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 there 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 type of practice and reasons for commencement. The motivation of practitioners was very varied. Among the cited reasons for beginning meditation or mindfulness were:
|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