Contemplative Practice Options Explored in New Research
Mindfulness has been much in the news. Skeptical readers have commented that it seems to be “good for what ails you,” no matter what the challenge. Others have noticed that mindfulness seems to now encompass some practices (focused meditation) that were historically seen to be an alternative to mindfulness practice.
“Contemplative practice” is a broader category that encompasses mindfulness as well as various forms of meditation and spiritual practice.
In a ground-breaking article in JAMA Psychiatry in February 2017, three different types of contemplative practice were studied to see if they could affect “perceived loneliness,” which has been shown to be a significant longitudinal risk factor for pain and fatigue, clinical depression, and dementia, myocardial infarction and high blood pressure, and early mortality.
One of the problems with the research on loneliness is that we have not advanced much beyond the “go find a friend” approach to solving the problem of loneliness. As a clinician, it is hard to get very interested in studies that don’t lead to anything helpful. The authors of the study write…
Interventions to increase perceived social connectedness are few in number and only weakly effective, with a mean effect size of 0.2 in a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.
What is Contemplative Practice?
In an accompanying editorial, Richard Davidson writes about the broad set of practices known as “contemplative practice.”
Contemplative practices have figured prominently in religious, philosophical, and humanistic traditions since antiquity. The boundary that defines what falls within the category of contemplative practices is somewhat hazy, but from a general perspective, we can say that this form of training emphasizes self-awareness, self-regulation, and/or self-inquiry to enact a process of psychological transformation. These practices thus involve some form of mental training, even when they also involve physical movement or dialogue-based exercises… As we can see from the work of Kok and Singer, contemplative practices are not limited to solitary meditation practices. Indeed, frameworks of contemplative training are rich and varied. Modes of contemplative training include introspective meditations, interpersonal dialogue and intersubjective inquiry, and also practices that involve bodily movements such as yoga and tai chi. These modes of training, moreover, can be used to target different psychological processes. Some practices train meta-awareness and other attentional processes, some aim to cultivate qualities such as equanimity and compassion, and others use self-inquiry to develop self-understanding and insight…
An important contribution of the work of Kok and Singer is that their ReSource Project investigates different families of contemplative practice, including those that target self-awareness (presence), emotion (affect), and cognition (perspective), and also different modes of training, including both solitary meditation and interpersonal dialogue. These represent 2 important dimensions of contemplative practice that have received little attention from the research community. The breadth of the ReSource Project thus provides an important window into the differential and synergistic effects of different families of contemplative practice and modes of training.
The study looked at three different contemplative training “modules” –
- Breathing meditation and body scan (the presence module)
- Loving-kindness meditation and affect dyad (the affect module)
- Observing-thoughts meditation and perspective dyad (the perspective module)
Of these three types of training, the “perspective module” most closely resembles traditional mindfulness practice.
The new “twist” in two of these modules was the introduction of a social aspect to the practice. This is a description of how that worked…
2 partners are assigned to disclose their thoughts and feelings to one another in structured meditation-based interactions. Contemplative dyads are a “loud meditation”: the speaker voices whatever comes to mind regarding a topic as the listener’s presence promotes focus for the other’s contemplation.
Another interesting aspect of the interventions was that the “social” part of the trainings took place using smartphone connections. This has obvious implications in terms of replicating these studies in the real world.
The authors concluded that…
Perceiving oneself as socially connected is deeply embedded in human functioning, and the absence of feeling connected prospectively predicts both mental and physical illness and premature mortality.8- 13,49 Because many mental illnesses are characterized, in part, by social dysfunctions that threaten social connectedness, interventions that bolster connectedness have a particular relevance to clinicians.1- 7 Here we provide evidence that regular dyadic contemplative practice at home can be used to foster perceived social connectedness. Individuals currently experiencing chronic loneliness, which is often accompanied by abnormalities in social cognition, may benefit from dyadic contemplative practices as a way to undo maladaptive sociocognitive tendencies…
Two types of daily 10-minute contemplative dyadic exercises teaching adaptive socioaffective and sociocognitive skills increased perceived social connectedness, measured as social closeness and self-disclosure, over 6 months of training. The dyads were comparable to classical meditations in compliance, motivation to practice, and liking.
Davidson RJ, Dahl CJ. Varieties of Contemplative Practice. JAMA Psychiatry. 2017;74(2):121-123. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.3469
Kok BE, Singer T. Effects of Contemplative Dyads on Engagement and Perceived Social Connectedness Over 9 Months of Mental Training – A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2017;74(2):126-134. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.3360