The following article is based on a presentation made during the
Second International Conference on Integral Psychology,
held at Pondicherry (India), 4-7 January 2001.
The text has been published in:
Cornelissen, Matthijs (Ed.) (2001) Consciousness and Its Transformation. Pondicherry: SAICE.

Contextual approach to meditation and
integral psychology

S. K. Kiran Kumar


In the past few decades meditation and yoga have become household terms all over the world. Many meditation and yoga centres, big and small, have been established. National and international yoga competitions are held. Many researches on the physiological and psychological benefits of meditation and yoga have been conducted. In the process meditation and yoga are viewed by some as a panacea for many modern maladies of mind and body. The spiritual dimension is pushed into the background.

Secondly, the terms meditation and yoga have been used loosely to refer to many practices without due regard for the overall connotations of what they involve and for what they are intended. While for a common man these things are not a matter of concern, for serious practitioners as well as researchers they are crucial. For practitioners it is the means of personal growth and evolution and they acquire the right understanding through traditional means, i.e. studying the scriptures, following a particular guru and a path. For a researcher it is a matter of understanding what yoga and meditation are as psycho-physiological and spiritual phenomena. For him the understanding of meditation and yoga comes through studies conducted on the basis of scientific paradigms. The primary assumptive framework and methodology guide what comes out of research. Thus in contemporary research on meditation and yoga, depending on the perspective adhered to by the researcher, different models of meditation have been put forth.

In contemporary psychological literature meditation is used as a broad and generic term, which refers to all those spiritual practices prevalent in traditions like Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Jewish Kabalah, Taoism, etc. Further it is used to refer to many other mental devices or techniques developed by researchers, for example, Clinically Standardized Meditation (Carrington, 1987). Thus, the term is a “conglomerate word” and under this conceptual umbrella a number of "different techniques and intents” are grouped (Carrington, 1987). They include sitting quietly, relaxing, closing the eyes, breathing deliberately, focusing attention on an object or image non-analytically, observing the thought process without judging, repeating sounds mentally, rhythmic moving of the body as in Sufi dervish dance, and so on.

Naranjo and Ornstein (1971) have categorised all the different meditative practices into three types viz., the way of forms (concentration, absorption, union, outer directed, Apollonian), the expressive way (freedom, transparency, surrender, inner directed, Dionysian) and the negative way (elimination, detachment, emptiness, centred, the “middle way”). Goleman (1977) has grouped them into two types viz., “concentration” and “opening up” meditation. Carrington (1987) distinguishes “centering” techniques from “meditation”.

Some of the important objectives of meditation as conceived by different researchers include: (a) heightening of awareness of physiological and psychological processes leading to their voluntary control; (b) inducing psycho-biological and psychotherapeutic effects; (c) effecting changes in different aspects of mental functioning and personality; (d) and inducing changes in interpersonal and social behaviour (Carrington, 1987; Johnson, 1982; Naranjo & Ornstein 1971; Shapiro & Walsh, 1984; Walsh, 1980; 1983; West, 1987). Development of insight into the nature of mental functioning, identity, consciousness, and reality are the final aims of these practices (Walsh, 1983).

The goal, to achieve for which meditation is practised, also forms a basis of classification besides the underlying psychological processes. Carrington (1987) speaks of “practical” and “spiritual” meditation. Spiritual meditation is historic embedded in centuries-old religious traditions. Practical meditation is contemporary and frequently practised in the West. The objective of spiritual meditation is to attain spiritual development, through a process of deepening the range of the human spirit and changing the entire life of a human being. Practical meditation affects the practitioner's life in certain practical ways, without changing their lives in an essential fashion. The objective of practical meditation is to enrich the experience of the average Westerner who continues to function within the framework of ordinary society. Other researchers have also referred to such distinctions (Johnson, 1982; Rao, 1989; West, 1986).

