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A Meditative State of Mind

What are people really doing when they’re meditating?

Research has shown that meditation can help alleviate suffering associated with physical and mental illnesses, but few scientists have explored the individual meditation experience. Tony Toneatto, a psychologist and a professor in U of T’s department of psychiatry, and nursing student Linda Nguyen (BSc 2006 Victoria) are investigating what people are actually doing when they meditate. “Despite all the research that has demonstrated the benefits of meditation, we don’t really know what happens when people sit down to meditate … they could be dreaming, fantasizing, problem-solving or even sleeping,” says Toneatto.

The 17 participants in Toneatto and Nguyen’s study received instruction in mindfulness meditation, which cultivates an ability to respond to all mental states – even unpleasant ones – with non-judgmental, accepting, present-moment awareness. Yet preliminary results show that not everyone achieves this state of mind.

The participants – students in Toneatto’s fourth-year Buddhist psychology course – meditated for at least 20 minutes per day for eight weeks and kept a daily diary of their experiences. These diaries revealed variable levels of relaxation and distraction, and uneven success rates in maintaining a non-judgmental attitude. “The students reacted to the challenge of meditating in very different ways, and that means people may need individualized guidance or instruction,” says Toneatto. The participants also answered questionnaires at the beginning and end of the study about their overall stress and quality of life. The researchers are now looking for correlations between what people did during meditation and any changes in individuals’ overall well-being.

The idea for the study came to Nguyen after she and Toneatto reviewed research on the impact of mindfulness meditation on symptoms of anxiety and depression. She says the review – which will be published in April in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry – made her see that there was a gap in the research literature. Nguyen and Toneatto found that the benefit people derived from meditation varied between studies, and the majority of the researchers did not include people’s adherence to the mindfulness program or what happens during the process.

By studying the meditation experience, Toneatto and Nguyen hope to better understand the problems that novice meditators encounter and the unequal benefits people receive from meditating. “If we can help improve the delivery of mindfulness instruction, we’ll strengthen the overall intervention,” says Toneatto. In response to rising interest in Buddhist-related techniques in Western medicine, New College will launch a new minor program in Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health this fall.

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