A review of mindfulness research in New Scientist highlighted long standing scientific problems; is it time for a new approach?
The crisis in mindfulness research: have we been asking the wrong questions?
Writing in New Scientist on June 5th Jo Marchant summarised the state of mindfulness research and practice. The investigation added some much-needed balance to the overview of medicalised mindfulness. The article confirmed the enduring presence of uncertainties in theoretical understandings and systemic methodological weaknesses. A discussion of the potentially harmful effects of meditation was especially welcome; most experienced meditation teachers know that practices can lead to beneficial or detrimental outcomes in practitioners.
However, the absence of greater historical insights left us with a snapshot rather than an overview of the current state of our scientific knowledge. For example, scientists have been criticising meditation experiments since the 1970s, but the weaknesses identified over 40 years ago can still be seen in contemporary research. The scientific study of meditation can be traced back at least 80 years; the first decades were relatively free of scientific uncertainty. By identifying the beginning of hesitancy in meditation research, we can better understand the current crisis in the science of mindfulness. Since 1975, an estimated 7,000 scientific papers investigating meditation have been published. The vast majority of this work has focussed on mindfulness, so should we be worried that we still don’t have a reliable scientific definition of it?
The evidence suggests that we (meditation scientists) have been trying to establish mindfulness’s psychological and clinical potential ahead of a stable understanding of what it is. We know from several strategic reviews that multiple ways of understanding mindfulness exist in the scientific literature. While each mindfulness experiment can offer us some new insights, findings are rarely confirmed through replication? When taking the long view of meditation research, medicalised mindfulness manifests within visible patterns of scientific progress. In its origins, medicalised meditation reflects a confluence between positivist and belief based knowledge systems. The current theoretical uncertainty in mindfulness research can be traced back to this convergence. If mindfulness has been developed as a bridge between spiritual and scientific understandings, do we have adequate ways of making sense of meditation as a human experience? The lack of stable definitions and replication suggests there are still significant gaps in our knowledge. The most pressing unanswered questions remain the most important, what is medicalised mindfulness, and how can we understand it?
Might mindfulness meditation be used to slow brain ageing by regulating connectivity between brain networks?
As we get older, we experience an inevitable decline in physical and mental functions. However, the rate of this reduction is dependent on several factors, both genetic and environmental. It has long been contended that there is a relationship between how we use our brains and mental capacity loss. Mind-training, particularly in the form of meditation, has the potential to mediate how we age. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that long term meditators retain good mental function throughout their lives; I have even researched the possible link between meditation and resilience to neurodegeneration (dementia). However, progress in this area is limited by two main problems; poor understanding of the mental processes underpinning meditation and the presence of confounding variables.
Despite over eighty years of meditation research, we know relatively little about how long term meditation changes our brain. This problem is compounded because most long-term meditators are found in spiritual traditions; their lifestyles tend to be atypical. For example, committed Buddhists generally eat healthier diets, take less alcohol and are less likely to be found in stressful occupations than the general population; all factors likely to influence health. Despite these problems, some preliminary research suggests that meditation might slow ‘mental ageing’ (age-related mental decline).
One of the more convincing hypotheses is that meditation plays a role in regulating the brain’s intrinsic and extrinsic networks (I-ENs). The scientific understanding of the I-ENs is still pretty basic. But neuroscience has illustrated that two main brain networks are responsible for our internal perspectives (intrinsic) and external task-based capacities (extrinsic). These are overarching structures connected to anatomically separate parts of the brain. The default mode network (DMN) is a significant component of the intrinsic network. It includes all of those ‘default’ functions that are more active when we’re not undertaking demanding tasks, for example, daydreaming about the past or thinking about our values. The extrinsic network encompasses the task-positive network (TPN). As the name implies, it includes task-oriented and performance systems that allow us to coordinate and carry out attention-demanding activities. But the point I want to make here is that these networks are negatively correlated. Significant activity in the intrinsic network may lead to less activity in the extrinsic, and vice versa. Thus these networks are heavily interdependent; what happens in one is linked to the other.
We can be reasonably confident that abnormally low levels of activity in either the intrinsic or the extrinsic networks leads to problems with our mental functioning and mental health. Meditation research often focuses on attenuating or augmenting function or structure in one of these networks, but typically fails to take into account any relational effect in the other network. For example, meditation and mindfulness experiments have illustrated improvement in cognitive tasks linked to meditation practice. But the increased TPN functionality may also be reducing activity in the DFN; unfortunately, this is an underresearched area.
“While more clinical and basic research is needed to establish the modulation of the DMN and TPN through meditation, and to understand the impact of modulation on ageing and mental disease, the data indicate that meditation may influence different cognitive processes, thus increasing attentional focus and cognitive flexibility.”
Ricardo Ramírez-Barrantes et al.1
Ricardo Ramírez-Barrantes and colleagues published a paper in 2019 that drew attention to the relationship between mental training and meta-awareness.1 Meta-awareness, also known as metaconsciousness or metacognitive awareness, can mediate activity across the I-ENs. That by using meditation to integrate functions in these networks, the rate of cognitive decline in middle and old age might be reduced.
Because of the limitations in meditation and mindfulness research, claims about the regulation of I-ENs through mind-training are still speculative. However, there is a good deal of data, some presented in this paper, that suggests meditation may have an essential role in maintaining brain function and structure through the lifecycle.
