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.