Problems in how meditation is researched are highlighted in this meta study. But the paper stops short of explaining why its lost in a ‘theoretical mist’.
Authors: Ute Kreplin, Miguel Farias & Inti A. Brazil
Year: 2017 (print), 2018 (online)
Title: The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis
Summary: This systematic meta-review explored the effects of meditation and mindfulness on five types of pro-social behaviour (compassion, empathy, aggression, connectedness and prejudice). The study contended that although there was evidence that compassion and empathy were mediated by meditation, the other three factors were not. Further, that compassion levels were found only to increase when a co-author of the study was the meditation teacher or when the control group was a passive (not active) waiting list. The study highlighted a number of key problems in the ongoing study of meditation, particularly the consistent application of appropriate methodologies.
However, weaknesses in the scientific investigation of meditation tend to be linked to the absence of robust theoretical frameworks. For example inconsistent definitions of mindfulness and meditation. Meta-studies in this field can reflect wider patterns but risk drawing together forms of meditation that may in effect, be quite different. The authors are correct to highlight the ‘theoretical mist’ surrounding meditation research and the failure of science to treat meditation as either a secular or spiritual practice. But despite citing architects and theorists of contemporary meditation, the authors fall short of explaining how the pseudo-spirituality of contemporary secular meditation arose or is being sustained.
Scientific understanding of meditation and mindfulness
Blogging about a related issue at Meditation for Health prompted me to think about how much does science really know about meditation and mindfulness. Leading scientists in the field state that empirical meditation research is at a relatively early stage. But relative to what? Surely not the efforts of the scientific community, thousands of scientific studies have already been published that explored meditation and/or its presumed operationalised components. It should also be considered that there is a vast body of traditional texts available, documenting many aspects of contemplative sciences over the last two thousand years. Contemporary research should also have benefited from the millions of current practitioners, including meditation masters with great experience of practice and underlying theoretical frameworks. It is hard to imagine more auspicious conditions for the study of meditation, so why is the research struggling to make significant progress?
After I had been meditating for five years I asked a traditional meditation teacher what the goal of my particular practice was. She stripped away the esoteric imagery in which the practice was framed and explained the likely result of my efforts. In particular, she emphasized the importance of my motivation. The idea that the method alone is not the practice is central to many forms of meditation and contemplation. In fact, traditional literature from Tibetan Buddhism makes it clear that progress in a particular method may require the application of significant levels of compassion or non-attachment. It is not my suggestion that a western scientific approach cannot fully understand the processes engaged in different forms of meditation. But rather it might be time to start to think about the phenomena underpinning meditation in a more complete way, even within cognitive psychology or neuropsychology. In some traditional schools, meditators are discouraged from evaluating the progress of others. But when you meditate cheek by jowl in a community of meditators for years, you may inevitably observe differences in the effects of the same meditation practice on different people.
Whilst the capacity of practitioners (individual differences) is a known factor in the experience of meditation. An individual’s motivation is also central to the benefits of a practice. This is a paradigm for all meditators and mindful practitioners in all settings. Unless a scientist can integrate the enthusiasm, scepticism and goals of the meditator into the input part of the equation, great uncertainty regarding the output is inevitable. In a survey of meditators and mindfulness practitioners (Morris, 2017) that included both types of practice and reasons for commencement. The motivation of practitioners was very varied. Among the cited reasons for beginning meditation or mindfulness were:
To improve my health
To improve my general well-being
For spiritual/religious reasons
As a lifestyle choice
Because of the influence of others
Any other reasons
There are reasons to suppose that the motivation of a meditator is a significant influencer on the results of a practice. The empirical approach has a great deal to offer the investigation of meditation, it can help to construct reductionist models able to identify the elements contemplative practice. But we are perhaps at a point when a fuller understanding of meditation and meditators needs to evolve.
Morris, S. (2017), An exploration of the relationship between wellbeing and meditation experience amongst meditators and mindfulness practitioners. The Open University, Milton Keynes. Unpublished
Meditators know the most about meditation, if science ignores them they miss a trick.
(The research is now complete, thanks to all who participated)
Do you meditate or practice mindfulness?
I am currently undertaking an academic survey into meditation and wellbeing. I would like to ask meditators over the age of 18 to complete a short anonymous questionnaire about their practice (it should take around ten minutes). The research has been ethically approved and conforms to all the usual academic norms.
This important research seeks to capture the meditation and mindfulness experience of practitioners of different levels of experience and backgrounds. Based on meditators self reported insights, this projects follows recent signposts in contemplative science putting greater emphasis on the experiential nature of mindfulness and meditation.
Can mindfulness be regarded as a Buddhist practice?
Title: Is mindfulness Buddhist? (and why it matters)
Author: Robert H. Sharf
Summary: Modern mindfulness meditation is often associated with the state of ‘bare attention’, paying attention in the moment, non judgementally but deliberately. This particular state is not without established precedent in different schools of Buddhism and Robert H. Sharf outlines examples from Burmese reformed Buddhism, the Chinese Chan and Tibetan Dzogchen traditions. This paper also highlights issues associated with the theoretical framework for mindfulness in Buddhism and the relationship between the transformative potential of meditation and the wider context within which meditation is undertaken.
