The Challenges of Seeing Meditation Only Through a Scientific Lens

Sunday, April 26, 2015 - 6:26am
Photo by Rosy

The Challenges of Seeing Meditation Only Through a Scientific Lens

Some years ago, a neuroscientist gently challenged me on the benefits of meditation: “Without further scientific validation,” he began, “how will you know if meditation works?”

I gulped, unsure of how to respond, but confident in my belief that meditation works.

“Well, we kind of think we already know it works.” How? Because those of us who have developed meditation practices have been our own laboratories: we feel the benefits of meditation directly in our bodies, in our minds, and throughout our lives in often surprising ways.

Of course, I appreciate the recent surge of research into meditation quite a lot. When I think of the mainstream attention meditation is getting, I then think of the Buddha, telling his first 60 disciples to go forth and teach ”for the good of the many, the welfare of the many.” In fact, the last thing the Buddha suggested to his disciples was that they teach in the local idiom. Meditation shouldn’t have to be pursued in esoteric terms, as its values and perspectives can be expressed in lots of different ways, and its benefits are supposed to relate to our actual lives.

For us, in our time, the equivalent of a “local idiom” is psychology and science. In many ways, I value the way some timeless truths (such as the benefits of meditation) can be expressed in terms that are specific, sharply articulated, and current.

I welcome the intriguing puzzles and nuanced answers neuroscience has introduced to the world about meditation. Who knew that the pleasure center of the brain lights up if someone does a compassion meditation in an fMRI scanner, even if what they are acknowledging and focusing on is the experience of suffering. In doing so, this person wouldn’t be embracing sadism, nor masochism, but embracing a sense of oneness, the commonality of suffering in the human experience. This is what meditation allows us to do — to acknowledge, to observe, to connect. This expansive way of experiencing things lifts us up. It feels good.

(Mark / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

I always remind my students that the proof of one’s meditation practice isn’t in the formal period of sitting on the cushion or chair, or doing walking meditation; it’s in your life.

A friend once took me out in NYC, which turned into a kind of confessional lunch. He started out with an admission: “I’ve been doing lovingkindness meditation for about three years now. Yet my experience as I sit each day, three years later, isn’t so radically different from when I started.” He seemed to want an explanation from me, but I just continued to listen, so he continued to share: “But I’m a different person,” he added, “I’m different with myself, with my family and friends, with my community. I’m different ethically. Is that enough?” I laughed and reassured him, “Yeah, I kind of think that’s enough.”

We need to remember to look at our lives for signs — to consider how we are with our partners, our children, our colleagues at work, or even with strangers. Even more importantly, we need to look at how we speak to ourselves when we have made a mistake: do we blame ourselves, or recognize our capacity for resilience, our ongoing ability to begin again.

In other words, we don’t necessarily seek the kinds of results neuroscience is providing. We don’t await the thickening of our prefrontal cortex or our shrinking amygdala or the fact that our telomeres are becoming less frayed over time. Of course, for research purposes, these are wonderful tools, and they are strengthening the support behind meditation world-wide. But this field of study is still in its infancy.

Wearing a 128-channel geodesic sensor net, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard sits in a soundproof room and prepares for an electroencephalography (EEG) test at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

(Jeff Miller)

I was on a panel with Richie Davidson from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the Center For Investigating Healthy Minds. During the panel, I posed this provocative question to him:

“What if you had a world-renowned meditation teacher come into the lab, someone famous for his or her extraordinary kindness and compassion. You pop them into the fMRI machine and ask them to do compassion meditation. And let’s say the 'wrong' part of their brain lights up. Would you think, ‘Hm. Our ability to measure is still in its infancy, we need to refine these tools?’ Or would you suddenly become a skeptic and think, ‘This person has a completely undeserved reputation?’”

Richie’s response was simple: “Science always needs to be humble.”

A computer monitor displays graphic renderings of Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard's brain as Ricard participates in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) test at the MRI facility in the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

(Jeff Miller)

Science or not, all of us always need to be humble. As a teacher, the idea of meditation and meditation instruction as an art resonates most with me. It’s intuitive, dynamic, sometimes implicit rather than explicit, sometimes subtle rather than concrete. It might make for changed lives but perhaps doesn’t make for very good research.

The foundational change we must make in order to change our lives is to change our relationship to ourselves. Of course, this is arguably the hardest change there is to make. I once did a presentation with Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina, whose research focuses on positive emotions, and often utilizes lovingkindness meditation as the intervention eliciting positive emotions in her subjects.

During our presentation, Barbara explained that she felt people commit more readily to a meditation practice if they had a positive experience within the first two weeks of trying it out. Ironically, since she begins by teaching the lovingkindness practice, which classically begins with the offering of lovingkindness to oneself, she finds people are more inclined to quit, rather than continue, their practice. The gesture of offering lovingkindness to oneself is a tremendous challenge for mots most of us.

