Project Overview

The Varieties of Contemplative Experience research project aims to improve our understanding of the range of experiences associated with the practice of meditation, the ways such experiences are interpreted by meditation practitioners and meditation teachers, and responses to experiences that are reported as unexpected, challenging, difficult, distressing, or impairing of functioning.

The study adopts a qualitative research methodology based in extensive semi-structured interviews with more than 60 Buddhist meditation practitioners and more than 30 Buddhist meditation experts (teachers and clinicians).  Practitioner interviews are organized around the following questions:

  • Have you had any unexpected, challenging, difficult, distressing, or functionally impairing experiences that you associate with meditation?
  • How did you interpret your experiences? What interpretations were offered to you by others?
  • How did you respond to these experiences? What responses have you found particularly helpful or unhelpful?

Expert interviews follow a similar structure but query the experiences experts have observed in others, and how experts interpret and respond to those experiences.

Based upon thematic content analysis, the Varieties of Contemplative Experience project has identified more than 50 types of experiences across seven domains: somatic, affective, cognitive, perceptual, conative, sense of self, and social. The study has also led to the identification of more than 20 influencing factors—comprised of risk factors, remedies, and interpretations—that can impact the nature, duration, and trajectory of meditation experiences.



Lindahl, J.R., Cooper, D.J., and Britton, W.B. (2022).  Fear and terror in Buddhist Meditation: A Cognitive Model for Meditation-Induced Changes in Arousal and Affect. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 7(1-2), 147–170. LINK TO ARTICLE   PDF

Lindahl, J.R., Palitsky, R., Cooper, Britton, W.B. (2022) The Impacts of Worldviews on the Onset and Trajectory of Meditation-Related Challenges. Transcultural Psychiatry. LINK TO ARTICLE PDF

Cooper, D., Lindahl, J.R., Palitsky, R., Britton, W.B. (2021) “Like a Vibration Cascading through the Body”: Energy-Like Somatic Experiences Reported by Western Buddhists. Religions, 12: 1042. LINK TO ARTICLE

Goldberg, S.B., Lam, S.U., Britton, W.B., Davidson, R.J. (2021). Prevalence of meditation-related adverse effects in a population-based sample in the United States. Psychotherapy Research. LINK TO FULL TEXT

Britton, W.B., Lindahl., J.R., Cooper, D.J., Canby, N., Palitsky, R. (2021). Defining and measuring meditation-related adverse effects in mindfulness-based interventions. Clinical Psychological Science. PDF

Lindahl, J.R., Cooper, D.J., Fisher, N.E., Kirmayer, L.J., Britton, W.B. (2020). Progress or Pathology? Differential Diagnosis and Intervention Criteria for Meditation-Related Challenges: Perspectives From Buddhist Meditation Teachers and PractitionersFrontiers in Psychology. LINK TO PAPER

Lindahl., J.R., Britton, W.B., Cooper, D., Kirmayer, L.J., (forthcoming, 2021) Challenging and Adverse Meditation Experiences: Toward A Person-Centered Approach. In Farias, M., Brazier, D., and Laljee, M., (Eds). The Oxford Handbook of Meditation. Oxford University Press. PDF

Lindahl, J.L. and Britton, W.B. (2019) “I Have This Feeling of Not Really Being Here”: Buddhist Meditation and Changes in Sense of Self. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 26 (7-8), 157-183. PDF

Britton, W.B. (2019). Can mindfulness be too much of a good thing? The value of a middle way. Current Opinions in Psychology: Special Issue on Mindfulness., 28, 159-165. PDF

Lindahl, J.R. (2017) Somatic Energies and Emotional Traumas: A Qualitative Study of Practice-Related Challenges Reported by Vajrayāna Buddhists. Religions 8(8), 153; doi:10.3390/rel8080153 LINK TO PAPER

Lindahl, J., Fisher, N., Cooper, D., Rosen, R., and Britton, W. (2017). “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience: A Mixed-Methods Study of Meditation-Related Challenges in Western Buddhists.” PLOS ONE 12(5): e0176239 Full text

Britton, W. & Lindahl, J. (2015). The contemplative development mapping project: A new model for interdisciplinary investigation.  Mind & Life Institute Blog.

Lindahl, J., Kaplan, C., Winget, E., and Britton, W. (2014). “A Phenomenology of Meditation-Induced Light Experiences: Traditional Buddhist and Neurobiological Perspectives.” Frontiers in Psychology: Consciousness Research Vol. 4:973: What Can Neuroscience Learn from Contemplative Practices? Full Text

Britton, W., Lindahl, J., Cahn, B.R., Davis, J. and Goldman, R. (2014). “Awakening is Not a Metaphor: The Effects of Buddhist Meditation Practices on Basic Wakefulness.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Vol. 1307: Advances in Meditation Research: Neuroscience and Clinical Applications Full Text


For further help, resources, education and about meditation-related difficulties, go to:


Funding Sources

The Bial Foundation: “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience”

The Mind and Life Institute: “The Varieties of Contemplative Experience”

The 1440 Foundation: “Assessing Beneficial Relationship Factors that Support Contemplative Development”


Media Coverage

UK’s National Health Servive

10% Happier ABC New Podcast with Dan Harris

Varieties of Contemplative Experience PLOS ONE Press Release

The Atlantic

The Dish

The New York Times


Make a tax-deductible donation to help support  research on meditation related difficulties.