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
Non-duality, the foundational principle of meditation

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 reliable experiential appreciation is even less likely. But despite the challenges, this is such an important issue that I’m attempting to outline a basic framework illustrating the inseparability of a recognition of nonduality and meditation. Both to write this short essay and also as a foundation for further studies in this area.

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From the academic standpoint, there are several ways of approaching nonduality, including the use of art, contemplative science, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, semiotics and more. 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. This is not to give the first or last word on nondual understanding to a particular tradition, school or sect. The tension between duality and nonduality put simply, is just an elegant way of describing the conscious experience of humans. It is not owned invented or discovered by any one individual or group. Although a sustained investigation by adepts over many centuries means that extensive bodies of knowledge have already been created.

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 force upon our ability to recognise the dualism that permeates our lived experience. The difference between meditation and everyday experience is that meditation can be designed to systematically augment our access to nondual awareness (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 meditation is a very broad church, some forms may not articulate any position in relation to dualistic concepts. The motivation of practitioners is also a key 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 NDA without the use of any of the methods known to mediate conscious experience. Further, traditional texts from established meditation schools set out the foundational processes of NDA, which can be seen to be congruent with the scientific understandings of deliberate cognitive transformation.

Contemplative science (the scientific study of meditation and mindfulness built up over the last half-century), is yet to get to grips with understanman standing on rooftop facing brown highrise buildingding the precise nature of the dual-nondual relationship. One of the limitations in the scientific study of traditional forms of meditation is the very existence of dual and nondual consciousness. The assumptions of positivism are that both the scientist and the science are objective, an assertion that has been demonstrated to be dualistic and sometimes unreliable. Therefore, despite its fundamental relationship to meditation, NDA challenges the ontologies of several of the leading approaches within psychology, including contemplative science.

So how to explain dualism to a person committed to a dualistic view of the world? For this, we can return to the preliminary discourses of how does the mind watch itself? The classic 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 simply means that most humans flit between the dual and nondual states without necessarily being aware or having any choice in the matter. From a contemplative science point of view, 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 nonduality, it’s just the experience-based understanding of its role as part 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 started to indicate that nondual meditation methods may have a qualitatively different nature when compared to other practices. But a key point to make is that NDA is not restricted to nondual practices, it is relevant to all forms of meditation (to a greater or lesser extent). However, I have yet to see evidence that the timeless negotiation between dual and nondual consciousness (that characterises most forms of meditation), has been observed scientifically, let alone understood. This shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of contemplative science or cognitive psychology. 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 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. The preliminary limitations in the scientific study of meditation and mindfulness are not due just to a failure to understand NDA, some important progress has been made. But for a fuller appreciation of the potential of meditation, explicit and implicit nondual mental processes will have to be first observed and then understood.

For a basic introduction to non-duality download the NDA podcast here.

How far can we trust meditation research?

Strategic reviews are challenging the popular perception of the beneficial effects of mindfulness

How far can we trust meditation research?
Looking for answers from meditation?

How far can we trust meditation research?

No matter how I tried to write the headline it came out as provocative. My intention wasn’t to be controversial, rather I wanted to articulate concerns that have been rumbling around the science of meditation and mindfulness for decades. At the heart of this story are two important yet unresolved issues. Firstly how does psychology and neuroscience understand meditation and what do the results of meditation research really mean?

The limited prosocial effects of meditation is a recent systematic review of research undertaken by Ute Kreplin, Miguel Farias and Inti Brazil. The study has been discussed in the meditation community at some length so I’m not going to review it here. But to summarize, the positive effects of meditation on prosocial behaviours (compassion, empathy, aggression, connectedness and prejudice) in healthy adults were only observed in compassion and empathy scores. However increases to compassion were just seen when the meditation teacher was one of the co-authors of the research paper or when the study used a ‘passive’ control group (this means the control group were on a waiting list). These findings are suggestive of flaws and possibly ‘bias’ in some of those studies  that demonstrated significant results. In an interview with Ute Kreplin published in the international Buddhist journal Tricycle, a number of broader issues have been highlighted, it’s those that I’d like to push around a little now. Leaving to one side the methodological flaws which are the main focus of the Tricycle interview, let me draw attention to the potential causes of the ongoing limitations in our attempts to evidence the effects of meditation.

