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Absorption, daydreaming, and absent-mindedness  occur more or less spontaneously -- though of course, people can deliberately engage in both sorts of activities.  The alterations in consciousness associated with meditation, however, require deliberate, conscious effort, training, and discipline.  

Great Meditative Traditions

At first pass, we can identify two great meditative traditions, both associated with South and East Asia:

Interestingly, although -- as we shall see later -- neuroscientists have become involved in studying what happens in the brain during meditation, both the Vedic-Hindu and Buddhist traditions hold that consciousness exists independently of the brain.  For an excellent account of the relations between the Eastern meditative traditions and contemporary neuroscience, see Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self-and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy by Evan Thompson (2014).  Thompson himself doubts that consciousness can exist independent of the brain, either in mediation or in states like the out-of-body or near-death experience, discussed in the earlier lectures on Mind Without Body.  Rather, he argues that OBEs and NDEs are experiential states correlated with particular brain states -- specifically states of the brain in the process of dying.  But I digress.

Yoga and Zen were introduced to America at the World Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition, a World's Fair held in Chicago in 1893.  The Parliament brought together leading authorities of most of the world's religions, who gave lectures and demonstrations of their beliefs and practices.  Among the most memorable of these was Swami Vivekananda, a prominent yogi from India, and Soen Shaku, a Buddhist monk who led the Japanese delegation.  Thereafter, both yoga and zen were gradually absorbed into American culture -- in the process of which they gradually became secularized, dissociated from their religious and philosophical origins, and commodified, taught for a fee.

However, it should be understood that there are also meditative traditions associated with the three great monotheistic religions that arose in the Middle East and Europe:

The music historian Orlando Figgis, writing of Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil (combining the Matins and Vespers), "As in Russian folk song, too, there is a constant repetition of melody, which over several hours -- the Russian Orthodox service can be interminably long -- can have the effect of inducing a trance-like state of religious ecstasy" (quoted by Paul Hillier in an essay in The Steve Reich Reader).

Western meditative traditions have been much less popular topics of study -- which may bespeak a tendency toward exoticism, or what Edward Said called "Orientalism", among Westerners.


Christian Mysticism

Phillip Cary ("Mysticism and Meister Eckhart", Lecture 22 in  Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition, Part 2: The Christian Age (The Teaching Company, 2000) distinguishes four "strands" of mystical experience discussed in medieval Christian theology:
At age thirty, Julian experienced sixteen extended and agonizing visions of God, which she collected in a book called "Revelations of Divine Love".  She describes feeling "a supreme spiritual pleasure in my soul" and being "filled with eternal certainty," a feeling "so joyful in me and so full of goodness that I felt completely peaceful, easy and at rest, as though there were nothing on earth that could hurt me".  But, she writes, "this only lasted for a while, and then my feeling was reversed and I was left oppressed, weary of myself, and so disgusted with my life that I could hardly bear to live"

This kind of delirious experience is seemingly a human constant, recounted with more or less identical phrasing in many different eras and attributed to many different sources.  In 1969, the British biologist Alister Hardy began to compile a database of thousands of narratives that sound almost exactly like Julian's....  Technically, Hardy's archive is a compendium of religious experiences, but the accounts within it resemble transcripts from the supervised drug sessions that were conducted in the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, during the brief period when Ecstasy could be used in therapeutic settings.
Well, maybe Ecstasy is the path to God and maybe not.  But what strikes me as more interesting is the aftermath of Julian's experiences.  She didn't just come back down to earth, as it were.  Instead, her emotional state went below zero, to something like its hedonic opposite: joy was replaced by disgust. This is exactly what we would predict from what is known as the opponent-process theory of acquired motivation, which I discuss at length in my introductory course.  Briefly, the opponent-process theory postulates that every affective state (call if the "A State") invokes its hedonic opposite (call it the "B State") as a sort of slave state.  When the stimulus that elicited the A State disappears, the B state comes rushing in with a vengeance.  These temporal dynamics of affect predict the "high", tolerance, and withdrawal associated with drug addiction -- and further suggest that addiction itself is motivated more by the desire to avoid the agonies of withdrawal than by the desire to obtain the pleasures of the high.  Be that as it may, one wonders if the opponent-process theory applies to mystical experiences as well: if they are followed by crashes rather than a simple return to baseline; and whether something like tolerance occurs as a result of their repetition. 
According to Cary, most medieval Christian mystics, following Augustine, were skeptical of visionary experiences, which they thought might be mere figments of imagination -- or worse, delusions fostered by Satan.  Accordingly, most -- e.g., Richard of St. Victor (d. 1173) and St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), combined the intellectual, unitive, and affective strands.  For them, the Christian mystical experience is the ecstasy that comes when the individual soul, or mind, "passes over" into God.  

The unitive mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius (aka "Dennis" or "Denys"; 5th-6th c. CE), as represented in his Mystical Theology derived from Plotinus (d. 270 CE) , a pagan "neo-Platonist" philosopher (in his Lecture on "Plotinus and Neo-Platonism" Cary calls him the "last great philosopher of pagan antiquity).  Recall Plato's "Allegory of the Cave": it is as if we are chained facing the wall of a cave, and all we can see are the shadows cast by reality -- the Forms -- by a fire.  The philosopher is like a prisoner freed from the cave, who can see reality directly.  For Plotinus, this is the "moment of understanding" when the human mind connects with the "divine Mind".  For most of us, if we even get that far, this connection occurs only momentarily.  But for some, the ability to see reality directly is a permanent state of cognitive existence.  And that's not all.  Beyond (really, above) the Forms and the divine Mind is "the One".  If we're really lucky, we can get beyond the duality of seer (the one who knows the Forms) and seen (the Forms themselves), and achieve union with the One.

Just as St. Thomas Aquinas based his theology on Aristotle, so Pseudo-Dionysius based his on Plotinus, and Plato.  We don't need to go into the details here, except to state the obvious: Plotinus' "the One" is P-D's God.  God is the "incomprehensible One" who "passeth all understanding".  It's not possible to understand God, but it is possible to achieve an ecstatic union with God when the soul goes outside and beyond itself, and "passes over" into God.

The Dionysian tradition of Christian mysticism comes to a head, at least for Cary, in the identity mysticism of Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-c.1327), another Christian neo-Platonist, who taught that the highest part of the individual soul is eternally identical with the divine One, or God.  Just as Jesus Christ was "eternally begotten of the Father", even before the Incarnation, so this eternal begetting occurs in each of our individual souls.  Put another way, God is already present in each individual person's soul, and the whole point of contemplation was to discover God in our own souls.  In the 14th century, this idea was considered heretical, because orthodox Christian theology enforced a fundamental distinction between the soul and God.  And, indeed, Eckhart was tried for heresy, and recanted all that was "wrong" in his teachings (without, apparently, specifying what those errors were).  

Since Eckhart's time, most Christian mystics have sought the union of the soul with God, rather than discovering the identity of the soul with God, thus preserving the basic distinction between uncreated Creator and created creature.  But the basic idea, rooted in Pseudo-Dionysius and Meister Eckhart, of achieving ecstatic union with God through contemplative activity that transcends both the senses and the intellect, can still be seen in the classics of the Christian meditative tradition:

Now, this isn't a course in Christian theology, or a "how-to" course on prayer.  The point of this is that, for all the attention given these days to Eastern mysticism such as yoga, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism, there is a strong mystical tradition in the West as well, and we'll see that the meditative practices described in the Christian literature share much in common with those we've adopted from the East.  

For reasons that only a sociologist of science could explain, however, this Western, Christian mystical tradition has not been the focus of scientific study.  All the science has been focused on yoga, and Zen, and more recently Tibetan Buddhism.  So that's where we turn for the rest of these lectures.


Evangelical Communion with God

One exception has been recent work on Christian evangelicals by Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist, as summarized in her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (2012).

Modern evangelicalism is a very varied religious movement with its roots in the First and Second Great Awakenings, revivals of religious belief and practice that occurred in the late 18th and mid 19th centuries (Luhrmann identifies the 1960s as a "Third Great Awakening"). Evangelicals typically hold fundamentalist religious beliefs, such as the inerrancy of the Bible as God's true word. But in the present context, what is interesting about evangelicals is what Luhrmann calls their "concrete experience of God's nearness". Evangelicals may or may not speak in tongues -- glossolalia, which in and of itself may represent an alteration in consciousness), but they typically seek a direct experience of the presence of God.

Luhrmann (2012) studied a particular Evangelical church known as the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, whose members engage in a disciplined form of prayer, acquired through training -- much like a yoga or Zen master -- in which they not only talk to God, but God talks back, to them, personally. Her work employed the method of participant observation, in which she herself participated in the church's activities (church members knew what she was doing, so there was nothing dishonest about this).

