1260621_Woods,T_2023.pdf (1.37 MB)
Subjective Experiences of Committed Meditators Across Practices Aiming for Contentless States
journal contributionposted on 2023-11-17, 03:44 authored by TJ Woods, JM Windt, Lydia BrownLydia Brown, O Carter, NT Van Dam
Objectives: Contentless experience involves an absence of mental content such as thoughts and perceptions. It is often described as pure consciousness or complete stillness/silence, and is a goal in Shamatha, Thai Forest, and Stillness Meditation. This study examined the subjective character of the deepest experience of stillness/silence typically reported in each practice, and whether there are differences in reports across traditions. Method: Eighty-four Shamatha, 80 Thai Forest, and 88 Stillness Meditation participants (M lifetime hours practice = 2305; median = 671; range = 5–34,021) provided usable responses to an online questionnaire. Participants were presented with 48 types of mental content described as absent or present in traditional texts, including well-recognized forms of content such as thoughts and perceptions, and less obvious forms—referred to in this paper as abstract content—such as wakefulness, naturalness, calm, bliss/joy, and freedom. Participants indicated the extent to which each type of content was part of their deepest experience of stillness/silence during a specific retreat or during class and home practice. Results: In each tradition, participants typically reported a highly positive experience involving low awareness of content such as thoughts and perceptions, and a high degree of abstract content such as calm and mental relaxation. Across the practices, there were robust differences with respect to bliss/joy, wakefulness, absorptiveness, and depth. Conclusions: The reported experiences are contentless in the sense that participants reported little awareness of content such as thoughts and perceptions. However, the experiences are not the states devoid of all content (and therefore identical to one another) that have been classically referred to in academic literature. These findings demonstrate the importance of examining contentless experiences in a fine-grained manner that takes into account abstract forms of content and assesses differences as well as similarities.