A review of mindfulness research in New Scientist highlighted long standing scientific problems; is it time for a new approach?
The crisis in mindfulness research: have we been asking the wrong questions?
Writing in New Scientist on June 5th Jo Marchant summarised the state of mindfulness research and practice. The investigation added some much-needed balance to the overview of medicalised mindfulness. The article confirmed the enduring presence of uncertainties in theoretical understandings and systemic methodological weaknesses. A discussion of the potentially harmful effects of meditation was especially welcome; most experienced meditation teachers know that practices can lead to beneficial or detrimental outcomes in practitioners.
However, the absence of greater historical insights left us with a snapshot rather than an overview of the current state of our scientific knowledge. For example, scientists have been criticising meditation experiments since the 1970s, but the weaknesses identified over 40 years ago can still be seen in contemporary research. The scientific study of meditation can be traced back at least 80 years; the first decades were relatively free of scientific uncertainty. By identifying the beginning of hesitancy in meditation research, we can better understand the current crisis in the science of mindfulness. Since 1975, an estimated 7,000 scientific papers investigating meditation have been published. The vast majority of this work has focussed on mindfulness, so should we be worried that we still don’t have a reliable scientific definition of it?
The evidence suggests that we (meditation scientists) have been trying to establish mindfulness’s psychological and clinical potential ahead of a stable understanding of what it is. We know from several strategic reviews that multiple ways of understanding mindfulness exist in the scientific literature. While each mindfulness experiment can offer us some new insights, findings are rarely confirmed through replication? When taking the long view of meditation research, medicalised mindfulness manifests within visible patterns of scientific progress. In its origins, medicalised meditation reflects a confluence between positivist and belief based knowledge systems. The current theoretical uncertainty in mindfulness research can be traced back to this convergence. If mindfulness has been developed as a bridge between spiritual and scientific understandings, do we have adequate ways of making sense of meditation as a human experience? The lack of stable definitions and replication suggests there are still significant gaps in our knowledge. The most pressing unanswered questions remain the most important, what is medicalised mindfulness, and how can we understand it?
The absence of judgement from medicalised mindfulness suggests an uncoupling from traditional meditation methods. Why did this happen, and what does it mean?
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.
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.
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.
How did a spiritual practice become a medicalised health intervention? An understanding of nonduality is essential to harnessing the health benefits of meditation.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
Image of Wundt – Weltrundschau zu Reclams Universum 1902 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The scientific history of meditation reveals that we may be overlooking many important findings from the past.
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).
 Ronkin, Noa, Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition (London: Routledge, 2005).
 Stephen C. Berkwitz, Buddhism in World Cultures (ABC-CLIO, 2006).
 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.