Chapter 4:
Subjective Reports

By Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan

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[Subjective report, traditionally rejected as a viable source of scientific information by the reductionists, holds a central place in phenomenology and the new movement in the social sciences emphasizing qualitative methods. The subject matter included here clearly challenges the epistemology of traditional definitions of experimentalism and, to an even greater extent than in 1988 when the first edition appeared, presages the outline of a potential psychology to come. Ed.] 


Equanimity is regarded in many contemplative traditions as both a first result of meditation and as a necessary basis for spiritual growth.  There are various stages of its development, though, and like empathy and detachment it deepens with practice into states and qualities that require various names to identify them.  The philosopher Sri Aurobindo, for example, has written at length about its cultivation, differentiating its various aspects. [37]

Contemporary researchers, however, have only begun to chart the gradations and varieties of such experience.  Kornfield (1979), for example, reported that mindfulness practice frequently enhances adaptation to a large range of fluctuating experiences.  Goleman (1978-79 and 1976a), Pelletier (1976a, 1978), Walsh (1977), and Davidson (1976) discussed the tranquility of mind and body, the detached neutrality, the experience of global desensitization, and the greater behavioral stability reported by meditators.  Other studies have reported similar findings [see Pickersgill and White (1984a, 1984b), Kornfield (1979), Davidson and Goleman (1977), Woolfolk (1975), Hirai (1974), Boudreau (1972), Kasamatsu and Hirai (1966), and Anand et al. (1961a)].


Contemporary meditation researchers have described the detachment  experienced during meditation, characterizing it as disidentification from pain or inner dialogue, sensory detachment from the external world, full awareness of the outside world while remaining unaffected by it, paring away of attachments, or a growing sense of being the witness.  Brown et al. (1982-1983) compared the phenomenological differences among 122 subjects engaged in meditation, self-hypnosis, and imaging, and reported that the meditators' mental processes seemed to slow down, and awareness assumed an impersonal quality [see Goldstein (1982), Pelletier (1976a, 1978), Goleman (1977), Walsh (1977), Davidson (1976), and Mills and Campbell (1974)].

Such reports resemble the descriptions of holy indifference and nonattachment made by contemplative masters of the past.  The Taoist sage Chuang Tzu said, for example:

By a man without passions I mean one who does not permit good or evil to disturb his inward economy, but rather falls in with what happens and does not add to the sum of his morality. [38]

Or St. John of the Cross:

Disquietude is always vanity, because it serves no good.  Yes, even if the whole world were thrown into confusion and all things in it, disquietude on that account would be vanity. [39]

Or St. Catherine of Genoa:

We must not wish anything other than what happens from moment to moment all the while, however, exercising ourselves in goodness. [40]

Or the Bhagavad-Gita:

Not shaken by adversity,
Not hankering after happiness:
Free from fear, free from anger,
Free from the things of desire.

I call him a seer, and illumined. [41]

Like equanimity, detachment from the contents of our mind and from the contradictory impacts of the external world conforms us more closely to the unbroken wholeness of our spiritual ground.  It enables us to approach and become the internal freedom we seek.


Meditators often report experiences so different from ordinary experience that they defy description [see Goldstein (1982), Kornfield (1983 and 1979), Pelletier (1976a, 1978), Shapiro (1978d), Goleman (1978-79), Walsh (1978), Welwood (1976), Davidson (1976), Schmidt (1976), Woolfolk (1975), Shafii (1973b), and Murphy (1973)]. 

The ineffability of mystical experience has been noted by philosophers  and contemplative masters since ancient times. William James wrote, for example, that:

The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative.  The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.  It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. [42]

And Lao Tzu:

It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang; the named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind. [43]

And St. John of the Cross:

A man, then, is decidedly hindered from the attainment of this high state of union with God when he is attached to any understanding, feeling, imagining, opinion, desire, or way of his own, or to any other of his works or affairs, and knows not how to detach and denude himself of these impediments. His goal transcends all of this, even the loftiest object that can be known-or experienced.  Consequently, he must pass beyond everything to unknowing. [44]

And the contemporary Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi:

Strictly speaking, there can be no image of God, because He is without any distinguishing mark. [45]


West (1980b, 1980c) said his subjects used these terms to describe their meditative state: feelings of quiet, calmness, and peace; pleasant feelings; warm contentedness; relaxation beyond thought; and a feeling of being suspended in deep warmth.  Kornfield (1979) said that rapture and bliss states are common at insight meditation retreats and are usually related to increased concentration and tranquility.  Goleman (1978-79) said that meditation brings about rapturous feelings that cause goose flesh, tremor in the limbs, the sensation of levitation, and other attributes of rapture.  He said that sublime happiness sometimes suffused the meditator's body, accompanied by an unprecedented never-ending bliss, which motivates the meditator to tell others of this extraordinary experience.  Farrow (1977) said that during the deepest phases of meditation, subjects report that thinking settles down to a state of pure awareness or unbounded bliss, accompanied by prolonged periods of almost no breathing.

