Committed to a greater understanding of mindfulness and meditation in all their forms.
PhD candidate in the scientific history mindfulness. Trained neuropsychologist and cognitive psychologist. Private research of 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. Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen based mind training.
Research demonstrates that mindfulness may alter our desire to undertake a task but not our ability to carry it out.
Authors: Hafenbrack, A. C., & Vohs, K. D.
Title: Mindfulness meditation impairs task motivation but not performance.
Summary: An established criticism of meditation and mindfulness research is a failure to address possible negative impacts. While meditation is linked to a range of health benefits, it is rare for scientists to consider if the positive results come at a cost. Hafenbrack and Vohs explored how state mindfulness mediated task motivation and performance. Mindfulness appears to be able to detach a meditator from task-related stress, but could this also be linked to a reduction in the motivation to undertake the task? Data from experiments indicated that using mindfulness to decrease future focus and arousal could influence task motivation. However, in four out of the five experiments studied, task performance was unaffected.
Discussion: Secular mindfulness aims to produce a nonjudgmental mental state that focusses on awareness of the present moment. The removal of meditation from its traditional Buddhist ethical (judgemental) framework has been of concern to scholars of meditation. Whilst mystical forms of meditation are designed to reduce attachment and aversion (the sources of suffering); this typically forms sets up a ‘virtuous cycle’ where spiritual motivation is increased. The cognitive effect of focussing on the present moment without being grounded in a particular view or perspective is uncertain. If the results of this study were to be replicated, consideration of the broader implications of mindfulness’s demotivational effects should become a priority. For example, if mindfulness was used to address stress related to work or academic performance, reducing motivation to work or study might prove to be counter-productive. I also have a sense that this study may be tapping into the effect of negative correlation between the brain’s intrinsic and extrinsic networks.
“If these results are replicated, meditation scientists need to give serious consideration to the potential relationship between nonjudgement and motivation. The unplanned reduction of motivation in the context of work, study or relationships should be a cause for concern.”
Mindfulness meditation finds itself under sustained scientific criticism, could quantum physics explain why?
Experimental psychology has been the main object of The Science of Meditation project. The scientific papers featured in this blog are recent, generally published after 2010. But yesterday evening I came across a study from 1975 that addresses many of the issues which are currently limiting the research and practice of contemporary meditation. Fritjof Capra’s paper, Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism describes the world views of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, comparing them with Western equivalents.1 In doing so, Capra highlights more than a dozen problems manifest in the contemporary (positivist) scientific understanding of Buddhist meditation. One of which I’m going to discuss here briefly; world views as either organic or mechanistic.
Having experienced the benefits of meditation first hand, I find the failure of psychology to demonstrate the potential of meditation both wasteful and confusing. As many as ten thousand meditation and mindfulness experiments have been conducted over the last forty years. Yet cognitive psychology describes research in this area as preliminary! Over time two questions have shaped my academic and scientific work; i) how does a spiritual practice become a secular (scientific) practice and ii) what is lost and gained in this transition? Put concisely, how well has the West understood traditional meditation systems?
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 directionless, entangling the means with the ends. Capra’s paper sets out his interpretation of the characteristics of ‘Eastern’ spiritual understandings, thus offering signposts to how the West could shape meditation research.2
So what are these organic and mechanistic world views that could alter the trajectory of research? Capra’s paper is 45 years old; much has changed in physics, psychology and our understandings of meditation.3 But as a theoretical study, Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism deals with overarching concerns that are 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. It was the progression of this view that led to the creation of classical physics and established dualism as the ‘Western’ way of understanding almost everything.
Conversely Eastern understandings see nature as much more interconnected, that the categories and laws of nature are 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 with the inanimate. 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 complex human behaviours, there are generally several factors influencing the data, including society and the experimental method.
