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Thread: The Science of Meditation

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    The Science of Meditation

    In a lecture I attended last night, Richard Davidson discussed his scientific research on meditation. Among the (not very surprising) facts that Davidson has uncovered:

    1) Meditating regularly causes physical changes in the brain.

    2) “Compassion” meditation makes people more empathetic and compassionate.

    3) Meditation can improve “attentiveness” (which is vital to education, and may help kids with ADHD).

    Although none of this is surprising, it’s not trivial to scientifically validate (fail to falsify) what seems likely. Davidson has been a friend of the Dalai Lama for decades, and practices meditation himself. Here’s a link to his website: http://richardjdavidson.com/

    The “compassion meditation” research has, apparently, launched an educational trend toward promoting compassion through meditation. What struck me about this portion of the lecture is how Davidson appears to be reinventing the wheel. In our modern, atheistic world, kids no longer go to Church School, say their prayers at night (“God bless mommy…..”), or practice any number of Western religious rituals (or, at least, the kids of the educated parents likely to attend Davidson’s lectures are far less likely to do so than they would have been a century and less ago).

    This got me thinking (as opposed to meditating). What is the attraction of Buddhism for Westerners in general, and Western intellectuals in particular? My girlfriend (who dragged me to the lecture ) is a sometimes Buddhist (she gets involved periodically, attends meditations, and then ignores it for a couple of years).

    She agreed with my theory (to some extent): Christianity, with its emphasis on “belief”, is difficult for many modern intellectuals. Professionally, they are rationalists and skeptics. So they’ve thrown out the baby with the bath. Since they can’t quite “believe”, they feel that they can no longer “practice”. Buddhism promotes some unproven and incredible dogma (reincarnation, for example), but Westerners seem able to divorce the practice from the dogma. I’m betting most Western Buddhists either don’t actually believe in reincarnation, or don’t give it much thought. But they’re drawn to the meditative practices and empathetic teachings of Buddhism. It provides them with some of the benefits of Religion without the cognitive dissonance.

    In addition, Davidson’s findings that meditation improves “attentiveness” don’t seem surprising. However, it seems to me that a great many other kinds of training could also improve attentiveness. I used to play sports, for example. Rock climbing involves physical stress combined with extreme mental attentiveness, without which, you fall (and might die). I’ll bet that improves attentiveness, too. In fact, I’ll bet a great many kinds of training designed to improve attentiveness WILL improve attentiveness. Meditation, perhaps, is only one of many possibilities.

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    Registered User Clopin's Avatar
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    She agreed with my theory (to some extent): Christianity, with its emphasis on “belief”, is difficult for many modern intellectuals. Professionally, they are rationalists and skeptics. So they’ve thrown out the baby with the bath. Since they can’t quite “believe”, they feel that they can no longer “practice”.
    This is how I feel as well. If meditative practice can help you, and if the sermon on the mount can guide you, then I really don't think it matters whether or not you necessarily believe in reincarnation, nirvana or that Jesus raised a man from the dead and returned to life after the crucifixion. It's true that you don't need religion, persay, for this type of thing, but as it seems to me that spirituality comes as naturally to humans as breathing, why fight it?
    So with the courage of a clown, or a cur, or a kite jerkin tight at it's tether

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    Maybe YesNo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    In a lecture I attended last night, Richard Davidson discussed his scientific research on meditation. Among the (not very surprising) facts that Davidson has uncovered:

    1) Meditating regularly causes physical changes in the brain.
    If meditating can change the physical brain, which I think it does and which I think brain scans probably show, then we have evidence of mind over matter. This would go against a neuroscientific hypothesis that the brain generates the mind as an epiphenomenon.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    2) “Compassion” meditation makes people more empathetic and compassionate.

    3) Meditation can improve “attentiveness” (which is vital to education, and may help kids with ADHD).

    Although none of this is surprising, it’s not trivial to scientifically validate (fail to falsify) what seems likely. Davidson has been a friend of the Dalai Lama for decades, and practices meditation himself. Here’s a link to his website: http://richardjdavidson.com/
    The book sounds interesting. I don't expect to see validations, but to see what has been falsified by the research and statements that have not yet been falsified. It is more useful to know what doesn't work.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    The “compassion meditation” research has, apparently, launched an educational trend toward promoting compassion through meditation. What struck me about this portion of the lecture is how Davidson appears to be reinventing the wheel. In our modern, atheistic world, kids no longer go to Church School, say their prayers at night (“God bless mommy…..”), or practice any number of Western religious rituals (or, at least, the kids of the educated parents likely to attend Davidson’s lectures are far less likely to do so than they would have been a century and less ago).
    I don't think the modern world is atheistic. It may not have the same mix of people in the different traditional religions. Even those not in a traditional religion are not necessarily atheistic which is an extreme position to take about the universe given our conscious, existential reality.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    This got me thinking (as opposed to meditating). What is the attraction of Buddhism for Westerners in general, and Western intellectuals in particular? My girlfriend (who dragged me to the lecture ) is a sometimes Buddhist (she gets involved periodically, attends meditations, and then ignores it for a couple of years).
    Buddhism seems to have a head start over other eastern religions. When I go to the library there are ten times the number of books about Buddhism than there are about Hinduism.

    I don't think eastern Buddhism is "atheistic" although that is how it is presented by western Buddhists who are embarrassed by the reincarnation and goddesses (Guayin, for example) that are venerated by eastern Buddhists. Or let me put it like this, western atheistic Buddhism is an eastern religion that has succeeded to get a foothold in the west by focusing on western atheists and other people dissatisfied with traditional religions giving them access to spirituality through meditation.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    She agreed with my theory (to some extent): Christianity, with its emphasis on “belief”, is difficult for many modern intellectuals. Professionally, they are rationalists and skeptics. So they’ve thrown out the baby with the bath. Since they can’t quite “believe”, they feel that they can no longer “practice”. Buddhism promotes some unproven and incredible dogma (reincarnation, for example), but Westerners seem able to divorce the practice from the dogma. I’m betting most Western Buddhists either don’t actually believe in reincarnation, or don’t give it much thought. But they’re drawn to the meditative practices and empathetic teachings of Buddhism. It provides them with some of the benefits of Religion without the cognitive dissonance.
    Stephen Batchelor presents a view of western atheistic Buddhism ("Buddhism Without Beliefs") that seems to me would appeal to atheists: http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/docu..._Batchelor.pdf However, I don't think Buddhism is viable without reincarnation, goddesses and darshan practices of eastern Buddhism. People like Batchelor would disagree, but I just wanted to present an opposite perspective.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    In addition, Davidson’s findings that meditation improves “attentiveness” don’t seem surprising. However, it seems to me that a great many other kinds of training could also improve attentiveness. I used to play sports, for example. Rock climbing involves physical stress combined with extreme mental attentiveness, without which, you fall (and might die). I’ll bet that improves attentiveness, too. In fact, I’ll bet a great many kinds of training designed to improve attentiveness WILL improve attentiveness. Meditation, perhaps, is only one of many possibilities.
    I think the critical attentiveness is to one's existence. Rock climbing might be a thrill seeking way to escape from the reality that one is actually alive right now like it or not. If meditation is done right, I don't see how it cannot lead to a sort of theism, or acknowledgement of primary consciousness, even if that god is only felt as the god within.

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