1 Ramírez-Barrantes, R., Arancibia, M., Stojanova, J., Aspé-Sánchez, M., Córdova, C., & Henríquez-Ch, R. A. (2019). Default mode network, meditation, and age-associated brain changes: what can we learn from the impact of mental training on well-being as a psychotherapeutic approach?. Neural plasticity.
We know that poverty can make poor mental health more likely. But therapeutic interventions rarely consider the root causes of mental illness. Could nondual treatments be a solution?
The BPS’s project to support people move from poverty to flourishing has highlighted several important issues; among the most challenging is the notion that mental health is not a ‘DIY project’.1 The challenge arises because, in psychology, there are technical and conceptual barriers to considering social factors such as community and institutional engagement in clinical intervention. However, the social networks that mediate mental wellbeing are becoming even more critical in the COVID and post-COVID worlds.2 Positive social interaction is foundational to health and wellbeing, but many clinical interventions fail to integrate biopsychosocial models into diagnosis and treatment. And the reductive nature of experimental psychology places barriers to considering the individual and the social concurrently. Understanding the personal cost of poverty requires a wide lens; mental suffering doesn’t exist in isolation to family, community or institutions.3 Integrating and tackling mental health’s inner and outer determinants is central to countering the psychological damage caused by enduring poverty. This article will discuss how compassion mind training (meditation) can address mental suffering while encouraging supportive social networks. I’m also going to argue that to access the full potential of compassion mind training, new psychological approaches to meditation are required.
Although there are challenges to defining compassion, the wish and/or the action to alleviate suffering is an acceptable description for many working in the field. Therefore, it is not controversial to argue that a more compassionate society would reduce suffering. There is also evidence that more compassionate individuals suffer less. Although an oversimplification, it’s worth pausing on the notion that compassion interventions can support individual psychological wellbeing and the social factors able to mediate mental health. The consideration of clinical interventions linked to broader social settings is unusual for many psychologists, certainly those working in experimental settings. But understanding how poverty affects a person within their environment is a priority. Without attention to the root causes of mental suffering, psychological interventions will only have a modest impact. I’m not talking about social policy here (in any direct sense); instead, I’m suggesting that more attention needs to be given to curative approaches that address both the internal (mental) and external (social) causes of suffering. Over the last two decades, the growth in compassion research has emerged from the project to medicalise spiritual meditation. But few of the 7,000 meditation studies published over the previous eight decades address the biopsychosocial potential of meditation. Ironically, this holistic and now neglected aspect of traditional meditation was critical to the initial academic and scientific interest.
The reasons for reluctance to consider social factors, alongside mental health treatment, are typically linked to preserving the integrity of the experimental method. Controlling potential confounding variables has always been a central goal of experimental psychology. But compassion mind training highlights that mental states are influenced by cognitive processes based on our inner and outer worlds. Medicalised meditation is one area of research and practice where therapy considers both the psychological and the social. Over the last twenty years, compassion mind training has been shown to improve, physical and mental health as well as social relationships. In their 2017 meta-review of published compassion studies, James Kirby, Cassandra Tellegen and Stanley Steindl concluded that compassion interventions held ‘promising’ potential to reduce suffering from depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.4 Two of the leading advocates for the use of compassion training are Paul Gilbert and James Doty. Paul Gilbert OBE is the founder of Compassionate Mind Training (CMT) and Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT), Dr Doty has been the driving force behind Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Between them, Doty and Gilbert have highlighted how compassion mind training can support individual and collective mental health. Gilbert’s 2019 exploration into the nature and function of compassion sets out current research and practice.5 Particularly relevant here is the notion of compassion as a ‘social mentality’. In this context, social mentality refers to the creation of relationships. Although this concept falls far short of the use of compassion in spiritual meditation, it signposts new opportunities for scientific understanding.
A multi-directional view of compassion allows a relationship of mutual support between the psychologist and the patient to develop. In this scenario, peers come together to solve problems; hierarchical limitations are less pronounced. Gilbert uses the primary caregiver-child relationship as an example of this reciprocity, but this illustration is most useful as a heuristic to think about compassion in new ways. Rather than the passive recipient of therapy, the patient also becomes a catalyst for compassionate thoughts towards others. Mind training in compassion can be, as Gilbert describes, a dynamic process between patient and clinician, but it is not necessarily limited to that. Compassion can support the mental health of the patient while also developing their compassionate insights towards society more generally, and thus stimulating increased social engagement. The research agenda of CCARE includes investigation of ‘methods for cultivating compassion and promoting altruism within individuals and society-wide’.6 These are the nondual insights that highlight the potential of mind training to support mutually dependent relationships between community and self.
Despite pioneers such as Gilbert and Doty, compassion research appears to be developing the same limitations as other forms of medicalised meditation. Construct validity is still uncertain, and reliable psychometric instruments are a work in progress. And if you follow the literature, you will find frequent overlaps between compassion and concepts such as empathy, altruism and loving-kindness. Attempts to reduce the idea of compassion by establishing the binary constructs of self-compassion and other-compassion have also run into difficulty; in 2017 Christian Kandler and his colleagues demonstrated that self-compassion is a facet of neuroticism.7 From a historical perspective, several common problems are visible in the relocation of meditation to psychology. For example, similar methodological and theoretical limitations exist in the research of mindfulness, compassion and related pro-social behaviours.8 While it might be premature to suggest the scientific study of meditation in its current form (and therefore compassion mind training) has reached an impasse; clearly, there are obstacles to making further progress. The scientific study of meditation technologies is rich with intersections between traditional spiritual practice and psychology. For example, Doty and Gilbert both draw heavily on Tibetan Buddhist influences in their work. But while psychology can safely observe the effects of traditional meditation from a scientific perspective, integrating practices from spiritual traditions with psychology is a risky undertaking. Risky on several levels, but primarily because of the conflict between the world views of Western science and Eastern knowledge systems.
