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Peter Grossenbacher and Art Therapy student Amanda Hart sit on couch talking
Peter Grossenbacher and Art Therapy student Amanda Hart discuss the distinctions between the conceptual and non-conceptual mind in the Naropa University Consciousness Laboratory. Photo: Sofia Drobinskaya.

Contemplative Cognition: Progress Toward a More Inclusive Framework of Meditative Mind

By Billy Thieme

peter writing on white boardPhoto: Sofia Drobinskaya

While it may be common knowledge that Naropa’s mission rests on the advancement and adoption of contemplative education, it may be less evident that Naropa is also focused on helping to describe and understand the very nature of contemplation itself, and how contemplative awareness and practices affect our daily lives as individuals, communities, and societies. This is where the Cognitive and Affective Science Lab (CASL) and the Naropa University Consciousness Laboratory (NUCL) fit into the university’s mission, and both have been highly active in these pursuits. To these ends, CASL and NUCL conduct research on contemplative mind that engages the academic community to advance a wider, more inclusive acceptance and understanding of contemplative practices across the globe.

NUCL endeavors to explore common functions of human awareness that are woefully under represented in the wider psychological sciences. By following systems of inquiry involving both direct experience with and historical knowledge of cognitive science and ancient contemplative traditions, NUCL aims to inform a more complete understanding of functions of awareness, attention, worldview, and intention. Ultimately, NUCL’s charge is to forge a synergy between ancient contemplative practices and modern psychological science to come to a greater, deeper, and more profound understanding of mind and spirit. For example, the results from a recent interview study of meditation instructors reveal some intriguing commonalities among various traditions in teaching meditators from beginning through advanced stages.

Similarly, CASL conducts research on contemplative training and experience with the intention of advancing scientific understanding of mental, emotional, and social well-being. Through engaging a uniquely contemplative approach to the research process itself, CASL also aims to provide training opportunities for students, community members, and the next generation of contemplative scientists. Research in CASL relies on a range of methods, from smartphone-based surveys to neuroscientific measures. In addition, it is innovating new applications of virtual reality (VR) to help answer questions about the mind. For example, a recent CASL study explored “virtual lucidity,” the extent to which people can “see through” the virtual nature of VR, similar to awareness that one is dreaming during a lucid dream.

ordan Quaglia works with Interdisciplinary Studies student Sierra Hofstatter to fit the EEG Cap they use in research  experiments on the effects of meditation on the brain.Jordan Quaglia works with Interdisciplinary Studies student Sierra Hofstatter to fit the EEG Cap they use in research experiments on the effects of meditation on the brain. Photos: Marc Piscotty

The directors of these laboratories, Jordan T. Quaglia, PhD (CASL), and Peter G. Grossenbacher, PhD (NUCL), recently coauthored an article published in the peer-reviewed journal Mindfulness in December of 2017 entitled, “Contemplative Cognition: A More Integrative Framework for Advancing Mindfulness and Meditation Research.” Compassion meditation, visualization, and centering prayer are just a few of the contemplative practices already under investigation that do not fit neatly under the umbrella of ‘mindfulness.’

Critiques of mindfulness abound, but there is now an alternative, more inclusive approach to integrating research across diverse practices. In their paper, Grossenbacher and Quaglia propose “contemplative cognition” as a new, inclusive framework to better support scientific understanding of the wide variety of contemplative states, traits, and trainings.

Their paper explains that the contemplative cognition framework “integrates three attention-related processes entailed by a variety of contemplative practices: intended attention, attention to intention, and awareness of transient information.” Grossenbacher and Quaglia go on to describe how these processes can cooperate to surpass discrepancies in mindfulness research, imbue research with more context and practitioners’ motivations, and better support investigation from multiple scientific perspectives. Ultimately, they share that their “new approach has potential for advancing a more inclusive, productive, and theory-driven science of mindfulness and meditation.” You can read a version of the full article, now published in the peer-reviewed journal Mindfulness, here:

Moving forward, contemplative science researchers need ways to measure the meditative mind, such as during or after a meditation session. Toward this end, Grossenbacher and Quaglia are currently developing a self-reporting instrument to assess contemplative cognition and its components. This instrument may be especially useful for understanding how different practitioners could be instructed in the same technique, yet experience different results. Ultimately, the researchers are interested in producing a data-driven tool that could be made widely available to contemplative practitioners through a smartphone application. They are now taking steps toward offering an opportunity for a postdoctoral researcher to join their team to collaborate on this and related research projects. Since the scope of this work is substantial and growing, they are now seeking funding support.

Both CASL and NUCL actively support and strengthen the cornerstones of Naropa University’s mission—to educate the whole person by cultivating academic excellence with contemplative insight. Further exploration of diverse contemplative states and practice, through more inclusive frameworks such as contemplative cognition, will help to advance our most precious values. Thus the work of these labs, together with other scholarly activity at Naropa, can help contribute to Naropa’s central tenet of contemplative education: to transform the world through self-transformation. purple naropa seal to end article