The idea that a meaningful understanding of meditation can be reached through scientific research alone is being challenged.
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.
An important truth about mindfulness and meditation practice
For centuries, meditation has offered a range of benefits to those that would understand and practice it. Contemporary forms of mindfulness now shows signs of providing practitioners with improvements to health and wellbeing. However the essence of meditation inevitably rests with what a meditator does with their mind, not only the method they use. This is a thorny issue that has pervaded Buddhist literature across the centuries. Traditionally meditation teachers talk about the capacity of students, the innate potential of a meditator to follow a particular method. This strongly supports the idea that there are a number of factors which can be regarded as either favorable or potentially limiting in the meditator. Among these factors motivation may be worthy of particular attention.
The majority of experimental studies of meditation I have reviewed have at least one thing in common;
not all participants receive the same level of benefit from meditation or mindfulness practice
One explanation of this from a psychological perspective is the individual differences between participants. This is the modern psychological equivalent of what Tibetan Buddhism calls capacity. However there is a characteristic of the Tibetan approach that might be able to shed light on the idea of capacity (or individual differences), it is Bodhicitta1. Progressing beyond the basic stages of meditation (in traditional Tibetan systems) is said to require a Bodhicitta motivation, a wish to use meditation to reduce suffering to self and other inseparably. This is an over simplification of course, there are hundreds of different methods among the Tibetan schools and the degree to which each teacher stresses the need for Bodhicitta is not consistent. However it’s probably reliable to say that compassion based motivation underpins access to and progress within many traditional systems.
No individual spiritual or secular tradition owns the definition of meditation or mindfulness, nor the practices that surround it. And so meditation can grow and develop into any direction demanded by human experience. On one level meditation takes place in a particular context, during a meditation class for example; this may reflect a particular view of the nature of mind and meditation. An alternatively perspective is that the same mind is present inside and outside of formal meditation in a completely integrated way. Some approaches regard meditation as a training of mental processes, effectively a form of behavioral therapy or cognitive development. Sit on a cushion, train for a period of time and acquire some new cognitive disciplines or skills. Other long standing meditation traditions take a different approach, seeing meditation leading to the development of the entire person. Tibetan traditions can also stress compassion as a necessary element for the progress of a meditator, not simply as a prerequisite of some abstract metaphysical paradigm.
We now live in conditions where one form of ‘Buddhist inspired meditation’ has been used by military personnel heading for active service, as well as by high flying business people in a corporate environment. Perhaps the terms meditation and mindfulness do not fully explain any method of meditation clearly, nor give insight into the potential of different approaches. Buddhist meditation systems have developed over centuries in the context of compassion, tolerance and loving kindness. The motivation of the practitioner in this regard is usually seen as key in the progress that they might make. Understanding practitioner motivation; why someone is meditating and what they hope to get from the experience could offer new possibilities in understanding relationships between meditation and wellbeing. But an important step for psychology and neuroscience may be to further explore how concepts like nondual compassion and Bodhicitta motivation may be able to influence the development of the meditator.
1 Bodhicitta can be thought of as a naturally arising wish to attain enlightenment in order to free all beings from suffering. However definitions vary from tradition to tradition.
Evidence of a lasting impact of meditation
As the body of research into meditation grows, the evidence of the actual effect of meditating increases. Western science rarely provides clear evidence of causality, particularly when it comes to understanding complex human behavior such as meditation. However there are a significant number of studies that document a relationship between meditation and brain activity.
In 2012 a study was carried out into the effects of meditation (mindfulness and compassion methods) that had a direct effect on the response of a part of the brain called the amygdala to emotional stimuli. The headline findings from this study are that the changes to the amygdala response were measured while people were not meditating, meaning that the effects of an eight week meditation programme were experienced outside of meditation practise. Meditation had been able to exert an influence on people’s brains during a non-meditative state.
More details of this study at Science Daily.
Can meditation impact on growing mental health challenges facing society?
Although Meditation for Health doesn’t specifically offer therapeutic interventions, I am mindful that many of the people who meditate with us are looking for a solution to one or more issues. I started to meditate for this very reason. It was only after seeing the effect meditation had on my own mental health that I decided to graduate first as a psychologist and subsequently take postgraduate studies in cognitive psychology and neuropsychology.
The last few months have seen very worrying data coming from the UK. A study from Liverpool University published recently had a headline finding that 1 in 4, 14 year old females are showing signs of depression. Childline reported a 15% year on year increase in contact with young people with suicidal thoughts. Manchester University found steep rises in identified cases of self harm in girls between 13 and 16 (although the data may be influenced by GPs being better able to see the signs of self harm – but there was no recorded increase among younger and older females!).
The actual mental health of young people and the long term implications of these studies (should the findings prove to be robust) is very worrying. In the UK we have an ageing population living longer, we can expect to have significant increases in the numbers of people with long term chronic health problems. We know about the implications of obesity in terms of impact on population health. If there is a decline in the mental health of young people, and a lowering of resilience generally it suggests very challenging times for society in the years ahead.
As a long term meditator I’m certain that meditation can offer some answers. However it’s hard to imagine that it could play a significant role in children as young as 10 and 11. There are also some other concerns, removing the spiritual dimension from traditional forms of meditation, such as mindfulness, may strip meditation of some of its long term wellbeing potential. In particular separating meditation into systems that benefit self or other may be deconstructing the very qualities that drew psychologists towards traditional forms of meditation practice in the first place. The disconnection of concepts such as, self and other, subject and object, needs to be studied much more closely if secular forms of meditation are to fulfill their full potential.
(Copy of an answer originally posted to Research Gate on 24/10/17)
If you would like more information about meditating with us in Kent or London please get in touch.
The Science of Meditation blog explores recent research in the contemplative sciences
Although it might appear that meditation holds a place in mainstream society, its precise role and the benefits it can bring are very much a subject of academic debate. Western science, particularly psychology, is struggling to establish a coherent definition of meditation which can be used to create a theoretical framework within which meditation might be fully understood. In plain speaking meditation is not always defined reliably, what its components are and how it works is subject to a degree of interpretation. One of the strengths of experimental psychology is replication, when the results of an experiment are repeated by different scientists at different times then the results tend to be viewed more favorably. Because of a lack of consistent definitions, satisfactory replication is big issue in meditation research.
This is not a criticism of meditation. I have seen and experienced the benefits of meditation over many years. But I would like to see significant reforms in the way meditation is researched. The Science of Meditation is a website that highlights and reviews some of the latest research into meditation. Recent blog entries include studies investigating the effectiveness of meditation in a clinical setting as well as workable definitions of the term mindfulness.