The migration of traditional meditation from the temple to the laboratory followed a long and complicated path. Many of the problems and opportunities for meditation-based mind training come into sharper focus when we consider meditation’s scientific history. From the early engagements, western scholars and scientists have been working on two broad trajectories to medicalise Eastern mind training methods. The paths of integration and appropriation. The integration path can be traced back through the medical counter-culture, Zen psychotherapy and Buddhist reform movements of the late 19th century. Experimental work with electroencephalographic (EEG) technologies from the 1930s laid the foundations of the path of appropriation. The rise of scientist-practitioners since the 1970s, people such as Robert Wallace and Jon Kabat-Zinn, accelerated spiritual and psychological convergence. In both interconnected strands, foundational cognitive elements of traditional meditation, such as ethical judgement and compassion, were uncoupled from modern medicalised methods. These ‘human’ factors give spiritual meditation holistic curative potential through the interconnectivity between self and others. Richard King and Steven Stanley are just two of the academics that highlight the loss of these elements during meditation’s relocation. In scientific investigations of mind training’s operational features, I have found no comparative studies that evaluate traditional meditation methods with reference to their ontological frameworks. This inevitably means that we have uncoupled compassionate mind training practices, by accident or design, from their original conceptual contexts. This same point applies to mindfulness meditation.
There is no question of normativity here or comparative judgement of the psychological methods over spiritual practices (or vice-versa). The issue under discussion is, how can compassion mind training be best used to support people from poverty to flourishing? Despite a lack of replication, the cumulative evidence for the benefits of compassion methods is significant. However, in common with mindfulness, compassion meditation remains a ‘promising’ rather than an effective mental health intervention. We should not underestimate the impressive progress made in this field, particularly since the 1970s. But the challenges presented by increasing levels of poverty require more reliable and flexible meditation-based interventions. In order to harness the full potential of compassion mind training, two questions need to be addressed; what happens to traditional meditation methods translated to psychological interventions, and what is lost or gained in the process?
Even a preliminary investigation of Buddhist (Mahayana) ‘science and philosophy’ reveals foundational concepts underpinning meditation methods such as ‘relative compassion’, ‘nonduality’ and ’emptiness’. But acknowledgement of these elements in traditional meditation is almost totally absent from the psychological literature. It is problematic to relocate human technologies to new knowledge systems without understanding the original cognitive components. This is an approach that risks creating interpretive forms that lack essential elements. The uncoupling of meditation from its full potential during the migratory process probably explains the perennial ‘promising’ tag that has followed the clinical use of meditation for fifty years. New translated forms of mind training could develop into effective Westernised psychological interventions in their own right. But taking the historical perspective, I’d ask how long will it take and how useful will they be? The pressing challenge of tackling the suffering linked to poverty requires new approaches to develop our current knowledge.
Perhaps the most significant limitation in the project to medicalise meditation is the failure to find a common language for psychology to engage with the traditional forms of meditation. There is a need for a lingua franca, a conceptual rosetta stone that will allow psychologists to access the curative potential of compassion long observed in Buddhist meditation. Doty, Gilbert and others frequently hint at this potential but generally retreat into positivist terminology to investigate and describe it. The role of meditation in supporting mental health and social networks remains largely theoretical or anecdotal to psychology. The shortfall between what medicalised meditation is and what it could become appears to be brought about by inflexible approaches to non-Western knowledge systems; a tendency to translate human technologies ahead of the full documentation of psychological benefits. The scientific history of meditation indicates that psychology requires more sophisticated ways of understanding the world if it wishes to unlock mind training’s full potential. While positivism is a powerful investigative tool, its current form appears unable to penetrate aspects of traditional (non-positivist/nondual) knowledge systems. Given the growing role of meditation technologies in society, the creation of a new discipline to access traditional knowledge is long overdue. The development of nondual psychology would create an approach able to consider the curative potential of traditional compassion meditation (and its operational cognitive components) free of the distortions of cultural and ontological translation.
7 Christian Kandler and others, ‘Old Wine in New Bottles? The Case of Self–Compassion and Neuroticism’, European Journal of Personality, 31.2 (2017), 160–69 https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2097.
 Nicholas T. Van Dam and others, ‘Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13.1 (2018), 36–61 https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617709589.
The scientific study of meditation has been limited by a replication crisis and a mindfulness crisis. What does this mean and what is the way forward for contemplative science?
For at least the last 20 years psychological science has been facing a replication crisis.1 For those who don’t know, the replication crisis reflects a deep-seated problem in how psychology carries out scientific investigations. In essence, it means that many psychological studies from the past may not be as reliable as we thought they were. This uncertainty has implications for the way psychology is conducted, and it may accelerate the declining public confidence in science more generally.
