Thursday, 28 July 2011

Society's Perception of Meditation

Imagine going to your local doctor and suddenly discovering a shamanic healer has been made partner in the practice. Not only that, but all the conventional doctors are referring their most difficult cases to him, murmuring reverentially about his evidence-based magic skills. It would seem pretty surprising, no?

Well, that's about the size of the seismic shift that's taking place in our culture's perception of meditation. In 1970, or even 2001, a meditating politician, teacher or policeman in the West would probably have deemed it prudent to keep their practice a secret, for fear of public ridicule—now we have openly mindful congressmen (see video below) and parliamentarians, and meditation is enthusiastically championed in government reports, school curricula and a vast range of other establishment settings.

There's little question that scientific research has been the driver for this remarkable transformation. Scientific data is the gold standard for validity in our society, and a robust body of research pointing to effectiveness cuts like a sharp knife through bloated old assumptions, especially given that meditation has tended to get lumped in with 'unscientific' approaches such as alternative therapy and religion. If you're able to explain how mindfulness cultivates awareness and compassion in terms of mirror neurons (as Mark Matousek, author of the newly-released Ethical Wisdom, does in this recent interview), it creates the potential for connecting with a certain demographic in a way that asking them to trust their intuition doesn't. And if that's enough to get people past the cliches about self-indulgent hippies and actually into meditation, then that's wonderful—with practice, there's a greater chance they'll trust their intuition soon too.

There are risks in approaching mindfulness as a science. Research study results can seem cut and dried, as if all you have to do to garner the benefits is rock up to an eight-week course and wait for inevitable serenity to arise. As anyone who's ever sat down to meditate knows, it doesn't quite work like that. And there's that tricky word 'benefits' too, mention of which can lurch many of us into patterns of goal-seeking that can actually sabotage our practice, which requires working patiently at re-connecting to the present moment, and letting go of striving for future gain. Science can be a heady affair, too, all cognitive and clinical, whereas the art of mindfulness practice is embodied and messy. Manual labour, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to call it.

I think we're gradually stumbling towards a middle way, and the term contemplative science (with all that it implies) has a lot to offer. While science is a third person process of investigation and observation (you do the experiment on others, keep yourself out of it as much as possible, and watch the results), the contemplation process balances this with a first-person perspective (you do the experiment on yourself, engage with it as fully as you can, and watch the results). A contemplative scientist needs to be proficient in both approaches, and willing to give weight to the evidence that comes from each view.

As practitioner-researchers, many of those working in the mindfulness field can already lay just claim to such a title, which is perhaps why so much high quality work is starting to get done. The scientist or clinician who recommends practice but doesn't engage with it is liable to be much less effective, while the meditator with no mainstream credentials will have trouble connecting with a secular audience.

It's interesting to see religion-bashers like Sam Harris giving mindfulness instructions and espousing contemplative science (albeit in rather an intellectual and defensive way, which you could argue somewhat misses the point). It suggests there is some meeting place where positivists can dialogue creatively with more noetic or even religious souls.

“Wisdom is inclusive, expansive, and non-sectarian by definition,” says Mark Matousek in the above-mentioned interview. Yes indeed—and mindfulness itself is a key to finding some way to that wisdom, as it means daring to peer into our own presumptions and engage gracefully with those who disagree with us. If we can do that, it looks an interesting road ahead, for meditation and for science.