Is contemporary mindfulness a meditation practice or something different?
Two leading researchers from contemplative science respond to a critical study of meditation and mindfulness research.
Authors: Richard J. Davidson and Cortland J. Dahl
Title: Outstanding Challenges in Scientific Research on Mindfulness and Meditation
Summary: The article begins by applauding the critique of Van Dam et al. This is only to be expected, published meditation and mindfulness research often falls short of the methodological standards normally required of journal articles in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. The authors address the five points raised by the original paper in a very linear fashion, not appearing to engage with the underlying issues. The same issues that have dogged meditation research since the launch of MBSR. However to summarize the five rebuttals contained in the paper:
1 – The criticisms of meditation research reflect weakness in psychological research more generally.
2 – Contemplative practices are varied and scientific enquiry is only able to understand a few limited forms.
3 – Mindfulness and contemplative practices were not originally therapeutic in nature
4 – Research has failed to understand meditation in a relevant context.
5 – Mobile technology may be able to resolve some of the methodological issues.
Author’s Critique: It is important to note that Davidson and Dahl are leaders in this field, but if they permit I offer some observation as an experienced meditator and trained neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist.
Psychology does not appear to understand meditation in the broadest sense, the (mis)appropriation of the term mindfulness has led contemporary meditation research into a limited field of investigation without clear definitions. For example, the reduction of meditation (or mindfulness) to method alone, existing in isolation to wider cognitive processes is hard to understand in the context of traditional meditation. And it must be acknowledged that the MBSR/MBI movement uses methods ‘congruent’ with traditional meditation.
If we strip the motivation of the meditator from the meditation rationale we change the entire cognitive setting. To use a rough analogy, I can train people to kick a football but if participant A is training just for a course credit and participant B is training to play in the World Cup final we can expect the effect of the training to be different. This doesn’t just mean that comparing traditional and contemporary meditation practices is fraught with difficulty but that the current understanding of how we research meditation needs to be refined. Traditional meditation literature spanning hundreds of years indicates that two people undertaking the same practice may not experience the same effects. Their individual motivation, their capacity to meditate, external conditions such as the availability of a reliable teacher and methods can all play a part. Psychology has the instruments to consider and account for many of the factors presumed to impact on the effect of meditation, but generally, the method alone dominates the thinking of meditation scientists.
Don’t misunderstand me, the study of MBSR and related families of mindfulness are legitimate objects of clinical enquiry and experimental study. They have however unconfirmed connections with mindfulness in its many forms as practised in spiritual traditions. Buddhism is not one unified tradition, there are different approaches to what one might call mindfulness, these extend from ‘bare attention’ through to ‘shine’ as practised in Tibetan traditions. Often shine is only engaged with after many years of stable foundational practice and if approached from the Vajrayana perspective would be embedded in a context of a nondual appreciation of human consciousness.
The ability of the meditation teacher and the degree of challenge to dualistic thinking are just two factors able to meditate the impact of a meditation method. But these and other components are generally ignored by scientific studies, even strategic reviews and meta-studies. In a traditional context, a meditation master may undertake decades of practice and study to understand meditation on theoretical and experiential levels. Therefore the capacity of the meditation teacher is an established factor in the progress of traditional meditation students but this is rarely discussed in the scientific literature. The point is that the assumption that the teaching of the meditation method is not a potential variable in any experiment is probably unscientific. The Van Dam et al. study is one of the first to suggest the role of the teacher can influence the effect of meditation training on participants.
Leaving aside traditional mindfulness methods, the reliability of the term mindfulness in relation to MBSR and other contemporary practices needs some further work. Several recent studies have highlighted a lack of consistency in the way mindfulness is understood and thus operationalised. Perhaps this is the single biggest challenge meditation research faces today. If there is a weakness in the reliability over what mindfulness is, how it is understood, applied and taught, it makes experimental replication difficult. Without methodologically sound replication the building blocks to advance meditation research can’t be put in place. This I think is the main message from the Van Dam et al. review. Consider that the scientific investigation of meditation in the west is at least 45 years old, an estimated 15,000 meditation studies have been published in that time and yet experimental work is still often described as ‘preliminary’. What is the strategy to elevate meditation research to a more reliable footing?