Why are the effects of meditation so hard to understand?

As criticism of the science of meditation grow, is it time to go back to the beginning?

Physics and meditation
Does psychology have the right tools to understand meditation?

I planned my recent dissertation research to follow the trajectory of the Zen school of psychotherapy during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Accounts of Meiji New Buddhism’s adoption by psychological science offer interesting parallels with the growth of mindfulness (there is the exciting possibility that different appropriations of Buddhist knowledge by Western science might share common patterns). However, my plan radically changed when 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 or more recent best-selling books. Now in his eighties, I thought of him as a physicist developing system theories linked to sustainability. What I discovered was that some of his early work focussed on demonstrating ontological differences between Eastern and Western knowledge systems. Capra’s 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.

person walks towards temple

Having experienced the benefits of meditation first hand, I find the failure of psychology to reliably demonstrate the cause and effect of meditation as both wasteful and confusing. As many as ten thousand meditation and mindfulness experiments have been conducted over the last forty years. Yet cognitive psychology describes research in this area as preliminary! Over time my thinking has settled on two questions; i) how does a spiritual practice become a secular (scientific) practice and ii) what is lost and gained in this transition? Put concisely, how well has the West understood and utilised meditation systems?

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 directionless, entangling the means with the ends. Capra’s paper sets out an interpretation of the characteristics of Eastern spiritual understandings, thus offering signposts as to why the West can’t quite figure meditation out. I’m just pausing for a moment here, what is supposed to happen if experimental psychology is unable to understand aspects of human behaviour?

high angle photo of robot

The essence of this argument is that while the mystical East has an organic world view, the West has invested heavily in mechanistic understandings. 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 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. It was the progression of this view that led to the creation of classical physics and established dualism as the Western way of understanding almost everything.

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.

Conversely Eastern understandings see nature as much more interconnected, that  Western categorisations and laws of nature are 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 with the inanimate. 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, there are generally several factors influencing 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.

man wearing black and white stripe shirt looking at white printer papers on the wall

So what does this piece of ‘dated’ quantum physics mean for our understanding of meditation? The essence of this work highlights fundamental differences between ontologies (theories of being) of East and West. Suggestive of a conceptual gap between meditation’s original function and purpose and contemporary science frameworks. 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 ‘alien’ 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 four decades of experimentation.5

Despite problems with over-generalisation, 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 is unable to 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 could be a reliable observation, but it gives rise to two at least two problems. It limits meditation to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), perhaps the reason why modern secular meditation methods rarely outperform CBT in clinical trials. Secondly, it throws the baby out with the bathwater! The benefits of traditional meditation are universal and profoundly different from those offered by CBT. To use the limitations of positivism to define technology, risks reducing knowledge to known frames of reference. It also inevitably chains positivism to a very low developmental trajectory. Capra offers some hope that a movement towards a mature understanding of ‘interdisciplinary’ might be able to deliver replicated evidence of the benefits of meditation.

 

Notes:

1 Capra, F. (1976). Modern physics and eastern mysticism. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 8(1).

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 being measured, and how it is understood may be unrelated to the spiritual meditation.

The changing engagement between psychology and Buddhist thought

In the course of the 20th century psychology went through several transformations. By comparison traditional Buddhism remained relatively stable. How then can we understand the engagement between the two?

Mindfulness and the relationship with Buddhism
How stable are our understandings of mind?

In the Western history of Buddhism, theory and practice have been relatively stable during the twentieth century. New Buddhist movements emerged during this time, but traditional schools demonstrated surprising continuity. Yet, since 1900, psychology has undergone radical transformations. Which has led to changes in both mainstream and peripheral approaches. Against this backdrop, the engagement between Buddhism and psychology appears transient. That the perceived utility of Buddhist thought and practice is dependent on the current configuration of psychological approaches. Looking back into the history of Western academic engagement with Buddhism in the 1910s, we see an openness to Buddhist knowledge. An acceptance that traditional texts were able to offer insight into the ‘scientific’ understandings of the mind.

Research into the history of the West’s engagement with Buddhism and meditation led me in pursuit of a book written by Caroline Rhys Davids in 1914.1 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 careful reading of Davids’s treatise, I wouldn’t wish to suggest it was representative of any or all of Buddhist psychology; that’s not my point. Instead, 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.

