Advanced scientific knowledge, traditional meditation methods
Formally trained neuropsychologist and cognitive psychologist, post graduate researcher of how compassion and nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health. Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation. Alongside teaching and research of compassionate and nondual practices, Stephen trains his own brain every day with traditional Dzogchen methods.
Is spirituality a factor in better health? If so does this have implications for meditation?
In a recent article William Sears wrote about the health benefits of being on the spiritual path. He contends that religious belief may be linked to a longer and happier life as well as good all round general health. The idea is probably supported by the experience of many traditional meditation teachers. This has generally been my own experience, people that commit to meditation in a Buddhist context seem to achieve an improvement in the quality of their lives; notwithstanding their spiritual goals.
There is a particular paradox at work here, improved conditions for oneself being linked to a lessening of the attention on oneself. Most people that I have meditated with appeared to have come to meditation to achieve a particular goal, typically linked to health and wellbeing. In this regard as I become more experienced, the less attention I pay to the reasons why someone wants to meditate. I would of course hesitate to teach meditation to someone who explicitly wanted to pursue a negative goal, this fortunately has never happened. But the point is that an authentic meditation method is forgiving of a degree of selfishness. Experience has taught me that an openness to the method is the key to reaping the health and wellbeing rewards of meditation practice.
So I would generally advise people who seek the benefits of meditation to simply practice. Agonizing over the authenticity of one’s own meditation is much less productive that just meditating. Clearly if someone is seeking to enter a spiritual path a degree of understanding is necessary. But if you simply want to feel better, most of your energy should be directed towards mind not ego.
Typically a meditation master discourages students from commenting on other people’s meditation achievements. This is useful in itself but it almost certainly helps to stop self examination, as well as as the critiquing of the people you might be meditating with. As a meditation scientist I’m inclined to think this is linked to the balancing of our intrinsic and extrinsic networks. However much more importantly it’s simple to test for yourself. Try to make a point of criticizing others less for a week, see if this has an effect on your own self criticism.
Meditation for health and wellbeing are positive goals to maintain, meditating for the health and wellbeing of yourself and others may be a more effective method.
Is there a relationship between selfishness and mindfulness?
A warning from the Royal College of Psychiatrists appeared in the media over the last two weeks. The College’s spirituality special interest group chair, Dr Alison Gray, has suggested that solitary mindfulness practice could lead to a tendency towards selfishness.
The idea that mindfulness or meditation could support the creation of negative emotions or increasing instability is a perfectly sensible observation to make. However it perhaps reveals how little western science really known about meditation. Two of the most important safeguards for traditional meditators are:
Beginners are typically taught by a knowledgeable teacher
Learning meditation usually takes place in an ethical framework
At one extreme, a knowledgeable teacher is someone who has meditated for thousands of hours, has accomplished the practice they teach and have many years of experience of teaching. As a starting point the student will be taught, for at least part of the time by the teacher able to offer guidance and training. If the student demonstrates a tendency to selfishness, or sentimentality the teacher will offer appropriate advice.
Secondly by meditating within an ethical framework students are given protection from a range of potential adverse reactions to working with mind, such as selfishness. Whilst traditional meditators are associated with compassion, this isn’t simply an aspirational aspect of practice, it’s also to keep the student rooted on a meaningful path. In fact there are some traditional methods for which a compassionate view is an essential per-requisite.
The idea that meditation is beneficial per se’ is at best naive’. There are accounts of mindfulness being taught to combat troops and executives working in banking and finance. What is the likely effect of mindfulness in these situations?
However there is also a technical aspect to consider. I would expect that an excessive internal or external focus to lead to the development of neural networks to reflect this focus. I have known many selfless meditators who retained very high levels of compassion after extended periods meditating alone. I am satisfied that meditating alone in itself does not create selfishness. I am minded to think that they key is in the motivation of the meditator. In a healthy adult meditator, the motivation behind the meditation practice is likely to be strengthened by the process of meditation. It is perhaps in this regard that experienced teachers refer to compassion as a ‘protection’ to the meditator.