The replication crisis is visible in social sciences and medicine, but not all disciplines have been affected to the same extent. Although social psychology is regarded as having the most significant replication problem, the phenomenon is present in other areas such as the science of meditation. For an experimental study to be scientifically reliable, it generally has to be repeated, repeated by other scientists in alternative locations. If the results are the same, or at least very similar on each of these occasions, the scientific findings are much more likely to be reliable. However, if scientific claims cannot be replicated, it raises questions about how they were initially established, and the extent to which they can be generalised across populations. So if one scientific study found that regular meditation reduced the effects of hay fever, we’d expect to see the same results in other studies carried out in the same way. If not it could mean that there was an unusual characteristic in the first study or some problem in the method. It is for these reasons meditation scientists, teachers and practitioners are reevaluating what they know about the health benefits of meditation.
A failure to replicate doesn’t necessarily prove that scientific findings in the original study were not reliable, but it raises questions over the extent to which the claims are robust. So any isolated evidence for the health and wellbeing benefits of meditation has to be seen as a pilot study, preliminary in nature. In most cases, without replication, we cannot assume that findings from any individual study could apply to the general population.
For those of us working with meditation, the replication crisis is compounded because we are also facing a ‘mindfulness crisis’. The mindfulness crisis describes systemic problems in meditation research that go back 50 years. At least half a dozen studies published since 2015 have identified and described the meditation and mindfulness research crisis. Its main characteristics are conflicting theoretical understandings of meditation and methodological limitations which include low levels of replication. Although many, perhaps most scientific studies of meditation have been impacted by problems linked to the replication and mindfulness crises. The scientific enthusiasm for meditation technologies since the 1970s has been so great that one-off unreplicated claims for the benefits of meditation have not always been critically evaluated by the scientific community. As Van Dam and colleagues have demonstrated, this has led to the ‘hyping’ of preliminary evidence as robust scientific findings.2
Measures are being taken to address the replication crisis within psychology more generally. These initiatives have had a limited effect so far, and their impact will have to be evaluated over the longer term. To overcome the problems being experienced in Contemplative Science, there are three issues that need to be considered by the scientific and practice communities. Firstly the development of a system where unreplicated, preliminary findings are not treated in the same way as robust, replicated work. Secondly, address the pressing need to understand and resolve the known theoretical and methodological limitations. And finally, to review the procession of the scientific understanding of meditation since the 1930s to make sense of the current crisis and diagnose its underlying causes.
1 Maxwell, S. E., Lau, M. Y., & Howard, G. S. (2015). Is psychology suffering from a replication crisis? What does “failure to replicate” really mean?. American Psychologist, 70(6), 487.
2 Van Dam, N. T., van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., … & Meyer, D. E. (2018). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on psychological science, 13(1), 36-61.
Can meditation help prevent suicide? The US Army is considering if mind training can boost mental resilience in military personnel.
Author: Sochara Chumnoeur
Title: Meditation as a Protective Factor Against Suicide In the US Army
Summary: We don’t often review qualitative papers produced from within the US military. However, the subject matter is so important that I wanted to draw some attention to this study. According to the World Health Organisation suicide is a significant cause of death globally, resulting in 800,000 fatalities each year; however, it is more common in some demographic groups than others. In the US, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people in the 15 to 35 age range, including around 250 active-duty soldiers each year. According to background materials, the US Army has been making significant efforts to reduce suicide rates for almost two decades. This paper reports that ‘Many commonalities exist in the analysis of demographics and characteristics of suicide decedent within civilian and military populations.’ The claim suggests that research into suicide prevention in a military context may benefit wider society and vice-versa. The main recommendation is to integrate a bespoke meditation method into the US Army’s daily fitness programme. In summary, the paper argues that meditation could improve soldiers’ mental fitness, leading to greater resilience and lower levels of suicide.
This paper was written before the most recent scientific reviews of meditation research; it also predates evidence that meditation training can expose practitioners to unwanted adverse effects. But none the less the questions that it raises and the trajectory that it suggests are important. A key point made in the study is
A recent reduction in force and budget have challenged the Army to find more efficient and effective methods to ensure readiness in its soldiers.
The idea that meditation offers a cheap and universal panacea is not without precedent and reflects some discussions about mindfulness from within social policy. The key questions to be asked at this early stage are linked to the theoretical understandings of suicide and meditation’s ability to meditate relevant mental traits and states. I’ve experienced meditation’s capacity to boost mental resilience; there’s plenty of individual studies that make this same point. But what meditation techniques might be appropriate for military personnel (or linked to suicide prevention more generally)? Is the non-judgement of medicalised mindfulness, or the nondual compassion of traditional meditation desirable training for combat troops? A final question is one most meditation scientists will be familiar with; how do you know if someone engages with meditation (in their mind). Physical training can be observed, but contemplative mind training is much more abstract to empirical measurement. Suicide is such a serious problem that any progress in prevention is welcome; I’d be interested to hear about any studies or anecdotes that could add to my understanding in this field.
Happiness is one of the most important aspects of human consciousness, however psychological understanding is still at a preliminary stage.
