Skeptics Corner

Meditation, and in particular Mindfulness, is starting to emerge out into the mainstream more and more. The number of articles exploring the scientifically proven benefits of sitting practice and the basic components of Mindfulness are to be found in more and more publications both online and in print. It has taken a lot of dedication from a small number of determined teachers to raise funds and interest to get research going both in the UK (in particular at Cardiff university) and in the US at various locations. The ball has certainly begun to roll though and the science of happiness has started to look more thoroughly into data to see how it correlates with the emergence of genuine happiness.
The results are actually more tentative than many teachers and many writers would have us believe, with a fair amount of initial interpretation going into understanding the data that is emerging from brain scans that were simply not possible a few years back. It’s great to see emerging objective confirmation of the subjective benefits that have been written and spoken about for thousands of years.
Many Buddhist teachers and organisations are seeking validation for their practices and acceptance by a wider culture which still tends to view meditation as some sort of mystical, spiritual, religious practice for escaping from the world. This in itself is a valid wish on their part and I am personally in alignment with it. There is a problem though in the rush to seek validation from outside that I think is perhaps revealing. The benefits of meditation have always been subjectively experienced and this will continue to be the case. In the rush to have meditation’s benefits confirmed by the status quo, a new form of commercialisation has begun to emerge which is all too ready to rave about the benefits of focusing on the breath: again, no problem here. What is a problem though is the mad idea that meditation (as mindfulness) is somehow a fix for the world’s problems and the next best craze for individuals to take up. Meditation can certainly benefit most folk, but it is no easy road as any dedicated meditator knows and it is in the ongoing dedication to practice that the richer benefits are discovered.
Meditation is also still very much packaged in a Buddhist framework even in most secular circles and the reality the insights that emerge through practising are on the whole spiritual. At least that’s how we would traditionally term them. What will be interesting to see is whether a thorough enough new language can emerge that leaves behind Buddhist and Hindu jargon for a more appropriate western linguistic framework that is capable of transmitting the meaning of practice and its results whilst capturing much of the subtleties that accompany progress.
What I would like to see through all this research is an emergence of a deeper understanding between the fundamental elements of meditating on; the human brain, the human body, a person’s social skills, a person’s ethical sense and the quality of a person’s interaction with experience. Science will likely discover more interesting material regarding the relationship between thought, emotions, and a person’s sense of themselves as an entity that will be more wide reaching than the promotion of sitting practice. It’s also likely that technology will be developed eventually that will produce meditative results without the meditating. Will the comprehensive results be the same as those of a person who sits; certainly not, but the benefits could turn out to be fascinating and the ramifications both intriguing and potentially scary. What I don’t think will happen long-term is that Buddhist religious organisations will find that they have the last word.
Below I have gathered together some of the material that is on the web to give a sceptical visitor a sense of what’s going on. If meditation is simply developing a different quality of relationship with experience, then there is no need for even the most hardened of sceptics to be immune to its appeal. There is need for a rich examination of the language used in the field of meditation and a clearer designation of appropriate non-religious meaning to the terminology already in use so as to leave behind the straight-jacket of not just religious symbology, but also spiritual symbology. 
Finally, I believe that the need for social change is greater than the need for individual happiness. I would like to see the emergence of a greater wealth of data that gives a factual, evidence base for understanding the need for socially impactful behaviour that is not isolated to the individual, but that establishes connection. The need for a greater appreciation and validation of compassion, ethical conduct and connections is indeed great. The ramifications of a new ethics would be much more important, less about commercialisation and more about living together on an increasingly small planet. 
The Stanford University Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research is a fairly new establishment doing what I consider to be important research. For those interested in the wider context of social benefits from contemplative practices, you'll find interesting, if albeit relatively simple, material to peruse.
Here goes with the list. Click on each:

Science of compassion: Dr Doty at Stanford University

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