Science and Buddhism: Measuring Success in Meditation
What is meditation supposed to do? And how do we know whether the meditation has been successful? Neurological and physiological studies, while fascinating, simply indicate the bodily manifestations of meditation, the emotions generated by the meditative experience. Physiological indicators of mental concentration cannot confirm or deny whether this level of concentration is an indicator of spiritual development, Buddhist or other.
Meditation and positive mental states
Within Buddhism, we meditate to help transform our minds from negative states to positive states. The relaxing aspect of meditation may be pleasant, but that is not what is meant by a positive mind in Buddhism. Development on the spiritual path is not always comfortable. Just ask anyone who has done a three-month Vajrasattva retreat! Still, successful single-pointed concentration is accompanied by mental and physical pliancy and bliss – that is, it relaxes the mind and the body. This is probably the factor that induces favorable changes such as increased immune activity, lessening of pain, etc.
Developing specific cognitive states or realizations is the function of analytical meditation. Whether the emotional states that accompany the cognitive state are seen to be positive or negative is determined by wisdom rather than by physiology. Is painfulness a positive or negative state? From the point of view of comfort it is negative. From the point of view of deepening compassion, as we have seen above, it may be positive. “Coherence,” as defined by Rapgay and Erdynast, is therefore not a good indicator of psychological success in this meditation. Indeed, they found no significant shift in coherence in their subjects from having meditated on compassion.
Self-report measures as determinants of success in meditation
The alternative to physiological or behavioral measures to determine meditative success is self-report methods. Indeed, we are urged to identify our success in Dharma practice by looking back and assessing changes in ourselves and the way we relate to others.
Self-report measures rely on the degree of insight and integrity of the respondent, and this cannot be easily measured by external indicators. One way of overcoming this difficulty is to train the respondents. In the words of Wallace (1996):
“We have excelled in the field of objective science, but our introspective methods are so primitive they are hardly worth mentioning. The ancient cultures of India, China, and Tibet did not match our objective science, but they developed contemplative sciences far in advance of our own marginal efforts.”
If Wallace is correct, then the psychological sciences may be too hasty in dismissing self-report measures as unreliable. It is possible to become more mindful and discriminating about our inner experience. Indeed, if we cannot do that, then Dharma practice will be of no value. Our emphasis on external validation is a function of scientific assumption, not an ultimate truth…