From a materialist perspective, of course, this is all a product of imagination. But, Luhrmann argues, it is imagination of a very special sort, in which the person comes "to treat the what the mind imagines as more real than the world one knows". Everyone has the capacity for this kind of absorption, to at least some degree (Luhrmann cites Tellegen's work in this respect), but Luhrmann argues that members of the Vineyard, as well as other like-minded and like-practiced evangelicals, have honed absorption into a cognitive skill that is put to the purpose of their religion.

Based on her observations, and reading in the Christian mystical tradition, Luhrmann has classified Christian prayer into three main categories.

In Luhrman's view, "talking with God" is a cognitive skill, honed over an extensive period of meditative practice -- where "practice" is to be taken literally, just as one practices the piano.  In other ways, too, Luhrman finds that devout American evangelical Christians expend considerable effort in cultivating and maintaining their relationship with God.  This is the subject of her second book, How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others (2021), which also compares and contrasts the experience of American evangelicalism to that in other cultures, such as India and Ghana.  Interestingly, Luhrman notes that evangelicals recognize individual differences in the experience of God -- that some people "become gifted practitioners of their faith and others with the intention and desire to do so struggle and do not".  Reviewing Luhrman's book, the novelist Anne Enright, who herself went through a "born again" moment, notes that such people "hear nothing, but wait patiently nonetheless" (New York Review of Books, 03/11/2021).


Yoga Meditation

"Three Aspects of the Absolute", from a manuscript of the Nath Charit painted by Bukali (1823).  The left panel represents the origin of existence; the center and right panels, its "emanations" into consciousness and form, represented by a Nath yogi.  From Yoga: The Art of Transformation (see below).  Note the resemblance to "The Emergence of Spirit and Matter", the image at the top of the lecture supplements on Mind and Body.

Yoga meditation has its roots in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, written about 200 BCE.  The Samkhya school of Hinuism, from which Yoga is derived, teaches that the self is held in bondage to matter by virtue of ignorance and illusion, and must free itself by reversing the evolution of the world, to return to an original state of purity and consciousness.  This process is called de-phenomenalization, and involves controlling and suppressing mental activity, and ending one's attachment to material objects.  Samkhya, as systematized in the Verses on the Samkhya by Ishvarakrishna, a Hindu philosopher who lived in the 4th century CE (you read that right -- 600 years after Patanjali), is a dualist philosophy, but its dualism is not of the Western, Cartesian kind.  The entire universe is divided into two kinds of things, prakriti, which is composed of material substances, and purusha, which is pure consciousness or spirit.  Now, that sounds like Descartes, but there's a difference: Ishvarakrishna includes mind, as well as body, in the category of prakriti.  Anything that engages in action, including mental activities, counts as praktiri; purusha can only observe what is going on.  In his Great Courses lecture, Hardy offers the analogy of a lame man (a paraplegic might be better) riding on the back of a blind man: "praktiri can't see anything and purushk can't do anything". Suffering (samsara) occurs when purusha and praktiri become entangled with each other.

The term yoga is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning "union" -- as in the union of the individual self with the cosmic, divine Self.  It shares the same Indo-European root word as the English word yoke -- something that ties one thing to another.  Yoga is the means for joining body and mind with spirit, separating praktiri from purusha.  And the instructions for doing that were set down in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

The basic idea behind yoga is set out in the first four aphorisms (there are 195 in total) of the Yoga Sutra:
  1. "This is the teaching of yoga."
  2. "Yoga is the cessation of the turnings of thought."
  3. "When thought ceases, the spirit stands in its true identity as observer to the world."
  4. "Otherwise, the observer identifies with the turnings of thought'.

It's those "turnings of thought" that cause suffering, and there are five of them:

  1. valid judgment;
  2. error;
  3. conceptualization;
  4. sleep;
  5. memory.
In other words, to paraphrase James, all the sorts of thinking that go on.  They've all got to go.

According to Patanjali, Yoga discipline consists of eight stages (or "limbs") through which the practitioner achieves purification of body, mind, and spirit. 

Patanjali also taught that, once they've achieved sanadhi, yogis could gain supernatural powers, like the ability to levitate, or read minds, or know the future.  That might all be fun, but the most important lesson of Yoga is that Descartes was wrong: it's when you stop thinking that you achieve true selfhood.

In 19th-century America, some of the "Transcendentalists", like Emerson and Thoreau, were interested in Yoga (Thoreau actually practiced yoga during his time on Walden Pond), but the discipline was really introduced to America by Swami Vivekananda, who lectured in Chicago at the Columbian Exposition of 1893.  Thereafter it was promoted by Pierre Bernard and his nephew Theos Bernard, who established a center for Tantric Yoga at the Clarkstown Country Club in Nyack, New York, in 1909.  The CCC, in turn, served as a kind of American base for Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, the author of Autobiography of a Yogi (1944), who toured America in the 1920s and 1930s.  Subsequently, American interest in yoga shifted back and forth between the spiritual and the secular.

In these lectures, of course, yoga is of interest solely as a technique for altering consciousness, and for achieving that union between the individual and the cosmos described in the Upanishads.  

For details, see:

An offshoot of Yoga meditation is the program of Transcendental Meditation (TM) promoted by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1917-2008).  In some ways, TM represents both a secularization and a commodification of Yoga: TM abandons much of Hindu religious beliefs in favor of a more secular philosophy of Vedanta, which emphasizes meditation alone -- techniques that are taught for a fee in classes.  In TM, practitioners learn to meditate on a mantra, a short word or phrase (e.g., om mani padme hum, or "om, the jewel in the lotus, hum"), provided to them by their Guru, in order to achieve deep relaxation, and enhanced joy, vitality, and creativity.  Like the Dalai Lama, the Maharishi was very interested in psychology, and in his Science of Creative Intelligence taught that through TM, practitioners could achieve a higher stage of cognitive development -- apparently, there's more to life beyond Piagetian formal operations!). 

For an account of the TM course taught in 1968 by Maharishi at his ashram in Rishikesh, and attended by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Donavan, Mia Farrow, and other popular-culture figures, see "The Road to Bliss" by Mike Love (yes, that Mike Love), Smithsonian magazine, 01-02/2018.


Buddhist Meditation

Siddhartha Gautama, later called the Buddha (the "enlightened" or "awakened" one), lived in the 5th century BCE.  He taught that man was bound by egocentricity and desire to a life of suffering, and endless rebirth (Samsara) into yet another life of suffering.  This cycle is broken when the individual achieves Nirvana, or enlightenment (Bodhi, hence the name) and spiritual freedom, which is defined differently depending on the particular tradition of Buddhism.

There are lots of other traditions and schools, not the least of which is Zen Buddhism and the Tibetan tradition associated with the Dalai Lama.

But all of Buddhism, no matter what its tradition or school, begins with what the Buddha taught as the Four Noble Truths

  1. All life is suffering; any pleasure is temporary.
  2. Suffering is caused by desire; our desires exceed our resources, leaving us unhappy.
  3. You can stop suffering by stopping desire -- including the desire for nirvana.
  4. You can stop desire by following the Eightfold Path, involving wisdom, conduct, and mental development:
    1. Right views.
    2. Right intention.
    3. Right speech.
    4. Right action.
    5. Right livelihood.
    6. Right effort.
    7. Right mindfulness.
    8. Right concentration.

Schopenhauer Pursues the Four Noble Truths on the Eightfold Path

The German Romantic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was perhaps as much influenced by the Buddha as he was by Plato or Kant.  In fact, he was arguably the first Western philosopher to be seriously influenced by Hindu and Buddhist thought.  Schopenhauer believed that what appears to our sensory apparatus is not the "Thing-in-Itself (Ding an Sich), but only a representation of it.  Shades of Plato and his distinction between the Forms of things and the shadows cast on the walls of the cave.  Unlike Kant, however, he did not believe that the Thing-in-Itself is unknowable, but is knowable through the Will (excuse the initial caps: he was German), by which he really means constructive cognitive activity.  Most important, for our purposes, Schopenhauer believed that the world is a pretty awful place, and existence too (Buddhist Connection #1), and the awfulness of the world is not merely an empirical fact but a necessary truth that follows from the representational function of the Will (Buddhist Connection #2).  In his view, there are only two ways out of this situation.  First is a renunciation of the Will, so that the person becomes a "pure, will-less subject of the intellect" -- a Saint (Buddhist Connection #3).  Failing that, one should absorb oneself (see the lectures on Absorption) in aesthetic experience -- the experience of beauty being the closest most people get to the ideal Platonic forms.  But not just any aesthetic experience, because the visual arts are representational (Abstract Expressionism hadn't been invented yet), and representations come from the Will, and that just leads to more misery.  The prescribed aesthetic experience is music -- which, in Schopenhauer's view, doesn't represent anything (apparently Schopenhauer hadn't heard Listz's "tone poems", the first of which was written about 1859, and other examples of Romantic-era "program music"), and draws our attention away from objects in the world and our representations of them. 

There are a lot more numbered lists in Buddhism (probably because it was transmitted orally for so long, and list structures make things easier to remember).

Anyway, the last three of the Eightfold Path brings us to meditation, which plays a more important role in Buddhism than in any other major religion, as it is the path to nirvana.