woman meditating

It should be stressed that the Kreplin, Farias and Brazil paper is one of a number of reviews that came to similar conclusions, that many (possibly most) of the published studies reporting significant effects in non clinical populations had methodological and/or theoretical flaws. And as Kreplin hinted, published research tends only to be the tip of the iceberg, studies that fail to show measurable changes in meditators rarely see the light of day. So the examples analyzed in strategic reviews are not the full picture of meditation research, they offer a very selective (positive) account of the scientific landscape. And yet the common perception grows that meditation is a panacea able to deliver a range of desirable outcomes to almost anyone willing to practice a method.

“At this moment in time the science generally isn’t helping us to understand the benefits of meditation…”

Stephen Gene Morris

By way of transparency I should make it clear that I’m an experienced meditator and confident of the great benefits of the practice. My interest in contemplative science comes from the perspectives of both a trained cognitive psychologist and a practicing Buddhist. From my experience of teaching traditional meditation systems, it is unrealistic to claim that a few weeks of meditation practice automatically leads to ‘significant’ change. Some practitioners do progress rapidly, embracing the transformative potential of meditation, but others fall away after only a few weeks, sometimes disillusioned and unfulfilled. This is a difficult subject to address coming from a traditional meditation perspective, because judging or criticizing the progress of another practitioner is something of a taboo. But to enhance the wider understanding of meditation this point needs to be stressed. There is no reason to assume that the meditation method alone leads to change, the method is an integral part of a firmly established theoretical framework. The effects of meditation tend to be meditated by several factors such as, individual capacity, participant motivation and qualitative differences between the teacher or teaching systems.

The contemporary scientific investigation of meditation typically takes the reductionist approach, stripping out components that might confound the results of an experiment, such as variability in the method or differences in the environment. But isolating the cause (meditation method) and the effect (empirical change in the participant) is difficult, and in complex aspects of human behaviour such as empathy or compassion it may be beyond the scope of many experiments. Consider that large numbers of the participants in meditation studies are likely to be undergraduates ‘pressed’ into research projects, obliged to participate in return for course credits. If meditation doesn’t always work for the people who choose to attend classes in the wider community why should things be any different in an experimental setting?

ancient architecture art asia

The ‘expectation’ that a meditation method in itself leads to change is not supported by the human history. This idea may eventually be confirmed by science but the data gathered so far is inconclusive. We know that a number of meditation scientists are committed practitioners, so perhaps they have first hand experience of the benefits of meditation or mindfulness. Is this as Kreplin suggests, part of the problem? Could the experiential knowledge of the results of meditating introduce subconscious bias into research methodology? I’m a meditator I know about the benefits of regular practice but I can see dangers to the credibility of meditation systems if claims based on poor science are over-hyped. The lack of long term studies for secular forms of meditation should also be a serious concern.

The failure to establish robust findings in meditation research begs a further question, without reliable replicated science how does the delivery of meditation technologies continue to grow in society? If scientists are raising questions about the claims made in individual studies why isn’t this filtering down more into health care, public policy and the media? If meditation and mindfulness interventions cannot be shown to work, or deliver predictable results, confidence in meditation generally may decline. It might also lead to an erosion in the status of experimental psychology as a provider of independent and reliable data.

These few paragraphs are simply an introduction to the subject, the start of a very long road. It can be argued that the contemporary western scientific investigation of meditation began in the 1970s, since when perhaps as many as 10,000 studies have been published. But based on the findings from recent strategic reviews our scientific understanding of meditation is at a surprisingly preliminary stage.

Notes

The Kreplin, Farias and Brazil study can be found here.