In another week of challenging events, the task of reviewing any book on happiness offered a welcome contrast to depressing accounts of pandemic, politics and poverty. Not that Covid-19, economic decline and the threat from climate change are not important issues, but because the book title suggested solutions to many of the intractable problems we face. Indeed, Layard offers hope that ‘despite appearances, a new gentler culture is emerging’. It’s not that William and Harry’s opinions don’t matter, but rather the extent to which the views of two of the most privileged men in the world reflect the day-to-day experience of life for people in general. But let me be clear, there’s much to respect in Layard’s work generally. An opinion former in the economics of happiness, he writes and speaks extensively on the subject. And as a scientist and academic committed to researching the relationship between health and happiness, I wanted to be impressed, I wanted to learn more. But unfortunately it didn’t happen.
In the book’s introductory road map, the paths to greater happiness are explained in simple terms. We inherit two genetic ‘traits’, altruism and selfishness, and by reducing selfishness and increasing happiness, we make the world a better place for ourselves and others. The omission of evidence to support this model was the core limitation of the work. I’m also concerned by the book’s tone that society’s happiness rests mainly on just one concept, ‘say no to selfishness’. There’s little acknowledgement of individual psychological differences, epigenetic limitations or the host of external factors that create variability in human behaviour. Several of the examples abandoned causality. So, while school is more influential in a child’s happiness than their grades, Layard didn’t address the evidence linking education, income and privilege. Similarly, the correlations between poverty and the mental health of school-aged children were generally understated. Psychological sciences have frequently demonstrated the link between poverty and lifelong unhappiness.
After a set of controls are added, we document that both persistent levels of poverty and transitions into poverty are strongly associated with levels of and transitions into childhood mental health problems
Emla Fitzsimons et al. 
If you separate the conditions most likely to cause unhappiness, it can make scientific models seem more reliable, but this reductive approach doesn’t help us get to the root causes of why people are so desperately unhappy, to begin with.
Over 14 chapters Can we be happier? offers a view of how society might transform into a benevolent paternalistic state. It describes how each of us (parents, teachers, scientists, politicians, managers, economists, etc.) needs to act to support his (Layard’s) vision. Layard combines his manifesto for a kinder and happier society with a distinctive catalogue of happiness projects, a constellation of ideas originating from sources as diverse as the Dalai Lama and the World Economic Forum. These concepts are loosely grouped around several themes. One of the most persistent is that an increase in income accounts for a minuscule change in people’s experience of happiness (a maximum of two per cent). Leaving aside the scientific reliability of this claim, I’m unsure of its narrative function in a book based on the benefits of altruism. It also tends to the dualistic world view that dominates scientific enquiry into meditation and mindfulness. While almost all of us studying the science of meditation would agree materialism per se’ isn’t always correlated with happiness, the effects of long term poverty significantly reduce our potential for positive physical and mental wellbeing.
Hundreds of citations from peer-reviewed scientific papers document essential work in the field of happiness and wellbeing. But the selective use of evidence combined with personal insights didn’t coalesce; there isn’t a coherent framework. The notion that we have two competing neural networks, altruistic and selfish, mediated by choice isn’t evidenced in the book. The available science illustrates much more complex relationships between selfish and generous behaviours.
The underlying neural circuitry differs between psychopaths and altruists with emotional processing being profoundly muted in psychopaths and significantly enhanced in altruists. But both groups are characterized by the reward system of the brain shaping behavior. Instead of rigid assignment of human nature as being “universally selfish” or “universally good,” both characterizations are partial truths based on the segments of the selfish–selfless spectrum being examined.
James W.H. Sonne and Don M. Gash 
As a neuropsychologist, I have some concerns about using psychometrics to infer universal brain function and structure, no matter how well-intentioned the project. Layard is a knowledgeable and credible source; his motivation is to be praised. But by stretching his field of expertise to cover both Buddhism and neuroscience, his thesis becomes unstable. The reader’s main difficulties arise in understanding the vision and how the multiverse of compassionate strands form a unified cord. For clarity, I’ll highlight the two areas of most significant uncertainty.
Even in popular science, I like to see arguments for and against a hypothesis, particularly in areas of human behaviour as complex as happiness. That’s what separates evidence-led from opinion-led claims. Testing our ideas is one way to increase both our knowledge and the reliability of our thinking. But Layard fails to indicate the difference between scientifically reliable and speculative concepts. His use of contested experimental evidence lacked contrast or clarification. In extolling the virtues of mindfulness meditation, the widespread critical concerns of the scientific community are absent.
Yet the mindfulness movement and empirical evidence supporting it have not gone without criticism. Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed
Nicholas T. Van Dam and others 
To promote the use of mindfulness beyond its evidential basis risks stalling the progress of this crucial human technology further. There is currently an opportunity to reset the trajectory of meditation research towards new productive areas and not repeat the mistakes from the 1970s and the 1980s. But for this to happen, we need to filter out aspirational science. We have seen over the last fifty years that merging the theoretical frameworks of Buddhism and psychological science causes critical ontological failure. If we are serious about a compassionate revolution, we must hold our nerve and face the limits of our current understandings. It’s over a century since Paul Carus embarked on his project to combine ‘the best’ of psychology and spirituality in a monistic philosophy. History shows us that this approach leads to scarcity more often than surplus.