All of this, in Buddhist doctrine, leads ultimately to nirvana, and with it the extinction of both desire and of individual consciousness. 

Still, it's important to understand that meditation, and the mindfulness that it inculcates, is not all there is to achieving nirvana, and ending suffering.  There is also an ethical code, consisting of what might be called "The Six Rights" of the Eightfold Path: Right Understanding, Right Motivation, Right Livelihood, Right Action, Right Speech, and Right Effort.  The whole thing is a package, and meditation and mindfulness alone won't do the trick.

If meditation is important to Buddhism, it is especially important to Zen Buddhism, a form originating in China in the 5th century CE, and imported to Japan in the 12th century, and to the United States by Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870-1966).  There are three major sects of Zen Buddhism, differing mainly in their objects of concentration.

All Buddhists are interested in achieving nirvana, but the particular goal of Zen meditation is to achieve Satori, a sudden breakthrough in the boundaries of logical thought that is unexplainable, indescribable, and unintelligible to reason and logic.  Louis Nordstrom, a Zen master known as Mitsunen, described this experience as follows:

[A year after taking up Zen meditation] he attended his first multiday sesshin with a group of Zen meditators.  The Rinzai teacher instructed him to "kill the watcher" within.  By the third session he experienced kensho, which some meditators spend their lives hoping to attain: " I felt as if something like an earthquake or implosion was about to happen," he wrote in his autobiography.  "Everything around me looked exceedingly odd, as if the glue separating things had started to melt....  By the time I got to my room I was weightless; there was no gravity....  Then the earthquake or implosion -- 'body and mind dropping off' -- occurred.  There was an incredible explosion of light coming from inside and outside simultaneously, and everything disappeared into that light... there was no longer a here versus there, a this versus that....  I understood nothing except that nothing would ever seem the same to me....  And despite the fact that I had no understanding whatever of what had happened (nor do I now), this experience changed my life completely" ("How a Zen Master Found the Light (Again) on the Analyst's Couch" by Chip Brown, New York Times Magazine, 04/26/2009).

While Zen Buddhism is usually associated with inner serenity, compassion, and nonviolence, it can be very warlike -- an extension of the great demands it makes for mental discipline.  As such, it has a dark history recounted by Brian Victoria, himself a Zen priest and historian, in Zen at War (1997) and Zen War Stories (2002).  Victoria shows that Zen was long associated with the Japanese warrior culture, as a kind of romanticization of the samurai.  Along with the state religion of Shinto, Zen formed the theological underpinnings for Japanese aggression in World War II: the self-denying egolessness of the Zen master became "fascist mind control", and acceptance of death justified killing and martyrdom -- as in the kamikaze pilots, and the treat of national suicide if the home islands were ever invaded.  Of course, some of this also represented social conformity under political pressure.  Doubtless, Zen was co-opted by the Japanese war machine, just as religions are everywhere from time to time (in World War II, some Catholic priests blessed American tanks).

In addition to Zen, interest in Tibetan Buddhist meditation has been greatly stimulated stimulated by the undeniably charismatic Dalai Lama.  Tibetan Buddhism, in turn, has been taken up by a number of researchers associated with the positive psychology movement

The Current Scene

All of which leaves us with a number of different techniques, all of which go under the label of "meditation".  Antoine Lutz (2008), a prominent contemporary meditation researcher, identifies several basic kinds of Buddhist meditation technique.

Based on both controlled research and personal experience with meditation, Lutz et al. (2015) have offered a 3-dimensional matrix for classifying various forms of meditation and related experiences (including mind-wandering).  It looks a little like Hobson's AIM model, introduced in the lectures on Sleep and Dreaming, but the axes are different.  Lutz's scheme consists of three independent primary dimensions targeted by all "mindfulness practices", such as meditation, and four secondary qualities, which distinguish among various practices.

The primary qualities are considered orthogonal to, or independent of, each other:

The secondary qualities are also more or less independent of the primary qualities.  You can think of them as four additional dimensions of mindfulness-related practices.  It's just that, in visual terms, they're hard to plot in the three-dimensional space that's already taken up with the three primary qualities.

The point of all of this is that there are lots of different kinds of "meditation".  When we try to bring meditation into the laboratory, to study is scientifically, it's important to be clear about what kind of meditation we are studying.  Yoga practiced to achieve samadhi may be quite different in its effects than yoga practiced to achieve six-pack abs.  Contemplating a Zen koan may have quite different effects than contemplating the suffering of the world.

Of course, even diligent meditators experience episodes of mind-wandering and daydreaming -- which is one reason that Zen masters wield a keisaku, a wooden stick which they use when a pupil falls asleep or otherwise drifts off.  Based on studies of the default mode network in the brain, an fMRI study by Hasenkamp et al. examined brain activity in a group of subjects practicing "one-point" or "focused attention" meditation.  The study is of particular interest because it brings together two literatures: one on meditation as mind-focusing, and the other on daydreaming as mind-wandering.

With increased practice at meditation, these episodes become less frequent in occurrence and shorter in duration.

Here's a nice depiction of the entire cycle, from "The Mind of the Meditator" by M. Ricard, A. Lutz, and R.J. Davidson (Scientific American, 11/2014).  the implication of this study, however, is that from a cognitive-neuroscientific point of view, meditation is just a special case of focused attention -- different in quantity, perhaps, but not different qualitatively from focusing attention on any other object of interest, such as a symphony or a football game.  


I'm not a scholar of world religions.  In these lectures, I'm really only interested in placing meditation in its original religious and cultural context.  To that end, the information in this section is drawn freely from the Encyclopedia of World Religions, edited by Wendy Doniger (1999), to which the interested reader is referred for more detail on these topics -- and indeed concerning all things religious.

I've also drawn on Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition (2011), a set of 36 lectures offered by Prof. Grant Hardy of the University of North Carolina, Asheville as part of the "Great Courses" series of videos.  See in particular, the following lectures:

13.  "Ishvarakrishna and Patanjali--Yoga.
14.  "Nagarjuna and Sasubandhu--Buddhist Theories"
25.  "Dogen and Hakuin -- Zen Buddhism"

Students with a special interest in Buddhism are encouraged to take the course on Buddhist psychology offered by Prof. Eleanor Rosch and her colleagues; there are also relevant courses offered in the undergraduate interdisciplinary major in Religious Studies.

For an account of a Vipassana Buddhist meditation, see two books by Tim Parks, himself a longtime practitioner:

  • Teach Us To Sit Still (2011), in the nonfiction category of your local bookstore.
  • Sex Is Forbidden (2014), a companion novel. 


Early Studies of Meditation

In the 1960s, interest in meditation was spurred by developments in popular culture:
These cultural developments -- and in particular, the association between Zen and various figures in American "high culture" such as the poet Allen Ginsburg (who founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and who typically opened his poetry readings by chanting "Hare Krishna", accompanying himself on the harmonium), led to early scientific investigations of meditation.


An Early Laboratory Model of Meditation

This scientific research almost necessarily stripped meditation practices of their religious and cultural underpinnings.  Arthur Deikman, Edward Maupin, and others sought to bring meditation in the laboratory by developing standardized procedures for concentrative meditation, and then inquiring into subjects' phenomenal experiences.  

045Deikman.jpg (128225 bytes)Deikman (1963) asked subjects to concentrate on a blue vase for 15 "nonanalytic, discursive" minutes, excluding irrelevant thoughts (this isn't Deikman's vase, but it will do for the purposes of illustration).  Across 12 such sessions, he played auditory messages (music, prose, poetry, and even word lists) in the background.  His subjects reported changes in their perception of the vase (e.g., its color and shape); changes in the sense of time (i.e., that time passed more quickly than usual), decreased distraction, and increased "personal involvement" with the vase.


049Maupin.jpg (134398 bytes)Ina similar experiment, Maupin (1965) engaged subjects in a Zen meditation exercise, in which meditators focused on their breathing, rather than on an internal object, for nine 45-minute sessions.  He then classified their responses into five categories:



  • Dizziness and fogginess
  • Relaxation and calmness
  • Pleasant body sensations
  • Vivid breathing sensations
  • Concentration and detachment.

050MaupinDis.jpg (43368 bytes)Although  051MaupinCats.jpg (43540 bytes)most of Maupin's  subjects experienced relaxation and calmness, only relatively few achieved a state of concentration and detachment. Perhaps inspired by the assessment of hypnotizability, Maupin tried to classify his subjects in terms of their response to the meditation procedure.  "Low" responders experienced primarily fogginess and relaxation, while "high" responders were also able to achieve some level of detachment.




053VanNuys.jpg (44311 bytes)In a pioneering attempt to correlated response to meditation with something else, outside the domain of meditation, Van Nuys (1973) instructed subjects to concentrate on a candle, or on their breathing.  Subjects varied widely in terms of the number of intrusive thoughts they experienced.  This variable correlated negatively with hypnotizability (i.e., fewer intrusions were associated with high hypnotizability), but not scores on the As Experience Inventory, a forerunner to the Tellegen Absorption Scale.  The correlation with hypnotizability probably means that subjects who can focus their attention on a candle, or on their breathing, can also focus their attention on the hypnotic induction.  


