Fear and Terror in Buddhist Meditation

A Cognitive Model for Meditation-Related Changes in Arousal and Affect


  • Jared R Lindahl Brown University
  • Willoughby B Britton Brown University
  • David J Cooper Brown University




Meditation, fear, arousal, sensitization


This article explores the extent to which cognitive historiography can be employed to comment on debates concerning the interpretation of meditative experiences in select Buddhist texts. In particular, this article considers references to meditation-related fear and other associated emotional, perceptual, and cognitive changes. Qualitative data from Western Buddhist meditation practitioners and meditation teachers are employed to further illustrate the range of fear-related experiences and how they are interpreted. To account for why certain references to fear in Buddhist literature could plausibly be read as representative of meditation-related experiences, this article develops cognitive models based on neuroscientific research on meditation as well as from cognitive and affective neuroscience more broadly. However, this process reveals some current limitations in the field of neuroscience of meditation as well as other methodological difficulties faced by cognitive historiography when attempting to account for religious experiences from other cultures and from distant times.

Author Biographies

Jared R Lindahl, Brown University

Jared R. Lindahl is Visiting Assistant Professor in Brown University’s Department of Religious Studies. Since 2014, he has directed the Varieties of Contemplative Experience research project, the largest study to date on the topic of meditation-related challenges. His research examines contemplative practices in a range of contexts—from Greece, India, and Tibet to Buddhist modernism and the mindfulness movement in the United States. His research attempts to integrate historical and textual studies of contemplative traditions with phenomenological and neurobiological approaches in order to investigate the relationship between contemplative practices, resultant experiences, and culturally situated appraisals of meaning and value.

Willoughby B Britton, Brown University

Willoughby B. Britton is Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior in the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University and is Director of Brown’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory. She has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and body for more than a decade. She is especially interested in practice-specific effects and moderators of treatment outcome. Britton is a trained instructor of MBSR and MBCT and has taught mindfulness to clinical and non-clinical populations. She now specializes in helping meditators who are experiencing meditation-related difficulties and providing meditation safety training to clinicians and organizations.

David J Cooper, Brown University

David J. Cooper is a Research Assistant in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and has worked on the Varieties of Contemplative Experience study since 2014. He received an MA in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he focused on Buddhist traditions. David is interested in narrative and social dimensions of religious experience, particularly those relating to the sense of self and to the body. He has experience both practicing with and studying contemplative communities in Asia, North America, Europe and the Middle East.


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How to Cite

Lindahl, J. R., Britton, W. B., & Cooper, D. J. (2022). Fear and Terror in Buddhist Meditation: A Cognitive Model for Meditation-Related Changes in Arousal and Affect. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 7(1-2), 147–170. https://doi.org/10.1558/jch.22807