It’s true that classically you begin that particular meditation process by offering lovingkindness to yourself, and it's certainly true that it can be very difficult. But I felt a moment of astonishment.

(Tina Leggio / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

I told Barbara and the audience that if I had a living, breathing human being in front of me, struggling in some significant way, I’d change the classical order in a second. I’d have them offer lovingkindness to a beloved friend, to a family member, to a pet — basically to anyone who could begin to open the terrain of what lovingkindneess feels like. Barbara responded by saying that the interests of good science demand replication, and it was harder if different people were doing all kinds of different things in a different order.

While I understood her position, part of me felt like saying, “Suck it up science. Someone may be hurting here.” But the truth is that science too is serving us immeasurably — pioneering the discussion about stress, taking methods of meditation out of the realm of “woo-woo,“ and making the use of them an issue of public health.

We’ll keep having these discussions and explorations as we all try to, out of good motivation try to make this a better world. And to do it in a local idiom.

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Monday.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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Love this. As someone whose practice has evolved over the years it's wonderful to realize that it is an individual experience with universal benefits and while it is nice to have the science to back us up, the soul knows what it knows and reveals what it will when we are ready.

Good Article on Meditation and Science

I so appreciate the thought-provoking articles Sharon Salzberg is bringing to the On Being blog. Thank you.

I love your humor and honesty here, Sharon. Your openness about the value of science in our culture matched with your candor and resolve to stay with what is true in your experiences. I found myself laughing and nodding, "Yes" as I read.

This sentence, "The gesture of offering lovingkindness to oneself is a tremendous challenge for most of us." rings loudly for me. Often I can elicit the most lovingkindness for myself when I am moved by other people's strength and resiliency;when I feel a heartfelt connection with others, I can then generate lovingkindness and compassion towards myself. Always happy to start my Sunday's with you here!

Thank You for your article. I linked over to the NPR article, and they said something curious: "In this study, subjects who paid attention to their breathing to mimic meditation saw no significant change in pain." So they are saying focusing on the breath only MIMICS meditation, and does not produce the same results as "REAL" meditation.

Yet earlier in the NPR article they referred to "samatha" meditation as an "authentic" meditation and the one they studied. But at the "official" samatha meditation website, they said their style of meditation was about focusing on the breath!

So, my curiosity is this: The NPR article said the authentic meditation system they tested was samatha, and the samatha website says samatha involves focusing on the breath. Yet the NPR article ALSO said that focusing on the breath will only "mimic meditation." Something does not add up there. And focusing on the breath has for quite some time (centuries?) been one of the main focal points of meditation in many traditions.

Any comments on that?

As an aside, one COULD argue that "focusing on the breath" requires SOME degree of willpower to keep the mind focused on the breath (at least initially), and any application of willpower, by definition, would mean an attempt to change what is happening in-the-moment. Willpower is time & ambition based, therefore a product of "thinking," so it would, in some ways, be the OPPOSITE of a purely "no-mind" style of "in-the-moment" meditation. "Holding one's intention" or attention on "one thing" (regardless of what "it" is) is a way of defining Concentration, and strictly speaking, concentration (ONE-pointedness) and meditation (NO-pointedness) are opposites.

In that light, one could say "focusing on the breath" is NOT an "authentic" meditation in the most strict sense of the word. But then, how many breath-focused meditators would revolt over that idea?

This kind of conundrum is what led some teachers to distinguish between "directed" meditation, which involves SOME degree of intention and therefore at least low-doses of concentration or some form of willpower, versus "non-directed" meditation, which would be a COMPLETE giving in or letting-go into the present moment, a turning OFF of willpower / concentration. So focusing on the breath would be "directed meditation" (small does of willpower) while completely giving up ALL control over what the mind does or does not do would be "non-directed meditation."

So technically speaking, even if one WERE "thinking," if thinking is what "IS happening right now," in-the-moment, attempting to stop the thinking would itself be an act of willpower, and therefore ACTIVATING the mind rather than going "no-mind" or "quieting the mind."

It is all very paradoxical, of course, and potentially confusing, but that's one reason the whole thing has been so elusive to so many people and labeled "the spiritual paradox." And why so many (probably) billions of words have been written about a topic that should have "NO-words" at all in its content; strictly speaking, of course. But when one tries to "contain" the mind, it very often runs Underground Guerrilla Operations against anything you want it to do.