Methodological Problems

Research on meditation is potentially interesting, but from the perspective of modern experimental psychology, it entails some serious problems.

First and foremost, experimental psychologists like to employ the random assignment of subjects to conditions.  This allows them to make strong inferences that the independent variable manipulated in the experiment really has a causal influence on the dependent outcome variable.  But a meditative practice ripped from its philosophical, religious, and cultural underpinnings may not be the same as the same practice in its usual cultural context.  After all, the goal of yoga or Zen meditation is expressly religious.  Put another way: yoga meditation may have quite different effects on Hindus than on Presbyterians (or agnostics or atheists).  The obvious problem, then is that while an experimenter can randomly assign subjects to focus their attention on a vase (the experimental group) or not (the control group), you can't assign subjects randomly to be Hindus or Buddhists.  

Second, there is the problem of practice effects.  The effects of meditation in neophytes may be quite different from those in experienced by experts. And it is possible that the effects of meditation differ depending on whether meditation is practiced in a religious-philosophical or secular-instrumental context.

At the very least, research needs to distinguish between three quite different types of effects of meditation

  • State effects of meditation itself, measured either while the subject is meditating or shortly thereafter.
  • Trait effects of individual differences between meditators and non-meditators, apparent in meditators even when they are not meditating.
  • Interaction effects observed only in meditators while they are meditating.

How to Meditate

 Of course, if you're going to study meditation, you've got to know how to meditate in the first place.  By now, there are a number of commercial meditation programs out there, some of which are discussed below: Transcendental Meditation, the Relaxation Response, and Mindfulness Meditation. 

The essence of all these meditative practices has been distilled by Andrew Newberg, a physician who has pioneered the study of neurotheology, or the application of neuroscientific techniques such as brain imaging to the study of religious practice and experience -- including various forms of prayer and meditation.

  1. Desire for insight and change, knowing that meditation can challenge your most deeply held beliefs.  No point in meditating unless you really want to change something about yourself and the way you think and experience the world.
  2. Preparation through relaxation and awareness exercises.  This reduces your stress levels so you can adopt the proper mindset.
  3. Engagement in an intense ritual designed to interrupt everyday consciousness and habitual thoughts and actions.  Newberg argues that any repetitive movement or sound will do, or any posture -- the more unusual, the better to disrupt your ordinary habits of thought and behavior.
  4. Surrender, or a complete immersion in the ritual.  Newberg likens this to flow, discussed in the lectures on Absorption and Daydreaming, where you become so immersed in the ritual that you lose track of time and your usual sense of self begins to disappear.
  5. Reflection on the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that occurred while you were practicing the ritual.  This enables you to integrate what you experienced during meditation into your everyday life.


Setting these non-trivial problems aside, why should anyone want to do this research?

Based on his research, Deikman believed that meditative experiences came in two broad forms:

According to Deikman, meditative disciplines typically involve contemplation or renunciation.

In Deikman's view, renunciation without contemplation is not effective.  Contemplation without renunciation is not enough.

Both contemplation and renunciation are woven into a psychosocial system -- the theology, philosophy, or "culture" of Yoga, or Zen, or whatever, or even the affiliation with a particular master or guru -- intended to bring about the desired cognitive changes. 

The object of the meditative exercise, according to Deikman, is to shift from an action mode entailing the manipulation of the environment to a receptive mode of passive experience -- from doing things to letting things be.

Based on his investigation, Deikman (1966) summarized the features of the mystical experience as follows: Whew!  No wonder people were interested in this stuff in the Sixties!

Deikman (1966) summarized all this with a single word: de-automatization: a re-organization of cognitive structures, which usually operate automatically, so that the meditator looks at the self and the world in new ways.  Unfortunately, Deikman was ahead of his time: although terms like "automatism" had been around since the 19th century (as in the early literature on hysteria), modern cognitive psychology did not employ this term with a rigorous technical definition until the mid-to-late 1970s. 

But setting aside the philosophical and religious and mystical implications of the meditative experience, looking back from the perspective of modern cognitive psychology and cognitive science, we can see what the theoretical implications of meditation might be.  Usually, we think of automatization as permanent.  Whether the process is innately automatic, or automatized through learning and practice (proceduralization), the tacit assumption has been that automaticity is permanent.  Once a process is automatized, it stays automatized.  But meditation offers the possibility -- the hypothesis -- that automatization is not permanent, and can be reversed. 


Brain Activity During Meditation: The Early Years

Early experiments on meditation involved either attempts to perform controlled, quantitative studies of religious practitioners, or attempts to develop laboratory models of meditation exercises which could be performed by novices. 

                          (117328 bytes)Much of this work has employed EEG measures, and much of the EEG work has focused on alpha activity.  




Perhaps the most provocative of these early studies were two psychophysiological experiments on yoga and Zen meditation.

091Anand.jpg (114911 bytes)In the yoga experiment, Anand et al. (1961) recorded EEG activity in two experienced yogis, and in a larger group of yoga students. They found increased density of alpha activity during meditation. 



More interesting, however, they found no evidence of alpha blocking -- a reflexive orienting response in which alpha activity disappears when the subject orients to a novel stimulus. The abolition of the blocking response was interpreted as consistent with the goal of yoga meditation, samadhi, which is to become oblivious to environmental stimuli.

093Zazen.jpg (113109 bytes)In the Zen experiment, Kasamatsu & Hirai (1966) studied Zen masters and students, all of whom were practicing the classic zazen form of meditation -- sitting, with eyes open and focused in front. 




Again, they found increased alpha activity -- despite the fact that the subjects' eyes were open. Towards the end of the meditation periods, they also observed an increased density of EEG theta activity. 

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100Experience.jpg (51311 bytes)The 101Evaluation.jpg (45481 bytes)density of alpha activity in the EEG was positively correlated with both the amount of experience of the subject with meditation, and with the master's evaluation of the subject's progress in training.



In contrast to yoga, however,they observed that alpha blocking to the novel stimulus was not abolished. To the contrary, alpha blocking did not habituate with continued presentations of the stimulus. 

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The persistence of blocking, and the abolition of habituation, was interpreted as consistent with the goal of Zen meditation, satori, which is to free the mind from preconceptions and be attuned to each new experience as it presents itself.

Both studies revealed an increase in slow-wave activity in the EEG: an increase in alpha density, a decrease (i.e., slowing) in the frequency of alpha activity, and an increase in theta activity. Of course, some of this could have been an artifact. Alpha activity increases when subjects close their eyes, and even with their eyes open, alpha increases when subjects are "not looking" at anything in particular. More important, taken together, the yoga and Zen studies seemed to show that the physiological effects of meditation were in line with the philosophical-religious goals of the discipline. Yogis seek to become oblivious to the world, and they don't respond to novel stimuli. Zen meditators seek to dissolve preconceived categories, and they don't habituate the alpha-blocking response.

102BeckerShapiro.jpg (83898 bytes)Unfortunately, the findings with respect to alpha blocking were not confirmed in a replication attempt by Wallace & Benson (1981). Their study included practitioners of traditional Yoga, Transcendental Meditation (a secularized form of Yoga -- see below) and Zen, as well as control groups of nonmeditators who were instructed either to attend to or ignore the stimuli. The five groups performed essentially identically in the experiment. although the meditators did show an increase in EEG alpha activity, no group showed any particular effect on alpha blocking or on habituation. Failures to replicate are surprisingly common in science, and this discrepancy remains to be resolved by further research.



EEG Biofeedback and the "Alpha State"

One offshoot of the initial psychological interest in meditation has been research and clinical application of alpha-wave biofeedback. In biofeedback, information about the functioning of internal organs and systems, normally unavailable to conscious perception, is picked up electronically and fed to the person in the form of an auditory or visual signal. The person is then taught to engage in some activity which will alter the internal function, as reflected in changes in the signal. Research by Neal Miller indicated that nonhuman animals could learn to control levels of autonomic function through biofeedback (with physiological changes in the desired direction rewarded by electrical stimulation of the brain), and researchers and clinicians quickly came to apply biofeedback technology in the treatment of a host of physical, psychological, and psychosomatic problems.

112Kamiya1.jpg (44820 bytes)In 115Kamiya2.jpg (51688 bytes) a pioneering study, Kamiya (1969) reported that subjects could learn to discriminate levels of alpha activity (i.e., alpha density) in the EEG, and could also learn, through biofeedback, to increase the levels of alpha activity in their brains. The subjective characteristics of the "alpha state" appeared to resemble those of meditation, leading to the peculiarly American idea that people could achieve satori through technology rather than through religious discipline.


Kamiya's initial report was subsequently confirmed by Nowlis & Kamiya (1970) and by Brown (1970), but critics soon discovered methodological problems with these studies that cast doubt on their conclusions and implications.

