enable the researcher to understand the collaborator’s utterances more easily than experimenters with no respective experiences. And third, as meditation practice is usually expected to go along with an increasingly less biased perception of one’s inner processes, “measurements” can also be expected to be more precise on the meditator’s side and to be interpreted with less bias by the researcher. In the ideal case, meditation research would be conducted by experienced meditators and experienced researchers who could interchange their roles at any time.

However, this kind of research, of course, also faces challenges such as collusions between researchers and meditators, or shared delusions. It can only be expected to work if researchers’ and meditators’ experiences and findings are made available in an unfiltered way and are replicated by independent dyads. These potential problems notwithstanding, it seems that there is no other way to get a satisfactory and systematic access to the experiences of highly advanced meditators.

How can we proceed?

While conventional research designs still have their merits, meditation research would profit from designs that take into account the meditators’ personality characteristics and specific experiences, and the peculiarities of the respective meditation techniques they practice. This can be better done in single-case designs, and single-case experimental designs seem to be most appropriate because they allow for causal conclusions due to the random selection of time intervals, which distinguishes these kinds of designs from “normal” single-case designs. In general, it seems beneficial, if not necessary, at least in some cases, that researchers also have some meditation practice themselves, especially if long-term effects are the topic of research. A good way to start single-case research in this way might be to consider having a closer look at selected individuals, even when attempting to do conventional group research.

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