Throughout the book, Layard uses mindfulness as an example of an approach able to support his happiness revolution. But by acknowledging criticisms that mindfulness may not generate altruism; Layard creates an impasse that undermines his central claim. By failing to establish a scientific link between mindfulness, altruism and happiness, the reader is left in limbo. By the book’s end, it is still no clearer (scientifically) if mindfulness training might lead to increased or reduced happiness and if so, how? Similarly, the importance of positive psychology to health and wellbeing is highlighted. Yet, there is no mention of the extensive body of self-compassion research that promotes self-care as a route to happiness. You don’t have to be a scientist to see the potential confusions if both altruism and self-compassion lead to increased happiness. I’m not an opponent of secular mindfulness nor positive psychology, but I don’t think the selective use of evidence can be the foundation for a new, kinder era.
The lack of references to the historical development of the science of meditation is a sad omission. An analysis of the foundational studies in the field has much to tell us about secular meditation’s strengths and weaknesses. The range of sources used in Can we be happier? is commendable, but understanding their overarching theoretical frameworks is challenging. To bring people together to support the goal of collective altruism, there must be a clearer vision. Layard offers insights that signpost opportunities and challenges, but fundamental contradictions diffuses his passion. He fails to establish the scientific evidence for his central argument, that humans have trait altruism and selfishness, mediated by will alone. We are presented with a highly personal view of individuals and society. The book is dedicated to the Dalai Lama, and Buddhist ideas are present throughout the text. It’s a given that H.H. The Dalai Lama is an exemplar of kindness and compassion. But what is the conceptual relationship between ordained Buddhist monks and the dominant economic paradigms which limit happiness in the UK? If Buddhism is part of Layard’s strategy for happiness, he needs to share his thoughts of which Buddhist schools, teachers, ontologies and epistemologies he thinks will help. Buddhism isn’t one set of ideas or practices, rather like views on happiness; it’s a rich spectrum
The title of the book, Can we be happier? reveals the underlying uncertainty present in the text. We can, of course, be happier; relative happiness is a state mediated by a range of constantly shifting internal and external phenomena. A better focus for this project would have been ‘What I know about happiness’. Millions share Layard’s wish that people become happier through altruism. His motivation and commitment to the eradication of ‘misery’ are impressive. But throughout my reading, I was longing for the voices of real people, rather than statistical aggregations of misery to emerge from the data. We are not yet at the point where science can deliver absolute truths regarding the human condition or consciousness. A key element in the training of Tibetan Buddhists and contemporary psychologists is the recognition that our own opinions are relative. As such, reflexivity (reflectivity) and a balanced approach to knowledge creation are essential qualities, both for scientists and those that would use science for the common good. I sincerely hope that Layard’s ‘compassionate dawn’ is coming. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be altruistic or work for a more compassionate society today. But we must understand more about the long term effects of brain training (meditation) before secular mindfulness becomes integrated within social policy as a universal panacea.
This review was first published on the Critical Mindfulness website in October 2020.
 Richard Layard, Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics (London: Penguin, 2020). p1
The absence of judgement from medicalised mindfulness suggests an uncoupling from traditional meditation methods. Why did this happen, and what does it mean?
Although definitions across contemporary forms of mindfulness are varied, we usually find mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are explicitly non-judgemental. In the context of meditation technologies, we think about ‘non-judgement’ being both operationalised in the meditation practice itself and in the broader ethical context surrounding meditation. This lack of judgement in MBIs appears to have been one of its foundational principles, present since its medicalisation1. This absence is somewhat surprising, given the presumed conceptual relationship with Buddhist forms of mindfulness, where judgement and ethics are woven into their theoretical frameworks.
Scholars and practitioners have considered if the non-judgemental approach in MBIs has uncoupled them from traditional forms of meditation, if so what have we lost or gained in the process?2 This debate has been illuminated recently by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, who wrote that meditation alone is not enough3. That understanding the ontology and epistemology of the method is an essential part of the meditation process. Although Rinpoche talked specifically about Buddhist practices, his view supports the notion that meditation, stripped of its ethical and judgmental elements, becomes different. We should be clear that although there are Buddhist methods which operationalise a non-judgemental view, they are conducted within an ethical/judgemental setting. However, the questions from a history of science perspective are more linked to how and why things developed this way. What does the apparent paradox (judgemental practices translated as non-judgemental), mean about the scientific context in which mindfulness was established and now resides?
“If we use these precious resources to examine things critically, we can understand both the way things appear and the way they truly are.”
Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche3
From a psychological perspective, the separation of meditation from its foundational judgement and ethics raises three crucial questions. Firstly, given the widespread presence of spiritual practitioners in the research and teaching of meditation, are students of MBIs getting ad hoc judgement/ethics to fill the gap? Secondly, judgement and reflection require engagement with essential processes in the brain’s intrinsic networks; therefore, what are the differences between the results obtained from judgemental and non-judgemental approaches. And finally, if judgement is central to traditional meditation technologies, why has it been removed? It is this last question that holds the greatest significance.
Psychology is free to develop whatever forms of meditation it sees fit; it can also investigate spiritual meditation methods. But the creation of contemporary mindfulness interventions, based on traditional forms prompts questions. If we knew the Buddhist practice(s) mindfulness was translated from, their theoretical and operational components could be established. Then by conducting comparative studies with MBIs, an understanding of what was added or subtracted might be reached. However, the scientific provenance of MBIs is shrouded in mystery; this gap in our knowledge is a probable factor in the failure to establish reliable theoretical frameworks for MBIs.4 Therefore, although contemporary mindfulness stresses a close relationship with Buddhist meditation technologies, this is not generally supported with evidence. So why and how did things turn out this way? Understanding this issue may provide the insights needed to signpost the next stage in mindfulness’s development.