119BiasExamp.jpg (42079 bytes)For example, the ability to detect the presence of alpha activity may be an artifact of response bias. Under ordinary circumstances, as subjects habituate to the experimental situation, alpha activity increases over time. Therefore, if alpha density is increasing, subjects who are biased to say they are in the alpha state will be right more often than wrong, just by chance. This is a situation that signal-detection theory is able to unconfound, but signal-detection theory requires the presence of the stimulus (in this case, alpha activity) to be under the control of the experimenter -- which is not possible in the case of endogenous EEG variables.


In addition, it is known that visual activity blocks EEG alpha, and that this blocking habituates over time. It is possible that the appearance of learning to increase alpha density reflects this habituation process. Alternatively, the appearance of learning could reflect nothing more than disinhibition of alpha produced by disengaging from looking activity.

A series of studies by Paskewitz and his associates (1969, 1971, 1973) found no evidence that subjects with their eyes open could learn to produce levels of alpha activity exceeding those observed in an eyes-closed baseline session. Furthermore, equivalent increases in alpha activity were found in a "yoked" control group of subjects who received the same feedback as the experimental group, regardless of their levels of EEG alpha. So, despite appearances, there appears to be no contingent learning in alpha biofeedback. Moreover, Paskewitz et al. found that subjective reports of the "alpha state" were influenced by demand characteristics of the biofeedback situation, a finding confirmed by Plotkin. Biofeedback may help people to gain control of certain autonomic functions, but brain-wave biofeedback does not appear to be a route to instant satori.

John's Excellent Adventure with Shibayama

As an undergraduate, I read the Anand and Kasamatsu & Hirai studies of meditation, and Kamiya's initial report on alpha biofeedback, as reprinted in Charles Tart's pioneering anthology, Altered States of Consciousness (1969).  I had determined that my senior honors thesis in psychology would be a replication of Tart's research.  

Shibayama.jpg (11525 bytes)At the time, the campus was being visited by Zenkei Shibiyama Roshi, chief abbot (kancho) of Nanzen-ji Monastery in Kyoto (garden pictured below), who was giving a seminar on Zen Buddhism as part of one of his frequent lecture tours to the United States.   Shibayama (1894-1974) was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1908: Among his disciples was Keido Fukushima, abbot of Tokufuji" (see The Laughing Buddha of Tofukuji: The Life of Zen Master Keido Fukushima by Ishwar C. Harris); and D.T. Suzuki, who is primarily responsible for bringing Zen to the United States in the 1960s (see his Zen Buddhism and the Way of Zen).  Shibayama's writings include A Flower Does Not Talk: Zen Essays (including a number of lectures delivered to students in training), and The Gateless Barrier: Zen Comments on the Mumonkan (a set of 48 koans used in training).

A little background:

There are two principal schools of Zen Buddhism, with differing views on how one may attain enlightenment (satori).  Soto zen emphasizes sitting meditation (zazen).  Rinzai zen emphasizes the exploration of koan, spiritual riddles like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?".

Nanzen-ji ("Southern Zen Temple"), in turn, is the "mother house" of the Rinzai sect in Japan, and is the "presiding temple" of the Kyoto Gozan, or "Five great Zen Temples of Kyoto".  First built in 1264 as a retirement villa for Emperor Kameyama, the structure became a temple in 1291.  Most of the temple buildings were lost to fire in the 15th century, and the present structure dates mostly from the 17th century.  The San-Mon Gate was built in 1628.  

NanzenjiGarden.jpg (119131
                                            bytes)Nanzen-ji offers a stunningly spare rock garden for contemplation, and includes a number of subtemples, including Nanzen-in, Tenju-an, and Konchi-in. It anchors the southern end of Kyoto's Philosopher's Walk (the northern end is anchored by Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavillion), a popular tourist attraction).


Anyway, I did not have room in my schedule to take Shibayama's seminar, but I had met him on a couple of occasions under the auspices of Chapel House, a meditative retreat center at Colgate where he was staying.  So while I waited for the psychology department's technician to breadboard a biofeedback device, I set about attempting to replicate the Kasamatsu experiment -- on Shibayama (as it happened, the tech was unable to get the equipment working in time, so I did my thesis on hypnosis instead).  In one of our meetings I described the research on Zen and Yoga practitioners, and later  provided him with copies of the papers.  His response on both occasions was "It's very interesting, but what does it mean?".  Eventually, I screwed up my courage and asked him if he would allow an EEG recording while he meditated.  Never mind that Rinzai Zen focuses on koans, not zazen!  His response: "If the Pope were here, would you ask to record his brainwaves while he prayed?".  When I admitted that I would not, he asked "Why not?".  I had no answer, and that effectively ended the discussion.  

In The Laughing Buddha of Tofukuji, Ishwar Harris reports that, at one point, Shibayama told Fukushima (also known as Gensho) that he should return to his university, "implying that Gensho thought like a scholar not like a koan student".  Perhaps Shibayama was offering me similar advice.  But in retrospect, I think that his question about the Pope at prayer was my own little koan -- and that when I solved it, I would achieve at least a little bit of enlightenment.  

Binaural Beats and Meditation

Binaural beats are an auditory illusion.  When two pure tones of slightly different frequencies are presented to each ear, their loudness appears to fluctuate at a frequency equal to the difference between them.  So, for example, if a tone of 440 hz is presented to the left ear and a tone of 445 hz is presented to the right ear, the tones will appear to fluctuate at a rate of 5/second.  They were comprehensively described in an article, "Auditory beats in the Brain", by Gerald Oster, a biophysicist, that appeared in Scientific American for October 1973. 

These beats are familiar to any musician who has tuned one instrument to another, but after Oster's article appeared some 'New Age" types began to make claims that these beats "entrained" brain waves, and thus could influence consciousness.  So, for example, it was claimed that beats in the range of EEG alpha activity (roughly 8-14 cps) would increase levels of alpha activity in the brain, and thus induce a meditation-like state (based on evidence that meditation also produced an increase in alpha activity).  And "binaural beat generators" are sold by a number of firms, for just this purpose.

But the scientific base for these claims is very thin.  A quick PsycInfo search turned up only two articles bearing on the question, both from the same research group (Wahbeh et al), and published in the Journal of Complementary Medicine for 2007.  In the first study subjects who got 60 days of binaural beats showed a reduction in trait anxiety.  The second study had something like a placebo control group: it didn't measure anxiety, but the subjects did show an increase in depression.  That's it.  That's the scientific base.

I'm sure that there's a placebo effect here -- frankly, there's a placebo effect in almost every treatment!  

But, like alpha-wave biofeedback, I suspect that the attraction of binaural beats is that they offer another way to achieve "instant satori -- enlightenment without all the hassle of disciplined contemplation.


Secularization and Commodification of Meditation

Meditation was originally imported to the West, and first came to scientific attention, in an explicitly philosophical-religious context: Hinduism and Vedic philosophy for Yoga, Buddhism for Zen. A more recent trend, however, has been to strip away the religious-philosophical aspects of meditative practice, and to teach meditation, for a fee, in a secular context as a means of self-improvement -- for example, as a form of physical exercise or a means of stress-reduction.


Transcendental Meditation and the Relaxation Response

A great deal of meditation research has involved Transcendental Meditation (TM), a  commodified (trademarked and commercialized) offshoot of Yoga meditation developed by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and popularized by him and his followers as the "Science of Creative Intelligence", based on the Indian philosophy of Vedanta, which forms the basis of Hinduism. Its major texts are the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita.  Although the focus of TM is on meditation technique rather than any particular set of religious or philosophical beliefs, and TM can be (and is) practiced by people who hold a wide variety of religious beliefs (or none), TM retains a quasi-religious character -- especially in the "TM-Sidhi" program.


055Benson.jpg (152436 bytes)Later, TM was fully secularized by Herbert Benson, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, in the form of the "relaxation response", and promoted as a means of achieving cardiovascular health.




056YogaPsychophysiology.jpg (79289
                              bytes)Proponents of both TM and The Relaxation Response have generated a large body of laboratory research.  However, these experiments have focused mostly on the physiological effects of meditation, which resemble those of profound (but alert, not sleep-like) relaxation (e.g., Wallace & Benson, 1972). There have been very few studies of the cognitive effects of meditation. 



For example, Dillbeck & Orme-Johnson (1987) found that TM significantly modulated various physiological measures of stress, compared to a control period in which subjects merely rested.



Mindfulness Meditation

In much the same way, the principles of Buddhist meditation (primarily Zen, but not exclusively) have been secularized in the form of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) by John Kabat-Zinn, a clinical psychologist at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. MBSR is expressly presented as a secularized derivative of Buddhist practice, intended to achieve a state of "moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness" as a means of reducing the stress of everyday living.


MBSR is operationally defined -- that is, defined by the operations that produce it -- as follows:

  • The subject assumes the posture of sitting meditation, a focuses on the somatic sensations associated with his or her own breathing.
  • Instructions to notice other thoughts and feelings, but then to let them go and return attention to the breathing.
  • Continued practice outside formal meditation, focusing awareness on the "here and now", and using breathing as an anchor.