So what does this piece of ‘dated’ quantum physics mean for our contemporary understanding of meditation? The essence of this work highlights fundamental differences between ontologies (theories of being) between the societies where meditation was created and is now investigated. That the West follows a culturally relevant mechanistic presumption of causality, even when considering human nature.4 Not to suggest that Newtonian physics doesn’t ‘work’, rather that it is part of a much more sophisticated understanding of nature. Psychology’s failure to recognise that different ontologies exist in different cultures, even when appropriating their technologies has implications to the study of meditation and mindfulness.5
1 Capra, F. (1976). Modern physics and eastern mysticism. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 8(1).
2 Capra also discusses Hinduism and Taoism in this paper. Although 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 being measured, and how it is understood may be unrelated to the spiritual meditation.
If you’re worried about covid19, self isolation or your future generally, there are actions you can take to reduce fear and anxiety.
At the start of any discussion about suffering, and this definitely includes fear, I like to stress that the information I provide is focussed on solutions. The objective of this article is to highlight ways of decreasing fear and improving health and wellbeing.
Underestimating Coronavirus is not an option, and it’s not the object of this short discussion of fear and mental health. But the reality is that each of us will face challenges during our lives. This is part of the nature of being human, to overcome obstacles. And while we know that Covid-19 is putting peoples lives at risk, it is just one of many dangers we face. However, both modern psychological medicine and traditional understandings of the human experience agree that disproportionate fear is a cause of suffering.
Threats exist, to be aware of potential risks and to take appropriate preventative action is both reasonable and desirable. However, awareness of risk is not the same thing as fearof the threat. Fear is largely an emotional response that each of us has some control over. While most of us manage anxiety well, there may be times when it can overwhelm us. If we experience sustained periods of acute fear, it is likely to have a detrimental impact on our physical and mental health. What’s important to recognise is that much of the anxiety we experience is under our control.
The way we think has a direct effect on our emotions. While we often claim that ‘you make me angry’ or ‘this song makes me sad’, the reality is, we are choosing to feel angry or sad. It is usually our reaction to what happens that creates our sense of happiness or sadness. This is as true of Coronavirus as any other perceived danger. At the time of writing, we face health risks from Covid-19, instability in the employment and financial markets and many other related problems. But these are not the cause of fear in a strictly scientific sense, it is our reaction to events that rests at the heart of how we experience life. It has been said that fear is healthy, it keeps us alive. While this might be true in rare examples (popular psychology often talks about our fight or flight mechanism), this visceral fear manifests in the form of a reflex and requires little conscious thought. However, the rumination about a threat is an entirely different matter, humans can turn relatively benign concerns into the source of prolonged stress and anxiety.
“Compassion training is the most important support to my health and wellbeing, it has given me improved mental health, greater resilliance and a good deal of happiness. “
Stephen Gene Morris
So what does all this mean for our health during the current challenging times? It goes without saying that we should take sensible precautions. But, we should pay attention to the way we think about risk. Too much fear will affect our health and reduce our ability to make rational choices. A number of nonrandomised studies indicate that compassionate practices may be useful in combatting fear-related conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.1 In this regard, compassionate meditation may be a helpful tool to combat fear. Nondual forms may be particularly important to maintain a proportionate sense of ‘self and other’, particularly in lockdown and social isolation.
So the take-home points; take Covid-19 seriously but know that compassionate practices can build resilience to fear and anxiety.
1 Graser, J., & Stangier, U. (2018). Compassion and loving-kindness meditation: an overview and prospects for the application in clinical samples. Harvard review of psychiatry, 26(4), 201-215.
Summary: There has been a trickle of studies investigating the health benefits of prosocial behaviour in recent years. And research into altruism has remained at the periphery of psychological enquiry. A search of academic databases reveals greater scientific interest in ‘self-compassion’ than ‘compassion for others’ in recent years. The paper by Wang et al. poses some problems for current thinking in psychology. That selfless acts may hold the key to reducing the experience of pain. But, in common with all experiments involving complex human behaviours, the findings of this paper need validating through replication.
