A history of meditation and mindfulness
In the last century, we have seen four or five (it depends on how you categorise the research) waves of engagement between science and spiritual/meditation technologies. Careful attention to the successes and failures of each of these waves gives us important insights into the current crisis in meditation research. Understanding how the curative potential of meditation has been altered by its relocation to science should accelerate the development of more effective interventions. However, there are few reliable accounts of the scientific history of meditation from which to evaluate our progress. This short introduction highlights some of the important and often disregarded progress from past decades.
Buddhist meditation had been migrating for two and a half thousand years. From its conceptual birthplace in Northern India, Buddhism developed many schools and approaches, all loosely tied to foundational theoretical frameworks. Buddhist meditation methods became transnational spiritual practices, frequently adapted to local conditions whenever they established a foothold.
The relocation of Buddhism from Asia to the West gained momentum in the first half of the twentieth century, bringing Buddhist knowledge and meditation to many Westerners for the first time. But as well as introducing Zen Buddhism to many in the West, academic and Zen teacher Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki was also redrawing the boundaries between psychology and religion. Suzuki’s ideas were shaped by the time he spent living and working with Paul Carus at the start of the twentieth century. Carus was an advocate of monism, a concept expressed through the Religion of Science (RoS).  The RoS held that a positivist symmetry existed between elements of science and religion. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, Suzuki had become increasingly influential with Western academics and opinion formers such as Alan Watts and Erich Fromm.
Fromm drew on Suzuki’s reformed, psychologised version of Zen to develop Zen psychotherapy in the late 1950s. Fromm’s interest in Zen was part of a broader movement, and during the 1960s Eastern spiritual traditions became increasingly important in America and Britain. Promoted by poets, philosophers and global celebrities such as The Beatles, meditation in general and Transcendental Meditation, in particular, expressed the aspirations of a generation. The growing Counter Culture became increasingly suspicious of mechanistic approaches to health and wellbeing. Meditation and spiritual world views were seen by many as an antidote to the restlessness caused by an overbearing ‘technocracy’ and processes of dehumanisation.
Alongside the Carus-Zuzuki-Fromm confluence of psychology and traditional spiritual thought, there was a second, more scientific engagement with Eastern meditation traditions. Early accounts of the effects of meditation on the brain can be found in the electroencephalographic (EEG) literature from the 1930s. The following decades were punctuated with several important peer reviewed papers from philosophical, psychoanalytical, physiological and psychological perspectives. A key breakthrough in the scientific understanding of the effects of meditation came with NN Das’s and Henri Gastaut’s research in 1955. By studying brain wave activity alongside other physiological indicators, Das and Gastaut helped to establish the methodology that dominated meditation research for the following two decades.
EEG studies became much more commonplace during the 1960s. Researchers from several countries (France, Germany, India and Japan in particular) confirmed a correlation between the frequency and strength of alpha brain waves and meditative states. But in 1970, a study of Transcendental Meditation (TM) published in Science took the scientific and public interest in meditation to new levels. Keith Wallace’s claims that alongside a range of potential health benefits, TM practitioners could access a novel state of consciousness, inspired meditation researchers for a decade. The 1970s saw a rapid growth in TM studies in experimental and applied settings. In the early 1970s, Wallace joined forces with the cardiologist and health researcher Herbert Benson. Using novel methodological approaches, Benson and Wallace provided further evidence that the practice of TM could lead to improved health and wellbeing.
By 1974 Benson’s research had changed direction, he went on to describe the relaxation response (RR), a ‘grand theory’ that made sweeping claims for a relaxed cognitive state. Benson aggregated operational elements from many different spiritual practices into four essential components that could deliver the relaxation response. Despite a successful book about the RR (written by Benson and Miriam Klipper), the science underpinning the hypothesis never received universal scientific acceptance. By 1980 the scientific community had begun to evaluate‘progress’ made in the study of meditation. Deep-seated methodological and theoretical issues with TM research led to critical reviews from scientists such as Michael West.
However, setbacks to the reputation of meditation research did not thoroughly dampen enthusiasm for the technology. Several new approaches were delivering positive findings, such as Vikram Patel’s combination of biofeedback and meditation to reduce stress. At the start of 1980, there was a growing acceptance of the curative potential of Eastern non-positivist interventions, such as meditation (as well as yoga and acupuncture). But a critical view of meditation research had raised questions about how psychology might best harness the curative potential of meditation.
When viewed from a history of science perspective, many of the strengths and weaknesses in contemporary meditation research are visible in previous ‘waves’. I acknowledge the Western-centric nature of this account. Some potentially important research originating outside of America and Britain, remains to be fully reviewed. But a clear conclusion from this brief summary is that if we don’t pay attention to reliable science from the past, we risk repeating the same mistakes and also missing important findings from earlier work.
(Based on a history of meditation paper prepared for the ERC BodyCapital conference October 2020).
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