Meditation, mindfulness and suicide prevention

Can meditation help prevent suicide? The US Army is considering if mind training can boost mental resilience in military personnel.

Suicide, a leading cause of death worldwide

Author: Sochara Chumnoeur

Year: 2017

Title: Meditation as a Protective Factor Against Suicide In the US Army

Summary: We don’t often review qualitative papers produced from within the US military. However, the subject matter is so important that I wanted to draw some attention to this study. According to the World Health Organisation suicide is a significant cause of death globally, resulting in 800,000 fatalities each year; however, it is more common in some demographic groups than others. In the US, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people in the 15 to 35 age range, including around 250 active-duty soldiers each year.  According to background materials, the US Army has been making significant efforts to reduce suicide rates for almost two decades. This paper reports that ‘Many commonalities exist in the analysis of demographics and characteristics of suicide decedent within civilian and military populations.’ The claim suggests that research into suicide prevention in a military context may benefit wider society and vice-versa. The main recommendation is to integrate a bespoke meditation method into the US Army’s daily fitness programme. In summary, the paper argues that meditation could improve soldiers’ mental fitness, leading to greater resilience and lower levels of suicide.

This paper was written before the most recent scientific reviews of meditation research; it also predates evidence that meditation training can expose practitioners to unwanted adverse effects. But none the less the questions that it raises and the trajectory that it suggests are important. A key point made in the  study is

A recent reduction in force and budget have challenged the Army to find more efficient and effective methods to ensure readiness in its soldiers.

The idea that meditation offers a cheap and universal panacea is not without precedent and reflects some discussions about mindfulness from within social policy. The key questions to be asked at this early stage are linked to the theoretical understandings of suicide and meditation’s ability to meditate relevant mental traits and states. I’ve experienced meditation’s capacity to boost mental resilience; there’s plenty of individual studies that make this same point. But what meditation techniques might be appropriate for military personnel (or linked to suicide prevention more generally)? Is the non-judgement of medicalised mindfulness, or the nondual compassion of traditional meditation desirable training for combat troops? A final question is one most meditation scientists will be familiar with; how do you know if someone engages with meditation (in their mind). Physical training can be observed, but contemplative mind training is much more abstract to empirical measurement. Suicide is such a serious problem that any progress in prevention is welcome; I’d be interested to hear about any studies or anecdotes that could add to my understanding in this field.

Link: https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/AD1038585

Book Review: Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics by Richard Layard (Penguin, 2020)

Happiness is one of the most important aspects of human consciousness, however psychological understanding is still at a preliminary stage.

What is happiness and how can we increase it?

In another week of challenging events, the task of reviewing any book on happiness offered a welcome contrast to depressing accounts of pandemic, politics and poverty. Not that Covid-19, economic decline and the threat from climate change are not important issues, but because the book title suggested solutions to many of the intractable problems we face. Indeed, Layard offers hope that ‘despite appearances, a new gentler culture is emerging’. However, opening use of the Royal Princes as commentators on the direction of the UK’s wellbeing is a strange choice. It’s not that William and Harry’s opinions don’t matter, but rather the extent to which the views of two of the most privileged men in Britain reflect the day-to-day experience of life for people in general.  But let’s not get off entirely on the wrong foot; there’s much to respect in Layard’s work generally. An opinion former in the economics of happiness, he writes and speaks extensively on the subject. And as a scientist and academic committed to researching the relationship between health and happiness, I wanted to be impressed; I wanted to share the vision. But unfortunately it didn’t happen.

In the book’s introductory road map, Layard explains the paths to greater happiness in simple terms. We inherit two genetic ‘traits’, altruism and selfishness, and by reducing selfishness and increasing altruism, we make the world a better place for ourselves and others. The omission of evidence to support this model was the core limitation of the work. I’m also concerned by the book’s tone that society’s happiness rests mainly on just one concept, ‘say no to selfishness’. There’s little acknowledgement of individual psychological differences, epigenetic limitations or the host of external factors that create variability in human behaviour. Several of the examples abandoned causality. So, while school is held to be more influential in a child’s happiness than their grades, Layard didn’t address the evidence linking education, income and privilege. Similarly, the correlations between poverty and the mental health of school-aged children were generally understated. Psychological sciences have frequently demonstrated the link between poverty and lifelong unhappiness. If you separate the conditions most likely to cause unhappiness (poverty), it may make scientific models seem more reliable, but this reductive approach doesn’t help us get to the root causes of why people are so desperately unhappy, to begin with.

