Meditation, mindfulness and the nondual; 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 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.

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

Science demonstrates the benefits of altruism

Initial findings suggest that our own suffering can be reduced through altruistic acts.

A community support projects
Helping others may be the way to our own fulfilment

Authors: Wang, Y., Ge, J., Zhang, H., Wang, H., & Xie, X.

Year: 2019

Title: Altruistic behaviours relieve physical pain

Summary: There has been a trickle of studies investigating the health benefits of prosocial behaviour in recent years. And research into altruism has remained at the periphery of psychological enquiry. A search of academic databases reveals greater scientific interest in ‘self-compassion’ than ‘compassion for others’ in recent years. The paper by Wang et al. poses some problems for current thinking in psychology. That selfless acts may hold the key to reducing the experience of pain. But, in common with all experiments involving complex human behaviours, the findings of this paper need validating through replication.

As a starting point, this study built on the foundations of two pilot investigations. Its cognitive insights are underpinned by the results of brain imaging technology (fMRI). The researchers found that altruism relieved pain in both experimental and clinical settings. The clinical participants were cancer patients suffering from chronic pain. The goal of the experiment was to test the hypothesis that altruism could reduce physical suffering. In this regard, the results were significant. People undertaking altruistic acts did experience less pain than participants in control groups. More experienced experimental psychologists might like to comment on the methods, but they appear to be robust. We should treat such radical findings with caution of course, but also bear in mind this is not a new idea. Compassion and altruism exist in every culture; they are universal human traits.

Successful repetition of these experiments would open up new areas of research into pain management. While also signposting new understandings of the mind. For example, a link between pro-social behaviour and mental and physical wellbeing more generally. This latest study should encourage scientists and clinicians working with compassion meditation.

“If found to be reliable, these findings may put behavioural sciences on a new trajectory.”

Stephen Gene Morris

Link: www.pnas.org

Mirror neurons – embodied cognition

Mirror neurons may have significant implications for meditators and spiritual practitioners.

macaque
Macaque monkeys were used for the first mirror neuron experiments

Authors: Di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G.

Year: 1992

Title: Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study

Summary: Research emitting from the University of Parma in the 1990s changed cognitive science forever. This was the place where the mirror neuron was identified. At first sight it might not appear to have a direct relevance with meditation, but mirror neurons demonstrate a characteristic of the human brain central to understanding how we interconnect with each other. Under certain conditions we are directly affected by what we see other people do. This phenomenon is not restricted to humans.

If we see others undertaking a behavior that reflects something we have done, it will fire our mirror neurons as if we were doing it. This effect is not linked to species it is about how closely observable behaviors correspond  our own motor repertoire.

Stephen Gene Morris

In the original experiment a macaque monkey demonstrated mirror neuron activity when a human experimenter undertook tasks that it had been trained to do. The implications for meditators include:

  • Firstly it is a weakening to self-other duality, humans and animals can, under relatively common conditions share action potentials in mirror neurons.
  • Secondly there is a clear relationship between what we see and how this affects our brain.  It seems plausible that if we see kind acts that we ourselves have done in the past our mirror neurons will fire as if we were administering the kindness. The same would apply for unkind acts.

I have written a paper on this experiment which can be made available on request. The original literature (linked below) is very readable but it is the first in a series of the Parma Mirror Neuron Experiments.

Perspective: Embodied cognition, neuroscience, mirror neurons

Link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00230027

The Great Divide – Non Dual/Dual Meditation

Dualism is a crucial issue in the understanding and practice of meditation.

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Author: Josipovic, Z.

Year: 2014

Title: Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation

Summary: Many practitioners of nondual meditation have a theoretical and experiential understanding of nondual awareness (NDA). NDA has been described simply as an appreciation of the limitations of subject-object dichotomies. Perception of phenomena as dualistic and non dualistic permeates every aspect of our lives, but NDA is the relative state when we become aware of our habitual fluctuation between dual and nondual views. Neurologically speaking NDA increasingly appears to be fundamentally different from dualistic thought and indeed dualistic meditation. In terms of methodologies, meditation systems can be divided many different ways. But one of the most important and least researched categorisations is between the dual and nondual approaches. Josipovic offers an insight into the nondual approach and explains why and how it is different from other forms of meditation.

Supported both by contemporary experimental evidence and traditional explanations (to some extent). Josipovic presents a study exploring a neuroscience basis for NDA through the relational activity in intrinsic and extrinsic networks during three different forms of meditation (NDA, focussed attention and fixation). Results indicate a reduction during nondual meditation of the negative correlation between the intrinsic and extrinsic networks when compared to both fixation and focussed attention. It should be noted  that there are neuroscience and cognitive studies that both support and contradict Josipovic’s hypothesis. However only when reviewed alongside research demonstrating the limitations of intrinsic network suppression can the full potential of his insight be appreciated.

 

Editor’s Note: The scientific exploration of meditation in all its forms has been hampered by a (much reported) failure to establish authoritative theoretical frameworks. Josipovic has provided an approach which appears to successfully encompass the traditional explanations of NDA and can support phenomenological accounts integrated within a neuroscientific context.

Perspective: Contemplative science, neuroscience

Link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nyas.12261/full