Non-judgement and mindfulness meditation; costs and opportunities

The absence of judgement from medicalised mindfulness suggests an uncoupling from traditional meditation methods. Why did this happen, and what does it mean?

Why was judgement removed from medicalised meditations

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.

References

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.

3 Nyima Chokyi. “Why Meditation isn’t Enough.” Lion’s Roar (2019). https://www.lionsroar.com/why-meditation-isnt-enough/

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.

Three limitations in our understanding of meditation and how to fix them

Scientists are challenging claims being made for the benefits of mindfulness. A project to fill in the gaps in our scientific knowledge is an urgent priority.

Limitations in the understanding of meditation and mindfulness
Lack of understanding is limiting the study of meditation

Scientists studying the benefits of mindfulness meditation are still coming to terms with  a systematic review entitled ‘Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.1 The criticisms made in that study pose questions for the use of meditation in contemporary secular settings. This crisis of confidence is not linked to a lack of clinical potential; there are preliminary indications of meditation’s curative effects. The problems rest in the widespread absence of replicated evidence for many of the claims made for meditation technologies. The overview now emerging from the scientific study of meditation is the lack of a ‘big picture’. Psychological science has studied the impact of meditation extensively over the last seventy years, but further progress appears limited by three intractable problems.

The long term sustainability of clinical meditation is threatened by an inability to reflect its successes and failures in equal measure. While it is not uncommon to find pilot studies with small numbers of participants hyped in the media, established theoretical and methodological problems receive modest scholarly or scientific interest. This is not a minor nor recent problem; issues of scientific reliability have stalked meditation research since the middle decades of the twentieth century.

man sitting on rock in front of water fountain

Reviews of published meditation research frequently cite flaws in the methodologies used. For example, many studies find an effect; that when people meditate some measurable change takes place. However, this effect is often established in isolation without any control group. Or on many occasions, the control is a ‘waiting list’ of participants who receive no appropriate intervention or placebo, meaning all the experiment can show is that in one instance the meditation appeared to have a more substantial effect than nothing. As any neuroscientist or neuropsychologist can tell you, a repeated novel activity of almost any kind can lead to an effect, and if continued for long enough new brain function and structure will be observed.

But the failure to establish strong scientific evidence cannot be only put down to an absence of scientific introspection and methodological flaws. The lack of a coherent theoretical framework presents the biggest obstacle to meditation research. Put simply, despite thousands of published papers over recent decades; we still can’t quite settle on definitions of what secular meditations are and how they should work. Many meditation studies reference religious traditions alongside scientific papers with little explanation of how positivism and spirituality can share a common world view. Peer-reviewed studies which contain limitations continue to be cited in recent work, their influence extending well beyond experimental environments.

Scientists working in this field are likely to be familiar with these three areas of concern (lack of reflexivity, methodological and theoretical weaknesses). But elevating the standard of published research remains a challenge. The Van Dam et al. study makes several recommendations, which if adopted, could improve matters, but the critical challenges haven’t been addressed; we lack authoritative accounts of what meditation and mindfulness are. This overarching question is directly linked to the gaps in our knowledge of how meditation relocated to science, what processes were lost and gained. A more rigorous epistemological and ontological understanding of the science of meditation may be our best hope to deliver the stable conceptual foundations urgently needed in the contemplative sciences.

Notes

1 Van Dam, N. T., Van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., … & Fox, K. C. (2018). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on psychological science, 13(1), 36-61.