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Exploring Emptiness and its Effects on Non-Attachment, Mystical Experiences, and Psycho-spiritual Wellbeing: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study of Advanced Meditators



Wisdom-based Buddhist-derived practices (BDPs) are concerned with transmuting suffering by cultivating insight into the ultimate nature of both the self and reality. Arguably the most important wisdom-based BDP is emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā) that implies that although phenomena are perceptible to the human mind, they do not intrinsically exist. Despite its significance in Buddhism, emptiness has received little empirical attention. Advancing scientific understanding of emptiness is important as it may yield novel insights not only into the nature of mind and reality, but also in terms of helping human beings realise more of their capacity for wisdom and wellbeing. This study recruited 25 advanced Buddhist meditators and compared emptiness meditation against a mindfulness meditation control condition within the same group of participants. Qualitative analytical techniques were also employed to investigate meditators’ experiences of emptiness. Compared to the mindfulness control condition, emptiness meditation resulted in significantly greater improvements in non-attachment to self and environment, mystical experiences, compassion, positive affect, and negative affect. No significant relationship was observed between duration of emptiness meditation and any of the aforementioned outcome measures. Qualitative outcomes demonstrated that participants (i) combined concentrative and investigative meditation techniques to induce emptiness, (ii) elicited spiritually meaningful insights both during and following the meditation on emptiness, and (iii) retained volitional control over the content and duration of the emptiness meditation. Cultivating emptiness appears to be a means of reconnecting advanced Buddhist meditators to what they deem to be the innermost nature of their minds and phenomena.
This is a post-peer-review, pre-copyedit version of an article published in Explore: The
Journal of Science and Healing. The final authenticated version is available online at:
The reference of the final published version is: Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Dunn, T.,
Sapthiang, S., Kotera, Y., Sheffield, D., & Garcia-Campayo, J. (2018). Effects of emptiness
meditation on spiritual awareness and psychological wellbeing in advanced Buddhist
meditators. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, DOI:
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Exploring Emptiness and its Effects on Non-Attachment, Mystical Experiences, and
Psycho-spiritual Wellbeing: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study of Advanced
William Van Gordon*1, Edo Shonin2, Thomas J. Dunn3, Supakyada Sapthiang 4, Yasuhiru
Kotera1, Javier Garcia-Campayo5, & David Sheffield1
1Human Sciences Research Centre, University of Derby, Kedleston Road, Derby, Derbyshire,
DE22 1GB
2Awake to Wisdom Centre for Meditation and Mindfulness Research, Ragusa, Italy
3Psychology Division, Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, United Kingdom
4Awake to Wisdom Centre for Meditation and Mindfulness Research, Ragusa, Italy
5Miguel Servet University Hospital, University of Zaragoza, Zaragoza, Spain
*Corresponding Author:
Conflicts of Interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
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Exploring Emptiness and its Effects on Non-Attachment, Mystical Experiences, and
Psycho-spiritual Wellbeing: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study of Advanced
Wisdom-based Buddhist-derived practices (BDPs) are concerned with transmuting suffering by cultivating
insight into the ultimate nature of both the self and reality. Arguably the most important wisdom-based BDP is
emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā) that implies that although phenomena are perceptible to the human mind, they do
not intrinsically exist. Despite its significance in Buddhism, emptiness has received little empirical attention.
Advancing scientific understanding of emptiness is important as it may yield novel insights not only into the
nature of mind and reality, but also in terms of helping human beings realise more of their capacity for wisdom
and wellbeing. This study recruited 25 advanced Buddhist meditators and compared emptiness meditation
against a mindfulness meditation control condition within the same group of participants. Qualitative analytical
techniques were also employed to investigate meditators’ experiences of emptiness. Compared to the
mindfulness control condition, emptiness meditation resulted in significantly greater improvements in non-
attachment to self and environment, mystical experiences, compassion, positive affect, and negative affect. No
significant relationship was observed between duration of emptiness meditation and any of the aforementioned
outcome measures. Qualitative outcomes demonstrated that participants (i) combined concentrative and
investigative meditation techniques to induce emptiness, (ii) elicited spiritually meaningful insights both during
and following the meditation on emptiness, and (iii) retained volitional control over the content and duration of
the emptiness meditation. Cultivating emptiness appears to be a means of reconnecting advanced Buddhist
meditators to what they deem to be the innermost nature of their minds and phenomena.
Keywords: Emptiness; Non-self; Non-attachment; Meditation; Spirituality; Buddhism
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There is growing scientific interest into the applications of Buddhist-derived practices (BDPs) in applied
psychological settings. Consistent with the traditional Buddhist ‘three trainings’ (Sanskrit: trishiksha) principle,
Shonin and colleagues (2014a) categorised BDPs into those concerned with (i) meditation, (ii) ethics, and (iii)
wisdom. This three-fold conceptualisation also corresponds to the chronological order that research into, and
the subsequent implementation of, BDIs has followed. More specifically, a first phase of empirical investigation
commenced in the early 1980s and involved exploring the construct and applications of mindfulness along with
related meditative attentional processes (Shonin et al., 2015). This was followed at the turn of the 21st century by
a second phase of empirical investigation into BDPs concerned with empathetic and ethical awareness, such as
compassion and loving-kindness meditation. In the last five years, it appears that there has gradually originated
a third phase of empirical enquiry concerned with understanding wisdom-based BDPs along with their
applications in applied settings.
Wisdom-based BDPs are concerned with developing experiential knowledge of contemplative concepts
such as emptiness, non-self, impermanence, interconnectedness, and non-attachment (for an in-depth
explanation of such terms, see Shonin et al., 2014a). A primary purpose of so doing is to cultivate insight into
the ultimate nature of both the self and reality ( Tsong-Kha-pa, 2004). Indeed, there are many reasons why an
individual might engage in meditation but from a traditional Buddhist perspective, the cultivation of insight
represents the primary goal (Trungpa, 2003). The reason for this according to certain systems of Buddhist
thought, is that while mindfulness and related concentrative processes can help to centre, calm, and focus the
mind, they do not directly elicit the requisite insight that reveals reality’s ultimate nature and thus severs the
roots of suffering (Tsong-Kha-pa, 2004). In other words, meditative concentration, and the regulation of that
concentration using mindfulness, are necessary to cultivate a state of profound mental calm and clarity. This
clarity can then be focussed and directed such that it ‘penetrates’ reality by eradicating misconceptions
concerning the manner in which the self and phenomena exist (Van Gordon et al., 2015a). Ethical awareness
(i.e., one of the three components of the ‘three trainings’ principle) enters the equation because for the mind to
abide in a state of meditative calm and clarity, the Buddhist teachings assert that it must be free of distraction
and tensions caused by behaviour that is unethical or concerned solely with mundane objectives (e.g., accruing
wealth and/or reputation) (Dalai Lama, 2006). Thus, in summary, the three components of the ‘trishiksha’
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interact and cooperate with each other because ethically wholesome behaviour helps to cultivate meditative
calm and clarity, and this in turn, serves as a basis for the cultivation of meditative wisdom.
