Two leading researchers from contemplative science respond to a critical study of meditation and mindfulness research. In declining to address the important theoretical issues known to exist in contemplative science has an opportunity been missed?
Authors: Richard J. Davidson and Cortland J. Dahl
Title: Outstanding Challenges in Scientific Research on Mindfulness and Meditation
Summary: The article begins by applauding the critique of Van Dam et al. This is only to be expected, published meditation and mindfulness research often falls short of the standards normally required of journal articles in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. The authors address the five points raised by the original article in a very linear fashion, failing to grasp the underlying issues. The same issues that have dogged meditation research since the launch of MBSR. However summerising the five rebuttals contained in the paper:
1 – The criticisms of meditation research reflect weakness in psychological research more generally.
2 – Contemplative practices are varied and scientific enquiry is only able to understand a few limited forms.
3 – Mindfulness and contemplative practices were not originally therapeutic in nature
4 – Research has failed to understand meditation in a relevant context.
5 – Mobile technology may be able to resolve some of the methodological issues.
Critique: It is important to note that Davidson and Dahl are leaders in this field but if they permit, I offer some observation as an experienced meditator and trained psychologist.
Psychology does not appear to understand meditation, the misappropriation of the term mindfulness has led contemporary meditation research into a dead end. The study of MBSR and related families of mindfulness are legitimate objects of clinical enquiry and experimental investigation. They have however little connection with mindfulness in its many forms as practiced in spiritual traditions. Buddhism is not one unified tradition, there are different approaches to what one might call mindfulness, these extend from ‘bare attention’ through to ‘shine’ as practiced in Tibetan traditions. Typically shine is engaged with after many years of stable foundational practice. The reliability of the terms ‘mindfulness’ in relation to MBSR needs some further work. The conceptual fusion of authentic spiritual practice and contemporary cognitive mindfulness is demonstrably confusing.
In a traditional context a meditation master may undertake decades of practice and years of study to understand meditation on theoretical and experiential levels. This degree of knowledge and precision is largely absent from meditation research, despite the fact that there are many accomplished meditators among the contemplative science research community. The tensions between duality and non duality exist in almost all contemplative practice, yet these understandings are almost completely absent from scientific research into mindfulness and meditation.
Contemporary mindfulness is neither an authentic meditation practice (in the traditional sense) nor a fully validated CBT. It has somehow fallen between the cracks. The problem is how can it now be successfully repositioned?