These reports by contemporary researchers echo many traditional accounts of meditation's delight.  The Vedas, for example, claim that through spiritual discipline "Man rises beyond the two firmaments, Heaven and Earth, mind and body . . . to the divine Bliss.  This is the `great passage' discovered by the ancient Rishis." [46] Elsewhere Aurobindo writes that "A Transcendent Bliss, unimaginable and inexpressible by the mind and speech, is the nature of the Ineffable.  That broods immanent and secret in the whole universe. It is the purpose of yoga to know and become it." [47]

And in the Taittiriya Upanishad it is said that "For truly, beings here are born from bliss, when born, they live by bliss and into bliss, when departing, they enter." [48]

Energy and Excitement

Kornfield (1979) reported that spontaneous body movements, often  described as unstressing and releasing, along with intense emotions and mood swings, are common during insight meditation retreats.  Shimano and Douglas (1975) described a remarkable build-up of energy during zazen that often became apparent after several days of a meditation retreat.  Others have reported the  increased energy released by meditation [see Kornfield (1979), Krippner and Maliszewski (1978), Piggins and Morgan (1977-78), Davidson (1976), and Maupin (1965)].

Altered Body Image and Ego Boundaries

Kornfield (1979, 1983) reported that during insight meditation some people experienced an altered body image.  Goleman (1978-79) stated that by continually focusing on the object of meditation, one sometimes makes a total break with normal consciousness.  The mind sinks into the object and remains fixed in it, and the awareness of one's body vanishes.  Woolfolk et al. (1976) noted that certain subjects experienced a complete loss of body feeling.  Deikman (1966a) reported that meditators sometimes experienced alterations in ego boundaries, all in the direction of fluidity and breakdown of the usual subject-object differentiation.  Others have commented on these phenomena [see Shapiro (1978a), Krippner and Malizewski (1978), and Piggins and Morgan (1977-78)].

Again, we can find countless descriptions like these in the traditional contemplative literature.  The sukshma sharira, or "experience body," of certain Hindu schools was distinguished from the shtula sharira, the body observed through our exteroceptors.  In meditation, it was said, the sukshma sharira  passed through many shapes, sizes, and densities.  The "experience  body" in this sense was often equated with the koshas or kayas (subtle bodies) of Hindu-Buddhist teachings, [49] which could be more easily altered during spiritual practice than the physical frame.  The experience of boundary loss and boundary flexibility from which these doctrines arise strongly resemble the altered body images reported in contemporary studies.

The sense of ego or body image may disappear completely during intense realizations, moreover, as it did for the Indian saint Ramakrishna's disciple Narendra:

During his second visit, about a month later, suddenly, at the touch of the Master, Narendra felt overwhelmed and saw the walls of the room and everything around him whirling and vanishing. "What are you doing to me?"' he cried in terror.  "I have my father and mother at home."  He saw his own ego and the whole universe almost swallowed in a nameless void.  With a laugh the Master easily restored him.  Narendra thought he might have been hypnotized, but he could not understand how a monomaniac could cast a spell over the mind of a strong person like himself.  He returned home more confused than ever, resolved to be henceforth on his guard before this strange man. [50]

Hallucinations and Illusions

Kornfield (1979, 1983) noted that there was a strong correlation between student reports of higher levels of concentration during insight meditation, when the mind was focused and steady, and reports of altered states and perceptions.  He reported that unusual experiences, such as visual or auditory aberrations and hallucinations, and unusual somatic experiences, are the norm among practiced meditation students.  Walsh (1978) reported that he experienced hypnagogic hallucinations, and Goleman (1978-79) reported visionary experiences during deep meditation.  Shimano and Douglas (1975) reported hallucinations similar to toxic delirium during zazen. 

The studies of both Kohr (1977a, 1977b) and Osis et al. (1973) reported that there was almost no correlation between meditators' moods before and after meditating, indicating that meditation produced a different state of consciousness.  Kubose's (1976) data revealed that meditators categorized most of their thoughts along a present-time dimension, whereas control subjects categorized their thoughts as past or future.  In an unpublished paper Deikman has described vivid, autonomous, hallucinatory perceptions during meditation.  Earlier, Deikman (1966a) reported that during meditation on a blue vase, his subjects' perception of color became more intense or luminous, and that for some of them the vase changed shape, appeared to dissolve, or lost its boundaries.  Maupin (1965) reported that meditators sometimes experience "hallucinoid feelings, muscle tension, sexual excitement, and intense sadness." 

