Assess the factors that led to the engagement with Buddhist meditative practices in Western cognitive sciences.


There has been a renewed interest in Buddhist meditation in Western cognitive sciences since the 1990s. (Lutz et al. 2007, p.258) This has been fostered by three elements. Firstly, the neuroscience of consciousness has become both a pivotal and acknowledged field within science. Whereas Western neuroscience is still in relative infancy, the Buddhist tradition has a 2500-year-old history of what some have termed a ‘science of the mind’. (Dalai Lama, 2003, p.93) The complementary nature of scientific and Buddhist methodologies allows this engagement to yield fruitful results. Central to the engagement with Buddhist meditative practice in Western cognitive sciences has been the gradual acceptance of Buddhist insistence on introspection as a means to understanding the nature of the mind. (Yong, 2008, p.51) A Buddhist meditative adept’s mind is able to remain focused for long periods of time, rendering them the most appropriate mind to study in the field of cognitive sciences. In addition, their firmer understanding of their cognitive processes makes their introspective accounts most reliable. The claim that trained contemplatives are able to attain higher levels of consciousness presents an opportunity for cognitive scientists to explore beyond the gross levels of consciousness accessible in normal and subnormal minds. The second factor that has propelled the engagement with Buddhist meditative practices in Western cognitive sciences has been the recent discoveries in neuroplasticity. These developments have scientifically proven that mental and emotional traits can be learned and trained, thus confirming what Buddhists have taught for millennia. Western psychology has therefore begun to engage more seriously with the Buddhist meditative practices that train thus transform the mind. Thirdly, use of meditative practices such as mindfulness-based-stress-reduction (MBSR) has led clinicians to explore the effect the mind has on the body, again confirming traditional Buddhist premises and the power that meditation has for medical conditions.



The Buddhist understanding of the mind is unparalleled and contrasts greatly with the expanding, yet still nebulous Western cognitive sciences. Despite the insight that Buddhism may offer, conceptual frameworks previously inhibiting acknowledgement, let alone a comprehension, of consciousness continue to present formidable obstacles in the engagement between Buddhist meditative practice and science. Alan Wallace argues that this failure to develop a pure science of the mind is due to ‘the metaphysical principles of scientific materialism’. (Wallace, 2007, p.58) Scientific objectivism requires that anything private, anomalous, uncontrolled or individual be disregarded. This framework thus renders consciousness, as at best, an epiphenomenon of the brain. (Davidson, 1976, p.345) Scientists refuted William James, founder of the first neuroscience laboratory in the United States, who claimed one’s stream of consciousness is of a different sort of phenomena to that of the brain. (Wallace, 2007, p.11) Instead, materialists such as John Seale argue that consciousness is entirely caused by brain processes. (Searle, 2007, p.99) He however concedes that ‘we are not quite sure what the causal mechanisms are, but neuron firings at synapses seem to play an especially important functional role’. (Searle, 2007, p.99) Despite any evidence to back his claim he continues that consciousness, as a feature of the brain, is ‘more or less educated common sense’. (Searle, 2007, p.99) These pronouncements, devoid of any conclusive empirical data, support Wallace’s polemic that ‘scientific inquiry has been constrained by the metaphysical principles of scientific materialism’. (Wallace, 2000, p.187)


In the attempts to explain how matter could produce consciousness, neuroscientists argue that consciousness naturally arises from certain levels of brain and neuronal complexity. (Luisi, 2009, p.175; G 1850). During a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Western cognitive scientists at The Mind & Life Institute in the 1980s, the Dalai Lama asked scientists to explain what the special property of matter was that facilitated consciousness in one instance, but not in another. Pier Luisi replied, ‘through contingency and evolution… the neuronal complexity of the brain in one case, and not in another’. (Luisi, 2009, p.176) When Wallace proclaimed that complexity explains nothing and asked what aspect of complexity were they referring to, Eric Lander replied, ‘in fact, we don’t know… we have no idea. Consciousness is not a property of matter… we think it is a property somehow of the organization, but we have no idea’. (Luisi, 2009, p.178) The materialist view, despite its certainty of the purely physical nature of the world, has failed to even begin to comprehend the origins of consciousness. Many have argued that it makes no sense to apply psychological predicates to the brain, stating this is a degenerate form of Cartesianism. (Barinaga, 2003, p.19; Tononi, 1998, p.1849) Another issue with the view that man is no more that his neurons, is how it is possible to have spontaneous deep reflections or the realisation of inner truths that lead us to entirely change our world view of the direction of our lives.  


Many philosophers and scientists continue to abide by the essentialist view that conscious states are ineffable experiences that are distinct from nature and may never be explained. (Dehaene, 2001, p.4) Buddhists challenge this Cartesian dualism of matter, seeing all outer, public occurrences as equally natural with inner, private occurrences in that both arise in dependence on previous conditions and causes. (Wallace, 2007, p.133) The demarcation between matter as “natural” and anything immaterial as “supernatural” or “unnatural” is alien to Buddhist conceptualization of the universe. (Wallace, 2007, p.133) Luisi states it is worth pausing to ask if consciousness is inherently metaphysical in nature, or if we just do not have the right methods for developing a meticulous, methodological science of the mind. (Luisi, 2009, p.168) He continues by suggesting that perhaps the view that certain questions of the mind are unscientific is more an issue of cultural orientation than anything else. (Luisi, 2009, p.168) Morten Overgaard maintains that the attempt to locate neural correlates of consciousness is not a real measure but more of a theoretical abstraction. (Overgaard, 2006, p.632) He continues to illuminate that in fact what is being observed is a correlation between ‘behavioural indications of specific states (verbal reports, button pushes, etc.) and measures of brain activity’. (Overgaard, 2006, p.632) Peter Harrison cogently argues that the category of ‘science’, as a process of distinguishing and accepting some forms of knowledge and excluding others, is a human construction and reification. (Harrison, 2011, p.29) Thus, these boundaries may be contested and broken down.



