The science behind meditation

Posted by on May 27, 2014 in Buddhism | No Comments

A couple of days ago I posted an Tricycle article on Facebook. It questions the validity of some of the claims made about meditation based on ‘scientific research’.

It’s a very good article. I recommend having a read.

I’m not going to re-hash it here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the idea that some people have that we need science to validate meditation.

Their data versus my data

The scientific model and the experiential model of validation are quite different. Science needs equipment and data that can be measured by equipment in order to be able to validate something. It’s not interested in subjectivity.

It attempts to arrive at objective truth based on things we can measure beyond your or my perception of what seems to be going on.

Buddhist practice, and mystic wisdom, are kind of the opposite. With Buddhist practice, you use your subjective experience as a way into absolute reality.

The abhidhamma (Buddhist psychology), for example, was not put together with the aid of any machinery at all. Nor was the classical meditation manual the Visuddhimagga. These manuals of the mind were developed by meditators carefully observing their own inner experience, and communicating that to others.

The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon weren’t picked up as a result of a single randomised, double-blind study. No clipboards were involved. There wasn’t a white coat in sight.

The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas popped into people’s minds when they were doing lots of meditation. People had visions that seemed important to them. Earth-shatteringly important.

So important in fact that millions of people in the world now bow to these figures, paint them, and chant their mantras in an attempt to invoke them.

Not very scientific at all really.

Does that mean these people are daft? Should we put all that to one side pending solid scientific findings that prove the objective existence of Vajrapani?

Why I love science

I have a lot in common with the scientific community. I’m trying to work out what the hell is going on and so are they.

I find scientific research incredibly valuable in my attempt to work this stuff out and I’m glad people are doing this (apart from the bits involving torturing animals). I want to know what’s really going on. I’m grateful that scientists do their thing.

Why I love my own mind

More than conclusions arrived at through interpreting data in a lab somewhere far away, I value my own experience and those of my friends and teachers. If it works for me, and it works for them, it may well work for you too.

That’s enough for me. I don’t need to wait until the scientific community takes an interest, sets up some experiments, compares and contrasts the results with other similar experiments, sends the report for publication, waits until that report has been reviewed by peers, makes it into a scientific journal, eventually gets picked up by the mainstream press, and finally finds its way in front of my eyes.

Life is too short! And you know how these things go, the conclusions will probably get challenged and quite possibly overturned by equally expert scientists with equally valid results at some point down the line. Is vitamin C good for you when you have a cold? I can’t even remember what the latest consensus is on that.

Is the world flat or round? I’m not sure. The experts used to say flat. From what I remember, today’s experts think differently. It seems flat to me (apart from the hilly bits) but what do I know?

In the meantime, I’m growing older, and I must live my life as best I can. By seeing the world as flat, I can live my life perfectly well. And this brings me to another point: conventional truth and absolute truth.

Conventional truth and absolute truth

From a Buddhist perspective, if you’re not a Buddha, you don’t have a clue about what’s really going on. Not a clue!

Awakening has been described as a ‘turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness’. That is, quite a big deal. ¬†Until then, we have to go about in our deluded state, making our decisions as best we can and trying to stay out of mischief.

That’s where conventional truth comes in. Conventional truth works pretty well for day-to-day decisions. Science is quite good for that. Momentum, gravity, stuff like that. If you look both ways before you cross the road you’re statistically more likely to still be alive when you get to the other side than if you just hope for the best. So look before you cross the road!

This may not get you a whole lot closer to Buddhahood, but it certainly helps create supportive conditions (i.e. you get to stay alive and being alive is helpful).

In absolute terms, life and death are both part of unenlightened existence. One isn’t any better than the other. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form. Yadda yadda.



Did you know The Meditator's Handbook is out? It has everything you need to set up and maintain an effective meditation practice. Check it out!


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