After a set of controls are added, we document that both persistent levels of poverty and transitions into poverty are strongly associated with levels of and transitions into childhood mental health problems

Emla Fitzsimons et al. [2]

Who’s happiness?

Over 14 chapters Can we be happier? offers a view of how society might transform into a benevolent paternalistic state. It describes how each of us (parents, teachers, scientists, politicians, managers, economists, etc.) needs to act to support his (Layard’s) vision. Layard combines his manifesto for a kinder and happier society with a distinctive catalogue of happiness projects, a constellation of ideas originating from sources as diverse as the Dalai Lama and the World Economic Forum. These concepts are loosely grouped around several themes. One of the most persistent is that an increase in income accounts for a minuscule change in people’s experience of happiness (a maximum of two per cent). Leaving aside the scientific reliability of this claim, I’m unsure of its narrative function in a book based on the benefits of altruism. While almost all of us studying the science of meditation would agree materialism per se’ isn’t always correlated with happiness, the psychology suggests the effects of long term poverty significantly reduce our potential for positive physical and mental wellbeing.

Relationships between poverty and happiness?

Hundreds of citations from peer-reviewed scientific papers document essential work in the field of happiness and wellbeing. But the selective use of evidence combined with personal insights didn’t coalesce; there isn’t a coherent framework. The notion that we have two competing neural networks, one generous and the other self-centred, mediated primarily by choice, isn’t evidenced in the book. The available science illustrates much more complex relationships between selfish and unselfish behaviours.

The underlying neural circuitry differs between psychopaths and altruists with emotional processing being profoundly muted in psychopaths and significantly enhanced in altruists. But both groups are characterized by the reward system of the brain shaping behavior. Instead of rigid assignment of human nature as being “universally selfish” or “universally good,” both characterizations are partial truths based on the segments of the selfish–selfless spectrum being examined.

James W.H. Sonne and Don M. Gash [3]

As a neuropsychologist, I have some concerns about using psychometrics to infer universal brain function and structure, no matter how well-intentioned the project is. Layard is a knowledgeable and credible source; his motivation is to be praised. But by stretching his field of expertise to cover both Buddhism and neuroscience, his thesis becomes unstable. The reader’s main difficulties arise in understanding the vision and how the multiverse of compassionate strands form a unified cord.

Yet the mindfulness movement and empirical evidence supporting it have not gone without criticism. Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed

Nicholas T. Van Dam and others [4]

Even in popular science, I like to see arguments for and against a hypothesis, particularly in areas of human behaviour as complex as happiness. That’s what separates evidence-led from opinion-led claims. Testing our ideas is one way to increase both our knowledge and the reliability of our thinking. But Layard fails to indicate the difference between scientifically reliable and speculative concepts. His use of contested experimental evidence lacked contrast or clarification. In extolling the virtues of mindfulness meditation, the widespread critical concerns of the scientific community are absent.

Poverty, education and happiness

Throughout the book, Layard uses mindfulness as an example of an approach able to support the (his) happiness revolution. But by acknowledging criticisms that mindfulness may not generate altruism, Layard creates an impasse that undermines his central claim. The reader is left in limbo by the failure to establish a scientific link between mindfulness – altruism – happiness. By the book’s end, it is still no clearer (scientifically) if mindfulness training might lead to increased or reduced happiness, and if so, how? Similarly, the importance of positive psychology to health and wellbeing is highlighted. Yet, there is no mention of the extensive body of self-compassion research that promotes self-care as a route to happiness. You don’t have to be a scientist to see the potential confusion if altruism and self-compassion lead to increased happiness. I’m not an opponent of secular mindfulness nor positive psychology, but I don’t think the selective use of evidence can be the foundation for a new, kinder era.

To promote the use of mindfulness beyond its evidential basis risks stalling the progress of this crucial human technology further. There is currently an opportunity to reset the trajectory of meditation research towards new productive areas and not repeat the mistakes from the 1970s and the 1980s. But for this to happen, we need to filter out aspirational science. Over the last fifty years, we have seen that merging the theoretical frameworks of Buddhism and psychological science may cause ontological limitations. If we are serious about a compassionate revolution, we must hold our nerve and face the limits of our current understandings. It’s over a century since Paul Carus embarked on his project to combine the best of psychology and spirituality in a monistic philosophy. History shows us that this approach may not best support the scientific method.

