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A Closer Look into the New Wave of Research in Advanced Meditation

Contributor Matthew Sacchet, PhD
Drawing of a person doing a meditation pose

You might have heard of the term ‘mindfulness’, a commonly known practice that involves maintaining attention or awareness of the present moment without making judgments.

More broadly, mindfulness and meditation research are on the cusp of a new wave of science focusing on the “deep” end of practice, what researchers call advanced meditation, or states and stages of practice that unfold with increasing mastery and often with time. 

This includes states and stages that have been described in ancient wisdom traditions like Buddhism and include experiences of ecstatic bliss, insight into different aspects of the mind, compassionate and empathic states, and others.

In this Q&A, Dr. Matthew Sacchet an investigator in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging expands on a recently published letter in the journal World Psychiatry, one of the highest impact journals in medicine.

In the letter, Dr. Sacchet discusses how advanced meditation and related experiences and changes to ways of being offer new possibilities for improving health and well-being in clinical and non-clinical contexts.

Can you expand on the differences between mindfulness and advanced meditation?

Studying its historical and cultural roots, mindfulness may be understood as a practice of maintaining a moment-by-moment nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. Practitioners often focus on their breath or body to develop a stable and clear awareness.

Advanced meditation, however, takes mindfulness and mediation to a deeper level, incorporating practices such as advanced concentrative absorption meditation or ACAM, and advanced investigative insight meditation or AIIM.

Advanced meditation often involves protracted and more disciplined practice compared to conventional modern mindfulness practice. While mindfulness is generally focused on reducing stress related to daily life and work, advanced meditation is concerned with deeper and more profound meditative endpoints.

For example, the objective of advanced meditation may be to radically alter ordinary perception and to experience profound psychological transformation.

Can you explain what self-transcendence means?

Self-transcendence is defined by ego dissolution, affective bliss, and a merging or softening of boundary between self and other/object (i.e., non-duality).

It is an experience that has been reported across many contemplative, philosophical, religious and spiritual traditions around the world, sometimes thousands of years ago. These types of experiences may foster compassionate behavior and reorientation of life goals to be more aligned with deeper, more altruistic values.

Self-transcendence may lead to profound sense of purpose and well-being, as individuals may experience a shift from self-centeredness to a broader perspective that includes a deep sense of connection and empathy with others and the world.

How can studying self-transcendence lead to new therapies for mental disorders such as anxiety and depression?

Studying self-transcendence and advanced meditation more broadly will inform mechanistic understanding and scientific models. These models can then be used to link to other fields of science and to develop treatments. Such models may provide important guidance for developing new, or improving existing, treatments for mental illness and practices for supporting well-being more generally. They may also be used to track change and determine best treatments.

Therapies centered on self-transcendence, such as meditation, may help patients experience fundamental transformation in how they perceive themselves and their place in the world. These therapies may foster states of unity and purpose that counteract feelings of isolation and meaninglessness that are associated with mental illness.

What research is needed to develop these therapies?

To develop therapies based on advanced mediation, including self-transcendence, interdisciplinary and foundational research is required. This includes neuroscientific studies to understand the brain mechanisms underlying meditative development and endpoints, psychological research to identify the most effective practices and conditions for inducing these states and stages, and clinical trials to test the safety and efficacy of these interventions.

Longitudinal studies are also essential to determine long-term benefits, safe implementation, and potential risks.

How could meditation and psychedelic based therapies be used to treat patients with mental health disorders?

Meditation, and particularly advanced meditation that is aimed at achieving deep states and stages of practice, including self-transcendence, may help patients to develop resilience, emotion regulation, a sense of peace, flourishing, thriving, meaning in life, and wisdom.

Moreover, advanced meditation may help individuals overcome difficult emotions and psychological suffering through directly processing these experiences. Through meditation, individuals may experience self-transcendence, a profound shift in perspective that may foster a deep sense of interconnectedness, unity, and empathy.

Growing evidence suggests that psychedelics may alter perception and mood, cognitive processing including the sense of self, and elicit therapeutic effects in mood and anxiety disorders.

Psychedelics may facilitate experiences of unity and self-transcendence (or what has been called ego dissolution in the psychedelic literature) that can lead to profound experiences toward understanding and healing deep-seated psychological difficulties. These therapies could complement existing treatments and offer new possibilities for interventions.

How do you foresee the field of psychiatry evolving with these discoveries and potential treatments?

As our understanding of mindfulness, meditation, advanced meditation, self-transcendence, and the therapeutic use of psychedelics grows, psychiatry may continue to integrate these insights toward increasingly powerful approaches to conceptualizing and treating mental illness.

For example, conventional treatments, including behavioral and pharmaceutical approaches, may incorporate new insights from advanced meditation research toward more effective and comprehensive care.

The development of new models of mental health that incorporate concepts from advanced meditation, such as human flourishing and self-transcendence, may drive this transformation. Existing mental health models may be updated to integrate core concepts from the science of advanced meditation, perhaps emphasizing the importance of experiences that promote human flourishing such as self-transcendence and overall well-being.

Psychiatrists may increasingly incorporate mindfulness, or other forms of meditation and training, to facilitate self-transcendent and other types of experiences as part of clinical care.

These possibilities have the capacity to significantly transform mental health care, promising to improve patient outcomes and promote a more integrative approach to psychiatry, and to suffering and happiness more broadly.

Originally published on Mass General Research Institute's Bench Press on May 24, 2024.

Matthew Sacchet, PhD


Matthew Sacchet, PhD
Director, Meditation Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital