I like to keep up with what contemporary science has to say about the effects of meditation, and New Scientist magazine often comes up with the goods. This week's issue has an article 'Lose Yourself' which explores transcendental experiences in which 'our sense of self takes a back seat' and which 'seem to be good for us'. It starts by citing a study where people with terminal cancer, and the anxiety and depression that naturally come with knowledge of imminent death, were exposed to induced self-transcendent experiences which temporarily allows the sense of self to fall away.

My interest is that is exactly why I took up meditation in the first place many years ago, which only later led to Buddhism. That not many people taking up Buddhism see this as important came up at a meeting at the Buddhist centre I used to go to which took place after a study of why people went there. Only about 5% said that was why they started coming to the centre in the first place. Anyway, the study found that on receiving two doses of the psychedelic drug psilocybin over half saw a reduction in anxiety and depression.

It didn't matter that the experiences were temporary, they seemed to have a lasting effect anyway. The article cites other means of attaining such experiences, from looking at nature to mindfulness and meditation. It goes on to say that there is a spectrum of intensity to the experiences which can merely be the state when engrossed in some task or can be intense and even overwhelming life-changing experiences.

Some see this losing of a sense of self as unsettling or even terrifying, which is why many of the studies cited are carried out under close supervision. On the other hand many researches see this as a way of reducing excessive self-focus and the problems which can arise from it, such as depression. Imaging studies of the brain have given clues to what may be going on there, showing that real changes take place as a result of fleeting experiences.

Going back to meditation and mindfulness training, the problem of time scale shows up. The article describes that it can take many years to perfect techniques, some studies showing that ten years is not unreasonable to see permanent changes showing up in such studies. Can this be accelerated? Apparently the Dalai Lama suggested in 2007 that interventions should be sought to accelerate the path to transcendence, so that people could spend less time meditating and more time living with the benefits. Unfortunately, or even fortunately, we are not at that stage yet according to the article. What do people think? Anyone else interested in this aspect of Buddhism?