We are seven months into working from home, self-quarantining and social distancing. This has brought new types of physical and mental stress into our lives. Many people are looking to meditation, yoga, and other alternative methods to reduce their stress and bring calm to their personal lives. In this unprecedented time of anxiety and chaos, meditation is also marketed as a treatment for pain, depression and addiction.

Many effects of meditation are well known, like increased awareness of thoughts and emotions, or improved calm and well-being. There are other possible experiences. Exactly what those experiences are, how they affect individuals, and which ones show up as difficult is going to be based on a range of personal, interpersonal, and contextual factors.

Sounds like the perfect scenario for a taxonomy.

A group of researchers sought out challenging experiences because they are underrepresented in the scientific literature. With that goal, the study, published in PLOS ONE, was not designed to estimate how common those experiences are among all meditators. Instead, the purpose was to provide detailed descriptions of experiences and to start to understand the multiple ways they are interpreted, why they might happen, and what meditators and teachers do to deal with them.

Based upon the interviews, the researchers developed a taxonomy of 59 experiences organized into seven types, or domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective (i.e. emotions and moods), somatic (relating to the body), cognitive (i.e. motivation or will), sense of self, and social. They also identified another 26 categories of influencing factors or conditions that may impact the intensity, duration or associated distress or impairment.

Naming and classifying our surroundings has been taking place as long as mankind has been able to communicate. It would always have been important to know the names of poisonous and edible plants and animals in order to communicate this information to other members of the family or group.

The same applies to the varying experiences and results of meditation. Or prospection.

Prospection is less definite than memory because we are referring to things that have not yet happened, and might never happen. It is also made up of quite varied mental states. For example, having a general optimistic outlook that the future will be good is very different from having a detailed picture in mind of a scheduled happy event in the future. Both of these are different from having a personal goal that one is working towards.

Memory researchers have considered prospection in recent years, bringing with them some of the useful concepts and methods from memory research and creating a taxonomy of prospection. According to this taxonomy, we make predictions about the future, imagine detailed future events, form goals and intentions about things that we want, and make plans of action to take us towards our goals. There are probably other ways we think about the future too, like our underlying assumptions and attitudes about the future, but this taxonomy is a helpful way of organizing the varieties of prospection.

Although much has been uncovered about prospection and well-being, there are still many interesting unanswered questions in this undeveloped field.

Whether you are meditating and imagining a better future, understanding of the process and potential outcomes are made clearer with a taxonomy clarifying and classifying.

Melody K. Smith

Sponsored by Access Innovations, the world leader in thesaurus, ontology, and taxonomy creation and metadata application.