I agree with the difference between directed and non-directed meditation, but if you want to really achieve non-directed meditation (just being aware in the present moment) you must first be able to have a clear and focused mind.You achieve this state of mind by doing the directed meditation,which is the foundation (anapanasati,samatha) in Buddhism and from there you can evolve and have insight (vipassana) and so on. Keep in mind that there are many types of meditation techniques and a lot of school of thoughts/traditions in Buddhism - Theravada,Mahayana,Vajrayana, or Hinduism, so real/autentic meditation is not just one type. If you want to look for the "autentic" meditation you could read the sutras of Buddhism.

And of course, Buddhism doesn't have a monopoly on meditation.

If you want to look for "authentic" meditation, you could just as well look at the RaMa"C, the Ar"i and Khayyim Vittal, Avraham Abulafia, the Komorno Rebbe, the Lubavitcher tradition, and many other Jewish sources.

In general, they share little or nothing with the Buddhist teachings - in some ways they probably conflict with Buddhist teachings - but "authentic" they are.

David wrote:

> So they are saying focusing on the breath only MIMICS meditation, and does not produce the same results as "REAL" meditation.

I'd be wary of anyone who says that meditation is only this, or only that. American popular culture tens to stereotype "meditation" as someone sitting on a floor cushion in lotus position with their hands in one mudra form or another. That comes from the popularity of Yoga and Buddhism in US pop culture, but it's only one, very narrow understanding.

There are lots of ways to classify meditation forms among them (as you note): structured and unstructured, inward directed and outward directed. Some of them use breath, sensory-mode mental creations with more or less richness, mental experience of motion, verbalization, internal evocation of emotion, and more. Aryeh Kaplan discussed many of them in the first 40 pages of his book "Jewish Meditation."

I find that a good working definition of "meditation" is: "thinking in a controlled manner for a significant amount of time." Using this definition, attention/awareness of/focus on breath would certainly be meditation.

Thank you Sharon. So helpful and well said.

Wow, I really like the part of having the suffering person offer loving kindness to others to open up what it feels like.

I am "suffering" from recurrent ovarian cancer, or as I prefer to say, "living with" & about to undergo my 4th round of chemotherapy treatment in 3 years. I can no longer work and get along on what I call "a half tank of gas". Yet, I am adopting a puppy next month. I don't know how it will work out, but I have the feeling it will & it will be good for me.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject.

How do you "measure" emotion? How do you "measure" honor, or compassion, or empathy? How do you "measure" the respect a person commands? True, you can measure stress through cortisol levels, and particular emotions (usually) activate (almost) the same areas of the brain in (most) different people. But science cannot speak to that which it cannot measure or quantify. And it cannot answer a question that has not been correctly asked.

There's a tragedy unfolding in Nepal as we contemplate mindfulness and mutual interconnectedness. I am in no way affiliated with the monk M. Ricard nor his charitable works, nor his religious or scholarly work, but do note for readers of this blog that he lives in Nepal and is apparently trying to channel assistance for victims of the quake and its aftermath. He is the gentleman appearing above in the brain scan and whose fMRI scans are featured in this post. A web search will help anyone find him who may be interested.

Well said. I'm a psychologist and neuroscientist, so the research is intriguing and exciting. But for me, the practice itself is always the essential thing.

Wow-- Thanks Sharon--This is really beautiful. I was surprised and delighted to hear Richie Davidson's response to the unexpected fMRI results...“Science always needs to be humble.”-and yours too-- "...all of us always need to be humble...". A more malleable brain help us be humble... :-)

I appreciate the value of meditation for improving life, and trust that the improvements can be documented on a subjective level ("I feel better") and a scientific level (decreased blood pressure, for instance). What I miss, though, and what I'm really after is Truth, which I take to mean rather than improvement of the self, the realization that the self is an illusion, that I am really No Self. I don't see how this can be measured in either a subjective or scientific way, there being no subject nor object to measure. But perhaps the purpose of meditation never was to wake up, but to take a little of the edge off the suffering? If so, I have no objection. Who doesn't want a world with less suffering? And seek we elsewhere for enlightenment.

Having an advanced engineering degree, I understand that the way science deals with meditation is very much the way it deals with religion and the experience of God's presence in the world.

Science can tell us about brain region activity and neurotransmitter levels. It can't tell us what it feels like, what it means and how it changes our lives.

Beautiful! You can sit in meditation for hours and still be an asshole. :) The transformation is in relationship to self and others. One woman I work with said she forgot to do her mindful moment break (task based) and felt 'bad.' However, she also shared this beautiful moment when her husband was leaving for a work trip and he had tears in his eyes because their connection had increased so deeply. I said, 'that is mindfulness!!!' She got it then. I'm sharing this article - thank you!

The whole point of meditation is to stop commodifying every aspect of life. Rather than allowing meditation to convert our life, we've converted meditation into a commodity. For many, the only way for them to start a meditation practice was to see it as a product. And sadly that defeats the whole purpose.