By definition the best meditation is the one that you do. Those you miss are unlikely to bring any benefit.
Probably one of the oldest clichés in the meditators’ handbook but as true today as it ever was…
“The only bad meditation is the one you don’t do”
I should say at the outset, no personal criticism is intended, many meditators struggle with motivation even after many years of practice. People must be free to choose to meditate or not. However as a long standing meditator and teacher of meditation, the most common reason why people fail to achieve their meditation goals is a lack of perseverance. On occasion even the most motivated practitioner sustains their practice just by ‘pushing through’. I have heard highly regarded teachers say that meditation should always be a joyful experience. Whilst I’d generally agree with this, the joy is often more palpable at the end of meditation rather than the beginning. I can’t think that I have ever once regretted sitting on the cushion; but I have felt inertia, and apathy before I started. The point is… how do you create the meditation habit if not by meditating?
Like many useful maxims this saying can be understood on different levels. The outer understanding is that without effort, any skill or expertise is unlikely be accomplished. It is not intended to suggest that all meditation brings great benefit and that meditation will always be a sublime experience. Rather it stresses that meditation is a practice, an activity which improves through repetition. By lengthening the intervals between repetition the effectiveness of the practice is weakened, like most things in life.
There is a second level of understanding, that without overcoming distraction or laziness meditation will never be mastered. In one sense meditation is the practice of maintaining either focus or non engagement. The failure to meditate because of distraction can be thought of as the failure of the meditation practice itself.
Another point to consider, particularly for experienced meditators, is the clinging to a sense of good or bad meditation or good or bad conditions to meditate. This is perhaps my problem, a bad day at work, setbacks with my research, domestic disturbance and the conditions for meditation feel less than auspicious. However time and again it’s these difficult moments that meditation provides the greatest support with. And yet the ego still wants to negotiate, give it a miss today then meditate twice tomorrow or I am too tired, too stressed or too demotivated. And yet years of meditation have taught me that my practice is one of the few activities that increases my energy levels, lifts the spirit and provides the clarity to overcome my obstacles.
This is perhaps the challenge I’d offer to anyone who has meditated for more than a couple of months? If you know that meditation helps you overcome obstacles why would you let obstacles stop you meditating? Clearly if you feel that meditation generally doesn’t give you any great benefit it would be pointless to continue. But if you (like most of us) actually feel that practice is useful why stop? Is it that there is something compelling on the TV, on your diner plate or on your mind? Were these the very reasons why you came to meditation in the first place?
I’m not a great believer in resolutions, however it is the time of year when one can find the motivation to abandon activities that have proven to be meaningless and return to practices that have something meaningful to offer.
May all the beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
Are meditators contributing to confusion and uncertain about meditation in contemporary society?
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?
Beginners mindfulness and compassion retreat in Eastbourne, East Sussex
I’d like to highlight two projects being run by the experienced and qualified meditation teacher Cesare Saguato.
There is a beginners weekend retreat in mindfulness and compassion based in Eastbourne from Friday 9th to Sunday 11th of February 2018. Secondly a public eight week mindfulness course that begins in Rochester on January 12th 2018.
Full information including prices and booking details can be obtained from Cesare’s own website.
Nondual meditation is an established goal of authentic meditation practice. Leading to greater joy and clarity.
One of the characteristics of traditional meditation methods, and other forms of spiritual practice, is their ability to demonstrate the limitations of artificial constructs, such as the separation of self from other. Ideas that polarize our thinking of self and other into distant opposites, are generally thought of as forms of dualism. There are a range of explanations for how dualist thinking develops but we know that it doesn’t effect everyone in the same way. It’s also broadly accepted in both psychology and contemplative science that it is possible for people to access and work with their own world view (mind world) in this regard.