As a starting point, this study built on the foundations of two pilot investigations. Its cognitive insights are underpinned by the results of brain imaging technology (fMRI). The researchers found that altruism relieved pain in both experimental and clinical settings. The clinical participants were cancer patients suffering from chronic pain. The goal of the experiment was to test the hypothesis that altruism could reduce physical suffering. In this regard, the results were significant. People undertaking altruistic acts did experience less pain than participants in control groups. More experienced experimental psychologists might like to comment on the methods, but they appear to be robust. We should treat such radical findings with caution of course, but also bear in mind this is not a new idea. Compassion and altruism exist in every culture; they are universal human traits.
Successful repetition of these experiments would open up new areas of research into pain management. While also signposting new understandings of the mind. For example, a link between pro-social behaviour and mental and physical wellbeing more generally. This latest study should encourage scientists and clinicians working with compassion meditation.
“If found to be reliable, these findings may put behavioural sciences on a new trajectory.”
An ever changing relationship between psychology and Buddhism reveals the transient nature of mindfulness meditation in the West.
In the Western history of Buddhist theory and practice, traditional forms of Buddhism have been relatively stable during the twentieth century. New Buddhist traditions and Buddhist inspired movements have emerged in that time, but many of the established schools have demonstrated a surprising continuity. However, since 1900 psychology has undergone radical transformations, leading to changes in both mainstream and peripheral approaches. Therefore the current engagement between Buddhism and psychology, in the form of the science of mindfulness, should be seen as transient and merely the latest stage in the relationship.
Research into the history of the West’s engagement with meditation led me in pursuit of a book written by Caroline Rhys Davids1 in 1914. I haven’t yet tracked down a copy of this work. But several published reviews can be found through resources such as Google Scholar. Without reading Davids’s treatise, I wouldn’t wish to suggest it was representative of any or all of Buddhist psychology; that’s not my point. Instead, the reviews of her work appear, in some quarters, to accept that Eastern understandings of mind might be able to contribute to Western scientific knowledge. In one such appraisal, Walter Clark from the University of Chicago wrote in 1916:
The study of Buddhist psychology is of much interest to us because of the fact that it gives us a carefully worked out analysis of mental phenomena from the point of view of an entirely different “tradition of thought.” Its parallelism to and difference from our own psychological thinking opens up many problems which are of the utmost importance in the study of thought in general.2
Clarke’s review indicates apparent scholarly respect for Eastern sciences of mind. Suggestive of the potential for collaborative rather than appropriative perspectives of Buddhist understandings. There have been several Western scholars that demonstrate an appreciation of traditional (Eastern) forms of psychology, but these are mainly found in the humanities rather than the sciences. A scientist investigating traditional meditation methods rarely links their work to underlying Buddhist concepts, citing relevant texts.
By drawing attention to the evolving nature of psychology, it is a reminder that Western science is in a state of flux in some regards. That what counts as ‘scientifically validated’ psychology today, may well be washed away by a ‘post-cognitive’ movement over the next decades. Conversely, much traditional Buddhist thought and practice has a core of knowledge that extends back hundreds and occasionally thousands of years. In this regard, Buddhist writings on mind, consciousness, and meditation are an underutilised resource in the study and use of meditation technologies.
1 Buddhist Psychology: An Inquiry into the Analysis and Theory of Mind in Pali Literature. By Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1914. 212 pages. 2s. 6d.
2 The emphasis is mine. Clark, Walter E. “Buddhistic Psychology.” (1916): 139-141.
There are strong indications that meditation and mindfulness practice may have a positive impact on dementia and cognitive decline.
Authors: Russell-Williams, J., Jaroudi, W., Perich, T., Hoscheidt, S., El Haj, M., & Moustafa, A. A.
