Is meditation a science?

This is a claim you’ll hear meditation teachers make a lot: “meditation is a science.” They often say it without making any effort to give support, as if it’s as uncontroversial a claim as reporting what’s for lunch. But is meditation a science? What would that mean?

Here’s one definition of “science”:

Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.

According to this definition Science is….

  • the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding
  • of the natural and social world
  • following a systematic methodology based on evidence

Meditation, at least in the Buddhist traditions, seems to meet those criteria.

There is one thing that’s not specified in that definition, however, and which is normally taken for granted as being a part of “scientific” investigation, and which is absent from Buddhist meditation: that is the intersubjective (aka objective) availability of the evidence studied.

In meditation the objects of study are subjective phenomena — the objects and events of consciousness. Things like thoughts. It’s not possible, as Frege said, to hold a thought in my hand like a mineral sample and show it to you. Only I can look at the thought I’m having. And only you can look at the thought you’re having.

It may be true that the same lawful processes operate on my thoughts in my cognitive environment as operate on your thoughts in your cognitive environment. But the fact that we can’t observe intersubjectively makes the whole project much harder to be “scientific” about.

Because of this, I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that meditation is a science. It’s more like meditation is a good friend of science.

What’s special about meditation?

There are many circumstances in our lives in which we hold a specific conscious intention, or we concentrate for extended periods, or we try to really understand what’s going on, but we don’t call it mediation or mindfulness.

What’s going on in meditation that’s different or special?

It has to do with going meta. Normally we’re wrapped up in the objects themselves — the interesting idea, the worrying thought, the irritating noise, the scary possibility — and we’re somehow dealing with that. What we’re not doing is watching the internal processes unfold — the attending, thinking, feeling, fearing.

In meditation, we attempt to step back from the objects, to de-fuse our attention from them, and we attempt to sustain the intention to observe the unfolding cognitive and attentional processes as they occur.

To do this is hard because it’s explicitly not doing whatever the mind wants to do. The mind wants to ruminate on that project that isn’t going well, and we don’t let it — we instead bring our attention back to the chosen meditation object.

And doing this is special because it’s not what we normally do. Normally our minds do the things they habitually do — that’s why those are the habits of the mind. It’s unusual to do something different. But when you do unusual things, unusual outcomes ensue. In the case of meditation, those outcomes take two forms: insights into the lawful operation of our nervous systems, and (gradually) new habits of mind.

Those insights can have immediate effects: a new model on how the world works can be employed right now, causing us to see different options and choose different behaviors.

Those new habits of mind can be deep and powerful, even if they don’t take effect immediately. What if your mind were 10% less prone to rumination? What if 10% of the time that you would normally have ruminated unproductively, you instead find spontaneous enjoyment in some circumstance present in that moment? That amounts to trading 10% of your suffering for satisfaction. If you, like most of us, are a person who spends a significant amount of time worrying, that’d be pretty powerful.

The Simpsons is still funny

The Simpsons was a staple of my childhood. Sunday nights were special for many years because you’d get a new episode of the Simpsons. But around the time I started college in 2009, I stopped watching. I haven’t seen a new episode in at least 5 years. Until tonight, when I watched two episodes — one from the 12th season, and one from the most recent season, the 28th. Both episodes were clever, entertaining, and contained a few genuinely funny bits. I’m amazed. The show, apparently, is still good.

Respond, not react

My first meditation retreat took place during Canada Goose breeding season. For 10 days, the rural 10-acre property was shared uneasily by a dozen or so geese that were convinced they were under attack and about 30 meditators who were literally sworn to not kill anything while there.

Every time meditators would walk by a goose nest — which was regularly, because they made their nests right next to the footpaths — the goose would inevitably arise and make a show of hissing, wing-spreading, and occasional bluff-ful advancement.

Two or three times a day, while we’d be sitting in the meditation hall in silence, a goose battle would erupt outside. All of my attention would be drawn to the sounds and images coming to mind from those battles.

At first I was frustrated and angry about this. I was here to meditate, and these geese were breaking my concentration, dammit.

But by a handful of days in, I had a very different way of looking at it. These geese are utter slaves to their ‘emotions’. A goose is sitting on her nest, and some other goose flies up. I imagine she feels (though obviously couldn’t name it) some physical sensations like a rising hotness in the chest, a certain bend to the thoughts. And the goose, unlike us, has no distance between that stimulus and her response. She must now go have some painful, dangerous and dramatic fight.

And the whole point of the thing — at least, a core part — is that we have choice. We don’t have to react, slaves to our instincts and impulses. We can create some space between that stimulus and our response. If we do that, it’s no longer a reaction. It’s a response.

Responses can be powerful. You bring your wisdom. You have the option to react just the way you would have. But you also have the option to respond in some totally different way.

Ed Sheeran’s Game of Thrones song — Hands of Gold

He rode through the streets of the city
Down from his hill on high
O’er the wynds and the steps and the cobble
He rode to a woman’s sigh
For she was his secret treasure
She was his shame and his bliss
And a chain and a keep are nothing
Compared to a woman’s kiss

For hands of gold are always cold
But a woman’s hands are warm
For hands of gold are always cold
But a woman’s hands are warm

In the books, this was a song that was written about Tyrion Lannister a few years before this scene took place. Here’s what happened.

One day, Tyrion goes over to visit his girl Shae at the house where he keeps her. When he gets there, he finds a fatbellied singer name Symon Silvertongue hanging out with Shae. Symon addresses Tyrion as “my lord Hand”, making it clear that he knows that this is Tyrion Lannister, come to visit his whore. Tyrion threatens him, and Symon promises to tell no one. Later Symon writes a song about Tyrion called Hands of Gold. He threatens to sing the song to Cersei unless Tyrion pays up. Tyrion tells Bronn to take care of it, and Bronn later implies that he had Symon turned into meat stew in a pot shop in Fleabottom.