Science & Contemplation

Francisco Varela (of blessed memory) looked forward to the day when scientists trained in the techniques of contemplation, together with contemplatives schooled in the vocabulary and methods of modern science, could jointly contribute to our understanding of the relation between the experiences of individuals and the activities of the nervous system. His vision has yet to be realized because cognitive and neurological scientists have not yet found a way to convincingly integrate the qualitative particulars of subjectivity and the physiological, quantitative data of Science-with-an-upper-case-“s.” Nevertheless, Varela’s vision remains sufficiently attractive that nowadays, some fifteen years after his untimely demise, there are more scientists who meditate and more science-literate contemplatives than ever before.

The heart of the matter seems to be that, however many times we hook up adepts to electronic devices, nothing much is added to our grasp of experience as such, much less to our understanding of how electrochemical phenomena become consciously lived lives. The prevailing ideas about the nature of subjectivity preclude our bringing experience under the aegis of a rigorous, third-person discipline. Despite the widespread rejection of Cartesian dualism, and the heroic efforts of such philosophers as the Churchlands and Daniel C. Dennett to clear a pathway, the Hard Problem of Consciousness[1] remains with us. At the same time, the community of meditators is gradually becoming more receptive to the both the approaches and the findings of psychology and neuroscience.

Not long ago the author of a Facebook page and website asked an interesting if somewhat ambiguous question:

“Does the science behind meditation impact your practice?”

A more felicitous way of putting the question might be “Is the way you think about the practice of meditation influenced by the findings of science?” For it appears unlikely that neurological theory will greatly change our application of the methods by which we undertake the systematic exploration of experience by introspection, except, perhaps, insofar as techniques may be marginally refined by advances in biofeedback. On the other hand, our ideas about the function and meaning of meditation, formerly derived exclusively from religious tradition, are bound to be transformed by scientific theory. That is not good news to everyone but it is, on the whole, a good thing.

The relevance of science to the art of contemplation is multi-dimensional, extending well beyond the study of meditators’ brainwaves and that sort of thing. The cognitive sciences, neurology, social anthropology, and the philosophy of mind contribute to our sense of what meditation is both physiologically and as a component of culture. It could be argued that the biological sciences have made the most significant addition to our knowledge of contemplation by uncovering the evolutionary roots of consciousness. Sensation, perception, and memory are biological processes that are thoroughly integrated with the environment. To accept that fact is to sever—or, one might say, liberate—self-awareness from any and all speculations about the nature of Ultimate Reality. What a relief!

It is helpful to bear in mind that Science is not an abstraction but a work-in-progress that has been tweaked and redefined many times over the past four centuries. It is, among other thing, a method intended to produce the kind of knowledge that all reasonable people can agree upon, at least provisionally. It is rigorously empirical, nested in safeguards against self-serving and falsehood, evolving, and always incomplete. Compare that description with contemplative practice in its traditional garb, which promises every sort of treasure from the mundane to the cosmic. Meditation is a class of activities and it is also a technology, by which I mean a body of institutional memory (instructions, received wisdom, and exhortations) that tells us not just how we might perform the exercises, but also why, what we can expect, and what it all means in terms of ultimate concerns. All such considerations—the conceptual background—contribute to our personal interpretation of our experiences. In the “non-dual” moment there may be no question of looking elsewhere for something more—or less! That is as it should be. And yet, sometimes we have to talk about meditation, too.

Mad scientist

All sorts of things underlie or stand behind meditation, supposing “behind” to refer to causes and conditions: motives, for instance, instructions, fortuitous events, assiduous practice; physiological processes, biological relations, physiochemical events that encompass the life of the universe. Why would we want to exclude knowledge of such things? They are elements of ourselves. Here we come up against hostility to a kind of scientific discourse wherein the arising of one phenomenon is explained in terms of the functioning and structure of another, what some people like to call, with ill-concealed disdain, “reductionism.” We are free to dislike such explanations, but not to deny their bearing on the activities in which we are engaged.

We all know that there would be no benefit in mulling all this while we are meditating, but it is very useful stuff when we are thinking about meditation. Thinking has an undeservedly bad reputation in certain circles, and yet it is indispensable, and not only to teachers, who are charged with providing instruction that is optimally useful. Students are much better off with a framework of clear ideas to guide them on the path. To the extent that science has the potential to disabuse us of unhelpful superstitions, and to prevent us from talking all sorts of nonsense about our contemplative experiences, it is useful even to adepts. We need not fear that to pay attention to science will somehow spoil our practice, as if it were the loss of spiritual virginity. Just check it out, and think about it. It will make you a more discerning meditator.

[1] This notorious theoretical cul-de-sac, a staple of philosophy since ancient times, has enjoyed a revival since the 1990s, when once again it became possible—that is, respectable—for scientists to mention Consciousness as a possible subject of inquiry for the first time since it was banished by the Behaviorists in the early 20th century. The connection the Hard Problem to “meditation” will be examined from various angles in future posts.

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Richard Kollmar

Buddhist minister & trail guide. Leads contemplative hikes & pilgrimages in the mountains of California's central coast.

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