The contemplative literature contains numerous descriptions of the perceptual distortion produced by meditation.  It is called makyo in Zen Buddhist sources, and is characterized in some schools as "going to the movies," a sign of spiritual intensity but a phenomenon that is regarded to be distinctly inferior to the clear insight of settled practice.  In some Hindu schools it is regarded as a product of the sukshma sharira, or "experience body," in its unstable state, and in that respect is seen to be another form of maya, which is the illusory nature of the world as apprehended by ordinary consciousness.

In a similar manner, St. John of the Cross described the false enchantments that may lure the aspirant in prayer, warning that "devils may come in the guise of angels." [51] In his allegory of the spiritual journey, The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan described Christian's losing his way by following a man who says he is going to the Celestial City but instead leads him into a net.  In all the great contemplative manuals, one is taught that detachment, equanimity, and discrimination are required for spiritual balance once the mind has been opened and made more flexible by prayer and meditation.  Illusions and hallucinations, whether they are troubling or beatific, are distractions—or signposts at best—on the way to enlightenment or union with God.


Kornfield (1979, 1983) reported that exceptionally vivid dreams and nightmares are common during insight meditation retreats, along with a general increase in awareness before, during, and immediately following sleep.  Faber et al. (1978) compared the dreams of seven experienced meditators with a group of matched control subjects on measures of dream recall, amount of dream material, and archetypal dream content.  The dreams of meditators contained significantly more archetypal elements, reflecting universal moral themes, than did those of the nonmeditators, which were characterized by personal and everyday issues.  The researchers also found a significantly higher recall rate and amount of content in the dreams of meditators. Meditators' archetypal dreams, moreover, were longer than their nonarchetypal dreams.  Reed (1978) analyzed the effect of meditation on the completeness and vividness of intentional dream recall, using approximately 400 subjects who recorded dreams for twenty-eight consecutive days and voluntarily recorded the results.  He found that when subjects meditated the day before dreaming, they had significantly greater completeness of dream recall on the following morning.  The regularity of a subject's meditation was also associated with improved dream recall.  On the other hand, Banquet and Sailhan (1977) reported that dream phases become shorter or less frequent in practitioners of TM. Fuson (1976) observed that subjects practicing TM reported improved quality of sleeping and dreaming.  The discovery that awareness of dreams is enhanced by meditation conforms to assertions by traditional teachers that contemplative activity introduces fuller consciousness into sleep.  Sri Aurobindo, for example, wrote:

As the inner consciousness grows . . . dream experiences increase in number, clearness, coherency, accuracy and after some growth of experience . . . we can come to understand them and their significance to our inner life.  We can by training become so conscious as to follow our own passage, usually veiled to our awareness and memory, through many realms and the process of the return to the waking state.  At a certain pitch of this inner wakefulness this kind of sleep, a sleep of experience, can replace the ordinary subconscious slumber. [52]

Awakening consciousness during sleep is part of the more general process in spiritual practice by which awareness is enhanced in all activities.  Traditional teachings maintain that we can reclaim that full and eternal awareness that is our fundamental ground and source, in all of our experience.


Walsh (1978) reported that meditators sometimes experience synesthesia, or cross-modality perception, where a sight is smelled or a sound is felt. His report resembles many accounts by contemplatives that their perception blossomed through prayer and meditation so that epiphanies were triggered by the slightest sensory impact.

Extrasensory Experiences

Lesh (1970c) reported that certain experiences occur during the practice of meditation that seem to be either unexplainable or indicative of a higher potential of perception, bordering on the extrasensory or parapsychological.  As we have already pointed out, many of the siddhis or supernormal powers, and vibhutis, or perfections, of Hindu Buddhist practice are paranormal.  Similar powers have long been reported in the Christian tradition, in Taoism, in Sufism, and in other contemplative traditions. [53]

Clearer Perception

Forte et al. (1984-1985) studied seven advanced meditators and reported that the practice of mindfulness meditation enabled them to become aware of some of the visually preattentive processes involved in visual detection.  Unusual perceptual effects were also reported.

Brown et al. (1982-1983) compared the phenomenological differences among 122 subjects engaging in meditation, self-hypnosis, and imaging.  They reported that meditators learn greater awareness of bodily processes and experience changes in the perception of time and self.

