The question that everybody wants to know: Does meditation work? Here I am addressing meditation within the tradition of Buddhism (FYI: My selection written here is excerpted from a larger discussion and writing project that took place amongst other philosophers and students of evolutionary psychology). Scientists typically follow a systematic process of measuring the physical or social world whether using the traditional scientific method, systematic observation, interviews, etc. Of course, these processes might be quantitative or qualitative in nature. I should add that more scientists and clinicians are starting to take Buddhist practices like meditation more seriously in the same way that scientists and philosophers have studied the philosophies and religious practices of Christianity or Islam. Note: Buddhism does not purport to be a religion.
To be clear, contemporary scientists and philosophers are particularly interested in the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation. As a researcher, clinician, and human being, I am interested in mindfulness meditation; however, I am not an expert in Buddhism (there are multiple traditions) or meditation (there are multiple ways to meditate!). I do not believe in the case of practicing meditation that it is possible to measure any real or tangible changes to the person or the human condition. I am somewhat skeptical of self-reports of changes in attitudes, dispositions, or behaviors.
Can we trust self-reports of spiritual transformation? For me, if someone went into a “scientific experiment” expecting to change or to experience some type of spiritual transformation, then they will subconsciously experience positive outcomes. I believe this is especially true for any believers of a particular faith or religion. For example, if someone signed up for a spiritual retreat (i.e. Buddhism or mediation), especially a retreat that they spent time and a lot of money to engage in, they may emotionally be attached to the expected outcome of the experience. It is like paying to go to Las Vegas, entering a casino, gambling away $500, but only remembering that you won on 3 slot machines. You may fail to report to friends back at home that you spent $500 (plus airfare and accommodations), but you do report back to friends that you won a total of $150 playing the slot machines. In other words, you needed to report your win in order to feel good about your spending or justify time and money spent! Somewhat similar (or not) we expect our investment (e.g., time, money) in meditation to bring us calm, clarity, and insight so that is what we report back to friends and family that this “spiritual sh*t works!” Like gambling (which I do not do nor find pleasure in), meditation is relaxing and offers some cumulated rewards, if we are lucky and invest in it. I invest in meditation and I am lucky enough to benefit from it!
Are you what you invest your time and other resources in? Investments aside, meditators are more likely to report a positive experience with meditation, based on the fact that they committed to it and want to discover some pleasure, or peace of mind from engaging in it--not to mention that some people are beginning to associate meditation with status (yes, retreats and mindfulness coaching cost money!) and even “wokeness”. Meditation and Buddhism are now associated with open-mindedness, acceptance of diversity, and anti-establishment (i.e. organized religion). Let’s just say that it is difficult to know for sure the positive benefits of meditation for the layperson because some flaunt it as a status symbol (as opposed to a process of attaining self-awareness).
Of course, scientists have measured and recorded changes to the brain of consistent novice practitioners of mindfulness meditation. In sum, modern science lends support to the practice of mindfulness meditation and possibly other Buddhist ideas. For example, we can turn on the news or simply continue to live life and know that suffering (i.e. Dukkha) certainly exists and persists throughout the life span. I don’t think that we need science to validate that suffering exists and interventions like Buddhism, religious practices, and other factors can mediate or alleviate suffering, if one commits to such practices on a consistent basis.
Can meditation help the human mind? The human mind is complex. There is not one unified definition of what is the “human mind”. However, most scientists and practitioners of meditation agree there is a concept of the mind some identify as "the self" or "myself" or "I" (I know that is a lot). The “self” is the conscious presence that is always with us, sort of speak, and what makes human beings aware of their own existence, body, biological needs, and feelings. Modern science supports the idea that most, if not all human beings, do identify with the concept of “self” or that a mind exists. Actually, science lends support to the idea that the human mind has multiple selves. If the mind is the self, then yes, modern science supports Buddhist ideas about the human mind--that it can actually be bad (or cause undue suffering via attachment) for us. Buddhist psychology suggests that there is “no-self”; however, some Buddhist practitioners challenge scholarly interpretations of the “no-self”. They suggest that the Buddha meant that there is a socially constructed self that we give meaning to; in giving meaning to “self” we contribute to our own suffering. The Buddha path and meditation can help alleviate suffering because we come to learn that we are not mere matter and that our perceptions are distorted due to this belief in “myself”. Modern science supports the idea that self-perception is distorted, and that human beings’ consciousness is shaped by their environment and possibly internal drives. As a social scientist, I know that the "self" is socially constructed, and as a clinician, I know that people suffer from being attached to their notions of an "ideal self".
Does meditation make sense from a scientific perspective? The logic of meditation as a practice is that we can take time to tune out, sort of speak, the world. Meditation can help us acknowledge our body, breath, thoughts, and feelings without being connected to them, if only for one moment. From a scientific perspective, meditation can deactivate the default mode network part of the brain. Meditation has been associated with relatively reduced activity in the default mode network.
Science supports the idea that mindfulness meditation can at least give us a moment of pause to slow down our conscious and unconscious thoughts to give our minds a rest from internal busyness... Busyness in the sense that we are always thinking of the past (what has already occurred) or the future (what might occur). Scientific studies suggest that meditation benefits us in that during meditation the default mode network is momentarily allowed to take a pause from being driven by our survival instincts. Self-reports from practitioners of mindfulness meditation informs us that a consistent meditation practice can improve one’s overall empathy and manage one's emotional attachment to their own point of view.
So, yes, from where I sit, mindfulness meditation works.
In the struggle for our humanity,
Dr. Venus E. Evans-Winters, LCSW, CCTPI/CCTPII, PhD
~Not your mother's therapist, or your brother's life coach.
Dr. Venus Evans-Winters (a.k.a Dr. V)
Activist Scholar. Cultural Worker. Healer. Mother.