Meditators must engage more with science

Are meditators contributing to confusion and uncertain about meditation in contemporary society?

Meditate for improved health and well being
What do meditators know about meditation?

A significant amount of media coverage is dedicated to the benefits (or not) of working with mind. Frequently scientific studies are cited to support a particular position or opinions about aspects of meditation. However there is little public engagement with the science of meditation more generally. The last 30 years has seen an increasing interest in both traditional and contemporary forms of meditation and mindfulness. As someone who has received great benefits from ‘practice’, I welcome wider discussion on the subject. Regrettably the voices of practitioners are rarely heard in the empirical debate, even though they hold a significant body of knowledge not necessarily accessible to the scientists. It is true that many meditation scientists are in fact practitioners, I am a case in point. But I’m not sure that I can be a representative for, or of the wider meditation community with regards to my own research.

In every instance there are significant differences in the roles of subjective observer (practitioner) and objective observer (scientist). Within contemporary experimental psychology the quantitative, objective approach is generally kept distant from issues connected to actual real world experience. This makes the input of a large and influential meditation community essential to a balanced understanding of meditation. For example for a considerable time nondual forms of meditation were not being recognized by most researchers, despite the fact that duality is a central pillar of Buddhist teaching and a context for all related practices.

Traditionally scientific research is evaluated by other scientists through a peer review system. Influential research can remain within the maze of academic publications and scientific reviews for years. If a paper is regarded as being of particular interest it can be brought into the mainstream by journalists or other commentators. But it is also possible for research to influence public policy without a conversation with the wider community. In general terms I think people should be free to develop their own ideas about meditation. But it’s probably not useful for scientists to be evaluating what a practice is, without a clear understanding of how it is undertaken and what the meditator is doing with their mind. Published meditation and mindfulness studies can now be measured in tens of thousands (just check on Google Scholar). But the contribution of many of these papers is uncertain. Most studies report some ‘effect’ from a training in meditation, but when a range of studies are compared (meta reviewed), patterns are less than clear. In fact the methodological and theoretical basis of many meditation studies does not stand up to close scientific scrutiny. The relationship between traditional meditation and contemporary mindfulness practices is also somewhat confused.

As a Buddhist meditator (rather than a dharma scholar) my training has largely been based on challenging self rather than other. However as a meditation scientist a critical perspective is essential to both understand and engage with meditation studies. Many practitioners may feel that the scientific community are in a good position to inform society about the value of meditation and mindfulness. It is perhaps this view that has allowed meditation to be a partner in an appropriation process, both directly and by association. From my current vantage point, as a long standing meditator and post grad researcher, I can see a need for greater interaction between the meditation and scientific communities.

Meditation is by its very nature an experiential  practice, what happens to the meditator is of crucial importance in the process. And yet meditation research has been dominated by ‘objective’ scientific measurement. Broad acceptance of the need to better understand the experience of the meditator (e.g. the phenomenological matrix) has only been around for a few years.  There are almost no authoritative surveys focusing specifically on either meditators, meditation practice or the meditation communities at large. Even in strictly secular forms of meditation such as MBIs there is a need for a wider discussion about the processes involved and the relationship with traditional approaches. Mindfulness has existed for centuries in Buddhist practices but the terminology is evolving into new areas in a contemporary setting. Some teachers of traditional meditation now draw a distinction between MBIs as ‘bare attention’ and Buddhist understandings of mindfulness. Does this mean we now need to distinguish between different forms of mindfulness? Recent investigations has suggested that mindfulness research can be based on one of dozens of operational definitions. This confusion has in part been caused because the field of contemplative science has little input from contemplatives.

There are I think, three things that could be done immediately.

  • If as a meditator you encounter unclear information about meditation in your sphere of activity you may wish to attempt to discuss it.  A polite engagement is likely to be enriching even if your original thoughts prove to be wrong.
  • Those individuals and organisation regarded as stakeholders in meditation (traditional and secular), should offer greater public comment regarding scientific matters linked to meditation.
  • Finally a forum should be created where meditators and meditation scientists can come together to discuss the science of meditation. Not a limited contact between senior Buddhist figures and leading neuroscientist, but a dialogue in every community where meditators and scientists share this common interest.

Many traditional practitioners are taught  not accept teachings just because they come from someone who seems knowledgeable, like a monk for example. Rather to test the teachings for themselves. Given the known and demonstrated problems in the research of meditation perhaps the same logic should be applied to statements from scientists?

Author: Stephen Gene Morris

Post graduate researcher of relationships between meditation and wellbeing. Decades of practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation. Teaching and research of compassionate and nondual practice. Extensive exposure to Buddhist and other spiritual systems. Training in diverse forms of psychology and reasoning.

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