Meditation, poverty and mental health; psychology and nonduality

We know that poverty can make poor mental health more likely. But therapeutic interventions rarely consider the root causes of mental illness. Could nondual treatments be a solution?

Poverty is a factor in poor mental health

The BPS’s project to support people move from poverty to flourishing has highlighted several important issues; among the most challenging is the notion that mental health is not a ‘DIY project’.1 The challenge arises because, in psychology, there are technical and conceptual barriers to considering social factors such as community and institutional engagement in clinical intervention. However, the social networks that mediate mental wellbeing are becoming even more critical in the COVID and post-COVID worlds.2 Positive social interaction is foundational to health and wellbeing, but many clinical interventions fail to integrate biopsychosocial models into diagnosis and treatment. And the reductive nature of experimental psychology places barriers to considering the individual and the social concurrently. Understanding the personal cost of poverty requires a wide lens; mental suffering doesn’t exist in isolation to family, community or institutions.3 Integrating and tackling mental health’s inner and outer determinants is central to countering the psychological damage caused by enduring poverty. This article will discuss how compassion mind training (meditation) can address mental suffering while encouraging supportive social networks. I’m also going to argue that to access the full potential of compassion mind training, new psychological approaches to meditation are required.

Although there are challenges to defining compassion, the wish and/or the action to alleviate suffering is an acceptable description for many working in the field. Therefore, it is not controversial to argue that a more compassionate society would reduce suffering. There is also evidence that more compassionate individuals suffer less. Although an oversimplification, it’s worth pausing on the notion that compassion interventions can support individual psychological wellbeing and the social factors able to mediate mental health. The consideration of clinical interventions linked to broader social settings is unusual for many psychologists, certainly those working in experimental settings. But understanding how poverty affects a person within their environment is a priority. Without attention to the root causes of mental suffering, psychological interventions will only have a modest impact. I’m not talking about social policy here (in any direct sense); instead, I’m suggesting that more attention needs to be given to curative approaches that address both the internal (mental) and external (social) causes of suffering. Over the last two decades, the growth in compassion research has emerged from the project to medicalise spiritual meditation. But few of the 7,000 meditation studies published over the previous eight decades address the biopsychosocial potential of meditation. Ironically, this holistic and now neglected aspect of traditional meditation was critical to the initial academic and scientific interest.

The reasons for reluctance to consider social factors, alongside mental health treatment, are typically linked to preserving the integrity of the experimental method. Controlling potential confounding variables has always been a central goal of experimental psychology. But compassion mind training highlights that mental states are influenced by cognitive processes based on our inner and outer worlds. Medicalised meditation is one area of research and practice where therapy considers both the psychological and the social. Over the last twenty years, compassion mind training has been shown to improve, physical and mental health as well as social relationships. In their 2017 meta-review of published compassion studies, James Kirby, Cassandra Tellegen and Stanley Steindl concluded that compassion interventions held ‘promising’ potential to reduce suffering from depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.4 Two of the leading advocates for the use of compassion training are Paul Gilbert and James Doty. Paul Gilbert OBE is the founder of Compassionate Mind Training (CMT) and  Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT), Dr Doty has been the driving force behind Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Between them, Doty and Gilbert have highlighted how compassion mind training can support individual and collective mental health. Gilbert’s 2019 exploration into the nature and function of compassion sets out current research and practice.5 Particularly relevant here is the notion of compassion as a ‘social mentality’. In this context, social mentality refers to the creation of relationships. Although this concept falls far short of the use of compassion in spiritual meditation, it signposts new opportunities for scientific understanding.

A multi-directional view of compassion allows a relationship of mutual support between the psychologist and the patient to develop. In this scenario, peers come together to solve problems; hierarchical limitations are less pronounced. Gilbert uses the primary caregiver-child relationship as an example of this reciprocity, but this illustration is most useful as a heuristic to think about compassion in new ways. Rather than the passive recipient of therapy, the patient also becomes a catalyst for compassionate thoughts towards others. Mind training in compassion can be, as Gilbert describes, a dynamic process between patient and clinician, but it is not necessarily limited to that. Compassion can support the mental health of the patient while also developing their compassionate insights towards society more generally, and thus stimulating increased social engagement. The research agenda of CCARE includes investigation of ‘methods for cultivating compassion and promoting altruism within individuals and society-wide’.6 These are the nondual insights that highlight the potential of mind training to support mutually dependent relationships between community and self.