As with the Relaxation Response, MBSR is intended as a method of stress-reduction, and not necessarily for consciousness-raising or de-automatization.  Accordingly, most of the empirical research on MBSR has focused on its physiological effects on measures related to stress such as heart rate and blood pressure. Outcomes have also been measured in terms of reported mood and anxiety. This is quite reasonable, as MBSR has its origins as a stress-reduction technique. Any cognitive changes produced by MBSR are intended to "end suffering", and so the effectiveness of the technique has generally been measured in terms of its effects on stress and emotion -- whether these effects are measured psychometrically or psychophysiologically.  


Bishop et al. (2004) have proposed a two-component model of mindfulness.

  • The first component is the self-regulation of attentional focus.
    • Meditators become alert to the "here-and-now", and achieve a "beginner's mind" characterized by non-elaborative awareness.
    • They also develop metacognitive attentional skills of sustained attention and switching attentional focus.
  • The second component is orientation to experience -- adoption of an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.

These outcomes are often measured by the usual sorts of psychometric instruments.

The Toronto Mindfulness Scale (Lau et al., 2006) yields two scales intended to tap the subject's experience during meditation.

  • Curiosity. Sample items:
    • I was curious about my reactions to things.
    • I was curious about what I might learn about myself by taking notice of how I react to certain thoughts, feelings, or sensations.
  • De-Centering. Sample items:
    • I was more invested in just watching my experiences as they arose, than in figuring out what they could mean.
    • I was more concerned with being open to my experiences than controlling or changing them.


Take the Toronto Mindfulness Scale

If you practice meditation, you might want to complete the TMS after your next session.  If you don't practice meditation, you might want to complete it the next time you're daydreaming, or watching Dancing with the Stars.

Link to a page containing the TMS and scoring instructions.


In contrast to the "state" measurements of the TMS, the Five-Facet Mindfulness Scale (Baer et al., 2006, 2008) offers a somewhat more "trait-like" ted assessment of the consequences of meditative practice.

  • Nonreactivity to Inner Experience
    • I perceive my feelings and emotions without having to react to them.
  • Observing/Noticing/Attending to Sensations/Perceptions/Thoughts/Images
    • I pay attention to sensations, such as the wind in my hair or sun on my face.
  • Acting with Awareness
    • I find myself doing things without paying attention (scored negatively)
  • Describing/Labeling with Words
    • I'm good at finding the words to describe my feelings.
  • Nonjudging of Inner Experience
    • I make judgments about whether my thoughts are good or bad (-)


Take the Five-Facet Mindfulness Scale

This scale is intended to measure the stable, long-term consequences of mindfulness meditation practice.  However, it can also be used as a kind of personality scale, just like the Tellegen Absorption Scale or the Short Imaginal Processes Inventory, or the Cognitive Failures Questionnaire.

Link to a page containing the FFMS and scoring instructions.

Asceticism in the Classroom

Another variant on secularization is employed as a kind of laboratory exercise in a course, 'Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and Contemplative Life" taught by Justin McCaniel, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His course has a set of requirements that are intended to mimic ascetic behaviors shared widely by various religious traditions.
None of these rules are particularly Christian, or Buddhist, or whatever. Instead, their intention is to increase students' awareness of what meditative discipline is like. Amazingly, there is a wait-list for the course, and very few drop out once they have begun!

There's an App for That

One example of the popularization of mindfulness meditation has been the proliferation of smartphone application software (apps) for mindfulness meditation. Among the most popular of these is Headspace (for iPhone); also buddhify, Calm, Insight Timer, and GPS for the Soul.  A subscription to Headspace costs $13/month (2015 prices), and supplies meditation "packs" on various topics.  For a discussion of Headspace, see "The Higher Life" by Lizzie Widdicombe, New Yorker, 07/06-13/2015.

The Buddhist Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Another example of the secularization and commodification of Buddhist meditative techniques may be found in business management.  Many large firms, especially high-tech firms centered on silicon Valley, now promote mindfulness-based meditation to their managers and other employees -- not necessarily for stress reduction, but rather to "disconnect to connect", and short-circuit the "rat-race" that comes along with high-powered business enterprises.  This, in turn, has fostered the development of a whole new service industry -- namely, providing meditation training to these corporations.  The stated goal of this meditation practice is to give the practitioner a competitive advantage.  Now, here's a paradox.  It's not clear that the goal of Buddhist meditation is stress-reduction, except indirectly, as a byproduct of clearing one's mind of habitual patterns of thought -- any more than that the goal of yoga is physical exercise (except as a path toward clearing one's mind).  But, just as the primary purpose of yoga is not to trim your butt or flatten your abs, it's pretty clear that the goal of Buddhist medication is not to enhance one's competitiveness in the high-powered business environment characteristic of Western capitalism!

De-Automatization in Meditation

recall that, according to Deikman (1966), the mystical experiences associated with meditation have a number of different facets, including reality transfer, sensory translation, a unity between self and object, ineffability, and de-automatization. Only later, however, did psychology and cognitive science develop a full-blown technical concept of automaticity, providing a framework for measuring the effects of meditation.  The question, then is whether automaticity, once achieved, is permanent -- or whether it is possible, through meditation or any other means, to gain (or regain) conscious, voluntary control over some automatic, unconscious process.  Perhaps, as well, the answer will depend on how the process has been automatized in the first place.  Processes which have been automatized through repeated practice may be easier to de-automatize than those which are innately automatic.  Though, still, that's a hypothesis.

Alpha Blocking, Startle, and Binocular Rivalry

Although they did not invoke the concept, the early studies of EEG alpha activity in yoga and zen described earlier bear on the question of de-automatization.  Recall that, in addition to their general finding of increased levels of alpha activity, Anand et al. (1961) and Kasamatsu & Hirai (1966) found that meditation altered the alpha-blocking orienting response: yogis did not show alpha blocking to a novel stimulus, consistent with the goal of yoga meditation to become oblivious to the outside world; and zen practitioners did not habituate alpha-blocking to repeated presentations of the novel stimulus, consistent with the goal of Zen meditation to treat every event as novel.  Unfortunately, as noted earlier, Becker and Shapiro (1981) failed to replicate either of these effects: yoga and zen practitioners showed the same patterns of EEG activity, and these were no different from controls.  Still, it was a nice idea -- and maybe worth following up on.

Some subsequent investigators have also pushed the limits of de-automatization, looking at the effects of meditation on hard-wired, reflexive responses to stimulation.

Levenson, Ekman, and Ricard (2012) performed a study of acoustic startle in one Tibetan Buddhist monk (Ricard himself, who also holds a PhD in biochemistry) with 40 years' experience in meditation.  During the experiment (which seems almost as Spartan as the study by Stern et al. of hypnotic analgesia discussed in the lectures on Hypnosis), Ricard  (and a group of nonmeditator controls) went through six startle trials under each of 4 different conditions:  That's a total of 24 trials involving a brief "blast" of white noise sounding not a little like a gunshot.

In the unanticipated startle control condition, Ricard's psychophysiological responses to the startle stimulus did not differ from that of the control group. 

During meditation, however, Ricard often showed substantial modification of the startle response, even compared to a non-meditative distraction condition.  This was especially the case for the "open presence" form of meditation, which attempts to clear the mind of all content whatsoever.  That is, the open-presence meditator is attending to nothing, and thinking about nothing.  Focused attention, by contrast, had less effect on the startle reflex (though it had some).

A study by Carter, Presti, and their colleagues (2005) , employing a large number of Tibetan monks and other experienced meditators, employed another automatic behavior, binocular rivalry.  In the BN paradigm, subjects are presented with two different images to each eye -- one a horizontal, the other a vertical grating.  Normally, the visual system would fuse the separate 2-dimensional retinal images into a single 3-dimensional image, but with such radically disparate images this is impossible.  Instead, the subject experiences a random alternation between the images.  This phenomenon occurs automatically -- it's caused by a hard-wired feature of the visual system.  But, it turns out, one-point meditation essentially abolishes binocular rivalry.  During meditation, a majority of subjects experienced a slowing of the rate of alternation, and some subjects experienced a stable image.  Even after the meditation period had ended, half the subjects continued to experience a slower rate of alternation -- though some showed a kind of rebound effect, alternation at an even faster rate.  Compassion meditation, by contrast, had no effects at all on BN.  That meditation can modulate something as hired-wired as binocular rivalry is pretty interesting -- as is the fact that the two types of meditation studied in this experiment had quite different effects.