The lack of references to the historical development of the science of meditation is a sad omission. An analysis of the foundational studies in the field has much to tell us about secular meditation’s strengths and weaknesses. The range of sources used in Can we be happier? is commendable, but understanding their overarching theoretical frameworks is challenging. But to bring people together to support the goal of collective altruism there must be a clearer vision. Layard offers insights that signpost opportunities and challenges; unfortunately, contradictions diffuses his passion. He fails to establish the scientific evidence for his central argument that humans have trait altruism and selfishness, mediated primarily by will alone. Instead, the author presents us with a highly personal view of individuals and society. The book is dedicated to the Dalai Lama, and Buddhist ideas are present throughout the text. It’s a given that H.H. The Dalai Lama is an exemplar of kindness and compassion. But what is the conceptual relationship between ordained Buddhist monks and the dominant economic paradigms which limit happiness in the UK? If Buddhism is part of Layard’s strategy for happiness, he needs to share his thoughts of which Buddhist schools, teachers, ontologies and epistemologies he thinks will help. Buddhism isn’t one set of ideas or practices, rather like views on happiness it’s a rich spectrum.

How well does psychology measure happiness?

The title of the book, Can we be happier? reveals the underlying uncertainty present in the text. We can, of course, be happier; relative happiness is a state mediated by a range of constantly shifting internal and external phenomena. A better focus for this project would have been ‘What I know about happiness’. Millions share Layard’s wish that people become happier through altruism. His motivation and commitment to the eradication of ‘misery’ are impressive. But throughout my reading, I was longing for more voices of people, rather than statistical aggregations of misery to emerge from the data. We are not yet at the point where science can deliver absolute truths regarding the human condition or consciousness. A key element in the training of Tibetan Buddhists and contemporary psychologists is the recognition that our own opinions are relative. As such, reflexivity (reflectivity) and a balanced approach to knowledge creation are essential qualities for scientists and those who would use science for the common good. I sincerely hope that Layard’s ‘compassionate dawn’ is coming. However, we don’t need to wait; each of us can be inspired by the sentiments of such a work, we can be altruistic and strive for a more compassionate society today. But the book left me concerned that we still don’t know enough about brain training (meditation) for it to be recruited by social policy as a panacea.

This review was first published on the Critical Mindfulness website in October 2020.

Bibliography

[1] Richard Layard, Can We Be Happier? Evidence and Ethics (London: Penguin, 2020). p1

[2] Emla Fitzsimons and others, ‘Poverty Dynamics and Parental Mental Health: Determinants of Childhood Mental Health in the U.K.’, Social Science and Medicine, 175 (2017), 43–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.12.040

[3] James W.H. Sonne and Don M. Gash, ‘Psychopathy to Altruism: Neurobiology of the Selfish-Selfless Spectrum’, Frontiers in Psychology (Frontiers Media S.A., 2018), 575

[4] Nicholas T. Van Dam and others, ‘Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13.1 (2018), 36–61. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1745691617709589

Non-judgement and mindfulness meditation; costs and opportunities

The absence of judgement from medicalised mindfulness suggests an uncoupling from traditional meditation methods. Why did this happen, and what does it mean?

Why was judgement removed from medicalised meditations

Although definitions across contemporary forms of mindfulness are varied, we usually find mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are explicitly non-judgemental. In the context of meditation technologies, we think about ‘non-judgement’ being both operationalised in the meditation practice itself and in the broader ethical context surrounding meditation. This lack of judgement in MBIs appears to have been one of its foundational principles, present since its medicalisation1. This absence is somewhat surprising, given the presumed conceptual relationship with Buddhist forms of mindfulness, where judgement and ethics are woven into their theoretical frameworks.

Scholars and practitioners have considered if the non-judgemental approach in MBIs has uncoupled them from traditional forms of meditation, if so what have we lost or gained in the process?2 This debate has been illuminated recently by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, who wrote that meditation alone is not enough3. That understanding the ontology and epistemology of the method is an essential part of the meditation process. Although Rinpoche talked specifically about Buddhist practices, his view supports the notion that meditation, stripped of its ethical and judgmental elements, becomes different. We should be clear that although there are Buddhist methods which operationalise a non-judgemental view, they are conducted within an ethical/judgemental setting. However, the questions from a history of science perspective are more linked to how and why things developed this way. What does the apparent paradox (judgemental practices translated as non-judgemental), mean about the scientific context in which mindfulness was established and now resides?