1 Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skilful means, and the trouble with maps.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 281-306.
2 King, R. (2016). ‘Paying Attention’ in a Digital Economy: Reflections on the Role of Analysis and Judgement Within Contemporary Discourses of Mindfulness and Comparisons with Classical Buddhist Accounts of Sati. In Handbook of Mindfulness (pp. 27-45). Springer, Cham. From a practitioners persective see Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 19-39.
4 Van Dam, Nicholas T., Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2018): 36-61.
How did a spiritual practice become a medicalised health intervention? An understanding of nonduality is essential to harnessing the health benefits of meditation.
Having experienced the benefits of meditation firsthand, I’m puzzled by the problems that we psychologist have in demonstrating its full curative potential. Scientists have published details of ten thousand meditation and mindfulness experiments over the last eighty years. Yet cognitive psychology is still describing research in this area as ‘preliminary’. As meditation scientists, particularly practitioners who have experience of the benefits of meditation, we should be asking ‘what is limiting progress in this field?’ My current thinking has settled on two questions; how does a spiritual practice become a medicalised practice and what is lost and gained in this transition?
My research follows the trajectory of medicalised meditation, which includes the early progress of electroencephalographic (EEG) studies and the development of the Zen school of psychotherapy. These landmarks represent two interconnected but separate strands of the same story, scientific appropriation and psychological integration. I’ve been puzzled that the critical question of the potential for ontological conflict appears to be absent from the scholarly literature. I’m sure even the most positivist scientists would acknowledge the possibility for theoretical conflict when relocating meditation from the temple to the laboratory. So how is it that the potential for ontological conflict is almost totally absent from the literature? However, my ideas required revision after I bumped into Fritjof Capra’s 1975 paper Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.1
Although Capra was known to me, I hadn’t read any of his early research. Now in his eighties, I thought of him as a physicist developing system theories linked to sustainability. What I discovered was his thinking on ontological conflicts between Eastern and Western knowledge systems. This paper illustrates that a theoretical conflict between Buddhist knowledge and science was under discussion during the 1970s. What happened to it, where did it go? I don’t offer Capra’s work as a solution to the crisis in mindfulness, he was writing from the point of view of quantum physics; and from a cognitive perspective, he even muddies the water. However, his paper describes the world views of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, comparing them with Western science.2 He also introduces the subject of nonduality to the science of meditation. In doing so, he highlights more than a dozen problems manifest in the contemporary scientific understanding of Buddhist meditation. One of which I’m going to discuss here; world views as either organic or mechanistic.
Strategic reviews of research published since 2016 generally identify two limitations in the science of meditation, an absence of theoretical frameworks and widespread methodological flaws. The lack of a cohesive ontology (framework) is the greater of the two problems. Without a guiding rationale, the scientific method can become idiosyncratic, entangling the means with the ends. Individual understandings and approaches to experimental psychology lead to several problems, not least issues replicating findings. in meditation research that we still lack construct validity and thus also robust psychometric instruments. Capra’s paper sets out some unresolved issues that might help explain limitations in the scientific study of meditation.
The essence of his argument is that while the mystical East has an organic world view, the West has invested heavily in mechanistic understandings of nature. Capra’s paper is 45 years old; much has changed in physics, psychology and contemplative science in this time.3 But as a theoretical study, Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism deals with overarching concerns that are almost timeless. Capra argues that the view of ‘reality’ developed in the West rests on certain principles, such as those set out by the anatomist Democritus. The progression of this view led to the creation of classical physics and established dualism as the Western way of understanding almost everything. As the origins of Buddhism and Hinduism predate Democritus, traditional meditation sits on different theoretical foundations.
The division of nature into separate objects is, of course, useful and necessary to cope with our everyday environment, but it is not a fundamental feature of reality.
1Fritjof Capra, p. 21.
These Eastern understandings see nature as interconnected on the highest level. From this vantage point, Western categorisations and laws of nature appear as constructs, built by mental processes rather than absolute ‘truths’. Capra offers a deal of evidence from quantum physics to demonstrate how this proposition might work. But for the psychological sciences, the value of this insight is self-evident, humans rarely respond to complex phenomena in a universally predictable manner. And where experiments reveal ‘universality’ in human behaviours, several factors influence the data, including society and the experimental method. You don’t need a laboratory to illustrate the limitations of dualistic models of mind and body; it’s sufficient to sit quietly and think about it.
So what does this ‘dated’ consideration of quantum physics mean for our understanding of meditation? This work’s essence highlights fundamental differences between ontologies (theories of being) of East and West. Suggestive of a conceptual gap between meditation’s original function and purposes and positivism’s ability to relate to them. That the West follows a ‘culturally situated’ mechanistic presumption of causality, even when considering human nature.4 Not to claim that Newtonian physics doesn’t ‘work’, but suggesting that it is one approach in a more sophisticated understanding of life. Psychology’s failure to recognise the importance of base ontology when appropriating culturally ‘diverse’ technologies is fascinating. Have we been we trying to understand meditation through the effect rather than the cause? This kind of thinking might explain the lack of replicated results after eight decades of experimentation.5
Despite over-generalisation problems, Capra offers insights into why a traditional understanding of meditation might be almost incomprehensible to positivist science. That a scientist (or even a meditator) rooted in a dualistic viewpoint cannot access the path to a nondual understanding. Advocates of contemporary secular methods can maintain that the ontologies of mystical traditions are unrelated to modern mindfulness. This notion could be a reliable observation, but it gives rise to two at least two problems. It translates meditation to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), perhaps one reason why modern secular meditation methods rarely outperform CBT in clinical trials. But also that the benefits of traditional meditation are universal and profoundly different from those offered by CBT. Using positivism to define meditation risks converting nativist knowledge to known frames of reference, inevitably missing the opportunity to further develop psychology into new and potentially profitable areas. For my research, the discovery of the Capra paper presents a new problem. Why has the potential for ontological conflict between dual and nondual knowledge systems been ignored in the psychological literature?