A Miscellany of Cognitive Tasks

De-automatization entails the reorganization of cognitive schemata so that habitual modes of thought no longer operate automatically, and it is possible to view the world in other ways.  When Deikman introduced the concept of de-automatization, psychology did not have a technical concept of automaticity. Now that it has one.  Automatic processes are defined as those that are inevitably executed in response to some cue, incorrigibly executed, and consume no cognitive capacity.  With such a definition in hand, it becomes possible, at least in principle, to determine whether training in a meditative discipline really does de-automatize cognitive processing.  Arguably, the gold standard test of automatization, and thus of de-automatization, would be performance on the Stroop color-word interference test (or some variant on the Stroop paradigm). But investigators have also employed other paradigms in the quest to document de-automatization.

An early laboratory study by Dillbeck (1982) compared two different groups of TM practitioners against a non-meditating control group. One group "N/TM", waited for two weeks prior to initiating TM training; another group, "R/TM" practiced passive relaxation for two weeks prior to TM.

  • Subjects in the N/TM group showed improved tachistoscopic recognition performance with both random and word-like sequences of letters.
  • The R/TM group showed improvement only on recognition of the word-like sequences.
  • More interesting, perhaps, the subjects in both groups showed improved recognition of tachistoscopically presented playing cards (e.g. "10 of Hearts)" -- but only if the cards were incongruous -- for example, if the hearts and diamonds were black instead of red). This last is an especially interesting finding, as it seems to indicate that TM breaks down deeply engrained, habitual patterns of thought. There were no significant effects on subjects' ability to solve anagrams.
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Later work by Alexander et al. (1989) suggested that TM could improve cognitive functioning in the elderly.  This study involved a group of elderly residents of a retirement home, who practiced TM for 20 minute sessions, twice daily, for 12 weeks. Control groups engaged in a "mindful", guided attention activity intended to foster "new and creative" ways of thinking; mental relaxation; or nothing at all.

  • A Dementia Screening Test confirmed that random assignment of residents to conditions had been successful.
  • All three treatment groups performed better on a paired-associate learning test than the untreated controls.
  • The TM and mindfulness groups performed slightly better than the relaxation and control groups on a test of word fluency.
  • In a clever test of over-learning, the subjects were asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. All of the subjects were old enough to have learned the Pledge before 1954, when the phrase "under God" was added. They were asked to review the new version, and then dictate the Pledge from memory. The TM subjects were more likely to dictate the Pledge correctly than the subjects in the other two groups. Again, this is consistent with the proposition that TM helps break down habitual patterns of thought.
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From time to time, meditation researchers have employed other tasks to study the effects of meditation on various aspects of cognitive and emotional processing (for an overview, see Ricard et al., "Mind of the Meditator", Scientific American, 11/2014).

Just a sample of the kinds of experimental studies that can be done.

Meditation and the Stroop Task

As noted earlier, the Stroop task is widely considered to be the primary exemplar of automatic processing.  The study by Alexander et al. (1989) did, in fact, find that TM reduced Stroop interferenceUnfortunately, however, that reduction did not reach statistical significance



However, a doctoral dissertation by Heidi Wenk-Sormaz (2006) Systematic research by Wenk-Sormaz did find that a "mindfulness" meditation exercise reduced Stroop interference (unlike many meditation researchers, who tend to be trained in clinical psychology, Wenk-Sormaz was trained as a cognitive psychologist). Her subjects, who were adult professionals participating in a short course on meditation, practiced a 15-minute exercise in which they focused on their breathing. This study was conducted before MBSR became popular, but the procedure was very similar to that employed in MBSR. Wenk-Sormaz assessed performance on the standard Stroop task before and after meditation.

In Experiment 1, the meditators were compared to two control groups: one consisting of college students recruited through a subject pool, the other of subjects who were matched in age to the meditators. Comparing pretest to post-test performance, all subjects showed a reduction in Stroop interference, but this was greatest for the meditators, especially in the critical condition where the color words were printed in incongruent colors.
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Experiment 2a employed a different set of control groups. One group simply rested between tests; the other, who served as an active cognitive control, were taught to use the Method of Loci as a mnemonic device to learn a word-list. This study again found a reduction in Stroop interference for the meditators, though the effect was smaller than in Experiment 1. 076Wenk2aPre.jpg (51844 bytes) 077Wenk2aPost.jpg (51720
                                              bytes) 078Wenk2aChange.jpg (50718

Experiment 2b, employing the same conditions and subjects as 2a, examined the the effects of meditation on the generation of category instances.  Subjects were provided with 10 category labels, and were given 30 seconds each to generate instances. Initially, she hoped that meditation would lead to a "freeing up" of thought, manifested in a tendency to generate less frequent, more atypical instances.  In her first attempt, this didn't work out. 080Wenk2bPre.jpg (50981 bytes) 081Wenk2bPost.jpg (51250
                                                bytes) 082Wenk2bChange.jpg (48054

However, Experiment 3 found enhanced production of atypical instances during a category generation task -- but only when subjects were specifically instructed to produce atypical as opposed to typical instances. In the earlier attempt, subjects were unconstrained, and may have construed "typical" responses as appropriate to task demands. But this new experiment involved explicit requests for "typical" or "atypical" instances, in different conditions. When atypical instances were legitimized in this manner, meditators were better able to generate them -- again, apparently, demonstrating a freeing of thought from conventional patterns. 084Wenk3Typical.jpg (49707
                                            bytes) 085Wenk3Atypical.jpg (46964

So, the Wenk-Sormaz study shows that, indeed, meditation can lead to the de-automatization of thought. meditation reduced Stroop interference that was not an artifact of relaxation or arousal. And it reduced habitual categorization, when such a reduction was optimal. These effects were produced by a secularized meditation technique, which no theological or cultural overlay, to which naive subjects were randomly assigned. All the more interesting, the effects were produced after only 15 minutes of meditation. By contrast, the MBSR studies employed subjects who had practiced meditation for six to eight weeks.

In another study, this one employing MBSR, Anderson et al. (2007) tested a group of subjects with no prior experience with meditation, who completed a standard eight-week course in MBSR (a control group did not meditate). He then administered a number of measures of stress and mood, including the Positive and Negative Affect Scales, the Beck Depression and Anxiety Inventories, and other instruments. Examining post-test changes from a pre-test baseline, these investigators found that more subjects in the meditation group showed changes in the "beneficial" direction: more positive affect, less negative affect, less depression, and less anxiety.  Anderson et al. also administered a number of cognitive tasks, including the standard and emotional versions of the Stroop interference task, an Object Decision Task, and a Continuous Performance Test of sustained attention and attentional switching, but found no effects of meditation.

On the other hand, a later study of MBSR by Moore and Malinowski (2009) compared a group who completed a six-week "beginner's course" in MBSR with a group of non-meditating controls on a number of tests of cognitive flexibility. They found small effects on Stroop performance, but no effects on the "D2" Concentration and Endurance Test, which provides multiple measures of attention.

It should be remembered, in passing, that meditation is not necessarily unique in this respect. Raz and his associates (e.g., 2002) found that a posthypnotic suggestion for agnosia or alexia, in which the stimulus words would appear as symbols in an unfamiliar foreign language, actually eliminated Stroop interference. Even eight weeks of meditation training didn't accomplish that. Of course, the subjects had to highly be hypnotizable, while the meditation studies employed samples that were arguably more representative of the population at large. But the Raz studies do show what can be accomplished in terms of de-automatization.

By asking whether automatization is reversible, meditation research gains considerable theoretical significance.  Implicit in the standard concept of automaticity is the idea that automaticity, whether innate or achieved through extensive practice, is permanent.  By contrast, meditation research seems to indicate that automatization can be reversed


This is Your Brain on Meditation

The flame of the alpha-biofeedback movement sputtered and went out, but the popularity of TM and the Relaxation Response, not to mention the injection of Zen Buddhism into popular culture, has kept interest in meditation at a high level.  

And with the advent of more sophisticated technologies for brain imaging, we have begun to see a new wave of studies of brain activity during meditation -- with two differences:

Davidson, Kabat-Zinn, and their colleagues (2003) recruited the employees of a local biotechnology firm for an experiment in which some would be randomly assigned to receive training in Kabat-Zinn's "mindfulness-based stress reduction program", and others served as a wait-list control.  The meditators were taught MBSR in classes that met for 2-1/2 to 3 hours, once a week, for eight weeks, including a 7-hour silent retreat during Week 6. They also practiced MBSR at home for 1 hour/day, 6 days/week, with the help of guided audiotapes. EEG data was collected at baseline and at the conclusion of the 8-week period, during which the subjects were asked to narrate positive and negative life experiences.

105DavidsonC34.jpg (41266
                                        bytes)Examining 106DavidsonHemisphere.jpg
                                        (97128 bytes)the power of alpha activity in the EEG, these investigators detected a significant shift to the left cerebral hemisphere in the meditation group.This finding takes its significance in the context of prior research by Davidson and his colleagues indicating that emotional states differentially activate the cerebral hemispheres.  To make a long story short:

        (48134 bytes)Along 108DavidsonNegC34.jpg (46134 bytes)these lines, Davidson, Kabat-Zinn, et al. found that meditation increased left-PFC activation during a positive emotion induction: controls activated the left hemisphere too, but meditators increased LPFC even more.  Further, meditation produced L-PFC activation even during a negative emotion induction -- in contrast to the controls, who showed the usual shift to the right associated with negative emotionality.