“If we use these precious resources to examine things critically, we can understand both the way things appear and the way they truly are.”

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche3

From a psychological perspective, the separation of meditation from its foundational judgement and ethics raises three crucial questions. Firstly, given the widespread presence of spiritual practitioners in the research and teaching of meditation, are students of MBIs getting ad hoc judgement/ethics to fill the gap? Secondly, judgement and reflection require engagement with essential processes in the brain’s intrinsic networks; therefore, what are the differences between the results obtained from judgemental and non-judgemental approaches. And finally, if judgement is central to traditional meditation technologies, why has it been removed? It is this last question that holds the greatest significance.

Psychology is free to develop whatever forms of meditation it sees fit; it can also investigate spiritual meditation methods. But the creation of contemporary mindfulness interventions, based on traditional forms prompts questions. If we knew the Buddhist practice(s) mindfulness was translated from, their theoretical and operational components could be established. Then by conducting comparative studies with MBIs, an understanding of what was added or subtracted might be reached. However, the scientific provenance of MBIs is shrouded in mystery; this gap in our knowledge is a probable factor in the failure to establish reliable theoretical frameworks for MBIs.4 Therefore, although contemporary mindfulness stresses a close relationship with Buddhist meditation technologies, this is not generally supported with evidence. So why and how did things turn out this way? Understanding this issue may provide the insights needed to signpost the next stage in mindfulness’s development.

References

1 Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skilful means, and the trouble with maps.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 281-306.

2 King, R. (2016). ‘Paying Attention’ in a Digital Economy: Reflections on the Role of Analysis and Judgement Within Contemporary Discourses of Mindfulness and Comparisons with Classical Buddhist Accounts of Sati. In Handbook of Mindfulness (pp. 27-45). Springer, Cham. From a practitioners persective see Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 19-39.

3 Nyima Chokyi. “Why Meditation isn’t Enough.” Lion’s Roar (2019). https://www.lionsroar.com/why-meditation-isnt-enough/

4 Van Dam, Nicholas T., Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2018): 36-61.

Meditation, mindfulness and nonduality; an agenda for scientific change

How did a spiritual practice become a medicalised health intervention? An understanding of nonduality is essential to harnessing the health benefits of meditation.

Democrite
Democritus meditating on the seat of the soul by Léon-Alexandre Delhomme (1868).
Ontological conflict in meditation research.

Having experienced the benefits of meditation firsthand, I’m puzzled by the problems that we psychologist have in demonstrating its full curative potential. Scientists have published details of ten thousand meditation and mindfulness experiments over the last eighty years. Yet cognitive psychology is still describing research in this area as ‘preliminary’. As meditation scientists, particularly practitioners who have experience of the benefits of meditation, we should be asking ‘what is limiting progress in this field?’ My current thinking has settled on two questions; how does a spiritual practice become a medicalised practice and what is lost and gained in this transition?

My research follows the trajectory of medicalised meditation, which includes the early progress of electroencephalographic (EEG) studies and the development of the Zen school of psychotherapy. These landmarks represent two interconnected but separate strands of the same story, scientific appropriation and psychological integration. I’ve been puzzled that the critical question of the potential for ontological conflict appears to be absent from the scholarly literature. I’m sure even the most positivist scientists would acknowledge the possibility for theoretical conflict when relocating meditation from the temple to the laboratory. So how is it that the potential for ontological conflict is almost totally absent from the literature? However, my ideas required revision after I bumped into Fritjof Capra’s 1975 paper Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.1

Although Capra was known to me, I hadn’t read any of his early research. Now in his eighties, I thought of him as a physicist developing system theories linked to sustainability. What I discovered was his thinking on ontological conflicts between Eastern and Western knowledge systems. This paper illustrates that a theoretical conflict between Buddhist knowledge and science was under discussion during the 1970s. What happened to it, where did it go? I don’t offer Capra’s work as a solution to the crisis in mindfulness, he was writing from the point of view of quantum physics; and from a cognitive perspective, he even muddies the water. However, his paper describes the world views of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, comparing them with Western science.2 He also introduces the subject of nonduality to the science of meditation. In doing so, he highlights more than a dozen problems manifest in the contemporary scientific understanding of Buddhist meditation. One of which I’m going to discuss here; world views as either organic or mechanistic.