I concur. People who's religion is Science can be a little dogmatic about it at times.
I have heard many times about how common it is for people to have an inner critic. I am aware of strengths and less skilled aspects of myself, but I can only imagine having an inner critic. It usually seemed like there was plenty criticism coming from outside myself.

Well, there is hardly just one local idiom!!

Thank you for your article on meditation. I have been meditating twice daily for over 40 years. I have taught meditation for years too. One of the reasons some people told me that they don't want to meditate is because they don't want to find out what's inside. Isn't it sad that we are afraid of knowing and loving ourselves?

An article about scientific research on meditation should include Transcendental Meditation. TM is the only meditation technique with many scientific studies published in independent peer reviewed journals, over 300 now, even studies sponsored by the conservative National Institutes of Health (NIH). www.TM.org/research

The first study by Dr. Benson and Dr. Wallace, at Harvard University, was published in the American Journal of Physiology in 1972, "A Wakeful Hypometabolic State". TM has been used by conservative judges in St. Louis for rehabilitation of drug and violent offenders www.EnlightenedSentencing.com TM has the most prestigious scientists behind it, such as Dr. John Hagelin (PhD, Physics, Harvard).

Loving kindness is a spontaneous result of experiencing our collective Transcendental Consciousness (TC). But loving kindness is not the cause of the experience of TC. Meditation is the experience of no thoughts in particular. Not even thoughts of loving kindness or world peace. Proper meditation is transcending thought, going beyond thought, not merely subsituting one thought for another.

The mantra is a meaningless sound (not a thought per se) to substitute for our constant self-talk. During proper practice of TM, as taught by a certified instructor, even the mantra drops off in order to achieve the experience of TC. TM is practiced for 20 minutes, twice a day, using the natural tendency of the mind to cycle through TC.

Regular practice achieves a wide range of benefits: faster reaction time, increased IQ, brain wave coherence, normalization of blood pressure, recovery from PTSD, and improved relationships with others (loving kindness). For more info: www.DavidLynchFoundation.org

Hi there! Great article you have, I would also want to share my thoughts that Meditation indeed has positive effects not only in the body but also in the mind, a total holistic wellness that brings us to know our inner-self better. It gives us a peace of mind that helps us have a much better perception about our lives.
Our advocacy is to promote the positive effects of meditation, yoga and inner wellness.
Help us, visit our website at and also www.goodreads.com/kathleensuneja
Thank you and have a great day!

Meditation is an art of total acceptance.

Hi there! Great article you have, I would also want to share my thoughts that Meditation indeed has positive effects not only in the body but also in the mind, a total holistic wellness that brings us to know our inner-self better. It gives us a peace of mind that helps us have a much better perception about our lives.
Our advocacy is to promote the positive effects of meditation, yoga and inner wellness.
Help us, visit our website at and also www.goodreads.com/kathleensuneja
Thank you and have a great day!

Hi there! I’m quite sure that I have something that I can connect and interject, my book is about relevant lessons from my journey towards self-realization. Tried and tested by my activism during my grassroots movement to uphold democracy, I realized that the vigor of my convictions and capacity to uphold freedom was driven by my belief in my inner being. My strong sense of my personal responsibility to protect individual freedom led me to explore and test my inner capacity to sustain the spirit of freedom. I daresay, I launched a democracy movement in order to test my inner capacity to realize my ability to protect what is owed and natural to me in my body, mind, spirit and soul. The desire to be free is a soul searching self-realization.
Our advocacy is to promote change for the better through self-realization we express the natural genius and open our minds to feel the flow of life energy as it courses through us. By experiencing the life form in its true creative genius we connect to our body, mind and spirit as it was meant to be. The learning from our inner experience in meditation allows us to know who we are. In meditation, we reevaluate life and are inspire ourselves to experience more fully our best selves.
Help us, visit our website at and also . You can also download the app at .
Thank you and have a great day!

Hi there! Great article you have, I would also want to share my thoughts that Meditation indeed has positive effects not only in the body but also in the mind, a total holistic wellness that brings us to know our inner-self better. It gives us a peace of mind that helps us have a much better perception about our lives.
Our advocacy is to promote the positive effects of meditation, yoga and inner wellness.
Help us, visit our website at and also www.goodreads.com/kathleensuneja. You can also download the app at .
Thank you and have a great day!

Hi there! Great article you have, I would also want to share my thoughts that Meditation indeed has positive effects not only in the body but also in the mind, a total holistic wellness that brings us to know our inner-self better. It gives us a peace of mind that helps us have a much better perception about our lives.
Our advocacy is to promote the positive effects of meditation, yoga and inner wellness.
Help us, visit our website at and also www.goodreads.com/kathleensuneja. You can also download the app at .
Thank you and have a great day!

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