Interactive Meditation Practice as Research Method: An Introduction to Embodied Spiritual Inquiry

This article presents Embodied Spiritual Inquiry (ESI), a participatory approach to integral education and transpersonal research that has been offered since 2003 as a graduate course at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), San Francisco, by core faculty Jorge N. Ferrer. Inspired by elements of participatory research (e.g., Reason, 1994a; Reason & Bradbury, 2008) and cooperative inquiry (Heron, 1996), ESI applies Albareda and Romero’s Interactive Embodied Meditations (Ferrer, 2003) to access multiple ways of knowing (e.g., somatic, vital, emotional, mental, spiritual) and mindfully inquire into collaboratively decided questions about the human condition. Past inquiries have included diverse psychospiritual topics including the experiential features of relational spirituality (Osterhold, Husserl, & Nicol, 2007), the nature of human boundaries within and between co-inquirers (Sohmer, Baumann, & Ferrer, 2018), felt-sensed markers discerning genuine versus unreliable spiritual knowledge, experiential understandings of the personal and collective “shadow,” and the multidimensionality of the human condition. After presenting an overview of the ESI methodology and two case studies, this article discusses the merits, limitations, and future horizons of this approach for integral education and transpersonal research.

Interactive Meditation Practice as Research Method: An Introduction to Embodied Spiritual Inquiry

When research delves into the subtle, nuanced territory of human psyche, spirit, and relationships, it is challenging to find methodologies that can access and express the complexity of such an inquiry domain. In support of this effort, the third annual Transpersonal Research Colloquium held in Prague, Czech Republic, in 2017 invited a collaborative exploration of spiritual practices as research methods. Presenters at the colloquium discussed a variety of novel, spiritually informed approaches to research with the intention of contributing to the growing body of transpersonal research methods. This article shares one of these approaches, Embodied Spiritual Inquiry (ESI; Ferrer & Sohmer, 2017) – a participatory approach to integral education and transpersonal research that has been offered since2003 by Jorge N. Ferrer as a graduate course at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), San Francisco. Specifically, ESI uses interactive embodied meditations (IEMs; Ferrer, 2003; Malkemus & Romero, 2012) to inquire into collaboratively determined questions regarding psychospiritual experience in the context of a participatory research process inspired by elements of cooperative inquiry (Heron, 1996; Heron & Reason, 1997). IEMs involve mindful physical contact between co-inquirers to activate multiple ways of knowing (e.g., somatic, creative, emotional, mental, spiritual) and access both deep individual experience and the intersubjective field between co-inquirers. After presenting an overview of the ESI methodology and highlights from two case studies, this article discusses the merits, limitations, and future horizons of this approach for integral education and transpersonal research.

ESI Background and Methodology Embodied Spiritual Inquiry (ESI) was developed by Ferrer as a research method and a graduate course in the East West Psychology program at CIIS. To date, the majority of ESIs have been conducted within CIIS graduate courses and two have been developed into published research reports (Osterhold et al., 2007; Sohmer et al., 2018). Given this history, ESI has functioned primarily as a holistic learning opportunity, with an embedded participatory research process whose outcomes have been analyzed by self-selecting co-inquirers after the formal inquiry phase. However, as discussed below, ESI shows promise as a transpersonal research methodology that could be expanded beyond a strictly academic context.

At its core, the methodology of ESI integrates two streams of holistic inquiry: (a) the holistic transformation practices of Spanish psychospiritual educators Marina Romero and Ramon Albareda (2001; Malkemus & Romero, 2012), and (b) the participatory research paradigm (Reason, 1994a; Reason & Bradbury, 2008) inspired in particular by Heron’s (1996) cooperative inquiry. The former contributes interactive embodied meditations (IEMs; Ferrer 2003) as primary inquiry tools, while the latter serves as the epistemological framework and methodological structure within which the inquiry tools are applied. In alignment with the participatory paradigm in philosophy, spirituality, and religious studies (e.g., Ferrer, 2002, 2011, 2017; Ferrer & Sherman, 2008; Hartelius & Ferrer, 2013; Heron, 1998, 2006; Tarnas, 1991), knowledge gained in the ESI process is considered relalational,

embodied, and enactive (see Ferrer, 2002, 2008; Malkemus, 2012). Because the ESI method has been described in detail elsewhere (Ferrer & Sohmer, 2017), this account offers a summation of its inquiry tools, structure and outcomes before turning to the case studies, merits, limitations, and future horizons of the approach.

Inquiry Tools Interactive embodied medications (IEMs), developed by Marina Romero and Ramon Albareda (Albareda & Romero, 1991; Ferrer, 2003; Malkemus & Romero, 2012; Romero & Albareda, 2001), serve as the primary ESI methodological tools. These practices use mindful physical contact between two or more co-inquirers to activate multiple ways of knowing associated with five fundamental human dimensions: the body, vital center, heart, mind, and consciousness. Decades of experience with workshop participants and students support Romero and Albareda’s contention that conscious physical contact with different areas of the body can activate the unique epistemic potential associated with that region (Ferrer, 2003; Malkemus & Romero, 2012). Specifically, the mind is accessed through contact with the head and forehead; the heart, through the center of the chest, arms, hands and back; the vital, through the lower abdomen; and the body, through the feet and legs. By intentionally activating these interconnected yet unique faculties, IEMs facilitate multidimensional knowing beyond the type of mind-centered knowledge that is typically privileged in Western education and research.

In the basic format, IEMs involve one person an active role offering physical contact and the other in a receptive role experiencing the contact. For example, in a meditation focused on the heart, the receptive partner lays supine while the active partner places their hands, chest, or forehead on the receiver’s center of the chest. The epistemic focus and corresponding point of contact is determined in advance of the meditation.

After establishing agreed upon boundaries for physical contact between partners both are invited to focus on their own experience, with curiosity and openness to any sensations, thoughts, emotions, memories, and visions that may arise. Participants optionally wear blindfolds to facilitate this inward focus. The facilitator verbally guides the meditation, weaving in prompts or questions related to the inquiry. Halfway through the practice, inquirers change roles, reestablish boundaries for contact and repeat the meditation. Once inquirers gain familiarity with IEMs greater complexity can be introduced such as inclusion of multiple centers of awareness in a meditation, more meditation partners, and/or divergence of inquiry focus within the group. Evocative background music is played throughout that seeks to activate the center of awareness that is the focus of each meditation.

After the meditation period, participants have five to ten minutes to draw or reflect independently. Nonverbal contemplation is encouraged during this time to avoid seeking premature conceptual understanding, although poetry or key words are welcomed. Meditation partners then discuss their experiences and drawings. Often, shared themes emerge. Finally, the whole group convenes to share drawings and highlights, sometimes involving movement, creative vocalization and/or gesture in lieu of verbal articulation. At this point, the meditation cycle comes to a close and is followed by a break.

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