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 idiosyncratic, entangling the means with the ends. Individual understandings and approaches to experimental psychology lead to several problems, not least issues replicating findings. in meditation research that we still lack construct validity and thus also robust psychometric instruments. Capra’s paper sets out some unresolved issues that might help explain limitations in the scientific study of meditation.

The essence of his argument is that while the mystical East has an organic world view, the West has invested heavily in mechanistic understandings of nature. Capra’s paper is 45 years old; much has changed in physics, psychology and contemplative science in this time.3 But as a theoretical study, Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism deals with overarching concerns that are almost 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. The progression of this view led to the creation of classical physics and established dualism as the Western way of understanding almost everything. As the origins of Buddhism and Hinduism predate Democritus, traditional meditation sits on different theoretical foundations.  

The division of nature into separate objects is, of course, useful and necessary to cope with our everyday environment, but it is not a fundamental feature of reality.

1Fritjof Capra, p. 21.

These Eastern understandings see nature as interconnected on the highest level. From this vantage point, Western categorisations and laws of nature appear as 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. 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 human behaviours, several factors influence the data, including society and the experimental method. You don’t need a laboratory to illustrate the limitations of dualistic models of mind and body; it’s sufficient to sit quietly and think about it.

So what does this ‘dated’ consideration of quantum physics mean for our understanding of meditation? This work’s essence highlights fundamental differences between ontologies (theories of being) of East and West. Suggestive of a conceptual gap between meditation’s original function and purposes and positivism’s ability to relate to them. That the West follows a ‘culturally situated’ mechanistic presumption of causality, even when considering human nature.4 Not to claim that Newtonian physics doesn’t ‘work’, but suggesting that it is one approach in a more sophisticated understanding of life. Psychology’s failure to recognise the importance of base ontology when appropriating culturally ‘diverse’ technologies is fascinating. Have we been we trying to understand meditation through the effect rather than the cause? This kind of thinking might explain the lack of replicated results after eight decades of experimentation.5

Despite over-generalisation problems, Capra offers insights into why a traditional understanding of meditation might be almost incomprehensible to positivist science. That a scientist (or even a meditator) rooted in a dualistic viewpoint cannot access the path to a nondual understanding.  Advocates of contemporary secular methods can maintain that the ontologies of mystical traditions are unrelated to modern mindfulness. This notion could be a reliable observation, but it gives rise to two at least two problems. It translates meditation to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), perhaps one reason why modern secular meditation methods rarely outperform CBT in clinical trials. But also that the benefits of traditional meditation are universal and profoundly different from those offered by CBT. Using positivism to define meditation risks converting nativist knowledge to known frames of reference, inevitably missing the opportunity to further develop psychology into new and potentially profitable areas. For my research, the discovery of the Capra paper presents a new problem. Why has the potential for ontological conflict between dual and nondual knowledge systems been ignored in the psychological literature?

Notes:

1 Capra, F. (1976). Modern physics and eastern mysticism. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 8(1). http://www.atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-08-76-01-020.pdf

2 Capra also discusses Hinduism and Taoism in this paper. 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 measured, and how it is understood may be unrelated to the spiritual meditation.

Some critical thoughts on mindfulness?

The scientific study of meditation has produced 7,000 peer reviewed studies, but our understanding is still described as preliminary. Has the time come for a more critical approach to mindfulness?

Reliable measurement is a central tenet of experimental psychology, but deciding what to measure is a much more complex question.
Accurate measurement is crucial to science, but deciding what to measure is a challenging question in mindfulness research

So broad has the field of mindfulness become that we find conflicting, coexisting and complementary perspectives among practices. Traditional mindfulness methods include explicitly and implicitly nondual understandings that appear abstract (incommensurable) to positivist scientific enquiry. However, the exponential growth in the modern forms of mindfulness sits primarily within the positivist ontology of experimental psychology. Positivism creates understandings linked to established tenets. In particular, it (a) assumes psychological phenomena follow deterministic (causal) patterns, (b) that explanations for behaviour can be generalised beyond narrow experimental settings and (c) elaborate explanations are rejected in favour of parsimonious accounts. Also, (d) that reductive investigations can offer understandings of complex human behaviours and cognitive states and (e) experiments produce events which can be reliably measured. In many respects, the positivist approach has successfully contributed a great deal to our understandings of human behaviour. However, its ability to explain and evaluate traditional and medicalised mindfulness and meditation is facing challenges from within the scientific community1.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Wilhelm_Wundt.jpg
Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt – Founder of experimental psychology

Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was the architect of experimental psychology. Towards the end of the 19th century, Wundt became one of the first researchers to conceptualise and investigate psychology as a field of science rather than philosophy2. But Wundt was also very clear about the limitations of the experimental approach, that nuanced human behaviours were not accessible to methodologies rooted in positivism3. After all, we humans are replete with agency, we can take for or against an idea with little rational justification. Given the spectrum of human experience, Wundt’s position seems to hold some merit. How can experiments be created that fully explain and generalise highly individualised behaviour? Behaviour created and maintained within abstract inner worlds, which is supported by unique environmental conditions? Consider that meditation is the mediation of consciousness, of which psychology only has a rudimentary understanding. One of the issues that Wundt’s concerns highlight is ‘fitness for purpose’. That experimental psychology requires (among other things) the reliable measurement of at least two fixed points to meet the requirements of empiricism. Criticisms of the science of mindfulness include the contention that establishing ‘fixed points’ when dealing with universal human consciousness is problematic. That is not to say that individual studies cannot identify their own fixed points to generate data. But the extent to which different studies use the same, constructs, scales and understandings is highly variable.1

Reviews of the scientific literature have indicated that there are multiple understandings of the mental states and traits described as mindfulness. That congruence between contemporary and traditional forms of mindfulness have not been established at operational or theoretical levels. There are widespread methodological problems in how mindfulness is observed by and integrates with the scientific method. But the uncertainty surrounding mindfulness is not a new issue. The term mindfulness in the context of contemplative science was first translated into English in 1881. Since which time understandings have been continually proposed, developed, corrected and reconsidered4. Today, contemplative science appears no closer to a clear definition of precisely what mindfulness might be or how interventions can meditate it. The pressing questions asked by critical mindfulness are, how can positivism alone make sense of behaviour that defies an authoritative description at the theoretical and operational level? And how can psychology develop a more rigorous approach to testing the findings and claims produced by 7,000 published meditation studies over the last eight decades?

The traditional Buddhist account of mindfulness plays on aspects of remembering, recalling, reminding and presence of mind that can seem underplayed or even lost in the context of MBSR and MBCT.

Rupert Gethin 4

References

1 Van Dam, Nicholas T., Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2018): 36-61.

2 Danziger, Kurt. “The positivist repudiation of Wundt.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 15, no. 3 (1979): 205-230.

3 Wundt, Wilhelm. “Über Ausfrageexperimente und über die Methoden zur Psychologie des Denkens.” Psychologische Studien 3 (1907): 301-360.

4 Gethin, Rupert. “On some definitions of mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 263-279.

Notes

Image of Wundt – Weltrundschau zu Reclams Universum 1902 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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As its name suggests (The Science of Meditation and Mindfulness), this blog is focussed on understanding, evaluating and sharing news about meditation. The scientific study of meditation has led to the publication of over 7,000 academic papers in recent decades. Most of this research has focussed on fewer than ten meditation methods. But as there are at least 3,000 different ways of meditating there are considerable gaps in the modern psychological appreciation of meditation. Alongside the science of meditation, a more applied understanding of the subject is provided at the Meditation for Health website.

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Compassionate meditation from a scientific perspective

A review of the origins of compassion and the benefits of compassionate mind training. from spiritual and scientific perspectives

Compassion, the wish that other be free from suffering and the causes of suffering

Author: Paul Gilbert

Year: 2019

Title: Explorations into the nature and function of compassion

Summary: Paul Gilbert has been researching and writing about compassion for much of his career. In this paper from 2019, Gilbert offers a general introduction to current thinking and research in the field. The article doesn’t concentrate on scientific evidence from a cognitive or neuropsychological perspective, although there are some useful citations. In the opening definitions of compassion, potential evolutionary origins discussed, highlighting the foundational influence of ‘mammalian caregiving’. According to this model, it is the caregiving instinct of mammals that eventually gives way to more complex processes leading to the forms of compassion that we recognise in human behaviour. In describing compassion used in spiritual traditions, Gilbert signposts approaches from Buddhism and Jainism. And in an attempt to homogenise definitions from East and West, he offers us his synthesis of explanations from different knowledge traditions. There is a discussion of clinical and experimental progress in the field, focussing on both medicalised and Buddhist compassion training methods. In conclusion, Gilbert makes the case that compassion is an inherent trait that can be developed through training and motivation.  

