Meditation, Science, and the Western Perspective

May 16, 2007

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.

Natural History, Natural Mind

February 16, 2007

(Zen and Science 3)

Few people visit the old exhibits, assembled before the age of computer interactions, that are found in every Natural History Museum. These display cases chronicle the history of understanding the earth. People of with extraordinary insight and dedication began to unravel the mystery of their home—the molten core (Oldham, 1906), ice ages and glaciers (Agassiz, 1840), Continental Drift (Taylor, 1908), magnetic pole reversals (Brunhes, 1906). Their names are largely forgotten but the extensions of their work are common knowledge to grade school students today.

This science began replacing ignorance with an understanding of the processes of nature. The processes of the earth were found to just occur naturally and continuously. Each event in the earth’s chronicle is independent, but interconnected. There can be no prediction of the results or direction. Just unceasing interconnected change. Nature operating in its own incomparable, perfect splendor.

Zen Comment:

Bodhidharma was a fifth century Buddhist monk credited with bringing Zen from India to China. His surviving writings are few, but to the point:

“The way is basically perfect, it does not require perfection.”


Human life is nature itself, not distinct or apart from it. Our activities are also the processes of nature.

Humans also have the gift to be conscious of these activities. Ideas about the activities arise. Ideas of progress, goals, comparisons, and judgments arise. It is easy to get caught up in these and to judge the result of the activity. Such ideas have their place, but the balance is often lost. Allowing these functions undue emphasis leads obscures the splendor of our own natural activities.

When fully present in the activity or process of the moment, there is no room for comparison, for ideas. It is complete. The perfection of the moment can be experienced.

How do we regain our natural gifts? Slow the mind to experience the natural process each in their own way.

** (If a Natural History Museum is not convenient, you can find details out on the Web, Wikipedia, or in the very readable book “A short history of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson)

Others in this category: The Moon Illusion; Feynman Asks a Question






Feynman Asks a Question–Story

February 4, 2007

Zen and Science (2)

It is easy to presume that reality is the way that we say it is. After all, it is what we appear to know. A different response can interrupt our routine thoughts and begin to change the perspective.

Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. He was well known as a great scientist, original thinker, and author of both scientific and popular books. This story is taken from his book What Do You Care What Other People Think.

As a young boy, Feynman was playing with his wagon. The wagon had a ball in in it which was free to roll. He observed that when he pulled the wagon, the ball rolled to the back. However, when he stopped the wagon suddenly, the ball rolled to the front.

He asked his father: “Why is that?”

His father’s response: That, nobody knows. . . . But the general principle is that something that is moving tends to stay in motion and that things that are standing tend to stay still. . . .”

Buddhist Comment

Bodhidharma was a fifth century Buddhist monk credited with bringing Zen from India to China. His surviving writings are few, but to the point:

“If speech isn’t tied to appearances, it’s free. … Language is essentially free.”
“Freeing oneself from words is liberation.”


Nobody knows for sure, but this is what we say. . . .

It is easy to forget the first phrase and believe firmly in the content of what we say. The content of our speech allows us to function in our world, but how can there be certainty that we know with the surety of our manner.

Where is the certainty! “Nobody knows for sure” serves as a reminder that absolute meaning attached to the words can limit understanding. The possibilities are reduced. The experience may be larger than the words can express. But the content of the words give the appearance and comfort of standing on firm ground. How firm is that ground? How is it tested?

It is the attachment to the speech and content that restricts the freedom and potential. If speech is not tied to appearance, the spirit can flow.

Why is that?
There are no limits to the response: “Nobody knows for sure.”
What is our reply to ourselves, to our children?

Related articles: Moon Illusion,

Natural History, Natural Mind

The Moon Illusion–Story

January 30, 2007

Zen and Science (1)

A full moon rises, large and luminous against the horizon. But later at night, when the moon is high in the sky, it has shrunk to a small circle. For centuries, people have tried to explain this observation.

It is easy enough to convince yourself it is an illusion. For example, a photograph taken of a horizon moon will be smaller than that remembered by the observer. The size of the moon in the photograph will remain the same when taken at different heights in the sky. More simply, just compare the size of the moon to the tip of your little finger when held at arm’s length. First, check the moon against your finger when it is first near the horizon, and then check again later when the moon is high in the sky and appears smaller. The relative size measured against the finger remains the same.

There are many theories about the underlying cause of this illusion. An entire technical book, The Mystery of the Moon Illusion, examines these theories. (H.E. Ross & C. Plug, 2002, 275 pgs). The authors conclude that no single theory has emerged victorious. They further observe that The moon illusion is one of the few perceptual phenomena that tap a broad spectrum of sciences: astronomy, optics, physics, physiology, psychology, and philosophy.

Buddhist Comment:

Bodhidharma was a fifth century Buddhist monk credited with bringing Zen from India to China. His surviving writings are few, but to the point:

“Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness.”


Apparently all human beings are wired to make the same perceptual error. The senses may not accurately register what is actually out there. The moon illusion is evaluated against our normal understanding. The assumption is that everyday perception and understanding is accurate. Is that the case? Having seen one inconsistency, there are very likely other illusions, even if we are normally unaware of them. These illusions further distort reality. We may not know what is out there as reality, or even if there is an out there.

Bodhidharma’s comment points in this direction. A mind distorted by illusions from the senses can not explore itself with accuracy. Such an exploration just adds error to error.

In such case, the Buddhist method of examination of reality is through refined awareness, developed by quieting the mind.


Related posts: Feynman Asks a Question

Natural History, Natural Mind