If all this sounds very theoretical and not of relevance to people who simply want to meditate to improve health or wellbeing read on! In materialist societies self-other dualism is everywhere, inequality, poverty and sexual harassment often manifest because a person or a group of people are working on the basis that their needs must be supreme. Unless you stop and think about it, this may seem to be a natural order. The fact that ‘I’ and ‘you’ exist, and that we are not the same person is a commonsense way of looking at the world. However the idea that my needs, thoughts and opinions take priority over all (or most) others is problematic. The interrelated nature of society means that not to recognize that others are in fact like ourselves, with real and pressing needs, is a great limitation. I’m not talking about any practical concerns in this regard, simply how we are able to understand the world and function within it.
I remember talking to a successful entrepreneur about the benefits of meditation. He explained to me how he was self created, his success was based only on his hard work and endeavor. I asked him about his education, work experience, family life and anything else that was important to him. He had been to good state schools and a leading university in the 1980’s, his first job was for a large international employer within a graduate recruitment and training programme. He said his childhood was “OK” but mentioned that significant financial support had come from his relatives. He spoke of the importance of his family. He also told me that the sport of cricket was an influence in his life.
To embrace self-other duality is to turn you back on partnership, mutual support and co-operation with every other living being in the universe.
Stephen Gene Morris
Just by talking about his past he started to unravel his own narrow view of the world. He acknowledged the benefits of a state funded education system, his debt to teachers, nurses, doctors, colleagues and friends. He never used the concept of ‘self made’ in my hearing again. This wasn’t an epiphany, and didn’t lead to any great change in his life (as far as I know). But is shows the persuasive and subtle nature of self-other duality. Inside our heads we can create a ‘mind world’, running in parallel to the actual world. The clearer our understanding of the real world, the better we function within it. This does not mean an abandonment of all of our individual concerns, but their integration with the real or material world. We do have agency, we can choose what we do and work towards our goals. But the idea that other people don’t have a right to the same freedoms is not helpful. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean we have to accept negative or disruptive influences into our lives.
Many people come to meditation to resolve conflicts between their ‘mind world’ and their material world. Problems develop when our view of self and other becomes detached, disengaged. We may think that others should be doing (or not doing) things for us, that life is unfair, or that something is really not working for us. It may be true! People don’t always do what they should and life can be hard. However if we have developed a disengagement between self and other, the chances are that we are not seeing the real world, rather interpreting it through our ‘mind world’. This is an ancient problem described in different cultures including contemporary western psychology1.
If you want to gain greater clarity and to reduce the distortion between your ‘mind world’ and the real world. Meditation can broadly help in three ways.
When a method tackles one side of self-other dualism, typically self cherishing or lack of compassion, it can only be one stage of the practice (an incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling stage).
When an authentic practice and the guidance of a reliable teacher are conducted in an implicit nondual context. This working over time can demonstrate the empty nature of dualistic concepts.
When the method and the teacher offer authentic, explicit nondual training.
Meditation can allow you to gain a greater clarity of how things fit together in reality. If you can subtract problems linked to self-other duality from normal day to day challenges, life becomes more joyful and dynamic.
Also consider that traditionally, addressing the distortions encountered through dualism can be supported by reasoning as well as meditation. Although accounts of the process suggest reasoning alone generally fails to deliver full clarity. However it does mean that through reliable observations we can become aware of dualistic phenomena and how they limit our thinking. Tools such as metaphors and thought experiments may be useful in this regard.
A range of perspectives in western psychology acknowledge the limitations of self other duality. Elements can be found in areas such as classic psychoanalysis, cognitive, embodied cognitive and developmental psychology, neuroscience, critical psychology and phenomenology. A problem is however that the basic theoretical frameworks (ontologies) of some of these approaches are dualistic. For further information look into subjects like, mirror neuron theory, theory of mind, fundamental attribution error and phenomenology.