Such distinctions as mentioned above arise from the need to be theoretically and methodologically specific in examining meditation as a subject of scientific scrutiny. They have steered the course of contemporary research by allowing value choices between the two and the research strategy adopted. The majority of published research articles and books deal with practical meditation. The effort is (a) to tease out the underlying technique from its traditional context; (b) to understand the underlying psychological mechanisms, and (c) to test its uses and benefits in a variety of life situations. Comprehensive overviews and reviews of such studies can be found in Murphy & Donovan (1997), Rao (1989), Shapiro & Walsh (1984), Vigne (1997), and West (1987). Understanding meditation as an integral aspect of spiritual traditions, but against the background of modern psychological perspectives can be found in Brown, Engler & Wilber (1986), Naranjo & Ornstein (1971), Ornstein (1972), Tart (1975a, 1989), Walsh (1980, 1999), and West (1986).

Notwithstanding the demonstrated benefits of meditation practices from research studies, many theoretical and methodological issues are controversial. One of them is researchers' greater preoccupation with practical or secular meditation and relative neglect of spiritual meditation. The following observation of Michael West, who reviewed hundreds of research articles on practical meditation, illustrates this. “Why has meditation therefore been practised for thousands of years in a variety of cultures and religious and philosophical contexts if this is all1 that it accomplishes?” (1986, p. 250). That is, if meditation is used only for reduction of anxiety, stress, depression, etc., then the original intent and purpose are lost and West (1986) urges us to go back to the original or Eastern context of meditation.

Second, there is an overemphasis on practising and defining meditation as technique, thereby focusing on the operational aspect without sufficient consideration for contextual aspects. Walsh (1999) has observed that in the Western culture, though Asian disciplines, such as meditation and yoga, have significant cultural, religious, contemplative and intellectual effects, their practice and understanding of these disciplines are partial. Practitioners use a single technique divorced from the comprehensive framework or context. For example, practising asana or pranayama without bothering about yama and niyama , or prathyahara and other aspects of ashtanga yoga . Further, Walsh (1999) is of the opinion that though such techniques in themselves are beneficial for psychosomatic and psychological problems as demonstrated by many studies (Murphy & Donovan, 1997), something vital will be lost in this piecemeal approach. This partial approach to yoga is not limited to Western countries. It exists even in India. Now-a-days asana and pranayama are practised more as physical exercises by many, and we find many yoga competitions held just like any other athletic event.

Third, there exists a tendency to redefine meditation within the framework of existing modern psychological theories. A number of psychologists with different theoretical orientations—behaviourist, constructivist, cognitive, humanistic, and psychoanalytical—are actively investigating the phenomenon (Delmonte, 1987) without due consideration for the original religio-spiritual, theoretical or conceptual framework. Such contemporary theoretical approaches to meditation are characterized as predominantly atheoretical for this reason (West, 1987). The point West is arguing is that the current approaches to meditation do not utilise effectively existing Eastern psychological theories to generate intelligent methodologies, explain results, and develop theory further. He also indicates that there are appropriate Western psychological theories, which are more directly relevant to the concerns of meditation such as, identity and self-concept, awareness and self-awareness, interpersonal relations, and relationship between individuals and social systems, which can be utilised.

On the other hand, the transpersonal group has been more responsive to the original context of meditation than others. These include Brown (1986), Engler (1986), Goleman (1977), Kornfield (1979), Ram Dass (1990), Shapiro (1990), Tart (1989) Walsh (1980, 1999) and West (1986). However, the difference lies in their attempt to integrate the knowledge of the ancient spiritual traditions with that of modern psychology. Even these attempts are limited in their scope because the dominant framework of modern science governs them. Thus, they may fail to take into account the logical limits of human possibilities suggested in spiritual traditions.

Consequently, there exists a certain amount of conceptual and methodological confusion. Many questions like whether meditation has any intrinsic goal or is everything extrinsic to it; whether meditation refers to a particular practice or to a whole set of practices; whether meditation can be defined generically or not; and what research and strategies are appropriate to study it have been raised. Rao (1989) notes that the conceptual confusion stems from the failure to distinguish between meditation as a state and as a technique; a lack of adequate criteria to identify it; and from the simplistic notion that sitting quietly and chanting a mantra is qualitatively the same as practising the rigorous discipline as advocated by the classical meditative traditions. Methodologically, most experimental studies of meditation suffer from the use of the same subject designs, in which each subject is his own control, and the failure to control for individual differences in personality, attitudes, expectations, training, and the length and quality of meditation of the subjects tested.

