May 2024

A new study confirms that people who practice yoga, meditation and mindfulness often experience altered states of consciousness. This is mostly positive and even transformative, but for a few it is linked to suffering.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that spiritual or mystical experiences in connection with these kinds of practices, which have become more widespread, may be underreported.

A team of six researchers from New Zealand, Australia, the U.S. and Canada wanted to find out how frequently altered states of consciousness occur, and also what the clinical implications may be.

“With more people engaging in mindfulness, meditation, and other contemplative and mind-body practices, we thought that altered states and their effects might be common among the general population”, said senior author Matthew D. Sacchet, PhD, to research magazine Science Daily.

Sacchet is the director of the Meditation Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The team conducted a series of international surveys and did indeed find that such experiences were common. Their results are published in the scientific journal Mindfulness.

The study comprised 3,135 adults in the U.S. and U.K., a sample considered to be representative of the general population, who completed a questionnaire.

The surveys showed that 45 percent had experienced non-drug induced altered states of consciousness at least once in their life, such as a sense of oneness, vivid perceptions, a feeling of being detached from the environment and out-of-body experiences.

The most common phenomenon was a feeling of detachment from normal reality, reported by 17 percent of respondents.

A minority of those who had experienced altered states, 13 percent, said it created varying degrees of suffering. One percent even claimed life-threatening suffering.

“Clinicians are poorly prepared to recognize or support these kinds of experiences. This has contributed to what might be considered a public health issue as a certain proportion of people have difficulty integrating their experiences of altered states into their existing conceptions of self and reality “, said Sacchet.

The study makes clear that these practices can be powerful, and Sacchet pointed out that healthcare workers need to understand them better to be able to support those who practice. Ancient meditation manuals may provide guidance.

Anders Bolling

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