Reading the Academic Report: Progress or Pathology? from Lindahl et al 2020

This post offers a reflection on a recent academic paper and may be of particular interest to those who engage in mindfulness teaching, training and practice.

The latest paper from the research group at Brown University (Varieties of Contemplative Experiences Project), who are concerned with deepening our understanding of meditation-related challenges, was published this week. It is important work. Important for mindfulness teachers that we read and learn from this work. I find this work helpful in staying open to the full range of meditation experiences. There is a popular tendency to see meditation through rose-tinted lens – prioritising the positive impacts and minimising the negative impacts. So it can also be challenging to attend to this kind of material. And it helps us to grow our skills and resources in supporting those who may experience or have experienced difficulties in meditation practice. In this paper the researchers seek to understand which experiences in meditation might be considered  ‘progress on the path’ and which may not, and thus, may need additional support and follow up. 

The study is qualitative which means its findings are not generalisable beyond the sample involved but they may resonate for us and offer helpful signposts for teachers in our ethics to ‘do no harm’ on this path. The data came from semi-structured interviews with 60 meditation practitioners and 32 meditation experts from the Zen, Theravada and Tibetan traditions who were predominantly white, from the US and 57% identified as male.  7/10 had expertise in meditation-related challenges that arose in the context of intensive retreats.  3/10 and 4/10 had a psychiatric and trauma history, respectively. 

From my reading, of this lengthy report, the conclusion is that there is no set of universal criteria to easily apply in discerning which experiences are part of the ‘expected path of insight’ and which may be deemed ‘psychopathological’. Therefore, focusing on when clinical intervention may be appropriate is advised as a way forward. Each person’s experience in meditation is specific to their social, personal and cultural context and this includes the tradition of meditation in which the challenges arise and are held. We also need to take care not to ‘pathologise’ human experiences that may only serve to grow shame, confusion and further distress. Listening to and holding concerns and difficulties with calm, care and wise attention is to be mindful.

As MBSR Teachers, we practice being in relationship with participants, we respect the full range of experiences and support those in need to return to the resource of grounding in the present moment. We practice turning towards the whole of our experience from a place of being resourced. We practising knowing how to access those resources when needed. And at times this means stopping meditation and advising medical and psychological support. In the secular practice of mindfulness this is part of creating the safe container together and we cultivate relationships with participants in this intention. Teachers who commit to training and certification pathways are demonstrating their commitment to bring mindfulness to communities in ethical and appropriate ways.

As mindfulness teachers, this report underlined for me the importance of being in relationship with each other too – with senior teachers, supervisors and our peer community, as a means of supporting and grounding each other so that we may serve others in this deep and valuable work. Take a read for yourself, see what resonates for you and reflect on how this work may support your intention, practice and teaching as an MBSR teacher on this path of tending to human distress?

At Mindful Academy Solterreno we are growing our ways of staying connected and in community together. There are supervision and mentoring options available: individual, group and combined individual and group packages.  There are also sit with inquiry groups, masterclasses, retreats and other continuing education options available to deepen further our practice, teaching and community as global MBSR Teachers.