Compassion (and compassionate values and moral) is not just automatic but something that can be deliberately chosen and worked at with a deepening of understanding over time.

Discussion: I want to acknowledge that Gilbert has made significant contributions to the western positivist understanding of the construct of compassion. This paper describes some complex ideas simply and at times, elegantly. But the overall impression is the presentation of the author’s particular perspective, a notion supported by a lack of critical insight. Citations of recent scientific studies are grouped logically, but I would have also valued some expert guidance on theoretical or methodological limitations in these papers. As a general principle, I find the use of evolutionary psychology to support definitions of complex human behaviours speculative, so it is perhaps unsurprising I wasn’t convinced by the accounts of the origins of compassion. The conclusions do offer a helpful overview of the subject, particularly to people new to this area. However, my central reservation was the selective use of concepts from different knowledge systems, particularly as the paper makes universal and generalised claims.

It is legitimate to draw on illustrations from Eastern spiritual tradition, but appropriate contextualisation is essential. So, for example, the discussion of Mahayana Buddhist concepts of compassion indicates that there are different understandings in Buddhism. These contrasting positions in Buddhism are supported by alternative ontological and epistemological frameworks that underpin interpretations of compassion, meditation and mind-training. I accept that this is a complex area, but if we fail to consider human understanding in its relevant context, we risk defining universal human traits and states from a narrow Western positive perspective. And in doing so, essential psychological constructs known and evidenced in traditional knowledge systems, such as non-dual compassion and relative compassion, will continue to be excluded from scientific study and consideration.

Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com

Self compassion, mindfulness and neuroticism

A significant overlap between self-compassion and neuroticism is offering new challenges and opportunities in meditation and mindfulness research.

Self compassion, mindfulness and neuroticism

Authors: Pfattheicher, S., Geiger, M., Hartung, J., Weiss, S., & Schindler, S

Year: 2017

Title: Old Wine in New Bottles? The Case of Self-compassion and Neuroticism

Summary: Self-compassion reflects an approach to relating to oneself with kindness in times of suffering. The self-compassion approach reflects the human ability to create better or worse mental conditions when dealing with our own problems. Psychologised self-compassion comprises three positive states; self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. In 2017 Pfattheicher and colleagues investigated the Self-Compassion Scale (SCS), the psychometric instrument designed to measure self-compassion. However, their research found, when approached from a personality perspective, there were strong similarities between the constructs of neuroticism and self-compassion (or lack of). If confirmed to be accurate, we may need to consider self-compassion and neuroticism as similar constructs.

“From this conceptual analysis and existing conclusive empirical evidence, we assumed that those who score high on measures of neuroticism score low on measures of self-compassion, and vice versa.”

Pfattheicher, S., Geiger, M., Hartung, J., Weiss, S., & Schindler, S

The original paper conceded that it was a preliminary investigation, and identifies several potential limitations. And not unsurprisingly, advocates for the uniqueness of self-compassion, Neff, Tóth‐Király and Colosimo published a response to the Pfattheicher et al. findings in 2018.1

Discussion: Now that the dust has settled somewhat, there is a general acceptance that congruence (overlaps) exist between psychometric profiles for low levels of neuroticism and high levels of self-compassion. The key point to consider is the extent of similarities and differences between the two constructs. The current uncertainty is only likely to be resolved by further research, in particular replication of the Pfattheicher et al. study. One puzzling aspect of this controversy is that a correlation between mindfulness and spiritual practices has been known about for many decades.2 Why this subject has become a contentious issue at this time if hard to explain.

From the science of meditation perspective, the potential relationship between self-compassion and neuroticism signposts some interesting problems and opportunities. There is already a body of research that indicates a solid relationship between the practice of mindfulness and reduction of neuroticism. It would be interesting to understand any similarities and differences in how mindfulness (in isolation from self-kindness and common humanity) and self-compassion meditate measures of neurotism. Similarly a comparative understanding of the relationships beween traditional (non-dual) meditation and medicalised meditation (mindfulness) could provide new scientific understandings.

