The path – the life –  what is light ?

Meditation has surged in popularity in recent years, from a fringe interest to a mainstream trend championed by therapists, scientists and celebrities. As part of this shift, misconceptions and dismissals have given way to the emerging recognition of meditation as a science. There are, however, those who would challenge this view. As both a scientist and a meditator, I feel a duty to respond.

In doing so, I must first acknowledge the huge number of activities commonly referred to as meditation. Many of those activities are not in any sense scientific. However, I will argue that some meditation practices, including the method I describe in “The Mind Illuminated” and other practices within the Buddhist tradition, do qualify as science. I will confine my discussion to those practices.

We can define science as the systematic study of the natural world through observation and experiment, yielding an organized body of knowledge on a particular subject. The human mind is undeniably a suitable subject for scientific study, and one purpose of meditation is careful observation of one’s own mind. This observation reveals consistent patterns that meditators share with one another and with teachers who direct their practice. Master meditators weigh these observations against their own experience and knowledge passed down from previous generations of meditation masters, thereby generating models of the mind. Over thousands of years, meditators have tested, refined and reworked their models of the mind based on new insights as later generations developed new meditative techniques. Thus, over time, an organized body of knowledge has accumulated describing the nature and behavior of the mind at a very fine level of resolution. This is one sense in which certain forms of meditation qualify as science.

However, meditation is not simply passive observation, nor could it be, since the very act of observation is itself an activity of mind. Rather the meditator intentionally employs attention, awareness and other mental faculties in a variety of ways to better understand the functional behavior of the mind. (The effect of observation on the thing observed is not different than what occurs in quantum physics.) Precisely how these mental faculties are used in the investigation of the mind is subject to modification that can increase or decrease the efficacy of this endeavor. Thus meditation is also technology.

In the history of meditation practices that qualify as scientific, meditation masters have used models of the mind generated by meditation to modify meditation techniques for increased efficacy. Such modifications can be viewed as hypotheses, and their implementation as experiments. When these modifications are subsequently preserved because they are effective, the experimental results have passed the tests of replicability and falsifiability required by the scientific method. The picture of meditation as science is complete. The hypotheses generated in response to observation and analysis have been tested, validated and incorporated into the expanding body of knowledge. Such meditation practices are justifiably described as an evolving science, and the laboratory in which this science is carried out is the mind.