Such problems of a conceptual and methodological nature, and atheoretical approaches in the psychology of meditation have originated partly due to the very complex nature of the process itself, which is an internal event. More than that the problem is also due to socio-cultural factors and paradigmatic reasons, which are interdependent and have codetermined the direction of meditation research. The Western socio-cultural ethos in which the majority of the studies on meditation have been carried out is widely acknowledged to be materialistic in outlook and scientific in orientation. As a natural corollary meditation is practised from a practical viewpoint to facilitate achieving material goals and is also studied with a view to effectively exploit meditation's potentials as mental technology. These compulsions led investigators to define meditation in non-cultic context free terms (Carrington, 1987; Johnson, 1982).

Contextual approach to meditation

Taking stock of the progress of meditation research and the course it has taken, Shapiro (1990, 1994) observes that it is possible to identify two distinct stages, and compares them to an “hourglass”. The first stage is narrowing of the hourglass. Here meditation research has focused on seeking precision and refinement. The attempt is to define meditation in non-cultic and context-free terms; to explore its utility in a variety of clinical and health care settings; to document its subjective and phenomenological validity; and to determine its mediating mechanisms and component parts. This is the classical reductionist approach of modern psychology. In Shapiro's view it was a necessary and critical stage in meditation research that yielded impressive results. However, Shapiro believes that a stage has come in meditation research when one has to “widen the hourglass”. That is, contextual aspects of meditation have to be re-considered. Shapiro argues that there is always a specific belief system, goal, and particular framework (whether psychological, scientific, and/or spiritual) within which meditation is utilised and studied and hence there is no such thing as a context-free investigation.

According to Shapiro (1990), there are two possible consequences if one does not consciously specify the context. First, the research on meditation may become methodology driven. That is, it gets limited to the tools we have to examine. Second, without an explicit framework of values, just as other behaviour strategies like biofeedback, or behavioural self- control, meditation may become an amoral technology to serve the often unexamined values and cultural assumptions of the larger society, as Nolan (1972) suggested. Then the culture in which the technique is used becomes by fiat the context. So he strongly holds that the premise that we can develop and study a generic context-free meditation is a chimera. Therefore, the agenda for future research according to Shapiro is to systematically articulate and study the context of meditation rather than to create a context-free study of meditation, which is impossible, in his view. In other words, he advocates a contextual approach to meditation.

A study conducted against this background explored the role of certain personality and socio-cultural variables in meditation practice and experience.2 The findings suggest that meditation is a multivariate dynamic phenomenon, in contrast to a univariate static phenomenon. In such a phenomenon, more so than the particular type/technique of meditation, it is the person as a changing context, which determines the nature and effects of his/her own practice. Hence it is the person or the meditator (not the type/technique of meditation) who is the independent variable. A “person-centred” or “meditator-centred” strategy rather than “technique centred” strategy may throw more light on the phenomenon of meditation.

Further, the results indicate that proper understanding of the phenomenon of meditation requires three categories (factors in the statistical sense) viz., nature, influencing factors, and effects.3 These interact in different ways to determine the course and outcome of meditation. All the existing research on meditation addresses one or more of these facets. The first two categories interact to create a context and lead to certain experiences and effects. They in turn, have the capacity to alter one or more of the variables (properties and their dimensions) which operated initially leading to a new mental set or context. In the process the person has changed. Thus the beginning meditator is not the same as he (she) progresses in meditation over a period of time. This is the dynamic context.

Integral psychology as a contextual variable

Within the framework of a contextual approach to the study of meditation, integral psychology serves as an influencing factor (Category II) especially under belief systems and goals (table 1). Belief system refers to an individual's worldview and value orientations as distinguished from ethnoepistemology, which refers to cultural belief system. The latter significantly shapes the former, but an individual may transcend its influence and expand his belief system. Shapiro (1990) has enumerated ten different aspects of personal belief systems in relation to meditation practice. 1) A person's belief about the ultimate nature of the universe. 2) The factors which contributed to the development of a belief system and components within that belief system. 3) Belief as an independent variable. 4) Belief as a dependent variable. 4) Intensity of beliefs. 5) Relation between beliefs and values. 6) Congruence between beliefs and behaviour or action. 7) Our attachment to our belief as well as the specific language, symbol, and form in which it is contexted. 8) How the questions of evil, duality, self-other dichotomy, non-human caused childhood disease and death, earthquakes and other natural catastrophes are addressed by those with a belief in an ultimate, unifying universe (at the deepest level of reality). 9) The potential negative implications and consequences of beliefs.

