For my PhD I am examining “contentless” experiences in meditation, where mental content such as thoughts, perceptions, and mental images is absent. Meditators who have these experiences typically describe them as involving stillness, silence, emptiness, or nothingness. In the academic literature, the experiences are often referred to as pure consciousness, or consciousness itself.

Most meditation research relates to changes in the brain during meditation, or to the effects of practising. Researchers might, for example, conduct brain scans, or look at whether practising improves attention or reduces anxiety. My PhD research is different, in that it focuses on the subjective experience.

Questions I am investigating include:
How do meditators describe contentless experiences?;
Are contentless experiences in different practices the same or different?; and
Are descriptions of the experiences in traditional texts consistent with reports of participants in scientific studies?

The primary focus of my research is contentless experience in three practices: Tibetan Buddhist Shamatha meditation (“Shamatha”), Transcendental Meditation (“TM”), and Stillness Meditation. Stillness Meditation is an Australian practice that was developed in the 1960s by the Melbourne psychiatrist Dr Ainslie Meares. The leading teacher now is Pauline McKinnon, one of the founders of Meditation Australia.

The richest descriptions of contentless experience are found in traditional texts by meditation experts. To better understand the contentless experiences in Shamatha, TM, and Stillness Meditation I have used scientific method to conduct a detailed and systematic examination of 135 expert texts from within those traditions.

My first paper with findings from that work was published in July in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The paper relates to silence as a specific feature of contentless experience, and it will be included in a special edition of the journal on the experience and neurophysiology of silence. I wrote the paper together with my PhD supervisors: Dr Olivia Carter, a neuroscientist at The University of Melbourne, and Dr Jennifer Windt, a philosopher at Monash University.

We found that the experts treat silence/quietness in contentless experience as reflecting the absence of thoughts and sounds. That fits with an understanding of silence/quietness as the absence of internal and external noise. We found that in some instances the terms silence and quietness may also extend to the absence of other disturbances such as mental images and negative feelings. That would fit with an understanding of silence/quietness as complete calm or absence of disturbance.

Another finding from the research is that it is not clear from the expert texts how silence/quietness is distinct from other features of contentless experience, such as stillness, which also reflect the absence of disturbance. The experts may at times intend the terms to describe an identical experiential quality, but on other occasions they may use the terms to convey qualities that are overlapping but distinct.

We are currently working on two further papers reporting additional findings from our analysis of the expert texts. The first relates to features of the contentless experiences besides silence – for example, calm, simplicity, naturalness, and the absence of thoughts, perceptions, and images. The second will compare the Shamatha, TM, and Stillness Meditation techniques that are used to access the contentless experiences.

The overall aim of the PhD is to advance understandings of contentless experience. It is hoped that this will be of value in both scientific and teaching contexts.

Toby Woods is a final year PhD student in the psychology school at The University of Melbourne.  This post relates to Toby’s PhD research on experiences of stillness and silence in meditation.  Toby has had a personal interest in meditation for over 20 years.  He is particularly interested in how different meditation techniques and experiences compare with one another, and the strengths and limitations of different techniques in treating mental disorders.  Prior to commencing his PhD, Toby studied law and worked as a lawyer for several years.

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