How much does science know about meditation?

Scientific understanding of meditation and mindfulness

Science and meditation
Science and meditation

Blogging about a related issue at Meditation for Health prompted me to think about how much does science really know about meditation and mindfulness. Leading scientists in the field state that empirical meditation research is at a relatively early stage. But relative to what? Surely not the efforts of the scientific community, thousands of scientific studies have already been published that explored meditation and/or its presumed operationalised components. It should also be considered that there is a vast body of traditional texts available, documenting many aspects of contemplative sciences over the last two thousand years. Contemporary research should also have benefited from the millions of current practitioners, including meditation masters with great experience of practice and underlying theoretical frameworks. It is hard to imagine more auspicious conditions for the study of meditation, so why is the research struggling to make significant progress?

After I had been meditating for five years I asked a traditional meditation teacher what the goal of my particular practice was. She stripped away the esoteric imagery in which the practice was framed and explained the likely result of my efforts. In particular, she emphasized the importance of my motivation. The idea that the method alone is not the practice is central to many forms of meditation and contemplation. In fact, traditional literature from Tibetan Buddhism makes it clear that progress in a particular method may require the application of significant levels of compassion or non-attachment. It is not my suggestion that a western scientific approach cannot fully understand the processes engaged in different forms of meditation. But rather it might be time to start to think about the phenomena underpinning meditation in a more complete way, even within cognitive psychology or neuropsychology. In some traditional schools, meditators are discouraged from evaluating the progress of others. But when you meditate cheek by jowl in a community of meditators for years, you may inevitably observe differences in the effects of the same meditation practice on different people.

Whilst the capacity of practitioners (individual differences) is a known factor in the experience of meditation. An individual’s motivation is also central to the benefits of a practice. This is a paradigm for all meditators and mindful practitioners in all settings. Unless a scientist can integrate the enthusiasm, scepticism and goals of the meditator into the input part of the equation, great uncertainty regarding the output is inevitable.  In a survey of meditators and mindfulness practitioners (Morris, 2017) that included both types of practice and reasons for commencement. The motivation of practitioners was very varied. Among the cited reasons for beginning meditation or mindfulness were:        

Motive %
To improve my health 12
To improve my general well-being 43
For spiritual/religious reasons 22
As a lifestyle choice 6
Because of the influence of others 3
Any other reasons 14

There are reasons to suppose that the motivation of a meditator is a significant influencer on the results of a practice. The empirical approach has a great deal to offer the investigation of meditation, it can help to construct reductionist models able to identify the elements contemplative practice. But we are perhaps at a point when a fuller understanding of meditation and meditators needs to evolve.



Morris, S. (2017), An exploration of the relationship between wellbeing and meditation experience amongst meditators and mindfulness practitioners. The Open University, Milton Keynes. Unpublished


Author: Stephen

Neuropsychologist researching what happens when a spiritual practice (meditation) is translated to a psychological intervention; what is lost and what is gained from the curative potential? A PhD candidate writing the scientific history mindfulness. Also researching how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health. Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation, he has also been trained in the Himalayan Science of Mind and Perception (Tsema). Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen practices.

7 thoughts on “How much does science know about meditation?”

  1. Wow so cool thanks for this. In my tradition of meditation goal to benefit all beings is front and center as a reason to meditate. Have you seen statistics or anything relating to this? As your list of reasons was for beginners is there a list for meditators who have practiced for years?

    Thank you once again,



    1. I think in most traditions compassion for beings is directly or indirectly part of the practice. This is a very tricky subject because the degree by which someone is motivated by compassion is hard to quantify. There are psychological instruments for measuring levels of compassion in meditation studies but in my modest opinion these are very blunt instruments. Within the traditional Tibetan approach there are ways of evaluating the level of compassion reached by practitioners but these are often (necessarily) obtuse.

      The general direction I’m going in is to challenge, a little, psychological studies that aim to understand the operationalised components of practice without factoring in compassion. Scientists are of course free to study whatever they wish but traditional meditation stripped of compassion really ceases to be traditional meditation. There is emerging evidence that the more developed forms of compassion (nondual) may hold the key to the fullest health and wellbeing benefits of contemplative practice.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes yes and yes. Please keep going in this direction. Although difficult to measure as you said, the results might be surprising. Would you be able to share any known studies with me that have covered this already? I would love the read and I am always interested in expanding my own knowledge. One must know what he is talking about before he opens his mouth. 🙂


        Liked by 1 person

        1. There is little scientific investigation of the nondual view of compassion. With respect to the scientists working in this area, there is a general failure to recognize the nondual state, accessible through meditation. Over the last two or three years, some papers have started to acknowledge that nondual methods exist within certain approaches (Mahamudra, Dzogchen). However given that there are tens of thousands of meditation and mindfulness studies in the academic databases, nondual awareness plays an almost insignificant part in contemporary research.

          Compassion however is a different matter and you can find thousands of studies based within this subject area. Definitions of compassion used in research are varied and may be contradictory. Many of the studies would be seen as dualistic (from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective), for example self compassion and compassion fatigue. I have some sympathy for researchers, the experiential understanding of dualism is not a simple matter. It can take committed practitioners some considerable time to accomplish. A traditional route for spiritual practitioners based around non attachment (letting go) is not accessible to many scientists.


        2. Please remember me should you ever find some interesting studies in this area.
          We should find a way of helping science get closer to these questions. At the very least we need to teach scientists to meditate and maybe even revive the old traditions of the science of mind ourselves.

          Your thoughts



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