Integral psychology having its basis in the integral vision of Sri Aurobindo about human and planetary/cosmic evolution, offers a unique and comprehensive belief system to a meditator. It addresses many of the issues delineated above. As Herman (1983)4 has rightly pointed out Sri Aurobindo used the word “integral” as equivalent to the Sanskrit word “purna ”, which means holistic or full. His view “has the unique distinction of being considered in India a modern orthodox (astika ) school of traditional Vedanta...purna advaita Vedanta (integral non-dual Vedanta). Yet at the same time it claims to be a universal doctrine relevant to the critical concerns of the whole planet, and therefore beyond any particular religious tradition, including Hinduism itself” (p. 95).

It is noteworthy that Herman (1983) emphasizes that Sri Aurobindo's thought did not develop in a vacuum and it was typical of the Indian cultural renaissance that took place during the period from 1875 to 1950. Others who thought on similar lines include H.S. Olcott, H.P. Blavatsky, Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society; Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda; Rabindranath Tagore, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Sri Ramana Maharshi, and S. Radhakrishnan. Further Herman points out that there are significant common elements in the teachings of the theosophical movement, the Ramakrishna movement and the writings of Sri Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan. They include most importantly, a universal perspective, an evolutionary outlook, concern for social integration and justice, and a multidimensional view of human consciousness and cosmic structure (p. 96).

According to Herman (1983), Haridas Chaudhuri, a distinguished disciple of Sri Aurobindo who founded the Asian Institute of Integral Studies5 at San Francisco, used the word “integral” in a much broader sense, to include not only the contributions of all significant members of the Indian cultural renaissance but even those of Western thinkers. Therefore, Chaudhuri's conception of integral psychology is not limited by any particular tradition but at the same time can hold in itself each of the different valid traditions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, etc. Hence, Chaudhuri's vision of integral psychology as stated by Herman is that it “should be open-ended, flexible, able to transform itself according to the demands of the fast-paced evolution of contemporary culture. In expression it must also remain as global as possible, avoiding over-identification with Indian metaphysical modes of discourse” (p. 96). Ken Wilber's many writings can be viewed as an example of such a vision being concretized, though it has its limitations.

Since integral psychology concerns itself with all phases of human existence, which includes physical, emotional, instinctual, mental, moral, social and spiritual aspects, it looks upon them as equally valid and contributing for human evolution (Chaudhuri, 1977). For this reason integral psychology seeks to be practical and applicable to concerns of everyday life and at the same time to facilitate the spiritual growth of those who are ready to take off to a different realm (Herman, 1983).

Thus, integral psychology as a contextual variable develops expectations (property 1) about physical, psychological and spiritual outcomes (dimensions). It develops motivation (property 2) for information gathering and learning new techniques (dimensions). And it insists on adherence (property 3) to practice as part of life and as a movement toward a spiritual goal (table 2).

In view of its multidimensional emphasis integral psychology has implications for the nature of meditation (category I) (table 1). Referring to “integral meditation” as conceived by Chaudhuri in his Integral Yoga, The Philosophy of Meditation and other writings, Herman (1983) describes it as follows: “Chaudhuri discusses meditation as a psychological approach to the authentic values of one's life. Meditation is an exploration of the whole psyche in order to amplify self-understanding” (p. 99). Integral meditation operates at two levels. On one level it “serves as a process of mental housecleaning, removing clutter and debris to allow the light of Being to be reflected inside” (p. 99). At another level “by inquiring into the essence of our selfhood we gain insight into the mystery of universal Being” (p. 99).

According to Chaudhuri in integral meditation the need for growth of inner consciousness is more important than any particular method or technique per se. So the integral view supports many techniques for different psychological types and stages of development. In Integral Yoga, Chaudhuri describes thirteen different methods of meditation, which range from simple to complex mental processes. They facilitate the actualization of the five fundamental principles of integral yoga as delineated by Chaudhuri: dynamic self-offering to the cosmic reality; psychic self-exploration; self-energizing; critical evaluation; and existential experience (McKay, 1980).

