Active Meditation: The Western Tradition

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Hence, it is up to secular clinicians and meditation teachers to recognise that non-self experiences may occur, even with secular meditation, and that these experiences are distinct from psychopathology.

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A final factor to consider is that the scientific study of meditation has occurred primarily in clinical trials and self-report surveys that have focused on quantitative, bio-neurological investigations into the effects of meditation. While clinical trials are the most reliable method for acquiring accurate information about the effects of meditation, their design does not specifically seek to test for side effects or adverse effects.

However, research into the nature of self-report has demonstrated that participants in clinical trials are unlikely to spontaneously volunteer information about negative experiences due to the influence of social desirability effects and demand characteristics. Therefore it is probable that the prevalence of adverse effects in clinical trials, including meditation studies, is greatly underreported.

Indeed, Lindahl et al. The small number of qualitative research studies on meditation that do exist indicate that there is a comprehensive phenomenology of meditation experiences that commonly includes negative effects. More recently, a qualitative study by Tim Lomas and colleagues found that one quarter of participants encountered substantial difficulties with meditation including troubling thoughts and feelings which were hard to manage, exacerbation of depression and anxiety, and in two cases, psychosis requiring hospitalisation Lomas et al.

Additionally, Sean Pritchard examined the qualitative experience of advanced vipassana meditators and found that disturbing emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety and shame often occurred during certain stages of meditation practice, along with challenging shifts in perception of self.

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Obviously, better controlled research is clearly needed to tease out whether the findings in this preliminary, uncontrolled study are unique to this study or generalizable to other mindfulness-based interventions. These qualitative studies suggest that meditation adverse effects may in fact be a common and normal part of meditation practice that is being overlooked in clinical studies. It is worth noting that meditation-related adverse effects have also been reported in clinical and medical case reports, including descriptions of meditation-induced psychosis Kuijpers et al.

However, as case reports are concerned with single instances they are often regarded as unscientific and less worthy of consideration. While case reports are of course not as scientifically rigorous as randomised control trials, they are still a key mode of transmitting knowledge and have played a significant role in the evolution of academic psychology and psychotherapy in the area of religious and spiritual issues e. Lukoff et al.


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Scholars have argued that case reports have an important epistemological function, as over time they accumulate into a body of knowledge which then guides clinical practice and suggests where research should turn to next. Unfortunately, throughout the history of science, some researchers have selectively interpreted or ignored data that fails to confirm a favoured research hypothesis. While rigorous experimental design and the peer review system aim to minimise this type of bias, there is evidence that it still exists in the peer review process Emerson et al.

In the case of meditation studies, such bias may lead to the under-reporting of adverse effects. While standards of meditation research have now improved considerably since the early TM studies, questions still remain regarding the objectivity of researchers who are also ardent supporters of the meditation practices they study. In particular, it is important to consider whether conflicts of interest or expectancy effects might be contributing to an overly positive view of meditation that overlooks potential adverse effects.

This article has examined how psychologists have viewed meditation, not as a way to achieve enlightenment, but as a form of psychotherapy, and how this has contributed to adverse effects being overlooked. During the historical relationship between meditation and Western psychology some key themes have emerged and these help to explain why adverse effects have been ignored.

Firstly, viewing meditation as a type of panacea means that adverse effects may be misattributed to the therapeutic process or to the individual meditator. Additionally, in psychological settings meditation is seen as a technique of symptom relief and self-transformation; it is used as a tool to heal and improve the individual psychological self.

However in Eastern traditions, meditation is used to deconstruct the concept of the individual psychological self and realise non-self or True Self, which is a self that is beyond identification with the material world. Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that non-self insights occur in secular meditation settings, however, Western psychology does not currently have a framework in which to adequately explain these experiences, and hence they may be conflated with dissociative psychopathology, such as derealisation and depersonalisation.

Indeed, the few qualitative meditation studies that exist demonstrate a rich and varied phenomenology of meditation experiences, including adverse effects. There is also the possibility that an overly positive view of meditation may have developed within Western psychology because a large number of influential psychologists and psychotherapists were, and continue to be, meditation practitioners themselves.

