Meditation, Science, and the Western Perspective

Each person who begins a meditation practice does so for their own personal reasons. However, for those who pursue it in a serious way, the direction of meditation is to deepen awareness so that the individual can be fully present and respond appropriately to the experience of the present moment.

Meditation methods of various traditions are similar, but may emphasize different techniques. In Zen Meditation, for example, there is emphasis on a still body posture, attention on the breath, and an awareness of the activity of the mind. As thoughts and distractions arise during the meditation period, these are acknowledged, released, and the attention returned to the breath. This simple but difficult practice has had profound affects on lives of people since well before the time of the Buddha, over 2500 years ago.

In a recently published article, “Mental Training Affects Resource Use” (Synopsis, Full Article), Richard Davidson et al. at the University of Wisconsin demonstrated the effects of meditation on attention by the western scientific method. Below is an excerpt from the Author Summary:

Meditation includes the mental training of attention. One of the major limitations of the attentional system concerns the ability to process two stimuli. When the second (stimuli) is presented within a half second of the first one in a rapid sequence of events, it is often not detected. (Missing the second stimuli) is thought to result from competition between stimuli for limited attentional resources.

We measured the effects of intense meditation on performance. We found that three months of intensive meditation enabled practioners to more often detect the second target with no compromise in their ability to detect the first target.

These findings demonstrate that meditative training can improve performance on a task that requires trained attention abilities.

The paper describes both measurements of electrical charges in the brain as well as a detailed mathematical analysis. These results may help the understanding of the physical function of the brain and be an advance in the neurosciences. In a related newspaper article (NY Times 5/8/07), the author said that this was the first study to examine how mediation affects attention.

 

Perhaps it was the first study, but countless people who have meditated have seen such beneficial changes in their own lives by direct experience. There is a tendency to give formal studies more weight than one’s own experience. However, if such studies encourage people to try the practice for themselves, they have a larger impact than to the science

Western Perspective: Finally, it is important to be aware of bias of our Western culture. These findings document by western methods the benefits that have been previously known to much of the world. There are many examples of methods that work in the world, that have not yet been documented in the western sense. One example is Chinese Medicine (see Common Sense, Carpal Tunnel Treatment Options and Acupuncture ). The important point is to recognize the bias and use information and judgment in considering these methods.

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