Mind, Brain, Consciousness

Western science and meditation

In the last few years, some simplified features of meditation practice have been tested “scientifically” as treatments for depression. Randomised controlled trials have shown that teaching basic mindfulness skills alongside cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is effective in treating chronic and recurrent depression. In fact such treatments are now approved by the UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) and are available in the British National Health Service. The rationale is that a higher level of overall mindfulness helps people become more aware of possible triggers or the beginnings of depression, and helps to develop more resilience towards depression. And it works.

This comes as no surprise to meditators who practice Samatha meditation, which is highly effective in developing mindfulness and attention as the basis for deeper levels of concentration.

According to the Buddhist meditation traditions, as the mind becomes still through the practice of Samatha meditation, and approaches the dispassionate abiding of Samādhi, it becomes possible to observe and gain insight into the changing flow of experience and the nature of consciousness itself. Within Buddhism this is the route to developing insight, or vipassanā.  

These insights to date have been described in the language of Buddhism rather than the language of modern science. They are found in precise detail in the key meditation texts such as the Visuddhimagga1, the Path of Purification, the Vimuttimagga2, the Path of Freedom, and the Patisambhidamagga3, the Path of Discrimination, as well as the larger body of Buddhist Psychology found in the Abhidhamma. The detail and precision, as well as a highly creative use of simile as examples, rivals anything produced in modern day psychology. How differently, many have wondered, might the Buddha have formulated his experiences and teachings if he had been born 2600 years later, in our age?

We might think our age is the Age of Science, but science is timeless. “Science”, as a word, is derived from the Latin “scientia” = knowledge, with links to other roots, such as “to separate” or to cut or distinguish. It implies discrimination as much as knowledge, and it is interesting that the important Buddhist text, the Patisambhidamagga, is translated as the Path of Discrimination.

Science is timeless in the same way that the instinctive human urge to understand, to overcome ignorance, and the implicit suffering in ignorance, is also timeless.

A guiding principle for this website is that the practice of Buddhist meditation is in fact a “scientific” pursuit, as well as a highly creative and spiritual pursuit, and that it has great potential to deepen our understanding of the processes of the mind and brain, and of consciousness itself.   

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