SCIENCE

How Meditation Primes The Mind For Spiritual Experiences

03/01/2015 09:56 am ET | Updated Mar 01, 2015
Jeremy Woodhouse/Holly Wilmeth via Getty Images

The practice of mindfulness dates back at least 2,500 years to early Buddhism, and since then, it's played an important role in a number of spiritual traditions.

While the stillness and connecting with one's inner self cultivated through mindfulness are certainly an important part of a spiritual practice, feelings of wonder and awe -- the amazement we get when faced with incredible vastness -- are also central to the spiritual experience. And according to new research, mindfulness may actually set the stage for awe.

Mindfulness is the key element of the spiritual experience in a number of different religions.

Awe is defined as a feeling of amazement of fascination and amazement invoked by an encounter with something larger than ourselves that is beyond our ordinary frameworks of understanding. Previous research has shown that spirituality, nature and art are the most common ways that we experience awe.

"You can't digest [the object of awe] with your cognitive structures -- it's too big for you," University of Groningen psychologist Dr. Brian Ostafin told the Huffington Post. "So there's a need for accommodation, to change your mental structures to understand what that is. This is the key element of the spiritual experience in a number of different religions."

Ostafin recently conducted several studies that shed light on the relationship between mindfulness and awe -- two of the core elements of many spiritual traditions.

For one study, Ostafin and colleagues recruited 64 undergraduate participants to view and respond to a number of images. All of participants were shown two sets of images: One set of images was used to inspire awe (the Grand Canyon, majestic mountains, a view of the Earth from space) while the others were meant to inspire feelings of positivity (kittens, flowers, baby chicks), and asked to rate their awe and positivity responses on a scale of 1 to 7.

Prior to viewing the images, half of the participants listened to a 10-minute mindfulness audio tape, while the other half listened to non-mindfulness control audio. The participants who took part in the brief mindfulness exercise experienced a greater awe reaction than the control group in response to the awe-provoking images.

By way of explanation, Ostafin had this to offer:

"Awe involves that assimilation -- giving up your cognitive structures in order to accommodate [the object of awe]. And mindfulness is a little bit about that too, because you're paying attention and exercising non-conceptual awareness, so you should be more open to the immensity that's there. You step out of the small frame that you have and this small idea of what the world is... You're not stuck in your own story."

The relationship between mindfulness and awe also seems to be mediated by accomodation, Ostafin said. When we practice mindfulness (the cultivation of a focused, non-judgmental awareness on the present moment), we're more able to open our mind to make sense of new experiences.

The findings shed light on the link between meditation and spiritual experiences, and also suggest that mindfulness practices may be effective in facilitating feelings of awe, which have been associated with improved well-being and creativity and reduced inflammation.

The findings were presented at the annual Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference in Long Beach.

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