Empirical investigation of wisdom-based BDPs is still at an early stage (i.e., when compared with, for
example, mindfulness) but emerging findings indicate a role for such techniques in advancing psycho-spiritual
wellbeing and psychosocial functioning. For example, non-attachment – that refers to the ability to accept but at
the same time let-go of life events, mental processes, and possessions is positively correlated with non-
reactivity, mindfulness, self-compassion, subjective wellbeing, eudaimonic wellbeing, and prosocial behaviour
(Sahdra et al., 2015; Sahdra et al., 2010). Furthermore, non-attachment has been shown to mediate the treatment
effects of meditation on chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia (Van Gordon et al., 2017a). Likewise,
increasing awareness of impermanence (i.e., the fact that it is certain that at some uncertain point, all phenomena
including the self will ultimately die and cease to be) can facilitate the earlier-onset of the recovery and
restorative phases of the grieving process (Cacciatore et al., 2014; Wada and Park, 2009).
Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) that employ wisdom-based BDPs (i.e., in addition to
mindfulness) invariably correspond to what have been termed the second-generation of MBIs. Second-
generation MBIs follow a more traditional approach to mindfulness by teaching it in the context of the ‘three
trainings’ principle (i.e., second-generation MBIs generally teach mindfulness in conjunction with ethical and
wisdom-based meditative techniques) (Van Gordon et al., 2015b). Studies of second-generation MBIs – such as
those involving the eight-week intervention known as Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) – have shown that
second-generation MBIs can improve levels of work-related wellbeing and job performance ( Shonin et al.,
2014b). Studies have also shown that MAT can be an effective treatment for fibromyalgia ( Van Gordon et al.,
2017a), workaholism (Shonin et al., 2014c; Van Gordon et al., 2017b), sex addiction (Van Gordon et al., 2016a),
co-occurring schizophrenia and pathological gambling (Shonin et al., 2014d), and stress, anxiety, and depression
(Van Gordon et al., 2014). Furthermore, qualitative studies using MAT have demonstrated that participants
associate engaging in wisdom-based BDPs with improvements in psychological and spiritual wellbeing, as well
as with the undermining of maladaptive egoistic constructs (Shonin et al., 2014e; Shonin and Van Gordon, 2015;
Van Gordon et al., 2016b).
Although promising findings have been elicited from studies involving MBIs that incorporate wisdom-
based principles, in such multi-component interventions, wisdom-based techniques are invariably introduced in
conjunction with other psychotherapeutic agents (e.g., mindfulness training, compassion and loving-kindness
techniques, group discussion, psycho-education, etc.). Consequently, in MBI intervention studies, it is difficult
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to ascertain the specific effects of wisdom-based BDPs as well as how participants cultivate and relate to such
practices during meditation.
In terms of transmuting suffering and fostering insight into the ultimate nature of self and reality,
perhaps the most important wisdom-based BDP is emptiness. Although some authors have argued that the term
emptiness does not adequately capture the essence of the original P āli or Sanskrit term (suññatā and śūnyatā,
respectively) (Lomas, 2018), the essential meaning is that although phenomena are perceptible to the human
mind, they do not intrinsically exist. There are numerous Buddhist metaphysical standpoints from which
emptiness can be examined and interpreted (for a comprehensive overview see Van Gordon et al., 2016d), but a t
an elementary level, a useful means of comprehending emptiness is to apply the Buddhist principle of
interconnectedness. For example, the human body is composed of, and exists in dependence upon, water (e.g.,
from rivers, rain, and the ocean), air (e.g., from the wind and the out-breath of other living beings), animals,
plants, minerals, and nutrients (i.e., consumed during eating), and the heat of the sun (i.e., that is directly and
indirectly absorbed by the body), etc. Thus, it can be said that the human body (or for that matter any other
phenomenon) is ‘full’ of all things but ‘empty’ of a self that exists either inherently or independently (Nhat
Hanh, 1999). Furthermore, emptiness relates closely to the Buddhist concepts of non-self and non-attachment
because if a subject (i.e., an individual or phenomenon) is without an inherently-existing self, then by logical
default, it cannot apprehend, or become attached to, an object (i.e., because subject and object are mutually
dependent constructs and if one is deemed to be empty of self, then so must the other).
Notwithstanding the use of emptiness in some second-generation MBIs, the scarcity of research
specifically investigating the phenomenon means that it currently remains unclear how (i) emptiness influences
non-attachment, mystical experiences, and psycho-spiritual wellbeing, (ii) time spent meditating on emptiness
correlates with profundity of the emptiness experience (i.e., as measured by indices of non-attachment and
mystical experience), (iii) advanced meditation practitioners conceptualise and relate to emptiness, (iv) insight
into emptiness is cultivated during meditation, and (v) emptiness interacts and cooperates with other meditative
techniques and processes. The present study sought to address these questions by recruiting advanced Buddhist
meditation practitioners and employing quantitative and qualitative methods to conduct the first ever empirical
investigation to directly explore the emptiness phenomenon in human participants.
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Study 1
Some advanced meditators in the present study were also recruited into a parallel investigation into a
phenomenon known as the meditation-induced near-death experience (findings reported elsewhere as Van
Gordon et al., 2018a). A frequently-overlooked constraint of studies involving advanced meditation practitioners
is that there do not exist validated assessment measures or easily observable criteria to establish the level of
competency of a given meditation practitioner (Van Gordon et al., 2018a). Indeed, being ‘advanced’ in terms of
meditation experience is not simply a function of years spent training, self-rated ability, and/or titles conferred
by a given meditation or spiritual tradition (Van Gordon et al., 2018a). A further difficulty is that some advanced
meditators have been known to conceal or remain discrete as to their meditative insights and capabilities (Van
Gordon et al., 2018a). Therefore, based on the professional opinion of the first and second authors (that have
over 40 years’ collective experience as Buddhist meditation teachers), purposive sampling was preferred over an
open call for participants (i.e., as the latter approach would likely exert unrealistic demands on the research
team’s resources and result in a large proportion of participants not meeting the screening criteria).
Thus, participant recruitment occurred by (i) contacting individuals known by the research team’s
network to be at an advanced stage of meditation practice, (ii) contacting individuals known by the research
team’s network to have engaged in emptiness meditation, and (iii) providing information about the study to
Buddhist teachers (i.e., known by the research team’s network for being astute in terms of appraising an
individual’s meditative competency) in lay and monastic practicing Buddhist communities and asking them to
forward the contact details of the research team to appropriate individuals. Participant recruitment spanned all
three of the major Buddhist traditions (i.e., Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) and was global in terms of
geographical scope. Given that some advanced Buddhist meditation practitioners have limited access to
communication media and/or choose to live in seclusion, the recruitment window remained open for 12 months.
Eligibility Criteria
As part of the screening process, participants were required to complete a 30-minute semi-structured interview
in which they were asked questions about their experience of emptiness (interviews using internet-based video
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conferencing media were permitted). The screening questionnaire was based on an encompassing and pan-
Buddhist perspective of emptiness, and followed the model of emptiness outlined in Van Gordon et al. (2016c).
For example, the questionnaire encompassed principles outlined in key Theravada and Mahayana, and
Vajrayana Buddhist scriptures on emptiness such as the (i) Greater Discourse on Emptiness (Pali: Mahāsuññata
Sutta), (ii) Lesser Discourse on Emptiness (Pali: Culasuññata Sutta), and (iii) Heart Sutta (Sanskrit: Prajna
Paramita Hrdaya Sutra). Rather than assess participant’s theoretical knowledge of these scriptures, the
questions were formulated such that they provided an indication of participant’s experiential understanding of
the concepts to which the scriptures pertain (i.e., no direct reference was made to any of the scriptures).
Participates were deemed to have an experiential understanding of emptiness where there was at least a 75%
agreement between their own and the aforementioned pan-Buddhist elucidation of emptiness. Furthermore, to be
included in the study, participants had to be (i) aged 18 years or older, (ii) able to speak and read English, (iii)
planning to practice a meditation on emptiness during the period that the study was conducted, (iv) not currently
diagnosed with a psychotic disorder, and (v) not currently using psychopharmacological or recreational drugs.
Participants were requested to complete a battery of well-established psychometric scales (see below) no more
than 24 hours prior to undertaking a meditation on emptiness, and then once more within 24 hours of the
meditation concluding (and prior to engaging in any other form of formal meditation practice).
Control Condition
Participants were also requested to complete psychometric tests in respect of a mindfulness meditation practice.
More specifically, the mindfulness meditation involved a formal seated meditation session that (i) was at least
45 minutes in duration, (ii) did not involve any form of contemplation on emptiness or emptiness-related
themes, and (iii) primarily involved cultivating concentration and mindfulness as opposed to practicing more
analytical forms of meditation. As with the meditation on emptiness, participants were requested to complete the
assessments no more than 24 hours prior to undertaking the mindfulness meditation, and then once more within
24 hours of the meditation concluding (and prior to engaging in any other form of formal meditation practice).
Participants were requested to practice the mindfulness meditation in the same month that they practiced the
meditation on emptiness.
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Due to the very small number of advanced meditators that can cultivate emptiness, recruiting a control
group with comparable meditative capabilities was a logistical challenge. Indeed, even though recruitment was
global in scope and spanned a twelve-month period, only 25 individuals were identified that could cultivate
emptiness according to the pre-defined screening criteria (i.e., and whom consented to participate in the study).
Consequently, a within-participants control condition was deemed to be the most effective means of comparing
the effects of emptiness against other forms of meditation practiced by individuals with equivalent meditative
Ethical approval was provided by the researchers’ university research ethics committee. As part of the informed
consent procedure, participants were required to acknowledge that they understood the scope of the study was
limited to them sharing information about conducting an emptiness meditation that they would in any event be
undertaking as part of their spiritual/religious training or beliefs (i.e., as opposed to undertaking the practice
solely for the purposes of providing data for the present study). Participation in the study was on a voluntary
basis and participants did not receive any financial incentive for their participation.
For both the meditation on emptiness and the mindfulness meditation, participants were requested to complete
the following assessment tools:
(i) Non-Attachment Scale (NAS; Sahdra et al., 2010): The 30-item NAS is based on Buddhist philosophy and
assesses the degree to which an individual becomes attached to their experiences on the psychological,
social, and environmental plane. The NAS also assesses the degree to which a person is ‘attached to
themselves’ because as previously discussed, according to Buddhist theory attachment to psychological or
environmental phenomena arises due to a firm sense of selfhood (Shonin et al., 2016). The scale is
constructed upon the Buddhist notion that the self is empty of inherent existence and that attachment to self
and environment thus constitutes a maladaptive condition. The NAS is scored on a six-point Likert scale
(from 1 = disagree strongly to 6 = agree strongly) and features items such as “I can admit my shortcomings
without blame or embarrassment and When pleasant experiences end, I am fine moving on to what
comes next”. The maximum score is 180 and higher scores reflect lower levels of attachment (higher levels
of non-attachment). The Cronbach’s alpha in the current study was 0.84.
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(ii) The Mysticism Scale (Hood, 1975): The 32-item Mysticism Scale assesses mystical experience across the
eight domains of positive affect, sacredness, noetic quality (sensation of the experience as a source of valid
direct knowledge), unity in diversity, inner subjectivity, loss of selfhood, timelessness and spacelessness,
and ineffability. Each domain includes four items of which two are positively worded and two negatively
worded. Responses are converted to a five-point Likert scale (1 = low, 5 = high) that corresponds to the
extent that participants’ experiences accord with each of the 32 statements. Total scores range from 32-160
and a score of 4 or more is typically deemed to constitute a mystical experience for the item in question.
The Cronbach’s alpha in the current study was 0.79.
(iii) Santa Clara Brief Compassion Scale (SCBCS; Hwang et al., 2008). The five-item SCBCS measures the
generation of empathic feelings towards unknown others (i.e., strangers). An example item is “ I often have
tender feelings towards people (strangers) when they seem to be in need”. Scoring is on a seven-point
Likert scale (1 = not at all true of me, 7 = very true of me) and scores range from 5 to 35. Higher scores
reflect higher levels of compassion. Based on a university student sample, the average total score is 20
(Hwang, et al., 2008). The Cronbach’s alpha in the current study was 0.90.
(iv) Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS; Watson et al., 1988). The PANAS is a measure of mood or
emotion and features ten positive affect adjectives (e.g., interested, exited, inspired) and ten negative affect
adjectives (e.g., hostile, upset, afraid). Adjectives are scored on a five-point Likert scale (1 = very slightly
or not at all, 5 = extremely) that records the extent to which the participant experienced such feelings in a
specified time scale (the time scale ‘in general’ [i.e., on average] was employed in the present study). Item
scores (ranging from 1 to 5) are totalled to give two separate scores for negative affect and positive affect.
Scores range from 10 to 50 with higher scores representing greater degrees of affect. The Cronbach’s alpha
in the current study was 0.82.
(v) Duration of the emptiness meditation: Participants were requested to record the duration of the emptiness
meditation to the nearest minute (i.e., as measured by a wrist watch or wall clock).
Data Analysis
The study was conducted on an ‘intent-to-treat’ basis with missing data at end-point substituted using last-
observation-carried-forward basis. Any significant differences between meditation conditions (emptiness and
control) in terms of baseline scores on all measures were tested using independent samples t-tests.
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Multi-level modelling was used to examine the effect of meditation (emptiness meditation and
mindfulness meditation) on all five outcome measures (i.e., NAS, mysticism, SBCBS, positive affect, and
negative affect). Multi-level models were specified in a way that treated Participant (within measurement
Interval) as a random effect and Meditation Condition (emptiness, control) and measurement Interval (pre, post)
as fixed effects (i.e., in the form of an interaction term [Meditation Condition*Interval]). This meant the change
in outcome measure relative to baseline across measurement periods (i.e., pre- and post-intervention) could be
For all significant multi-level models, further analysis was carried out using multiple regression to
establish whether duration of emptiness meditation, meditation experience, age, and sex impacted the post-
meditation score. In all estimated models, the pre-meditation score was included as a covariate.
Recruitment, Participant Profile, and Drop-Out
Participant demographic characteristics are shown in Table 1. A total of 62 Buddhist meditation practitioners
expressed an interest in the study and 37 of these were screened-out on the grounds of ineligibility. The reasons
for exclusion were (i) unsatisfactory responses to the screening interview (18 participants), (ii) could not speak
and/or read English (10 participants), and (iii) where unable to confirm that they planned to practice emptiness
meditation during the study period (9 participants). Of the remaining 25 eligible participants, 76% were male
and 60% were Buddhist monastics (i.e., with the remainder being lay Buddhist practitioners). The average age
of participants was 52.32 years (SD = 7.59) and the average meditation experience was 25.32 years (SD = 9.21).
The average duration of the meditation on emptiness was 76.20 minutes (SD = 17.93).
[Insert Table 1 about here]
Analysis of Outcome Measures
Analysis showed no significant differences at baseline between the intervention and within-participants control
conditions for NAS (t (48) = 0.05, p = 0.96), mysticism (t (48) = 0.13, p = 0.89), compassion (t (48) = -0.24, p =
0.80), positive affect (t (48) = -0.15, p = 0.88), and negative affect (t (48) = 0.37, p = 0.72). The means and SDs
for all outcome measures at both time intervals (pre and post) are shown in Table 2. Multi-level models showed
significant changes in all outcome measures across measurement intervals (see Table 3). Specifically, results
demonstrated a significant increase in NAS, mysticism, compassion, and positive affect scores and a significant
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decrease in negative affect scores for emptiness meditation compared with mindfulness meditation (see Figure
[Insert Tables 2 and 3, and Figure 1 about here]
A series of linear models were specified using only the intervention data to examine whether time spent
meditating on emptiness, meditation experience, age, or sex were related to post-intervention score, whilst
controlling for pre-intervention scores. Results showed time spent meditating on emptiness, meditation
experience, age, and sex had no impact on post-intervention scores for all outcome measures (NAS, mysticism,
SBCBS, positive affect and negative affect).
Study 2
Twelve participants from Study 1 were selected to undergo a semi-structured interview that posed a series of
questions about the emptiness meditation. The selection process involved stratifying participants according to
Buddhist affiliation (i,e., primarily Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana) and then randomly selecting four
participants from each of these three groups.
Participants were requested to contact the research team as soon as possible after having completed a meditation
on emptiness. To reduce recall bias due to the time-lag between emptiness meditation and the interviews,
interviews using internet-based video conferencing media were permitted. The interview questions focussed on
(i) cultivation (e.g., What meditative process did you follow to induce the experience of emptiness? How long
did it take to complete this process? After having given rise to the experience of emptiness, what steps did you
take to maintain that experience?), (ii) content (e.g., What did you experience during the meditation? Did you
remain aware of time and space? Did you remain aware of your body whilst experiencing emptiness? Did you
retain a sense of self? What insights arose during the meditation?), (iii) feelings (e.g., How did you feel during
the meditation? How long did these feelings endure following the meditation? What bodily sensations arose?),
(iv) volitional control (e.g., Did you have control over how long you remained in a state of emptiness? Did you
choose to terminate the meditation or did it terminate of its own accord? What prompted you to terminate the
meditation? How did you terminate the meditation?), and (v) meaning (e.g., Why do you choose to undergo the
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emptiness meditation? What prompted you to undergo the practice on this particular occasion? How did the
practice help in terms of your spiritual development?). Open questioning was employed in order to encourage
participants to freely express themselves, and Socratic questioning was used to elicit further clarification as
required (Wortel and Verweij, 2008). The interviews were audio recorded and then transcribed verbatim.
Data Analysis
Study 2 employed the same analytical procedure described in the aforementioned parallel study on the
meditation-induced near-death experience (Van Gordon et al., 2018a). Grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss,
1967) was used to generate an inductively-derived theory concerning participants’ experiences of the emptiness
phenomenon (Mason and Hargreaves, 2001). Transcripts were read several times and coded to identify and
isolate components, experiences, and meaningful events. In vivo codes (i.e., extracted directly from participants’
accounts) were used wherever possible in order to capture participants’ experiences using their own words
(Strauss, 1987). Categories, concepts, and patterns of meaning were subsequently identified and transcripts were
assessed for divergence and convergence. The researchers continuously interacted with the data, identifying the
relationships between concepts and posing questions to formulate a theory (Strauss and Corbin, 1990;
Mackenzie et al., 2007). From the initial generation of codes until the emergence of master and subordinate
themes, ‘bracketing’ (Creswell, 2007) was employed to minimise bias arising from the researchers’ assumptions
relating to emptiness. Grounded theory requires sufficient raw evidence to establish the validity of the
constructed theory (Henwood and Pidgeon, 1993; Mason and Hargreaves, 2001). Consequently, the ‘Results’
section that follows makes moderate use of direct excerpts from participant transcripts. For the purposes of
validation, the entire analytical process, from reading the raw data through to identifying themes, was repeated
iteratively until saturation was achieved (Van Gordon et al., 2016b). As a form of independent audit, the
analytical process was repeated by a second member of the research team. Additional validation techniques such
as grounding in examples and requesting feedback from participants on the final thematic structure were also
employed (Creswell, 2007).
The analysis of participants’ transcripts generated four master themes, each with a different number of
subordinate themes. The final hierarchical thematic structure is shown in Table 4, and a description of the
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emerging master and subordinate themes (including illustrative verbatim extracts) is provided below.
Participants 1, 6, 7 and 10 described their primary Buddhist affiliation as being Theravada, participants 2, 5, 8,
and 11 described it as being Mahayana, and participants 3, 4, 9, and 12 considered themselves to be primarily
Vajrayana practitioners.
[Insert Table 4 about here]
Master Theme 1: Transition from Concentration to Insight
This master theme reflects a transition described by all participants of progressing from a concentrative to a
more investigative form of meditation. The master theme comprised two sub-themes that correspond to these
two forms of meditation accordingly.
Sub-theme 1.1: Focussing the mind
All participants reported that the emptiness meditation began with them bringing the mind into a state of
heightened concentration. Some participants (Participants 1, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11 and 12) achieved this by resting their
awareness on the natural flow of their thoughts or on the present moment more generally. Other participants (2,
3, 8, and 9) reported that they employed visualisation techniques as a means of concentrating the mind.
Participants used words such as resting”, settling”, collecting”, and concentratingto describe the process
of meditatively focussing their mind. All participants explained that focussing their mind gave rise to feelings of
profound calm that they used as a basis for engaging a more investigative form of meditation. Participant 4
explained this process as follows:
- I watch the mind more intently than [when not in formal meditation] and allow it to go where it
likes. There is no effort from me to control it. I allow thoughts to roll through the mind. I watch
them … The mind relaxes and everything is calm. This is the point where I start to investigate [the
nature of] my thoughts and mind. (Participant 4)
Sub-theme 1.2: Investigating and letting go of self
Participants reported that their meditation on emptiness continued with a second phase that involved trying to
investigate the nature of self and reality” (Participant 1). Most participants did this by actively searching for a
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self that intrinsically exists. Participants explained that the more they attempted to find an intrinsically-existing
self, the more they were left with no alternative other than to conclude that the self is absent of inherent
existence (i.e., and must thus be let go of):
- You keep peeling away new layers of wrapping and each time you do, there’s nothing to find.
When I look I see all things, but I don’t see [a self]. (Participant 6)
- Meditation is a sword that strips away misunderstanding ... And nothing remains, absolutely
nothing. But that nothingness has everything. (Participant 8)
- This phase [of meditation] helps me to let go of self. (Participant 10)
Participants 4 and 9 reported following a slightly different process of meditative investigation that involved
them identifying and examining the source and underlying nature of internal experiences and external objects.
These two participants explained that this process of investigation led them to the understanding that all we
experience is made of mind” (Participant 4), “mind is everything, everything comes from within” (Participant 4),
and “the mind – and therefore everything that exists – doesn’t have substance” (Participant 9).
Master Theme 2: Dwelling in Emptiness
This master theme corresponds to the phase of meditation that transpired after participants had undergone the
preparatory processes described in sub-themes 1.1 and 1.2. More specifically, it relates to the main body of the
meditation in which participants encountered or dwelt in emptiness. Two sub-themes were identified that
reflected transcending concepts of time and space, and experiencing wisdom infused with unconditional
Sub-theme 2.1: Altered perception of time and space
All participants reported that after they had let go of self (i.e., by following the processes described in master
theme 1), an experience of emptiness, that commenced with an altered perception of time and space, arose.
More specifically, participants explained they experienced that time and space are relative phenomena that
ultimately do not exist. Participants’ sentiments concerning their altered perception of time and space are best
captured by the following excerpts from Participant 3 and 11:
- The self is the reference point from where people conduct their lives. But if you take it away, then
all other points of reference – including time and space – fade away ... [During meditation] you are
no longer limited by concepts [such as space or time] … Time no longer exists. How can it? The
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past is gone and you can’t touch it. The future doesn’t exist. So where is this present moment that I
keep hearing about? (Participant 3)
- Everything flows freely. Things just happen. There’s no need to try to connect events with a time
or place. Ideas such as near and far or before and after must be let go of. Emptiness means that all
things happen right here and right now. (Participant 11)
Sub-theme 2.2: Compassionate farsightedness
All participants explained that when dwelling in emptiness, their perspective enlarged and became more
encompassing. Participants used terms such as big mind(Participants 2, 5, and 12), farsightedness
(Participants 2, 4, and 6),universal mind (Participants 1 and 3), and “superior seeing” (Participants 7 and 9)
to refer to this experience. As captured by the following excerpts from Participant 1 and 5, participants reported
that during this phase of the emptiness meditation, they had the experience of being everywhere and nowhere,
and of being everything and nothing:
- I’m nowhere but I’m everywhere. I see that I’m all things and that all things are me. (Participant 1)
- You melt into your surroundings. There’s no separation. When I breathe in, the universe breathes
in with me, and when I exhale [the universe exhales with me]. (Participant 5)
Participants (all except Participant 10) reported that along with this experience of farsightedness, arose feelings
of profound compassion and a wish to care for all that exists. They clarified that this sense of compassion arose
spontaneously and was not contrived. Participants 2 and 8 elucidated their experience as follows:
- A sense of responsibility and love springs up. It requires no effort. Its love for all things. Its
compassion for all things Its unconditional because it’s infused with wisdom, with not being
attached to self. (Participant 2)
- Existence is happening. It's unfolding in front of you and you’re watching it. But you’re also part
of it. You are it. You're dancing with it. Oh, it’s so beautiful. All things and life forms are included
in your view. And the sense of love and compassion is overwhelming. It comes naturally. Do you
see? You touch every mind and atom with your heart and mind. (Participant 8)
Master Theme 3: Maintaining Volitional Control
This master theme did not comprise any sub-themes and corresponds to reports by all participants that whilst
experiencing emptiness, they retained volitional control over the content and duration of the meditation. More
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specifically, participants explained that although they were deeply absorbed in emptiness, they (i) remained
aware of their physical body and surroundings, (ii) could terminate the meditation at any stage, and (iii) could
direct their view of emptiness to any phenomenon or situation of their choosing. Participants 5 and 12 described
this experience as follows:
- I’m in control of the meditation. I may lose track of time a bit but I decide when to conclude. I
decide where the meditation goes. I can let [the experience of] emptiness [arise] and remain big
and global, or I can channel it to a specific thing or place. (Participant 5)
- Emptiness isn’t about zoning out. It’s about tuning in … Of course, you remain aware of the body.
Why wouldn’t you. If you’re losing awareness, your experience of emptiness isn’t genuine.
(Participant 12)
Participants reported that they concluded the meditation “when I felt it was time to do so” (Participants 3 and 7),
when I was ready” (Participants 1 and 10), or “when I reached the point I could carry [the meditation] with me
during the day (Participant 9). Participants explained that they terminated the meditation by simply re-
focussing their awareness on their physical body and mental processes.
Master Theme 4: Spiritually Meaningful Insights
All participants shared their view that compared with all other forms of meditation they practiced, the
meditation on emptiness elicited the most spiritually meaningful insights. Furthermore, participants
distinguished between the spiritual insights they derived during the emptiness meditation (sub-theme 4.1), and
those that arose after it (sub-theme 4.2).
Sub-theme 4.1: Spiritual insights during meditation
Participants reported that dwelling in emptiness allowed them to discard anyemotional or conceptual
baggage (Participant 3) that they may have accumulated between meditation sessions. They explained that
their intention was to retain the experience of emptiness post-meditation (see sub-theme 4.2) but that they were
unable to achieve this on every occasion. Consequently, when referring to the experience of emptiness during
meditation, participants used words such as recharging (Participants 3, 7, 9 and 11), checking in
(Participants 1, 6 and 12), returning home” (Participants 2, 8, and 9), replenishing” (Participants 5 and 6, and
renewing (Participants 4 and 10). Participants explained that the emptiness meditation acted as a form of
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spiritual reboot(Participant 7) that helped to re-establish the ‘universal mind’ referred to in sub-theme 2.2.
Participant 8 explained this experience as follows:
- You never lose the experience of emptiness. It’s always with you. But sometimes it’s not as strong
as it should be [Formal meditation] is a way of reminding yourself. It’s a bit like returning
home to the source. You bathe in emptiness. It's where everything begins and everything ends. You
reconnect with the universe. (Participant 8)
Sub-theme 4.2: Spiritual insights post-meditation
Participants continued to derive spiritually meaningful insights from their meditation on emptiness even after
the meditation had concluded. More specifically, they explained that remembering emptiness whilst engaged in
everyday duties helped them to remain grounded and retain a clear and balanced perspective. However,
participants explained that although they attempted to maintain a view of emptiness between meditation
sessions, this was something that they allowed to happen naturally. For example, participants 4, 6, and 11
explained that a post-meditation experience of emptiness would often arise of its own accord but if they
specifically directed cognitive resources towards thinking about emptiness, it would sometimes remain
invisible”. Participants 2 and 9 provided clarification on the post-meditation relationship with emptiness by
stating as follows:
- You have to be open to emptiness. You have to know it places its mark on everything. But you
don’t try to force it. You don’t ignore it either. You just allow it to come. (Participant 2)
- Everything is of [the nature of] emptiness but trying to find it is impossible because it means
you’re placing labels on something that can’t be labelled. You have to be emptiness rather than try
and find it. … I mean, if you’re skilled then it is possible to look for it in meditation. But its better
just to know it’s there and allow it to arise. It’s often when you’re not looking [for emptiness]
when it appears. (Participant 9)
Theory Building
Compared to all other forms of meditation they practiced, participants deemed meditating on emptiness to be the
most important. In essence, they considered emptiness to be their staple source of spiritual nourishment.
Participants attempted to carry the experience of emptiness with them as they engaged in normal daily activities
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following a formal meditation session. The experience of emptiness was elicited by undertaking an initial phase
of concentrative meditation (with or without visualisation) followed by a phase of investigative meditation. This
latter phase involved participants searching for an intrinsically existing self or examining the underlying nature
of their experiences. The main experience of emptiness during meditation arose subsequent to this preparatory
two-stage process (i.e., concentrative followed by investigative meditation) and commenced with participants
realising that time and space are relative concepts. This transcending of conceptual boundaries (i.e., such as
those imposed by perceiving in terms of space and time) gave rise to a farsighted or universal outlook that was
infused with a compassionate intention. Furthermore, whilst experiencing emptiness, participants retained
volitional control over the duration and content of the meditation, and likewise remained aware of their physical
body and environment. A working model, delineating the interaction of process, content, and cognitive and
meta-cognitive functions, is shown in Figure 2.
[Insert Figure 2 around here]
The present study employed mixed-methods and recruited advanced Buddhist meditators to investigate the
effects of emptiness on non-attachment, mystical experiences, and psycho-spiritual wellbeing, as well as how
participants cultivate, experience, and relate to emptiness. Compared to a mindfulness meditation control
condition, meditation on emptiness resulted in significantly greater improvements in non-attachment, mystical
experiences, compassion, positive affect, and negative affect. No significant relationship was observed between
duration of emptiness meditation and any of the aforementioned outcome measures. Findings from the
qualitative study demonstrated that participants (i) combined concentrative and investigative meditation
techniques in order to induce emptiness, (ii) elicited spiritually meaningful insights both during and following
the meditation on emptiness, and (iii) retained volitional control over the content and duration of the emptiness
The fact that emptiness meditation out-performed the mindfulness meditation based on measures of non-
attachment, mystical experience, and compassion was not unexpected. If an individual ceases to perceive
themselves as intrinsically existing, then it follows that they will become less attached to external objects,
situations, or sensations. Indeed, as referred to previously, if there is no ‘subject’ or ‘self’ as a central referent,
then logic dictates that there cannot be an ‘object’ or ‘other’ to which the non-existing self can relate or become
attached to (Tsong-Kha-pa, 2004). Buddhism teaches that abandoning attachment to the idea of an inherently
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existing self helps the meditation practitioner transcend limitations imposed by perceiving reality in relative or
dualistic terms (Van Gordon et al., 2016c). Consequently, in line with the Buddhist teachings, it seems plausible
that letting go of self helped participants encounter or induce what some individuals might deem to be mystical
experiences (e.g., altered perception of time and space). Consistent with findings from previous qualitative
research (Van Gordon et al., 2016b), being less self-orientated also appeared to instil a greater sense of
It is perhaps less obvious why cultivating emptiness led to improvements in positive and negative
affect. Indeed, some studies have shown that concepts such as emptiness can be challenging to identify with,
particularly in less experienced meditators (Lomas, Cartwright, Edginton, & Ridge, 2015). However, an
explanation for the improvements observed in the current study is posited by Ontological Addiction Theory
(OAT), in which ‘ontological addiction’ is deemed to be the underlying cause of maladaptive cognitive and
behavioural processes (Shonin et al., 2016; Van Gordon et al., 2018b). More specifically, ontological addiction
is defined as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-routed belief in an inherently existing ‘self’
or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief” (Shonin et al., 2013, p.64).
According to OAT that is based on a Buddhist model of mental illness it is the belief in an inherently
existing self that propels an individual to behave in ways that they deem will preserve their self-identity and
wellbeing. Examples of such behaviours might be striving to make money, accrue fame or reputation, stave off
illness or hardship, or eliminate perceived threats. However, given that all phenomena and situations are
impermanent, such endeavours can, at best, only yield temporary happiness and inevitably result in suffering
(Ikeda, 2004; Kawada, 1973; Sogyal, 1998; Takakusu, 2010). Therefore, undermining attachment (increasing
non-attachment) or addiction to the belief in a self helps to remove the loci upon which emotional and
conceptual baggage can accumulate. This is in line with findings demonstrating that (i) non-attachment is
negatively related to distress and symptoms of ill-health (Pande and Naidu, 1992), and positively related to
various indices of adaptive psychosocial functioning (Sahdra et al., 2015), and (ii) interventions such as MAT
that, through using meditation techniques to undermine ego-attachment, have demonstrated improvements in
(for example) psychological wellbeing, mental health, psychosocial functioning, and pain symptoms (Van
Gordon et al., 2015b).
A further noteworthy outcome of the present study is that the duration of the meditation on emptiness
did not predict the profundity of the emptiness experience (i.e., as measured by non-attachment and mystical
experiences) or changes in any of the other study outcomes. This is consistent with the Buddhist position that
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emptiness transcends relative notions such as time and space (Shonin et al., 2015) as well as with outcomes
from the qualitative study arm, which demonstrated that participants experienced an altered perception of time
and space.
Qualitative outcomes in the current study were also consistent with the aforementioned quantitatively-
assessed increases in spiritual awareness and psycho-spiritual wellbeing, and with the Buddhist view that
emptiness is an effective means of cultivating spiritual insight and psycho-spiritual wellbeing (Sogyal, 1998).
Furthermore, the qualitative findings appeared to suggest that although specific meditation techniques were
employed to induce emptiness, the maintenance of this experience – both during and following the meditation –
was dependent on participants permitting the mind to rest in its natural state and on not making excessive efforts
to experience emptiness. Indeed, participants’ emphasis appeared to be on extending and applying the
experience of emptiness to daily living. This is consistent with the qualitative outcome that participants
remained aware of their physical body and retained volitional control over the content and duration of the formal
Although findings from this study provide novel insights relating to the invoking and experience of
emptiness in human participants, they should be considered in light of their limitations. Most psychometric
measures of spirituality or wellbeing – including those used in the present study – have not been designed with
advanced meditation practitioners in mind. Consequently, while mitigated to an extent by the questions posed in
the qualitative arm of this study, the degree to which such scales can indicate the depth and profundity of
psychological and spiritual changes induced by emptiness remains questionable. Additional study limitations
were the fact that the sample (i) was understandably of a small size (i.e., because very few individuals possess
the meditative experience necessary to induce emptiness), and (ii) exclusively comprised Buddhist meditation
practitioners meaning that interpretations of emptiness arising due to religious predispositions were not
controlled for.
The present study demonstrated that advanced Buddhist meditators elicited improvements in spiritual
awareness and psycho-spiritual wellbeing by engaging in meditation on emptiness. Furthermore, a qualitative
analysis suggested that emptiness serves as a means of reconnecting Buddhist meditators to what they deem to
be the innermost nature of their minds and of phenomena more generally. Future research could seek to (i)
develop and validate a psychometric scale that assesses trait and/or state levels of emptiness in human
participants, (ii) formulate and evaluate an emptiness-based non-pharmacological intervention that could be
used to improve health and/or psychosocial functioning in individuals naive to meditation, and (iii) elicit further
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insights into the emptiness construct and how it relates to biological, psychological, and spiritual processes.
Such further research is important because if multiple lines of scientific enquiry validate the Buddhist position
that self and phenomena lack intrinsic existence, it will likely become necessary to re-examine some established
beliefs relating to how both psychological and physical phenomena are understood to exist ( Van Gordon et al.,
2016c). More specifically, if the true nature of what is currently understood to constitute reality ultimately has
no more substance than a dream, it would necessitate an evolution of perspective across multiple scientific fields
of enquiry.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Funding: The study did not receive any funding.
Ethical approval: All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with
the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later
amendments or comparable ethical standards.
Informed consent: Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
Author Contributions
WVG: was the study PI, conceived and designed the study, conducted data analysis, and wrote the first draft of
the paper. ES and SS: collaborated in the conceiving and design of the study, and on the writing and editing of
the final manuscript. TD: conducted data analysis, and collaborated in the writing and editing of the final
manuscript. YK, JG-C, DS: collaborated in the writing and editing of the final manuscript.
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Table 1. Participant demographic
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Characteristic n = 25
Age, mean (SD) 52.32
Male (%) 60
Monastic (%) 60
Meditation Experience (years)
mean (SD)
Buddhist Affiliation (%)
Theravada 28
Mahayana 4
Vajrayana (Tibetan) 16
Vajrayana (Japanese) 8
Theravada/Mahayana 16
Mahayana/Vajrayana 8
Thera/Maha/Vajra 20
Ethnicity (%)
White (British) 28
Asian 64
Other 8
Table 2. Means and SDs for emptiness and control meditation conditions across time intervals (pre, post) for all
outcome measures
NAS Mysticism SBCBS Positive affect Negative affect
Mean SD Mean SD Mean SD Mean SD Mean SD
Pre Emptiness 154.96 5.0
134.64 4.35 28.52 2.35 39.60 1.6
16.84 1.14
Control 155.04 5.1
134.80 4.34 28.36 2.29 39.52 1.9
16.96 1.17
Post Emptiness 170.56* 6.8
140.32* 4.43 33.04* 2.01 43.52* 1.7
12.80* 2.29
Control 157.48* 4.8
136.80* 3.54 29.72* 1.79 40.96* 1.9
15.80 2.18
Note: ‘*’ indicates that the score is significantly different from its corresponding ‘Pre’ score within the same
condition (e.g., Pre-Post Emptiness), using a Bonferroni corrected p-value of 0.05 to account for multiple
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Table 3. Fixed effects estimates for Time/Condition interactions for all five outcome measures
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value SE t-value p-value
(Intercept) 155.04 1.02
Time * Condition 13.16 1.34 9.82 <0.001
(Intercept) 134.80 0.87
Time * Condition 3.68 0.60 6.11 <0.001
(Intercept) 28.36 0.46
Time * Condition 3.16 0.51 6.20 <0.001
Positive affect
(Intercept) 39.52 0.37
Time * Condition 2.63 0.39 6.84 <0.001
Negative affect
(Intercept) 16.96 0.23
Time * Condition -3.05 0.60 -5.05 <0.001
Note: The reference category for ‘Time’ is the baseline measurement (i.e., pre) and for ‘Condition’ it is the
control group. This means a ‘Time * Condition’ value of 13.16 for NAS can be interpreted as a 13.16 greater
increase in NAS score at the post stage for emptiness meditation compared with the control condition.
Table 4. Summary of master and subordinate themes, including example participant experts
Master Theme Subordinate Themes Example Participant Excerpt
1. Transition from
concentration to insight
1.1 Focussing the mind “I watch the mind”
1.2 Investigating and letting go of
“I try to investigate the nature of
self and reality”
2. Dwelling in emptiness 2.1 Altered perception of time and
“There’s no need to try to connect
events with a time or place”
2.2 Compassionate farsightedness “The sense of love and
compassion is overwhelming”
3. Maintaining volitional
N/A “I decide where the meditation
4. Spiritually meaningful
4.1 Spiritual insights during
“During meditation I experience a
spiritual reboot”
4.2 Spiritual insights post-
“It’s often when you’re not
looking [for emptiness] when it
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Figure 1. Outcome means (emptiness and control) across measurement intervals (pre and post) with two-tier
95% CIs.
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Note: The inner tier of a two-tiered CI represents CIs for the mean whilst the outer tier represents a difference-
adjusted CI. Difference-adjusted CIs represent the individual means but calibrates the CI to indicate whether the
sample means differ (using 95% confidence in the difference as a standard) (Baguley, 2012).
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Figure 2. Working model showing the interaction of process, content, and cognitive and meta-cognitive processes relating to the cultivation of emptiness during meditation
e Meditation
l Insights
Volitional Control
Perception of
Time and
Within-Meditation Spiritually-Meaningful Insights
Sensitivity: Internal
... A series of studies have supported that FIMs can improve attitudes towards the self and others, generate positive emotions, and reduce depressive symptoms (e.g., Lv et al., 2020;Zeng et al., 2015). In contrast, there are fewer studies on other elements, such as emptiness meditation (Van Gordon et al., 2019) and the explicit cultivation of ethics (e.g., Bayot et al., 2020;Chen & Jordan, 2020) although initial evidence also supports the benefits of these elements. Furthermore, because SG-MBIs often integrate many elements, how different elements contribute to the effects of an entire intervention also requires further study. ...
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Objectives Second-generation mindfulness-based interventions (SG-MBIs) have emphasized the cultivation of ethics. However, some ethics and values that are emphasized in SG-MBIs are criticized by Confucianism, one of the most influential traditions in China. The current study developed a new SG-MBI called mindfulness-based positive psychology (MBPP) that emphasized value clarification and integrated Confucian values. The acceptability and effects of this intervention were evaluated among Chinese people in mainland China.MethodsA total of 138 healthy Chinese adults from universities and communities were randomly assigned to the MBPP or waitlist condition. Consistent with the “relief,” “promotion,” and “transcendence” modules in MBPP, variables representing negative symptoms (depression, anxiety, and stress), positive traits (gratitude and appreciative joy), and spirituality (meaning of life) were measured before and after the 6-week intervention and 3 months after the intervention. The amount of meditation practice and ratings for MBPP and different themes were also measured.ResultsCompared to the waitlist condition, MBPP significantly reduced anxiety and stress with low to medium effect sizes but not other measures. The amount of meditation practice during the intervention was significantly associated with changes in appreciative joy and gratitude. Participants rated the MBPP and themes highly, and themes in the “transcendence” module received significantly lower ratings than other themes.ConclusionsMBPP is a feasible and promising SG-MBI for promoting mental health among Chinese. Future studies should further evaluate the acceptability and effects of the new components of SG-MBIs and develop suitable measurements for those idealistic mentalities proposed by Buddhism and other traditions.
... Empirical investigation of emptiness is still at an early stage (i.e., when compared with, for example, mindfulness) but emerging insights indicate a role for improving psychological and spiritual wellbeing. For example, in one of our own studies comparing a self-induced emptiness condition with mindfulness meditation in advanced Buddhist meditators, the former was more effective for improving mystical experiences, non-attachment, compassion, and mood (Van Gordon et al. 2019). Similarly, another study we conducted involving advanced Buddhist meditators found that selfinducing a state of emptiness was an important precursor to eliciting profound spiritual experiences, including insights into death (Van Gordon et al. 2018). ...
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This article investigates mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) in a clinical setting and considers the benefits of socially engaged mindfulness practices. The main aim is to consider the relationship between MBIs, especially as a clinical practice (including disengagement from negative ruminations and difficult emotions) and Buddhist mindfulness as a practice of social engagement for systemic change. While MBIs and engaged Buddhism both aspire to ease suffering for individuals and societies alike, they differ as the former emphasizes psychological treatment of the individual and the latter includes a call to action for more widespread change in the political, economic, and social arenas. At the center of this article is an inquiry into mindfulness practice in relation to engagement, disengagement, and re-engagement with objects of the internal and external world and what that means for the practitioner as well as society at large. It will be concluded that the amendment of mindfulness-based practices with lovingkindness and compassion-based practices shifts the emphasis from the clinical treatment of an individual patient toward a more holistic approach that includes the wellness of all beings. This shift is desirable and necessary as it considers a broader set of causes of psychological suffering and helps to reconcile the divide between disengaged cognitive practice and social engagement.
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Ontological Addiction Theory is a metaphysical theory of mental illness which conceptualises psychological suffering in terms of excessive ego-centeredness. This study aimed to develop and validate the Ontological Addiction Scale (OAS) and compare OAS scores with mental health measures. A 31-item prototype scale was developed based on traditional Buddhist theory and contemporary models of addiction. An ego-centeredness form of the Five-Factor Narcissism Inventory (FFNI) was the main criterion measure. For mental health measures, the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9), Generalised Anxiety Disorder Scale (GAD-7) and Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) were used. The prototype OAS and two shorter versions showed excellent internal consistency and test–retest reliability. Construct validity was evidenced by medium to large correlations with criterion measures. OAS scores showed strong correlations with PHQ-9, GAD-7 and RSES, suggesting a clear relationship between OAS and mental health. The OAS appears to be a valid and reliable instrument suitable for assessing OA.
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This thesis aims to give a critical investigation of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) from the perspective of Buddhist Psychology. Reasons for doing this include 1) the reconciliation of a program that is influenced by, but does not explicitly maintain a Buddhist model of consciousness, 2) to continue the dialogue between science and religion in the context of mindfulness, 3) to consider what direction MBCT is headed, and 4) to consider the effectiveness of MBCT as a long-term management tool for depression. Some of the philosophical issues troubling MBCT are of primary concern for this research. The three main philosophical concerns relate to ethics, the significance of ethics regarding Buddhist practice, and how ethics is side-stepped in secular mindfulness programs; ontology and how the reification of an unchanging self is philosophically problematic for mindfulness-based interventions; and epistemology especially regarding the gap between appearance and reality and what that means for depression caused by knowledge borne out of inaccurate thoughts. After interpreting the thirty verses of the Triṃśikā, MBCT will be reconsidered from the perspective of Yogâcāra Buddhism to supply it with a theoretical framework that can assist in addressing these concerns. This thesis concludes by suggesting two major areas where MBCT may be improved with the assistance of Yogâcāra teachings. The first is through a more active engagement with the analytical mind. Despite MBCTs primary aim to decrease ruminative thinking, discriminative thought is necessary to cultivate wisdom and reduce suffering. Secondly, the causes of depression are vast and include social and environmental grounds in addition to cognitive-based issues. By contrasting the MBCT program with the practices and theory of Yogâcāra, it is suggested that MBCTs philosophical framework can be refined leading to an even more effective means of preventing depression.
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Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) aims to use mindfulness meditation to adjust maladaptive thinking routines in order to manage depression by preventing the recurrence and relapse of depressive episodes. It is a secular approach that focuses on guiding participants to reinterpret thoughts and emotions as fluid mental events rather than as fixed concepts. Mindfulness (sati) is a cornerstone of Buddhism, the practices of which are emphasized in The Foundations of Mindfulness (Mahāsatipaṭṭhana Sutta). This paper compares and contrasts the four foundations of mindfulness as described in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhana Sutta with the mindfulness-based practices of MBCT. The purpose of this study is to clarify some of the influences that early Buddhist practice has on MBCT and suggest some of the benefits that would result in MBCT incorporating Buddhist theory more explicitly. The MBCT model alludes to the empty nature of concepts when describing thoughts and emotions as events rather than facts, but it does not take up an ontological investigation of mind or phenomena. This study suggests that MBCT could benefit from such an inquiry, applying impermanence to all objects, not just mental objects. It is further argued that MBCT acts as an introduction to Buddhist psychology however, if it were to explicitly incorporate Buddhist concepts, the program would be more philosophically robust, enabling it to help practitioners to manage depression that is caused not only by maladapted cognition but from suffering (duḥkha) in general.
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Buddhist-derived interventions have increasingly been employed in the treatment of a range of physical and psychological disorders, and in recent years, there has been significant growth in the use of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) for this purpose. Ontological Addiction Theory (OAT) is a novel metaphysical approach to understanding psychopathology within the framework of Buddhist teachings and asserts that many mental illnesses have their root in the widespread mistaken belief in an inherently existent self that operates independently of external phenomena. OAT describes how different types of MBI can help undermine these beliefs and allow a person to reconstruct their view of self and reality to address the root causes of suffering. As well as proving effective in treating many other psychological disorders, MBIs based on OAT have demonstrated efficacy in treating conventional behavioural addictions, such as problem gambling, workaholism, and sex addiction. The goal of this paper is to (i) discuss and appraise the evidence base underlying the use of MBIs for treating addiction; (ii) explicate how OAT advances understanding of the mechanisms of addiction; (iii) delineate how different types of MBI can be employed to address addictive behaviours; and (iv) propose future research avenues for assessing and comparing MBIs in the treatment of addiction.
Contemplative psychology is concerned with the psychological study of contemplative processes and practices, such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga, introspection, reflection, metacognition, self-regulation, self-awareness, and self-consciousness. Although contemplative psychology borders with other psychological and nonpsychological disciplines, some of its underlying assumptions distinguish it from other remits of psychological and scholarly inquiry, as do its component areas of empirical focus, conceptual nuances, and challenges. Furthermore, the discipline has tended to be somewhat disparate in its approach to investigating the core techniques and principles of which it is composed, resulting in a need for greater intradisciplinary and interdisciplinary awareness of the commonalities and differences of core contemplative psychology attributes. As a remedy to these issues, in this article, we adopt a whole-discipline perspective and aim to explicate contemplative psychology’s history, breadth, key assumptions, challenges, and future directions.
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