Title: Mindfulness and meditation: treating cognitive impairment and reducing stress in dementia
Summary: Mental health concerns linked to an ageing population include, Alzheimer’s disease (AD), dementia, mild cognitive impairment and subjective cognitive decline. We should say at the outset that when people are diagnosed with early-stage dementia, increased stress levels leading to poorer health more generally may follow close behind. This notion was reflected in the aims of this review.
There is evidence that meditation technologies can boost brain function and structure, but there is a lack of research investigating the benefits to populations already suffering from declining cognitive performance. This narrative review examined ten studies that explored the benefits of meditation on dementia-related memory conditions. The study looked across a range of scientific papers to identify trends and patterns. This should not be confused with experimental replication (the repetition of experiments to confirm scientific reliability).
The reviewed studies were seeking to understand if meditation could influence the cognitive performance, quality of life and perceived stress of people already experiencing different degrees of memory-related cognitive decline. The good news is that all of the studies demonstrated significant or ‘moving towards significant’ results. Collectively, these findings indicated that meditation could lead to
a reduction in cognitive decline
an increase in functional connectivity in the brain
a reduction in perceived stress
an increase in quality of life
The bottom line is that meditation appears able to improve brain function in people already suffering cognitive decline. Observed changes are likely to be linked to structural alterations in the brain. These positive developments can, in turn, lead to reduced levels of stress and improved quality of life.
“These preliminary findings offer causes for optimism in the treatment of cognitive decline. However caution must be expressed until results have been reliably replicated.”
The problem in talking about the concept of nonduality is that it is everywhere, all the time, but it is rarely recognised or understood.
Where to begin? Where to begin when there is no beginning? To merely approach the concept of nonduality, several volumes of definitions, meanings and precedents could be used to establish the common ground required for a meaningful introduction. Consider that in traditional training systems, an ‘introduction’ to nonduality can comprise a decade or more of study and meditation. Even then an intellectual understanding might not be achieved, and a genuine experiential appreciation is even less likely. But despite the challenges, I’m going to attempt to outline a basic framework illustrating the inseparability of nonduality and Buddhist meditation.
From the Western academic standpoint, there are several ways of approaching nonduality, including the use of art, contemplative science, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, semiotics and more.1 However, as this is a discussion of duality and nonduality in contemplative science, I can try a short-cut and align these thoughts to theoretical frameworks from traditional meditation systems. Crucially these established understandings have stable ontologies with reliable supporting and supportive epistemologies. Such theoretical frameworks can be found throughout traditional meditation schools, but are explicitly taught in nondual approaches such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra.2 I disagree with Capra’s generalisations about the shared world view of Eastern mystical traditions.3 But I take his point that there are fundamental conflicts between positivist and mystical understandings of mind and matter. This is not to give the first or last word on nonduality to any tradition, school or sect. Put simply, the tension between duality and nonduality is just an elegant way of describing the conscious experience of humans. However, some mystical traditions have established literary and oral traditions explaining the nature of explicit nonduality and the methods that may be used to establish nondual awareness (NDA).
As most forms of meditation shape the cognitive processes underpinning conscious experience, they can be considered as tools able to influence our concepts of duality-nonduality. However, a point of clarification is required, everything we think, say or do also exerts a force upon our lived experience. The difference between meditation and everyday experience is that meditation can be designed to systematically augment our access to NDA. So when we talk about meditation in a traditional context, nonduality is generally (intrinsically and extrinsically) part of the process and method being used. It is also important to stress that Buddhist meditation is a broad church (several different churches), some meditation approaches may not articulate any position about dualistic concepts. For example, Bhikkhu Bodhi has stated that the Buddhist scriptures reject the pursuit of dual or nondual states.2 The motivation of practitioners is also a critical factor in this discussion, people may meditate for many years without ever encountering the path to NDA. Conversely, several people have reported ‘accidental’ insight into nonduality without the use of any of the methods known to mediate conscious experience. Reassuringly, traditional texts from established meditation schools set out the foundational processes leading to NDA, which are congruent with (some) scientific understandings of cognitive training.