Despite pioneers such as Gilbert and Doty, compassion research appears to be developing the same limitations as other forms of medicalised meditation. Construct validity is still uncertain, and reliable psychometric instruments are a work in progress. And if you follow the literature, you will find frequent overlaps between compassion and concepts such as empathy, altruism and loving-kindness. Attempts to reduce the idea of compassion by establishing the binary constructs of self-compassion and other-compassion have also run into difficulty; in 2017 Christian Kandler and his colleagues demonstrated that self-compassion is a facet of neuroticism.7 From a historical perspective, several common problems are visible in the relocation of meditation to psychology. For example, similar methodological and theoretical limitations exist in the research of mindfulness, compassion and related pro-social behaviours.8 While it might be premature to suggest the scientific study of meditation in its current form (and therefore compassion mind training) has reached an impasse; clearly, there are obstacles to making further progress. The scientific study of meditation technologies is rich with intersections between traditional spiritual practice and psychology. For example, Doty and Gilbert both draw heavily on Tibetan Buddhist influences in their work. But while psychology can safely observe the effects of traditional meditation from a scientific perspective, integrating practices from spiritual traditions with psychology is a risky undertaking. Risky on several levels, but primarily because of the conflict between the world views of Western science and Eastern knowledge systems.

The migration of traditional meditation from the temple to the laboratory followed a long and complicated path. Many of the problems and opportunities for meditation-based mind training come into sharper focus when we consider meditation’s scientific history. From the early engagements, western scholars and scientists have been working on two broad trajectories to medicalise Eastern mind training methods. The paths of integration and appropriation. The integration path can be traced back through the medical counter-culture, Zen psychotherapy and Buddhist reform movements of the late 19th century. Experimental work with electroencephalographic (EEG) technologies from the 1930s laid the foundations of the path of appropriation. The rise of scientist-practitioners since the 1970s, people such as Robert Wallace and Jon Kabat-Zinn, accelerated spiritual and psychological convergence. In both interconnected strands, foundational cognitive elements of traditional meditation, such as ethical judgement and compassion, were uncoupled from modern medicalised methods. These ‘human’ factors give spiritual meditation holistic curative potential through the interconnectivity between self and others. Richard King and Steven Stanley are just two of the academics that highlight the loss of these elements during meditation’s relocation. In scientific investigations of mind training’s operational features, I have found no comparative studies that evaluate traditional meditation methods with reference to their ontological frameworks. This inevitably means that we have uncoupled compassionate mind training practices, by accident or design, from their original conceptual contexts. This same point applies to mindfulness meditation.

There is no question of normativity here or comparative judgement of the psychological methods over spiritual practices (or vice-versa). The issue under discussion is, how can compassion mind training be best used to support people from poverty to flourishing? Despite a lack of replication, the cumulative evidence for the benefits of compassion methods is significant. However, in common with mindfulness, compassion meditation remains a ‘promising’ rather than an effective mental health intervention. We should not underestimate the impressive progress made in this field, particularly since the 1970s. But the challenges presented by increasing levels of poverty require more reliable and flexible meditation-based interventions. In order to harness the full potential of compassion mind training, two questions need to be addressed; what happens to traditional meditation methods translated to psychological interventions, and what is lost or gained in the process?

Even a preliminary investigation of Buddhist (Mahayana) ‘science and philosophy’ reveals foundational concepts underpinning meditation methods such as ‘relative compassion’, ‘nonduality’ and ’emptiness’. But acknowledgement of these elements in traditional meditation is almost totally absent from the psychological literature. It is problematic to relocate human technologies to new knowledge systems without understanding the original cognitive components. This is an approach that risks creating interpretive forms that lack essential elements. The uncoupling of meditation from its full potential during the migratory process probably explains the perennial ‘promising’ tag that has followed the clinical use of meditation for fifty years. New translated forms of mind training could develop into effective Westernised psychological interventions in their own right. But taking the historical perspective, I’d ask how long will it take and how useful will they be? The pressing challenge of tackling the suffering linked to poverty requires new approaches to develop our current knowledge.