In conclusion, from the point of view of a contextual approach to meditation, it can be said that integral psychology as a theoretical framework along with “integral meditation” offers a broad and comprehensive context and variety of techniques for a meditator, beginner as well as advanced, for sadhana. Nevertheless, there is a possible danger. The orthodox schools, which exclusively associate dhyana with God-realization and Self-realization, discourage a sadhaka even from psychical self-exploration lest he or she may stray away from the goal. On the other hand, integral psychology with its affirmation of all aspects of human existence may keep a sadhaka moving in circles in a horizontal plane without vertical movement. A guru's guidance is indispensable to avoid this pitfall.



Category I Category II Category III
Nature Influencing factorsEffects
Properties Properties Properties
(a) Perceptions(a) Goals (a) Stress relief
(b) Practice (b) Belief system(b)Attitudinal change
(c) Process(c) Society(c) Dependency
(d) Faith community
(e) Personality traits
(f) Facilitative factors
(g) Disturbing factors

Table 1. Categories of meditation


The properties listed under each category are not exhaustive and are derived and limited by the data obtained on a particular sample. The different definitions of meditation currently available in scientific literature seem to focus on different categories. For example, Goleman's (1978) distinction between “concentration” and “opening up” meditation defined in terms of attention strategies, emphasise on the nature of meditation (Category I). Much discussion has taken place about the relation between the procedure one adopts and the experiences one undergoes during meditation (Goleman, 1978; Naranjo & Ornstein, 1971). Similarly, Carrington's (1987) distinction between “spiritual meditation” and “practical meditation”, and Johnson's (1982) distinction between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic”  goals are definitions which emphasise the influencing factors (Category II). Defining meditation as a means of inducing altered states of consciousness or as a self-regulation strategy (Shapiro & Giber, 1978), as relaxation response (Benson, 1975) are examples of Category III related to effects. One can suggest that the three categories represent a three-factor model of meditation. The various properties of the three categories interact with each other resulting in a variety of meditative experiences.


Property 1Property 2Property 3
Expectations MotivationsAdherence
Physical :
Relieving stress
Gaining more energy
Overcoming illness
Information gathering
Learning new techniques
Part of life movement
toward spiritual goal
Resolving emotional conflicts
Resolving identity problems
Experiencing calmness
Experiencing awareness
Spiritual :

Table 2. Goals of meditation


PropertiesAmerican societyIndian society
Place of spirituality
in the hierarchy of values
Least valued Highly valued
Social acceptance
of meditative practices
Neutral to rejection/
negative evaluation
Positive acceptance
Supportiveness of
Faith factor Less More
Availability of opportunities
to learn meditation
Less More
Availability of
information and models
Little Much

Table 3. Socio-cultural properties related to meditation



Rituals conducted Interaction between
the teacher and the
taught—verbal and
Physical surroundings
Chanting hymns Serenity and
quiet atmosphere
Singing devotional
Interaction between
the group members—
verbal and experiential
Holiness attached
to the place
Sharing experiences
with others
Group meditations

Table 4. Properties involved in faith community


Internal External
Relaxed state Quiet and peaceful
Satisfaction in work
and enjoying the same
in family and work
Lack of problems
Constant practice and
Few external demands
Value attached to the goal
and practice

Table 5. Facilitative factors


Worry Travel
Conflicts Work schedules
Tensions Family commitmen
Tiredness Physical environment
Lack of discipline Sporadic life style
Attitude towards meditationProblems in work

Table 6. Disturbing Factors


It is interesting to note that for one participant meditation practice itself came in the way as a disturbing factor because her attitude towards her practice was very rigid. As she reported she took her practice very seriously and started “judging” her meditation practice. Her attitude, I think I never do it right , was nagging her leading to frustration.


1   Italics author's for emphasis

2   For details refer to author's Psychology of meditation: A contextual approach Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi, India. I also thank the publishers for permitting me to reproduce some ideas from the book.

3   For details refer to Tables 1 to 6 provided in the Appendix.

4   I am indebted to Paul Herman for giving me some of his and others' papers on Integral Psychology.

5   Now California Institute of Integral Studies

6   The tables are reproduced from my Post-Doctoral research report “Culture, Context and Meditation”.


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