109HappyMonk.jpg (88627 bytes)So, on the basis of these results, it appears that mindfulness meditation increases left anterior brain activation, resulting in both increased positive affect and decreased negative affect.  An article on this research in National Geographic (03/05) pointed to a Tibetan monk who, during meditation, showed an almost 100% shift of alpha power to his left hemisphere -- leading the magazine to dub him "quantfiably the happiest man in the world". 


110Caveat.jpg (103922
                                        bytes)No wonder there's been a resurgence of interest in meditation. At the same time, it is important to remember the enthusiasm that greeted the earliest reports, in the 1960s, of Yoga, Zen, and alpha-wave biofeedback, and approach these preliminary findings with some caution (those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it).


Meditation and Science

The big take-home lesson, however, is that the effects of meditation on consciousness may differ depending on the purpose for which the individual meditates.  Meditation for stress reduction may not be the same as meditation to achieve total self-collectedness, enlightenment, or communion with God.  Yoga and Zen were not designed to lower people's blood pressure: they were designed to raise people's consciousness in an explicitly religious context.  And, indeed, some neuroscientists see themselves as validating Buddhism empirically.  See, for example, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (2017) by Robert Wright.

But these days, especially in America, Buddhist meditation, including the secularized "mindfulness" variant, is practiced mostly as what Owen Flanagan (in The Bodhisattvas's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, 2011) has called "a kind of moral mental hygiene".  Flanagan argues that it is possible to strip away the religious "hocus pocus" from Buddhism -- the polytheism of ghosts, protector deities, and evil spirits, karma, nirvana, etc. -- leaving the spiritual but nonreligious consumer with an empirically validated path to happiness.  I wonder.

Then again, it might be possible to have what Ronald Dworkin, the philosopher, has called a "religion without gods" (see his posthumously published Religion Without God, 2013). Many people characterize themselves as "spiritual" or even "religious", even though they don't identify with any particular religious tradition, or even believe in God. And the Supreme Court has determined that the "free exercise" of religion enshrined in the Constitution includes "religions" that do not recognize a god of any sort, such as secular humanism. While some might prefer to reserve the term "religion" for theistic beliefs that entail the recognition of a God or gods, Dworkin argues that, in fact, religion does not necessarily entail the belief that the universe is governed by some supernatural being -- much less one that acts in history and communicates directly with believers. Albert Einstein, for example, was an atheist. But he also described himself as "devoutly religious" (in an essay reprinted in Living Philosophies, edited by Clifton Fadiman, 1990). Dworkin argues (in Chapter 1, reprinted in the New York Review of Books, 04/04/2013) that the "metaphysical core" of this "religious attitude" consists of two values:

  1. "[H]uman life has objective meaning or importance. Each person has an innate and inescapable responsibility to try to make his life a successful one: that means living well, accepting ethical responsibilities to oneself as well as moral responsibilities to others, not just if we happen to think this is important but because it is in itself important whether we think so or not.
  2. [W]hat we call "nature" -- the universe as a whole and in all its parts -- is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder.

Together these two comprehensive value judgments declare inherent value in both dimensions of human life: biological and biographical. We are a part of nature because we have a physical being and duration: nature is the locus and nutrient of our lives. We are apart from nature because we are conscious of ourselves [emphasis added] as making a life and must make decisions that, taken together, determine what life we have made.

A lot depends, of course, on how you define religion, which is something that even scholars of religion find difficult to do (if you don't believe me, take Religious Studies 101 and watch the professor try to do it). 

So in addition to being secularized and commodified, meditation has been scientized -- in the words of Adam Gopnik, reviewing a spate of new books on Buddhism in America, including Robin Wright's book Why Buddhism is True (2017) and Stephen Batchelor's After Buddhism (2015).  Not only has meditation been studied scientifically, but meditation is also interpreted as affirming basic principles of psychology and neuroscience -- such as the modularity of the mind -- resulting in an argument that science and Buddhism, at least, are compatible.  But this compatibility arises only by discarding the supernatural doctrines of Buddhism, such as the ideas of karma and reincarnation.  He writes ("American Nirvana", New Yorker, 08/07-14/2017):

A deeper objection to the attempted reconciliation of contemporary science and Buddhist practice flows from the nature of scientific storytelling....  The contemporary generation of American Buddhists draws again and again on scientific evidence for the power of meditation -- EEGs and MRIs and so on -- without ever wondering why a scientific explanation of that kind has seldom arisen in Buddhist cultures.... What Wright correctly sees as the heart of meditation practice -- the draining away of the stories we tell compulsively about each moment in favor of simply having the moment -- is antithetical to the kind of evidentiary argument he admires.  Science is competitive storytelling.  If a Buddhist Newton had been sitting under that tree, he would If a Buddhist Newton had been sitting under that tree, he would have seen the apple falling and, reaching for Enlightenment, experienced each moment of its descent as a thing pure in itself. Only a restless Western Newton would say, "Now, what story can tell us best what connects those apple-moments from branch to ground? Sprites? Magnets? The mysterious force of the mass of the earth beneath it? What made the damn thing fall? That's a story we tell, not a moment we experience. The Buddhist Newton might have been happier than ours -- ours was plenty unhappy -- but he would never have found the equation. Science is putting names on things and telling stories about them, the very habits that Buddhists urge us to transcend. The stories improve over time in the light of evidence, or they don't. It's just as possible to have Buddhist science as to have Christian science or Taoist science. But the meditator's project of being here now will never be the same as the scientist's project of connecting the past to the future, of telling how and knowing why [i.e., classifying, explaining, and predicting].

Both Wright and Batchelor end with a semi-evangelical call for a secularized, modernized Buddhism that can supply all the shared serenity of the old dispensation and still adjust to the modern world -- Batchelor actually ends his book with a sequence of fixed tenets for a secular Gotama practice. But does their Buddhism have a unique content, or is it simply the basics of secular liberalism with a borrowed Eastern vocabulary? What is the specifically Buddhist valence of saying, as Batchelor does, that the practitioners of a secular Buddhism will "seek to understand and diminish the structural violence of societies and institutions as well as the roots of violence that are present in themselves"? Do we need a twenty-five-hundred-year-old faith from the East to do this --  isn't that what every liberal-arts college insists that its students do, anyway, with the help of only a cultural-studies major?

All secularized faiths tend to converge on a set of agreeable values: compassion, empathy, the renunciation of mere material riches. But the shared values seem implicit in the very project of secularizing a faith, with its assumption that the ethical and the supernatural elements can be cleanly severed -- an operation that would have seemed unintelligible to St. Paul, as to Gotama himself. The idea of doing without belief is perhaps a bigger idea than any belief it negates. Secular Buddhism ends up being . . . secularism....

A faith practice with an authoritarian structure sooner or later becomes a horror; a faith practice without an authoritarian structure sooner or later becomes a hobby. The dwindling down of Buddhism into another life-style choice will doubtless irritate many, and Wright will likely be sneered at for reducing Buddhism to another bourgeois amenity, like yoga or green juice. (Batchelor refers to this as a "dumbing down of the dharma".)

If there is something distinctive about a Buddhist secularism, it is that the Buddhist believes in the annihilation of appetite, while the pure secular humanist believes in satisfying our appetites until annihilation makes it impossible. Appetite, though, has a way of renewing itself even after it's been fed; no matter what we do, some new gnawing materializes. Dissatisfaction with our circumstances, the frustration of our ambitions, something no bigger than a failure to lose enough weight or to have an extra room to make a nursery out of: even amid luxury, the ache of the unachieved seems intense enough. It is these dissatisfactions that drive so many Americans -- who cannot understand why lives filled with material pleasure still feel unfulfilled -- to their meditation mats.

Secularized or traditional, the central Buddhist epiphany remains essential: the fact of mortality makes loss certain. For all the ways in which science and its blessed godchild scientific medicine have reduced the overt suffering that a human life entails, the vector to sadness remains in place, as much as it did in the Buddha's time. Gotama's death, from what one doctor describes as mesenteric infarction, seems needlessly painful and gruesome by modern standards; this is the kind of suffering we can substantially alleviate. But the universal mortality of all beings -- the fact that, if we're lucky, we will die after seventy years or so -- is not reformable. The larger problem we face is not suffering but sadness, and the sadness is caused by the fact of loss. To love less in order to lose less seems like no solution at all, but to see loss squarely sounds like wisdom. We may or may not be able to Americanize our Buddhism, but we can certainly ecumenicize our analgesics. Lots of different stuff from lots of different places which we drink and think and do can help us manage. Every faith practice has a different form of comfort to offer in the face of loss, and each is useful. Sometimes it helps to dwell on the immensity of the universe. Sometimes it helps to feel the presence of ongoing family and community. Sometimes it helps to light a candle and say a prayer. Sometimes it helps to sit and breathe.

This page last revised 11/03/2021.