Perhaps the most significant limitation in the project to medicalise meditation is the failure to find a common language for psychology to engage with the traditional forms of meditation. There is a need for a lingua franca, a conceptual rosetta stone that will allow psychologists to access the curative potential of compassion long observed in Buddhist meditation. Doty, Gilbert and others frequently hint at this potential but generally retreat into positivist terminology to investigate and describe it. The role of meditation in supporting mental health and social networks remains largely theoretical or anecdotal to psychology. The shortfall between what medicalised meditation is and what it could become appears to be brought about by inflexible approaches to non-Western knowledge systems; a tendency to translate human technologies ahead of the full documentation of psychological benefits. The scientific history of meditation indicates that psychology requires more sophisticated ways of understanding the world if it wishes to unlock mind training’s full potential. While positivism is a powerful investigative tool, its current form appears unable to penetrate aspects of traditional (non-positivist/nondual) knowledge systems. Given the growing role of meditation technologies in society, the creation of a new discipline to access traditional knowledge is long overdue. The development of nondual psychology would create an approach able to consider the curative potential of traditional compassion meditation (and its operational cognitive components) free of the distortions of cultural and ontological translation.

Notes


1 ‘From Poverty to Flourishing: Towards 2021 | The Psychologist’ https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-33/october-2020/poverty-flourishing-towards-2021.

2 Ichiro Kawachi and Lisa F Berkman, Social Ties and Mental Health, Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 2001, lxxviii.

3 ‘WHO | Social Determinants of Mental Health’, WHO, 2019 http://www.who.int/mental_health/publications/gulbenkian_paper_social_determinants_of_mental_health/en/ [accessed 4 January 2021].

4 James N Kirby, Cassandra L Tellegen, and Stanley R Steindl, A Meta-Analysis of Compassion-Based Interventions: Current State of Knowledge and Future Directions, 2017 <www.elsevier.com/locate/bt>.

5 Paul Gilbert, ‘Explorations into the Nature and Function of Compassion’, Current Opinion in Psychology (Elsevier B.V., 2019), 108–14 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.12.002.

6 Mission & Vision – The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education’ http://ccare.stanford.edu/about/mission-vision [accessed 4 January 2021].

7 Christian Kandler and others, ‘Old Wine in New Bottles? The Case of Self–Compassion and Neuroticism’, European Journal of Personality, 31.2 (2017), 160–69 https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2097.

[8] 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://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617709589.

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.

Nonduality and its central role to understanding meditation

The problem in talking about the concept of nonduality is that it is everywhere, all the time, but it is rarely recognised or understood.

Nondual understanding, the key to understanding meditation
Nonduality, the foundational principle of Buddhist meditation methods

(Follow this link if you are looking for the scientific explanation of nonduality, meditation and agenda for change.)

Where to begin? Where to begin when there is no beginning? To merely approach the concept of nonduality, several volumes of definitions, meanings and precedents could be used to establish the common ground required for a meaningful introduction. Consider that in traditional training systems, an ‘introduction’ to nonduality can comprise a decade or more of study and meditation. Even then an intellectual understanding might not be achieved, and a genuine experiential appreciation is even less likely. But despite the challenges,  I’m going to attempt to outline a basic framework illustrating the inseparability of nonduality and Buddhist meditation.

library high angle photro

From the Western academic standpoint, there are several ways of approaching nonduality, including the use of art, contemplative science, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, semiotics and more.1 However, as this is a discussion of duality and nonduality in contemplative science, I can try a short-cut and align these thoughts to theoretical frameworks from traditional meditation systems. Crucially these established understandings have stable ontologies with reliable supporting and supportive epistemologies. Such theoretical frameworks can be found throughout traditional meditation schools, but are explicitly taught in nondual approaches such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra.2 I disagree with Capra’s generalisations about the shared world view of Eastern mystical traditions.3 But I take his point that there are fundamental conflicts between positivist and mystical understandings of mind and matter. This is not to give the first or last word on nonduality to any tradition, school or sect. Put simply, the tension between duality and nonduality is just an elegant way of describing the conscious experience of humans. However, some mystical traditions have established literary and oral traditions explaining the nature of explicit nonduality and the methods that may be used to establish nondual awareness (NDA).

As most forms of meditation shape the cognitive processes underpinning conscious experience, they can be considered as tools able to influence our concepts of duality-nonduality. However, a point of clarification is required, everything we think, say or do also exerts a force upon our lived experience. The difference between meditation and everyday experience is that meditation can be designed to systematically augment our access to NDA. So when we talk about meditation in a traditional context, nonduality is generally (intrinsically and extrinsically) part of the process and method being used. It is also important to stress that Buddhist meditation is a broad church (several different churches), some meditation approaches may not articulate any position about dualistic concepts. For example, Bhikkhu Bodhi has stated that the Buddhist scriptures reject the pursuit of dual or nondual states.2 The motivation of practitioners is also a critical factor in this discussion, people may meditate for many years without ever encountering the path to NDA. Conversely, several people have reported ‘accidental’ insight into nonduality without the use of any of the methods known to mediate conscious experience. Reassuringly, traditional texts from established meditation schools set out the foundational processes leading to NDA, which are congruent with (some) scientific understandings of cognitive training.

Contemplative science (the scientific study of meditation and mindfulness built up over the last half-century) is yet to create authoritative understanman standing on rooftop facing brown highrise buildingdings of the relationship between dual-nondual consciousness and meditation. One of the limiting factors in the scientific study of traditional forms of meditation is the very existence of dual and nondual awareness. The assumptions of positivism are that both the scientist and the scientific method are objective, assertions that have been demonstrated to be dualistic and sometimes unreliable. Therefore, NDA challenges the ontologies of many approaches trying to understand how traditional mediation mediates consciousness.

So given the preamble, how to explain nonduality to a person neurologically committed to a dualistic view of the world? For this, we can return to preliminary discourses of how does the mind watch itself? The typical cognitive response to this question is that the executive function (EF) holds this task (of self-monitoring). But in reality, we know (at the level of psychology and personal experience), the EF is both participant and observer of the drama of our lives. This supports the view that humans flit between the dual and nondual states without necessarily being aware or having any choice in the matter. This takes us back to the drawing board because it is clear we often see the world in both dual and nondual frames according to a range of causes and conditions. NDA isn’t an abandonment of duality. Instead, it offers an experience-based understanding of the full scope of our conscious engagement with the world.

silhouette of person holding glass mason jar

Preliminary work by scientists like Josipovic and scholars such as Dunne has indicated that meditation methods establish in nonduality possess a qualitatively different nature when compared to other practices. But NDA is not restricted to nondual practices, it is relevant to all forms of Buddhist meditation (to a greater or lesser extent). This is the main point, we have a number of neural networks that drive our experience of life. Humans privilege parts of these networks over others, leading to a false certainty or reliance on those privileged domains. Over time these positions become dominant in terms of brain functions and structures. This is why so many of us are oblivious to the limitations of duality, we lack the cognitive software or neurological hardware to access it.

I have yet to see evidence that the timeless negotiation between dual and nondual consciousness has been recorded scientifically, let alone understood. This shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of contemplative science or cognitive psychology. A training in NDA is typically a work of years, and few people ever fully complete this journey. The full potential offered to humanity by nondual forms of meditation is dependent on grasping the nature of highly elusive mental states, considered to be the ‘result’ of meditation practices. The notion that the benefits of meditation can be found in the method alone reflects a dualistic understanding of mystical approaches.

The good news for both meditation scientists and secular practitioners is that a meaningful understanding of experience-based NDA is not essential for the research and practice of meditation methods. That regular meditation can alter brain function and structure is now widely accepted. In some cases, a pressing clinical need may lead to the practice of meditation as symptom focussed brain training, in the way that we could use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). But this has little relationship with traditional and transcendent forms of meditation. A foundational limitation in the scientific study of meditation is also the absence of an appreciation of explicit and implicit nondual mental processes.

If you’re still wondering what duality and nonduality are, you’re not alone. It’s a tricky subject to work with, many experienced meditators are aware of the concepts but still fail to engage consciously with them. For a basic introduction into nondual concepts, you might find the NDA podcast helpful, download it here.

Notes
1. Loy, David. Nonduality: A study in comparative philosophy. Prometheus Books, 2012.

2. Josipovic, Zoran. “Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1307, no. 1 (2014): 9-18.

3. It is a complex task to define precisely which Eastern mystical traditions are nondual and which are not. The very proposition is a binary concept that makes no real sense from the nondual perspective. Perhaps at a later point I will attempt to set out distinctions between relative and absolute nonduality and how these can be further divided into explicit and implicit forms (realistically this is a book project rather than a blog post). Capra, Fritjof. “Modern physics and eastern mysticism.” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 8, no. 1 (1976).

4. With all respect to the Bhikkhu, the abandonment of the pursuit of relative conscious states such as dual or nondual appears close to the integration which is one goal of the explicitly nondual traditions. Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “Dhamma and non-duality.” Access to Insight (2011).

Essay edited on 14th May 2020.