East Meets West

Has Meditation Gone Mainstream? Blame Science!

David Sanders left medical school at Cornell to pursue a Ph.D. in religious studies.  The result?  Dr. Sanders offers fascinating insights into the ancient practice of meditation, the contemporary science of meditation, and its growing acceptance among mainstream Americans.

By David Saunders

The word ‘meditation’ may invoke any number of images. Perhaps the likeness of the Dalai Lama sitting quiescently in meditative repose, legs crossed, eyes closed, hands resting gently in his lap. Maybe stereotypical meditation paraphernalia such as a singing bowl, a meditation cushion or a Tibetan prayer flag comes to mind. All of these images, and countless more, contribute to and result from pre-conceptions of what meditation is, where it takes place, who does it and why.

I recently took time off from medical school at Weill Cornell to pursue a Ph.D. in religious studies at Emory University, focusing on the renaissance of Buddhist meditative practices taking place in Western Europe and the United States. When I hear the word meditation, different images from the above are brought to mind. I think of meditators — some of whom have practiced for more than 60,000 hours in their lifetime and some of whom have never meditated before; some from indigenous Buddhist countries and others from small-town America — all seated in repose while hooked up to fMRI machines in neuroscience labs.. I think of Thomas, a 15-year-old Atlanta foster care teen that I taught compassion meditation to as part of a research study at Emory, and the tears that welled up in his eyes near the conclusion of one particularly poignant session. I think of Jack, another student of mine, a 7-year-old boy from an elementary school in Atlanta, and how he told me that meditating made him feel like a better, kinder person.

Whether it’s a monk meditating in an MRI, a lonely and scared teen being passed around the foster care system, or an affluent suburban first grader giving the practice a try, meditation, in its myriad forms, is no longer exclusively associated with eastern religious traditions and romantic mountain hermitages. These images should challenge deeply embedded stereotypes concerning the who, what, where and why of meditation, and reflect a shifting socio-cultural landscape in which meditation is trending toward the mainstream.

The scientific study of contemplative meditative practices is the single greatest reason for the explosion of meditation in the West. Since 1982, when the first seminal meditation study was published, we have seen an exponential growth in the number of publications per year. In 1980 there were none, 1990 saw 5 and 2000 saw 21. But in 2005, there were 77, in 2010 there were 353 and this past year, there were 477 studies. More impressive, these data only pertain to one kind of meditation practice — namely mindfulness — never mind the many other kinds are being studied. This research — some of which has been conducted at Weill Cornell and much of which is funded by the U.S. taxpayer dollars through the National Institutes of Health — is the primary catalyst behind the shifting who, what, where and why of meditation in the U.S. today.

If traditional notions of meditative practice have become antiquated, and science has accelerated this transformation, what exactly has changed? Let us begin with the who: both men and women, the young and the old, people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and varying socioeconomic standing have all been studied in meditation. A brief look at the literature will reveal contemplative practices being studied in cohorts consisting of students of all ages and all disciplines, war veterans, criminals, doctors, nurses, those suffering from debilitating mental illness, completely healthy individuals and many more. With this in mind, the naive — and incorrect — assumption that meditation is something that (male) monks do in solitary retreat, no longer holds.

If the demographics of meditative practice are changing, what kinds of meditative practices are popular? Some of the main meditations researched and practiced in contemporary America include mindfulness, compassion and loving-kindness meditations. In fact the tapestry of meditative practices flourishing today is considerably more nuanced. Some specific contemplative practices — such as “yoga” — force us to ask important questions about the meaning of the word meditation. In any case, it should be clear that meditation is not one single entity, but rather an umbrella term for a rich variety of practices of the body and mind — dozens of which are being studied in research labs all over the world.

Given such changes, where are people meditating these days? One may wonder what happened to the remote hermitage, but those interested in meditating in remote locations — away from the hyperactivity and hypersociality (think Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) of modern life — can still do so, as there are hundreds of secluded retreat centers across the U.S. and abroad. People are also finding that meditation can be a fruitful activity anywhere: the doctor’s office, at work, in school, on the frontlines and even in prison.

And finally — but most difficult to answer — why are people meditating today? There is no easy answer to this question. It is certainly the case that there are as many reasons to meditate as there are meditators, and probably more. Some meditate because it makes them feel happier and less anxious; others because they were told by their therapist or doctor that they should; some because they feel like better, kinder people when they meditate; and others still because it was their homework assignment or they volunteered for a research study.

Suffice it to say that science, once again, is the driving force in this regard. With each new study that suggests a potential benefit to meditation — be it prevention of depressive relapse, increase in positive affect, greater pro-social behavior or decrease in serum cortisol secretion — the list of reasons for meditating continues to grow. Science also functions as a gatekeeper, preventing the application of meditative practices to dubious causes, for instance, compound fractures or liver failure. Such claims would never withstand the process of the scientific method and peer review. In this way, science serves a dual role in the development of meditative practices in the West.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the most visible and vociferous advocate for meditative practice in the West, the Dalai Lama, was fascinated with science from a very early age. One of his first projects as a young boy in 1940’s Tibet, was to understand the inner-workings of an automobile engine. Today, his aspirations are considerably more ambitious: to yolk scientific inquiry and meditation together and gain insight into the nature of consciousness. The Dalai Lama aside, it is evident that the shift of meditative practices from an exotic Eastern phenomenon to a quotidian occurrence in homes, work and schools across America, has been catalyzed by rigorous scientific inquiry. Singing bowls and prayer flags may still come to mind when one thinks about meditation, but MRIs, EEGs and RCTs are soon to follow.