Kornfield (1979, 1983) noted the increased frequency of mindfulness  as an insight meditation retreat continued, through which meditators became aware of greater sensory and mental detail.  Goleman (1978-79) reported that meditators reach a state in which every successive moment is clear and distinct.  Walsh (1977) reported that he was more mindful of all primary sensations and more sensitive to neurocybernetic signals, and that his intellectual understanding was deepened.  Kornfield (1983) suggested that meditators begin to clarify their perceptions of their own motivation and behavior.

Such experience is a fundamental aspect of all contemplative practice.  Because the enhancement of awareness is central in all forms of meditation, and because it is part of the goal all contemplatives seek, the traditional literature is filled with statements describing clarities of perception like those reported by contemporary meditation researchers.  As William Blake wrote, "If we would cleanse the doors of perception, we would see things as they are, Infinite."

Negative Experiences

Otis (1984) described a study done at Stanford Research Institute in 1971 to determine the negative effects of Transcendental Meditation.  SRI mailed a survey to every twentieth person on the Students International Meditation Society (TM's parent organization) mailing list of 40,000 individuals.  Approximately 47% of the 1,900 people surveyed responded.  The survey included a self-concept word list (the Descriptive Personality List) and a checklist of physical and behavioral symptoms (the Physical and Behavioral Inventory).  It was found that dropouts reported fewer complaints than experienced meditators, to a statistically significant degree.  Furthermore, adverse effects were positively correlated with the length of time in meditation.  Long-term meditators reported the following percentages of adverse effects: antisocial  behavior, 13.5%; anxiety, 9.0%; confusion, 7.2%; depression, 8.1%; emotional stability, 4.5%; frustration, 9.0%; physical and mental tension, 8.1%; procrastination, 7.2%; restlessness, 9.0%; suspiciousness, 6.3%; tolerance of others, 4.5%; and withdrawal, 7.2%.  The author concluded that the longer a person stays in TM and the more committed a person becomes to TM as a way of life, the greater is the likelihood that he or she will experience adverse effects.  This contrasts sharply with the promotional statements of the various TM organizations.

Ellis (1984) stated that meditation's greatest danger was its common connection with spirituality and antiscience.  He said that it might encourage some individuals to become even more obsessive-compulsive than they had been and to dwell in a ruminative manner on trivia or nonessentials.  He also noted that some of his clients had gone into "dissociative semi-trance states and upset themselves considerably by meditating."  Ellis views meditation and other therapy procedures as often diverting people from doing that which overcomes their disturbance to focusing on the highly palliative technique itself.  Therefore, although individuals might feel better, their chances of acquiring a basically healthy, nonmasturbatory outlook are sabotaged.

Walsh (1979) reported a number of disturbing experiences during  meditation, such as anxiety, tension, and anger.  Walsh and Rauche (1979) stated that meditation may precipitate a psychotic episode in individuals with a history of schizophrenia. Kornfield (1979 and 1983) reported that body pain is a frequent occurrence during meditation, and that meditators develop new ways to relate to their pain as a result of meditation.  Hassett (1978) reported that meditation can be harmful.  Carrington (1977) observed that extensive meditation may induce symptoms that range in severity from insomnia to psychotic manifestations with hallucinatory behavior.  Lazarus (1976) reported that psychiatric problems such as severe depression and schizophrenic breakdown may be precipitated by TM.  French et al. (1975) reported that anxiety, tension, anger, and other disturbing experiences sometimes occur during TM.  Carrington and Ephron (1975c) reported a number of complaints from TM meditators who felt themselves overwhelmed by negative and unpleasant thoughts during meditation.  Glueck and Stroebel (1975) reported that two experimental subjects made independent suicide attempts in the first two days after beginning the TM program.  Kannellakos and Lukas (1974) reported complaints from TM meditators.  Otis (1974) reported that five patients suffered a reoccurrence of serious psychosomatic symptoms after commencing meditation.  Maupin (1969) stated that the deepest objection to meditation has been its tendency to produce withdrawn, serene people who are not accessible to what is actually going on in their lives.  He said that with meditation it is easy to overvalue the internal at the expense of the external.

These and other negative meditation outcomes are described in traditional sources. The path is "sharp like a razor's edge" says the Katha Upanishad. [54] St. John of the Cross wrote an entire book about the dark night of the soul. [55] Several hundred pages of Sri Aurobindo's collected works deal with the problems and dangers of his integral yoga. [56] A large part of Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy consists of admonitions from various spiritual masters about the difficulties encountered in contemplative practice, [57] and William James explores the negative side of religious life in The Varieties of Religious Experience. [58] These and other sources provide a wide array of warnings and directions for those entering a path of meditation.  Though the rewards of contemplative practice can be great, they do not come easily.


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