It always pleases me to post something, anything, about science and meditation.
As a Westerner, schooled in the arts of science and research, I am delighted when science reaches out its white-gloved approach to contemplative and meditative practices, even when its intent is to see whether meditation really works.
I’m biased by my first-person methodology of investigating meditation, that is, by my personal experience with meditation and in seeing how others are also affected positively by meditation. So, in one sense, I don’t need science to validate what I know – on a very real level – to be the benefits and effects of meditation. I’ve experienced and have heard others’ experiences of dramatic changes in perceptions, emotional regulation, and even physical symptoms. I know that meditation works!
Still, when science turns its gaze towards the meditative arts, it shows me that there’s interest in these practices and that the empirical sciences are adept and flexible in stretching themselves. Just as I stretch when I pursue these practices, putting myself into situations where I come up against my “edge” of comfort psychologically and intellectually; when science makes the same commitment, showing a willingness to go beyond what has been accepted, considering what had been previously and with disdain relegated to the “mystical” and “spiritual” realms, it shows me that we’re all able to change our views and ideas.
At random and regular intervals, I search PubMed for articles and abstracts on research into meditation. In 2009, when I was writing the chapter on Research Into Meditation in the book, Minding the Bedside: Nursing from the Heart of the Awakened Mind, I found no less than 1700 articles on the subject. Imagine my surprise when I recently tallied the total number at more than 2100 articles! And, the rigor and methodologies in this research is becoming more refined, better articulated, and powered for increased statistical significance, all of which indicates that there are some scientists who have taken this area a lot more seriously. Kudos to science! May their efforts help to bring into the mainstream these techniques that have provided such benefit to practitioners for…millennia!
When I reflect on my practice of meditation as it relates to the scientific investigation of meditation, I realize that we’re all investigating the same phenomenon, the mind! However, while science is important in acknowledging the reality of what others describe, trying to actually accomplish or realize these practices simply through studying them without actually practicing them would be like watching a ballet and expecting to be able to perform the dance by simply having observed it. In the end, nothing advances the first-person science of these methods like the practitioners who accomplish them, and that’s us! Hence, while the scientific nod may encourage us that what we’re doing “makes sense,” it is only through making the effort to engage in these practices that we gain their benefits.
I encourage all those who read this post to gain some knowledge of the research that it going on within the realm of science and meditation.
For those of you who would like to jump right in to reading a book that is exemplary in terms of bringing the meditative mind into science, I would highly recommend James Austin’s Zen and the Brain. Its size can be daunting—824 pages with footnotes included—and some of the discussions around the neuroscience of the meditative mind have the potential to be difficult to interpret without a substantial background in neuroscience. But the sheer volume of information that Dr. Austin presents in this text is an invaluable offering and one of the finest books on the interface of meditation and medicine that I’ve encountered.
For more information on how to meditate, exercises in working with the breath, and other nifty stuff, please see the Related Posts below. Also, don’t forget to download the free ebook, Can Meditation Change the Way that You View Your World?, for help with getting started in you meditation practice.
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