According to Deane Shapiro, a lot of meditation research deliberately avoids the spiritual aspect to the practice, for which it has always been intended. Even if you leave aside whether these things, which sit outside scientific models of reality, are true, this might be a mistake. Even if it’s all dead wrong, people are still approaching the practice of meditation from one place rather than another. It says things about them; it’s interesting.
On top of that, it might influence the effects (or perceived effects) that people get from their meditation practice.
Do you meditate for increased mental clarity and concentration? To learn more about your self? Or are you seeking something beyond yourself? To Shapiro, these things represent a continuum on which meditators goals fit: self-regulation, self-exploration, and self-liberation. Learning to control stress is a self-regulation goal, learning how your mind works is and exploration goal, and attempting to experience the unity of the universe is an example of a liberation goal.
Twenty-seven meditators were interviewed about their hopes, expectations and goals for meditation, as well as the positive results they felt they had received from it. For two-thirds, the results were congruent with their expectation – that is, a self-regulation expectation produced self-regulation benefits, and so on. The same group were interviewed after going on a retreat, and the benefits of the intense retreat were also comparable to their intentions.
Another interesting thing about this group, is that their goals fit along this continuum based on the amount of time they had been practising. That is, novices were more likely to have self-regulation goals, while experienced practitioners were more likely to have liberation goals.
Although this study has some flaws (low sample size, reliance on self-report), they are consistent with the idea that you get back from meditation what you expect. Another interesting test of this would be comparing people who have beliefs in supernatural entities and forces, with those who are hard materialists. Maybe the former group would have more of those ‘strange’ experiences you hear about sometimes.
Shapiro, D.H. (1992). A preliminary study of long term meditators: Goals, effects, religious orientation, cognitions. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 24 (1), 23–39.