While rigorous experimental design and the peer review system aim to minimise confirmation bias, there is evidence that it still exists in academic psychology, hence it is important to consider whether conflicts of interest or expectancy effects might be contributing to an overly positive view of meditation that overlooks potential adverse effects.

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Social Compass 64 2 : Journal of Experimental Psychology 1 : The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 10 2 : American Journal of Psychiatry 10 : Buddhist Geeks. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Psychological Inquiry 18 4 : — Contemporary Buddhism 15 2 : Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Mindfulness 3: Shapiro and Roger N. Walsh, Archives of Internal Medicine 21 : — The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 16 1 : Safran, Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA.

Spectator Health. Shambhala Publications, Boulder, CO. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 1 : Counseling and Values 63 1 : Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 3 : Mindfulness 6: Edited by C. Pierce Salguero. Implicit Religion 20 4 : Current Psychology 29 3 : American Journal of Psychiatry 11 : The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 11 1 : Journal of Religion and Health 55 5 : Psychological Reports Mindfulness 6 4 : Mindfulness 9 3 : Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 5 1 : Review of General Psychology 2 2 : Belzen, Springer: New York and London.

Unpublished PhD dissertation. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Psychological Bulletin 86 3 : Transcultural Psychiatry 52 4 : International Journal of Psychosomatics Meditation: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. Neuroscience 17 1 : Relation of Mindfulness to Criminogenic Cognitions.

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 43 10 : — American Psychologist 61 3 : Psychological Science 26 10 : Mental Health, Religion and Culture 4 2 : However more recently modern meditation teachers who are influenced by Western neuroscience and psychology have adopted these terms in order to differentiate between short-term and long-term changes that result from meditation.


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  7. For example, Y. Tang, B. Neuroscience 17, no. Skip to content Anna Lutkajtis. Abstract In contemporary Western society, meditation techniques that were previously taught within the context of Eastern religious traditions are now increasingly being practiced in secular settings. For example, Eric Greene writes that Buddhist meditation has been seen as both a high risk and high reward practice: Given its frequent presentation in the modern West as a panacea for psychological or even physical ailments, it might be surprising to find that Buddhist meditation has often been seen as potentially dangerous.


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    Meditation as Panacea A key theme that emerges from the historical interaction between meditation and psychology is the view of meditation as a type of panacea; an exalted technique with a therapeutic potential that transcends conventional Western psychotherapy. Meditation and the Relaxation Response One of the first theories that attempted to explain the effectiveness of meditation in clinical settings was that meditation helps produce a state of relaxation.

    Farias and Wikholm describe the case of a meditator who: tried out a mindfulness course because he was having some trouble falling asleep. Issues of Self and Non-self Attempts to integrate meditation into Western psychotherapy have focused on the therapeutic benefits of meditation as a technique to help a person address psychopathology and develop a healthy sense of self. For example, in his pioneering phenomenological study of insight meditation practitioners, Jack Kornfield 54 describes the challenging aspect of non-self experiences in vipassana meditation: Deep practice also involves mindfulness of death-like experiences, reported as feeling a dying of the body, death of illusions, of self-images, of ideals, of past and future, and the idea of one self as permanent or solid at all.

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    Research Methods in Meditation Studies A final factor to consider is that the scientific study of meditation has occurred primarily in clinical trials and self-report surveys that have focused on quantitative, bio-neurological investigations into the effects of meditation. Conclusion This article has examined how psychologists have viewed meditation, not as a way to achieve enlightenment, but as a form of psychotherapy, and how this has contributed to adverse effects being overlooked. Bacher, Paula G. Collins, London.

    Berry, Daniel R. Boals, Gordon F. American Journal of Psychotherapy 45 3 : Britton, Willoughby B.

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    Brown, K. Castillo, Richard J. Psychiatry Deikman, Arthur J. Dobkin, Patricia L. Emerson, Gwendolyn B. Watkins, London.

    French, Alfred P. Fromm, Erich, Suzuki, D. Fulton, Cheryl L. European Journal of Philosophy 14 1 : Hunter, Kathryn M.

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