Perspective: Religious studies, psychiatry, health psychology
Title: What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective
Author: Bhikkhu Bodhi
Summary: The mindfulness movement is inextricably linked with Buddhism, both Buddhist teachings and meditation practice. It is then of particular interest when Buddhist scholars of the Pali Cannon, such as Bhikkhu Bodhi question one of the most widely used definitions of mindfulness; ‘bare attention’. This is not simply a philological debate regarding the development and use of the term mindfulness but also a discussion of the fundamental understanding of the human behaviour of meditation. There is also the question of the appropriation and ‘translation’ of the term mindfulness into secular contexts and the implications for both Buddhism and the secular meditation schools.
Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) its origins and context.
Title: Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps
Author: Jon Kabat-Zinn
Summary: In this frank an open exposition of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s development of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) system, readers are given an insight into the background and conditions under which the MBSR concept was transposed. I use the term ‘transposed’ because that appears to be the essence of how Kabat-Zinn positions his work in the context of his experience and knowledge of Zen Buddhism. In this paper he stresses that MBSR and other systems in the mindfulness family should be integrated and consistent with the Buddhadharma (authentic teachings of Buddhism) but not constrained by the historical, cultural and religious phenomenon that exist in the societies where the Buddhadharma has been preserved and may still flourish.
Kabat-Zinn reveals his own close connection with the Zen one thousand year view and this insight perhaps gives a clue to the current academic debate whether the understanding of mindfulness as expressed in MBSR actually reflects mindfulness in Buddhism more generally. Mindfulness in its broader meaning is given a prominent role in this paper and Kabat-Zinn shares his compassionate vision regarding the benefits of the continued growth in the ‘mindfulness’ movement.
Perspective: Health psychology, religious studies,
This meta study finds t conflicts between methodology and findings of mindfulness research.
Title: Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis
Authors: M Goyal, S Singh, EM Sibinga, NF Gould, A Rowland-Seymour, R Sharma, Z Berger, D Sleicher, DD Maron, HM Shihab, PD Ranasinghe, S Linn, S Saha, EB Bass, JA Haythornthwaite
Summary: In this meta-analysis the effectiveness of meditation programs to impact on stress related outcomes was investigated. Randomized clinical trials where meditation was used by adult clinical populations to reduce the effect of conditions including; anxiety, perceived quality of life, depression, substance use, stress and distress were studied. The analysis included 47 trials with 3515 participants and indicated that mindfulness meditation training delivered moderate evidence of lower anxiety levels, depression and experience of pain and low evidence of improvements to stress, and distress levels. The research found little evidence that meditation had any significant impact on: eating habits, sleep, attention, substance use or positive mood. In conclusion the study found that meditation offered no greater benefit than other active treatments such as drugs, exercise or therapeutic intervention.
Summary: Rupert Gethin cites Rhys Davids as the first person to translate the concept of mindfulness from the Pali sati or the Sanskrit smrti, although he stresses subsequent difficulties in finding a workable definition of the term. According to Gethin, Nyanaponika’s definition appears to have been particularly influential in providing an acceptable explanation, particularly within the MBSR and MBCT approaches to meditation. However he argues that the Theravāda exposition of mindfulness may include elements not immediately explicit in either MBSR or MBCT; concerns are also raised over the use and understanding of the term ‘non-judgmental’. In conclusion Gethin suggests that westernized approaches to Buddhism may have contributed to a ‘succinct’ definition of mindfulness, and that the clinical applications of MBSR and MBCT may lead to further understanding of mindfulness and the implications for its practice.
Perspective: Cognitive psychology, religious studies, contemporary Buddhism
What does mindfulness mean, how is the term used and how closely does it relate to the practice?
Title: Is mindfulness present-centred and non-judgmental? A discussion of the cognitive dimensions of mindfulness
Author: Georges Dreyfus
Summary: Among the issues that are publicly manifesting in the research of ‘mindfulness’ are fundamental problems achieving reliable and consistent understandings of the term itself. Definitions of mindfulness are becoming an increasingly thorny issue both as a cognitive process as well as a soteriological path. Some accounts of mindfulness express the concept as ‘present-centered non-judgmental awareness’, a view that that is challenged in this critique by Georges Dreyfus. Dreyfus argues that the essence of mindfulness is connected to the phenomenon of ‘sustained attention’ and can, to some extent engage evaluative processes. Whilst acknowledging merit in the modern definitions of mindfulness, this essay highlights significant discrepancies with traditional Buddhist accounts and more general uncertainty regarding the wider theoretical understanding.
Perspective: Cognitive psychology, contemporary Buddhism, religious studies
Is the social context an essential element of meditation?
Author: Laurence J. Kirmayer
Title: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
Summary: Whilst western psychology has acknowledged the strong relationship that exists between the mindfulness movement and Buddhism. There appears to be a limited appreciation of the implications of social context in understanding either the traditional Buddhist or western approaches to mindfulness.