A Contemplative Science

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET

I recently spent a week with one hundred fellow scientists at a retreat center in rural Massachusetts. The meeting attracted a diverse group: physicists, neuroscientists, psychologists, clinicians, and a philosopher or two; all devoted to the study of the human mind. In many respects it was like any other scientific retreat: we gathered each day in a large hall; we took long walks in the snow; we ate communally. At this meeting, however, six days passed before anyone uttered a word.

Our silence was not a sign of scientific controversy or of the breakdown of social relations. We were on a silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, engaged in a Buddhist practice known as vipassana (the Pali word for 'seeing clearly'). Techniques like vipassana have been practiced by Buddhist contemplatives for millennia, and there is now a growing body of scientific research to suggest that they can promote mental and physical wellbeing. According to the teachings of Buddhism, meditation produces profound insights into the nature of human subjectivity; insights that can have a direct a bearing upon a person's ethical life and level of happiness. The retreat at IMS, which was co-sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute, represents the first time a large group of scientists have sought to personally test such claims.

The initial instruction given on a vipassana retreat could not be more simple: when seated, pay attention to the sensation of breathing; when walking, notice the feeling of moving your feet; and whenever you find that your mind has wandered into thought, simply come back to the mere awareness of sensation. Once meditators have developed an ability to concentrate on the flow of physical sensations in this way, they are encouraged to pay attention to the entire range of their experience. The practice from then on is to be precisely aware, moment by moment, of the full tumult of consciousness and its contents: sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, intentions, and emotions. Of critical importance for the purposes of science: there are no unjustified beliefs or metaphysics that need be adopted at all.

Many of the scientists found the experience grueling. Some said it was the hardest week of their lives. Indeed, many had not known that they would be consigned to total silence for the first six days of the retreat, and asked not to read, or to write, or to make eye-contact with the other retreatants. One neuroscientist reported that on the second day of the retreat he hit "a wall of grief," in the face of which even the most trivial memories -- of drinking a cup of tea, of shaving his face -- precipitated profound feelings of sadness, simply because they testified to the inexorable passage of time. It is, of course, natural to brood about time when one suddenly has too much of it on hand. Heaven help the meditator who gets a song like "Cats in the Cradle and the Silver Spoon" stuck in his head. He will surely die by his own hand.

Many scientists have been drawn to Buddhism out of a sense that the Western tradition has delivered an impoverished conception of basic, human sanity. In the West, if you speak to yourself out loud all day long, you are considered crazy. But speaking to yourself silently -- thinking incessantly -- is considered perfectly normal. On the Buddhist view, the continuous identification with discursive thought is a kind of madness -- albeit a madness that is very well-subscribed. As some of the retreatants discovered, when thoughts are seen to be mere phenomena arising and passing away in consciousness (along with sights, sounds, sensations, etc.), the feeling that there is a "self" who is the thinker of these thoughts can disappear. This experience of selflessness is interesting for two reasons: it makes perfect sense from a neurological perspective, as there is no privileged position for a self to occupy in the brain. The loss of self can also be deeply liberating. Several labs have begun to study meditators who claim to have ready access to this state. Richard Davidson and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin have detected marked differences in the brains of such adepts as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and EEG. Research on the functional effects of meditation is still in its infancy, but there seems to be little question that the practice changes the brain.

Needless to say, any truths uncovered about the human mind through meditation cannot be "Buddhist". And if meditation ever becomes widely adopted as a tool of science, it will be quickly stripped of its Buddhist roots. There are, after all, very good reasons we don't talk about "Christian physics" or "Muslim algebra". Physics and algebra are genuine domains of human inquiry, and as such, they transcend the cultural conditions out of which they arose. Today, anyone emphasizing the religious roots of these intellectual disciplines would stand convicted of not understanding them at all. In the same way, if we ever develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, speaking of "Buddhist" meditation will be synonymous with a failure to assimilate the changes that will have occurred in our understanding of the human mind.

The retreat might have been a significant event in the history of ideas. It could mark the beginning of a discourse on ethics and spiritual experience that is as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourses of physics, biology, and chemistry are. Other retreats for scientists are now being planned. What effect this will have on our collective understanding of the human mind remains to be seen. But we could be witnessing the birth of a contemplative science.