2 Capra also discusses Hinduism and Taoism in this paper. Grouping ideas from different Buddhist schools or diverse religio-philosophical systems can lead to over-generalisations, each of the points made needs to considerer on its individual merit.
3 I’m unfamiliar with Capra’s later studies; his views may have changed radically since this paper was published. I’d be delighted to hear from you if you are familiar with his recent work, feel free to email me or post comments in the text box below.
4 Capra’s thinking embraces physics generally, the emphasis on human behaviour here is my focus rather than a reflection of the paper under discussion.
5 While the existing positivist ontologies present in cognitive psychology offer investigatory potential; there are two problems if traditional meditation is based on a Western world view. Firstly without cognisance of the spiritual frameworks, the contemporary interpretation of the original practices may lack elements foundational to its understanding. Secondly, while positivist approaches will produce data, what is measured, and how it is understood may be unrelated to the spiritual meditation.
The scientific study of meditation has produced 7,000 peer reviewed studies, but our understanding is still described as preliminary. Has the time come for a more critical approach to mindfulness?
So broad has the field of mindfulness become that we find conflicting, coexisting and complementary perspectives among practices. Traditional mindfulness methods include explicitly and implicitly nondual understandings that appear abstract (incommensurable) to positivist scientific enquiry. However, the exponential growth in the modern forms of mindfulness sits primarily within the positivist ontology of experimental psychology. Positivism creates understandings linked to established tenets. In particular, it (a) assumes psychological phenomena follow deterministic (causal) patterns, (b) that explanations for behaviour can be generalised beyond narrow experimental settings and (c) elaborate explanations are rejected in favour of parsimonious accounts. Also, (d) that reductive investigations can offer understandings of complex human behaviours and cognitive states and (e) experiments produce events which can be reliably measured. In many respects, the positivist approach has successfully contributed a great deal to our understandings of human behaviour. However, its ability to explain and evaluate traditional and medicalised mindfulness and meditation is facing challenges from within the scientific community1.
Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was the architect of experimental psychology. Towards the end of the 19th century, Wundt became one of the first researchers to conceptualise and investigate psychology as a field of science rather than philosophy2. But Wundt was also very clear about the limitations of the experimental approach, that nuanced human behaviours were not accessible to methodologies rooted in positivism3. After all, we humans are replete with agency, we can take for or against an idea with little rational justification. Given the spectrum of human experience, Wundt’s position seems to hold some merit. How can experiments be created that fully explain and generalise highly individualised behaviour? Behaviour created and maintained within abstract inner worlds, which is supported by unique environmental conditions? Consider that meditation is the mediation of consciousness, of which psychology only has a rudimentary understanding. One of the issues that Wundt’s concerns highlight is ‘fitness for purpose’. That experimental psychology requires (among other things) the reliable measurement of at least two fixed points to meet the requirements of empiricism. Criticisms of the science of mindfulness include the contention that establishing ‘fixed points’ when dealing with universal human consciousness is problematic. That is not to say that individual studies cannot identify their own fixed points to generate data. But the extent to which different studies use the same, constructs, scales and understandings is highly variable.1
Reviews of the scientific literature have indicated that there are multiple understandings of the mental states and traits described as mindfulness. That congruence between contemporary and traditional forms of mindfulness have not been established at operational or theoretical levels. There are widespread methodological problems in how mindfulness is observed by and integrates with the scientific method. But the uncertainty surrounding mindfulness is not a new issue. The term mindfulness in the context of contemplative science was first translated into English in 1881. Since which time understandings have been continually proposed, developed, corrected and reconsidered4. Today, contemplative science appears no closer to a clear definition of precisely what mindfulness might be or how interventions can meditate it. The pressing questions asked by critical mindfulness are, how can positivism alone make sense of behaviour that defies an authoritative description at the theoretical and operational level? And how can psychology develop a more rigorous approach to testing the findings and claims produced by 7,000 published meditation studies over the last eight decades?
The traditional Buddhist account of mindfulness plays on aspects of remembering, recalling, reminding and presence of mind that can seem underplayed or even lost in the context of MBSR and MBCT.
Rupert Gethin 4
1 Van Dam, Nicholas T., Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2018): 36-61.
2 Danziger, Kurt. “The positivist repudiation of Wundt.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 15, no. 3 (1979): 205-230.
3 Wundt, Wilhelm. “Über Ausfrageexperimente und über die Methoden zur Psychologie des Denkens.” Psychologische Studien 3 (1907): 301-360.
4 Gethin, Rupert. “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 263-279.
Image of Wundt – Weltrundschau zu Reclams Universum 1902 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons