New study shows emptiness meditation improves wellbeing and wisdom more than mindfulness

18 February 2019

Psychologists at the University of Derby have conducted the first-ever study to investigate the Buddhist phenomenon of ‘emptiness’ meditation, discovering that it is more effective at improving wellbeing and wisdom than mindfulness.

Emptiness implies that although reality and phenomena ‘feel real’ when perceived by the human mind, they do not exist in the intrinsic sense of the word and are actually more dreamlike in terms of their true nature. According to emptiness theory, phenomena exist only in a relative manner and something that constitutes the ‘self’ of a given object can never be located in time or space. However, rather than implying ‘nothingness’, emptiness within Buddhism is often associated with ‘fullness’ and the appreciation that ‘the one contains the all’.

The study was led by Dr William Van Gordon, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, and comprised an international team including researchers from Spain, Thailand, Italy and the UK.

It compared emptiness meditation against a mindfulness meditation control condition within the same group of 25 participants. Emptiness meditation involves cultivating a form of meditative awareness to investigate whether, within a given phenomenon (which can also include the meditator themselves), there inherently exists a self, me, or I.

Compared to mindfulness meditation, emptiness meditation resulted in significantly greater improvements in wellbeing, compassion and spiritual wisdom, including the ability to transcend selfhood.

Dr Van Gordon said: “Despite its significance in Buddhism, until now emptiness has received little scientific attention. This study shows that researching emptiness can not only give rise to new insights and perspectives regarding the nature of the mind and reality, but can advance scientific understanding in terms of helping human beings realise more of their capacity for wisdom and wellbeing.”

According to ancient Buddhist texts, it is very difficult for the untrained human mind to perceive emptiness, so specialist training is required to cultivate an accurate perception of reality. As a result, the study involved some of the world's most advanced Buddhist meditators, recruited from across the globe, including from countries such as Thailand, Nepal, Japan, Sri Lanka, and several countries in the West.

Participants involved both Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as male and female lay advanced Buddhist meditators. Their average age was 52 years, and they had maintained a routine of focused daily meditation practice for an average of 25 years.

More specifically, even though the advanced meditators already showed high levels of wellbeing and spiritual insight at the start of the study, meditating on emptiness led to a further 24% reduction in negative emotions, 16% increase in compassionate feelings, 10% increase in positive emotions, and 10% reduction in attachment to both themselves and external experiences. A statistically significant improvement was also observed in mystical experiences, such as the ability to perceive an ultimate reality and transcend concepts such as time and space.

Various tests were administered to assess these changes, and an analysis was performed to identify any common components running throughout participants' experiences. Findings showed that advanced Buddhist meditators experience emptiness as reflecting the underlying 'fabric’ of the mind and reality. More specifically, the meditators perceived that what is commonly understood to constitute waking reality does not exist in as concrete a manner as people might think, and actually exhibits some of the properties of a shared dream.

Dr Van Gordon added: “In terms of improving wellbeing, meditating on emptiness appears to work by undermining attachment or addiction to the belief in an inherently existing self (known as ontological addiction) due to the meditator starting to see that the self is empty of inherent existence. This helps to remove any base upon which emotional and conceptual baggage can accumulate.

“Researching emptiness is important because if multiple lines of scientific enquiry confirm the Buddhist position that self and phenomena lack intrinsic existence, it will likely become necessary to re-examine some established scientific beliefs relating to how both psychological and physical phenomena are understood to exist. More specifically, if the true nature of what is currently understood to constitute reality ultimately has no more substance than a shared dream, it would necessitate an evolution of perspective across multiple scientific fields of enquiry.”

Read the full paper here




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