Walter Clark2

pile of assorted title book lot selective focus photograph

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 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 psychology, it is a reminder that Western science is in a state of flux. That what counts as ‘scientifically validated’ psychology today, could be washed away by a new ‘post-cognitive’ movement. Conversely, traditional Buddhist thought and practice have a core of knowledge that extends back hundreds and occasionally thousands of years. In this regard, Buddhist writings on mind, consciousness, and meditation are an underutilized resource in the study and use of meditation technologies.

 

Notes

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.

2 The emphasis is mine. Clark, Walter E. “Buddhistic Psychology.” (1916): 139-141.

This post is an edited version of an article published in the science of meditation blog from January 2020.

Mindfulness’s lack of judgement

Definitions of MBIs typically include an element of ‘non-judgement’, even thought this is inconsistent with traditional forms of meditation. Is this important and does it help us to understand the mindfulness journey?

Contemporary mindfulness is often characterised by a non-judgemental approach, what does this mean for meditators?

What do we mean by a lack of judgement?

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, as well as in the wider ethical context surrounding the meditation. This lack of judgement in MBIs appears to have been one of its foundational principles, present since its introduction into clinical/scientific settings1. This absence of judgement is somewhat surprising given the presumed conceptual relationship with Buddhist forms of mindfulness, where judgement and ethics provide stable theoretical frameworks.

Is it important?

Scholars2 and practitioners3 have considered how the ‘non-judgemental’ approach in MBIs, position them in relation to traditional forms of mindfulness. 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 flourishes? There are concerns that the removal of judgement and/or a wider ethical context, reflects a distance between contemporary practices and the traditional forms. This debate has been illuminated recently by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, who wrote that meditation alone is not enough4. That an understanding of the ontology and epistemology of the practice is an essential part of the process. Although Rinpoche was talking specifically about Buddhist meditation, his view supports the notion that meditation stripped of its ethical and judgmental elements may become something quite different. We should be clear that although there are Buddhist methods which operationalise a non-judgemental view, they are typically conducted within an ethical/judgemental setting.

“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 Rinpoche4

Does non-judgement change the result of meditation?

Why a lack of judgement?

From a psychological point of view, the idea that meditation should not be separated from a judgemental and ethical context raises three important questions. Firstly, are students of MBIs getting some ad hoc judgement/ethical context from their mindfulness teacher or other sources to fill the gap? Secondly, judgement and reflection require engagement with important processes in the brain’s intrinsic networks, therefore there are likely to be differences between the results obtained from judgemental and non-judgemental approaches. And finally, if judgement is regarded as being central to meditation technologies, why has it been removed from contemporary practices? It is this last question that holds the greatest significance.

What does it mean from a history of science perspective?

In one sense, psychology is free to develop whatever forms of meditation it sees fit to invent, it can also investigate established meditation methods. But the creation of contemporary mindfulness interventions, based on an existing form invites different questions. If the specific traditional practice(s) mindfulness has emerged from are known, cognitive psychology should be able to investigate their theoretical and operational components. Then by making comparisons with contemporary mindfulness, a clear understanding of what has been added or lost can be established. It appears that this kind of foundational work has not taken place so we do not really know the extent to which mindfulness is rooted in any traditional practice. Therefore, although contemporary mindfulness stresses a close relationship with Buddhist meditation technologies, this is not generally supported at a theoretical or operational level. So why and how did things turn out this way? If the scientific origins of mindfulness are uncertain, why has it been so robustly supported by the scientific and clinical communities?

Framing the questions

There is ample evidence that there are fundamental problems in the science of mindfulness. However these claims are still controversial, not least because of the important role mindfulness has occupied in contemporary society. But acknowledgement of limitations with the scientific reliability does not necessarily mean that mindfulness does not work, or it does not have an important role to play. Rather it highlights that there has been a separation of the intervention from the level of evidence normally expected in this field. How and why this approach to the science of mindfulness has been sustained over 40 years is likely to be dependent on a range of factors, not all explicit at this stage.


Taking about mindfulness

“The early papers on MBSR cited not just its Theravada roots (Kornfield 1977; Nyanaponika 1962), but also its Mahayana roots within both the Soto (Suzuki 1970) and Rinzai (Kapleau 1965) Zen traditions (and by lineage, the earlier Chinese and Korean streams), as well as certain currents from the yogic traditions (Thakar 1977) including Vedanta (Nisargadatta 1973), and the teachings of J Krishnamurti (Krishnamurti 1969, 1979) and Ramana Maharshi (Maharshi 1959).”

Jon Kabat-Zinn1

References

1 Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 281-306 here.

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 here.

3 Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 19-39 here.

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

5 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 here.