Contemplative science (the scientific study of meditation and mindfulness built up over the last half-century) is yet to create authoritative understandings of the relationship between dual-nondual consciousness and meditation. One of the limiting factors in the scientific study of traditional forms of meditation is the very existence of dual and nondual awareness. The assumptions of positivism are that both the scientist and the scientific method are objective, assertions that have been demonstrated to be dualistic and sometimes unreliable. Therefore, NDA challenges the ontologies of many approaches trying to understand how traditional mediation mediates consciousness.
So given the preamble, how to explain dualism to a person neurologically committed to a dualistic view of the world? For this, we can return to preliminary discourses of how does the mind watch itself? The typical cognitive response to this question is that the executive function (EF) holds this task (of self-monitoring). But in reality, we know (at the level of psychology and personal experience), the EF is both participant and observer of the drama of our lives. This supports the view that humans flit between the dual and nondual states without necessarily being aware or having any choice in the matter. This takes us back to the drawing board because it is clear we often see the world in both dual and nondual frames according to a range of causes and conditions. NDA isn’t an abandonment of duality. Instead, it offers an experience-based understanding of the full scope of our conscious engagement with the world.
Preliminary work by scientists like Josipovic and scholars such as Dunne has indicated that nondual meditation methods possess a qualitatively different nature when compared to other practices. But NDA is not restricted to nondual practices, it is relevant to all forms of Buddhist meditation (to a greater or lesser extent). This is the main point, we have a number of neural networks that drive our experience of life. Humans privilege parts of these networks over others, leading to a false certainty or reliance on those privileged domains. Over time these positions become dominant in terms of brain functions and structures. This is why so many of us are oblivious to the limitations of duality, we lack the cognitive software or neurological hardware to access it.
I have yet to see evidence that the timeless negotiation between dual and nondual consciousness has been recorded scientifically, let alone understood. This shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of contemplative science or cognitive psychology. A training in NDA is typically a work of years, and few people ever fully complete this journey. The full potential offered to humanity by nondual forms of meditation is dependent on grasping the nature of highly elusive mental states, considered to be the ‘result’ of meditation practices. The notion that the benefits of meditation can be found in the method alone reflects a dualistic understanding of mystical approaches.
The good news for both meditation scientists and secular practitioners is that a meaningful understanding of experience-based NDA is not essential for the research and practice of meditation methods. That regular meditation can alter brain function and structure is now widely accepted. In some cases, a pressing clinical need may lead to the practice of meditation as symptom focussed brain training, in the way that we could use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). But this has little relationship with traditional and transcendent forms of meditation. A foundational limitation in the scientific study of meditation is also the absence of an appreciation of explicit and implicit nondual mental processes.
If you’re still wondering what duality and nonduality are, you’re not alone. It’s a tricky subject to work with, many experienced meditators are aware of the concepts but still fail to engage consciously with them. For a basic introduction into nondual concepts, you might find the NDA podcast helpful, download it here.
1. Loy, David. Nonduality: A study in comparative philosophy. Prometheus Books, 2012.
2. Josipovic, Zoran. “Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1307, no. 1 (2014): 9-18.
3. It is a complex task to define precisely which Eastern mystical traditions are nondual and which are not. The very proposition is a binary concept that makes no real sense from the nondual perspective. Perhaps at a later point I will attempt to set out distinctions between relative and absolute nonduality and how these can be further divided into explicit and implicit forms (realistically this is a book project rather than a blog post). Capra, Fritjof. “Modern physics and eastern mysticism.” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 8, no. 1 (1976).
4. With all respect to the Bhikkhu, the abandonment of the pursuit of relative conscious states such as dual or nondual appears close to the integration which is one goal of the explicitly nondual traditions. Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “Dhamma and non-duality.” Access to Insight (2011).