An ever changing relationship between psychology and Buddhism reveals the transient nature of mindfulness meditation in the West.
In the Western history of Buddhist theory and practice, traditional forms of Buddhism have been relatively stable during the twentieth century. New Buddhist traditions and Buddhist inspired movements have emerged in that time, but many of the established schools have demonstrated a surprising continuity. However, since 1900 psychology has undergone radical transformations, leading to changes in both mainstream and peripheral approaches. Therefore the current engagement between Buddhism and psychology, in the form of the science of mindfulness, should be seen as transient and simply the latest stage in the relationship.
Research into the history of the West’s engagement with meditation led me in pursuit of a book written by Caroline Rhys Davids1 in 1914. I haven’t yet tracked down a copy of this work. But several published reviews can be found through resources such as Google Scholar. Without reading Davids’s treatise I wouldn’t wish to suggest it was representative of any or all of Buddhist psychology, that’s not my point. Rather, the reviews of her work appear, in some quarters, to accept that Eastern understandings of mind might be able to contribute to Western scientific knowledge. In one such appraisal, Walter Clark from the University of Chicago wrote in 1916:
The study of Buddhist psychology is of much interest to us because of the fact that it gives us a carefully worked out analysis of mental phenomena from the point of view of an entirely different “tradition of thought.” Its parallelism to and difference from our own psychological thinking opens up many problems which are of the utmost importance in the study of thought in general.2
Clarke’s review indicates apparent scholarly respect for Eastern sciences of mind. Suggestive of the potential for collaborative rather than appropriative perspectives of Buddhist understandings. There have been several Western scholars that demonstrate an appreciation of traditional (Eastern) forms of psychology, but these are mainly to be found in the humanities rather than the sciences. A scientist investigating traditional meditation methods rarely links their work to underlying Buddhist concepts, citing relevant texts.
By drawing attention to the evolving nature of psychological sciences it is a reminder that Western science is in a state of flux in some regards. That what counts as ‘scientifically validated’ psychology today, may well be washed away by a ‘post-cognitive’ movement over the next decades. Conversely, much traditional Buddhist thought and practise has a core of knowledge that extends back hundreds and occasionally thousands of years. In this regard, Buddhist writings on mind, consciousness and meditation could be regarded as an underutilised resource in the study and use of meditation technologies.
1 Buddhist Psychology: An Inquiry into the Analysis and Theory of Mind in Pali Literature. By Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1914. 212 pages. 2s. 6d.
2 The emphasis is mine. Clark, Walter E. “Buddhistic Psychology.” (1916): 139-141.
There are strong indications that meditation and mindfulness practice may have a positive impact on dementia and cognitive decline.
Authors: Russell-Williams, J., Jaroudi, W., Perich, T., Hoscheidt, S., El Haj, M., & Moustafa, A. A.
Title: Mindfulness and meditation: treating cognitive impairment and reducing stress in dementia
Summary: Mental health concerns linked to an ageing population include, Alzheimer’s disease (AD), dementia, mild cognitive impairment and subjective cognitive decline. We should say at the outset that when people are diagnosed with early-stage dementia, increased stress levels leading to poorer health more generally may follow close behind. This notion was reflected in the aims of this review.
There is evidence that meditation technologies can boost brain function and structure, but there is a lack of research investigating the benefits to populations already suffering from declining cognitive performance. This narrative review examined ten studies that explored the benefits of meditation on dementia-related memory conditions. The study looked across a range of scientific papers to identify trends and patterns. This should not be confused with experimental replication (the repetition of experiments to confirm scientific reliability).
The reviewed studies were seeking to understand if meditation could influence the cognitive performance, quality of life and perceived stress of people already experiencing different degrees of memory-related cognitive decline. The good news is that all of the studies demonstrated significant or ‘moving towards significant’ results. Collectively, these findings indicated that meditation could lead to
a reduction in cognitive decline
an increase in functional connectivity in the brain
a reduction in perceived stress
an increase in quality of life
The bottom line is that meditation appears able to improve brain function in people already suffering cognitive decline. Observed changes are likely to be linked to structural alterations in the brain. These positive developments can, in turn, lead to reduced levels of stress and improved quality of life.
“These preliminary findings offer causes for optimism in the treatment of cognitive decline. However caution must be expressed until results have been reliably replicated.”
The problem in talking about the concept of nonduality is that it is everywhere, all the time, but it is rarely recognised or understood.
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.
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 understanding 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.
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.
Strategic reviews are challenging the popular perception of the beneficial effects of mindfulness
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.
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?
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.
The Kreplin, Farias and Brazil study can be found here.