Novice meditators who develop the ability to non-reactively observe their thoughts, feelings and physical sensations are more likely to experience self-transcendence, according to new research published in Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice. The findings suggest that mindful decentering is linked to the experience of unity with other people or one’s surroundings.

“Initially, I was interested in self-transcendent experiences during meditation as a curiosity. I had read historical reports of contemplative practices fundamentally changing how the practitioners viewed themselves and the world,” said study author Adam W. Hanley (@AdamWHanley1), an assistant professor at University of Utah College of Social Work and member of the Center on Mindfulness and Integrative Health Intervention Development.

“Often these transcendent experiences left the practitioner with a greater sense of connection with others and the natural world — the momentary experience of ‘oneness’ left them feeling more compassionate and behaving more altruistically. So, I wanted to see if we could more intentionally cultivate these self-transcendent experiences, and by extension increase connection, compassion, and altruism.”

“Fortunately, in graduate school, modern psychological models were being developed to explain how mindfulness meditation might create favorable conditions for the emergence of self-transcendent experiences,” Hanley explained. “And, decentering — the ability to ‘step back’ psychologically and observe internal events, like thoughts, feelings, and sensations, as a dispassionate observer — had been proposed as a critical step in realizing self-transcendent states. I wanted to test if that was really the case.”

In the study, 26 college students were randomly assigned to either 6 mindfulness meditation training sessions or 6 active listening training sessions. The participants completed self-report measures of decentering and self-transcendence before their first training session and after each remaining session.

The researchers found that mindfulness training increased decentering and self-transcendence over the course of study relative to active listening training. In other words, participants assigned to meditation training became more likely over time to agree with statements such as “I was aware of my thoughts and feelings without over-identifying with them” and “I experienced all things seeming to unify into a single whole.”

In addition, Hanley and his colleagues found evidence that decentering mediated the relationship between meditation training and self-transcendence. Participants who reported greater decentering by the mid-point of mindfulness training tended to report greater self-transcendence by the training’s end.

The results indicate that “self-transcendent experiences may be more accessible than traditionally thought,” Hanley told PsyPost.

“In this study a group of young adults with little to no mindfulness training were able to experience a taste of self-transcendence during brief guided meditations — they became less preoccupied with their internal worlds and as a result reported feeling a greater sense of connection with others and the world around them.”

“I want to emphasize that these participants likely experienced just a taste of self-transcendence, and some contemplative scientists say that these tastes are expected when beginning mindfulness meditation and are ultimately meaningless,” Hanley continued. “Theses tastes are thought to be qualitatively different from the more substantive self-transcendent experiences that can emerge following years of practice. I hope to explore the psychological and behavioral consequences of these tastes of self-transcendence in future studies.”

To prevent self-selection bias, the study was advertised only as an investigation of attention training strategies. But like all research, the study includes some caveats.

“This study’s major limitation was the sample’s size and characteristics,” Hanley noted. “This was a small, homogenous (primarily white females), highly educated sample, so these results may not generalize. Also, self-report surveys were the only data acquisition strategy used. Given the novelty of this area of study, it would have been nice to interview participants about their meditation experiences and to gather psychophysiological data, like heart rate or electroencephalography (EEG).”

Previous research conducted by Hanley and his colleagues has found evidence that self-transcendent experiences can have health benefits.

We found that eight weeks of Mindfulness Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) increased the frequency with which chronic pain patients on long-term opioids experienced self-transcendence over the course of treatment, and increases in self-transcendent experiences predicted less pain and opioid misuse after treatment,” Hanley said.

“We also found that MORE decreased opioid use in a different sample of chronic pain patients on long-term opioids by increasing frontal theta power, and as frontal theta power increased so did participant reports of self-transcendence.”

The study, “Mindfulness Training Encourages Self-Transcendent States via Decentering“, was authored by Adam W. Hanley, Dusana Dorjee, and Eric L. Garland.

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