However, progress in meditation research continues to be hampered by a lack of theoretical stability. In recent years several authoritative studies highlighed a failure to establish the operational cognitive components of mindfulness. Further, there is still a lack of construct validity confirming the precise natures of trait and state mindfulness. These limitations are a factor in the reliability of research utilising mindfulness from positivist perspectives. Further progress in developing the curative potential of meditation/mindfulness is linked to two long-standing questions; how did a spiritual practices become scientifically validated, and what has been lost or gained in the process?

Link: https://self-compassion.org

Notes:

1 Kandler, C., Pfattheicher, S., Geiger, M., Hartung, J., Weiss, S., & Schindler, S. (2017). Old wine in new bottles? The case of self–compassion and neuroticism. European Journal of Personality, 31(2), 160-169.

2 Neff, K. D., Tóth‐Király, I., & Colosimo, K. (2018). Self‐compassion is best measured as a global construct and is overlapping with but distinct from neuroticism: A response to Pfattheicher, Geiger, Hartung, Weiss, and Schindler (2017). European Journal of Personality, 32(4), 371-392.

3 Tartt, C., Deikman, A. J. (1991). Mindfulness, spiritual seeking and psychotherapy. The Journal, 23(1), 29.

A history of meditation; from the temple to the laboratory

The scientific history of meditation reveals that we may be overlooking many important findings from the past.

The history of meditation and mindfulness
The history of meditation and mindfulness

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.[1] Buddhist meditation methods became transnational spiritual practices, frequently adapted to local conditions whenever they established a foothold.[2]

D. T Suzuki (image from Wikipedia)

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.[3] 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). [4]  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.[5] 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.[6] The growing Counter Culture became increasingly suspicious of mechanistic approaches to health and wellbeing.[7] Meditation and spiritual world views were seen by many as an antidote to the restlessness caused by an overbearing ‘technocracy’ and processes of dehumanisation.[8]

History of meditation
EEG test (image from Wikipedia)

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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]

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.[16] 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).[17] 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).

Biblography


[1] Ronkin, Noa, Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition (London: Routledge, 2005).

[2] Stephen C. Berkwitz, Buddhism in World Cultures (ABC-CLIO, 2006).

[3] Robert Sharf, ‘The Zen of Japanese Nationalism’, History of Religions, 33.1 (1993), 1–43. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/463354

[4] Carl T. Jackson, ‘The Meeting of East and West: The Case of Paul Carus’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 29.1 (1968), 73. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2708466?seq=1

[5] Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism (New York: Open Road Media, 2013). https://philpapers.org/rec/FROPAZ

[6] Anne Harrington and John D. Dunne, ‘When Mindfulness Is Therapy’, American Psychologist, 70.7 (2015), 621–31. https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/25757884/97605608.pdf?sequence=1

[7] Saks, Mike, ‘Medicine and the Counter Culture’, in Companion to Medicine in the Twentieth Century, ed. by Roger Cooter and John Pickstone (Abingdon: Routledge, 2003), pp. 113–24

[8] Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. (Oakland: University of California Press, 1995).

[9] Walter, W. G., ‘Critical Review: The Technique and Application of Electro-Encephalaography’, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 1.4 (1938), 359–85. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1088109/pdf/jnpsychiatry00020-0059.pdf

[10] N Das and H Gastaut, ‘Variations in the Electrical Activity of the Brain, Heart, and Skeletal Muscles during Yogic Meditation and Trance’, Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 6 (1955), 211-219.

[11] Robert Keith Wallace, ‘Physiological Effects of Transcendental Meditation’, Science, 167.3926 (1970), 1751–54. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/167/3926/1751.abstract

[12] Robert Keith Wallace, Herbert Benson, and Archie Wilson, ‘A Wakeful Hypometabolic Physiologic State.’, The American Journal of Physiology, 221.3 (1971), 795–99. https://journals.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/ajplegacy.1971.221.3.795?journalCode=ajplegacy

[13] Herbert Benson, John F. Beary, and Mark P. Carol, ‘The Relaxation Response’, Psychiatry, 37.1 (1974), 37–46. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1301437094

[14] Herbert Benson and Miriam Klipper, The Relaxation Response (New York: Collins, 1976).

[15] Michael West, ‘Meditation.’, The British Journal of Psychiatry : The Journal of Mental Science (Cambridge University Press, 1979), 457–67. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry/article/abs/meditation/BCF552D109C0184ADCF979EBAE736915

[16] C. H. Patel, ‘Yoga and Bio-Feedback in the Management of Hypertension’, The Lancet, 302.7837 (1973), 1053–55. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0140673673926603

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