Twenty-five hundred years ago, Buddhism hypothesised that elementary particles are neither solid nor bestowed with independent existence. (Ricard, 2003, p.274) Matthieu Ricard elucidates that discoveries in modern physics now also lead us to doubt their solid reality. (Ricard, 2003, p.274) Ricard argues that this bridges the supposedly ‘irreducible gulf between so-called immaterial consciousness and a so-called material physical world’. (Ricard, 2003, p.273) Each being devoid of independent reality means the apparent duality of matter and mind is in fact not irreducible. Foundational to the Buddhist conception of reality is the interdependence of all phenomena. In this way the physical world and consciousness are two co-emergent continua as there is not reality independent of perception. (Ricard, 2003, p.277) By confining investigations of consciousness to brain activity, behavior and the subjective accounts of normal and subnormal people, it is no wonder why many contemporary cognitive scientists have such strong convictions about the physical origins of consciousness. As these boundaries are deconstructed the path to a fruitful dialogue and engagement between the cognitive sciences and Buddhism opens up.



As highlighted by Francesco Varela, it is Buddhism’s tradition of introspective inquiry that is invaluable in the burgeoning field of cognitive science. (Bennet, 2007, p.44) The Abhidharma is the classical mind science, developed and refined since the Buddha’s teachings in the fifth century BCE. (Goleman, 1991, p.3) The Abhidharma addresses consciousness and the human realms of experience, predominantly overlooked by Western science. Productive engagement is especially possible due to the fundamental similarities in the methodologies of science and Buddhism. Of course they are immensely internally differentiated categories however, similar to science, the Buddhist principle of objectivity to discover the nature of reality necessitates the transcending of the limits of one’s preconceptions. (Dalai Lama,  2003, p.102) In a similar fashion to the enhancement of the physical senses with the use of technology in scientific research, Buddhist meditative practices have intricate techniques for cultivating insight into the nature of the mind. Luigi states that science and Buddhism may come together ‘in a form of symbiotic mutation’, sharing the four principle elements of pragmatism, rationalism, empiricism and scepticism. (Luisi, 2009, p.174) Despite immensely religious elements, Buddhism is based on experientially investigating personal and impersonal phenomena of the natural world. Presenting itself as a systematic body of knowledge about the natural world, Buddhism, like science, advances numerous testable hypotheses addressing the relationship between the mind and its physical environment. (Wallace, 2003, p.8) Whereas the West has excelled in its exploration of the interrelation of the nature and humanity, culminating in advanced material sciences, the Indian civilisation has excelled in its exploration of the human’s inner world, thereby developing unparalleled knowledge of consciousness and existence. (Eck, 1991, p.105; Thurman, 1991, p.7) José Cabezón argues that the sophisticated phenomenology of subjective, internal experience in Buddhism enables it to face science on equal terms, ultimately acting as a corrective and via its complementarity provides science a way to ‘reclaim a sense of the embodiment of experience, something that it has lost’. (Cabezón, 2003, p.55) This complementarity however, is not to reduce one to the other rather to bring them together harmoniously due to both their similarities of methods and their, generally, differentiated fields of study.


Freeing oneself from the materialist straightjacket means recognizing that consciousness is an introspective study, rather than entirely an objectively quantifiable study. Interestingly, it is increasingly recognized that uncompromising objectivity is an illusion in that there will always be an element of subjectivity to be controlled in scientific experimentation. (Yong, 2008, p.51) However, introspection, first person surveillance of our own mental processes, continues to exist at the level of folk psychology in the West. (Luisi, 2009, p.168) James proposed three methods for comprehension of the mind: behavior, brain science and first-person introspection. (Luisi, 2009, p.168) Whereas the first two have progressed considerably, introspective research has remained stagnant. Comte advanced two strong arguments against a science built on introspection. Firstly arguing that the subject cannot be divided so that one part may observe the other, and thus observation of inner experiences is impossible. (Overgaard, 2006, p.630) Overgaard however illuminates that research now shows that the self is not always performing as a single, indivisible unit. (Overgaard, 2006, p.271). Experientially it is clear we are capable of observing our mental processes, yet logically it seems the mind could not observe itself in the same way an eye cannot see itself. However, as Ricard elucidates, if thought is seen as a function of the mind, an interdependent process, then its capacity to know itself would be intrinsically inherent. (Ricard, 2003, p.271) Secondly, Comte states that even if it were possible, introspection would generate conflicting and unreliable data, although he states no other reason that the “prima facie oddness” of it. (Overgaard, 2006, p.630) William Lyons has also argued that there is no such thing as introspection, stating what passes for the monitoring of internal phenomena is inaccurate, and often dramatically so. (Rosenthal, 1992, p.452) Confabulation may sometimes be the result of introspection, but that does not mean it always is. A Buddhist monk with extensive training in the study of their mental processes can very accurately describe in detail the inner workings of his mind. Robert Sharf’s contention that personal experience can never function as a reference point for truth claims due to their ambiguous epistemic status, concludes that ‘all attempts to signify “inner experience”’ are destined to remain ‘well-meaning squirms that get us nowhere’. (Wallace, 2007, p.78) However, Wallace argues that as epistemological certainty increases in relation to communal verification in science and mathematics, the same is true for Buddhist meditative practices. (Wallace, 2007, p.83) Therefore, what is categorized as empirical or metaphysical ‘seems to be imbedded in the perceptual capabilities of the individual communities… the demarcation between these two realms is therefore relative, not absolute’. (Wallace, 2007, p.83) The ‘taboo of subjectivity’ has hindered introspective inquiry into the nature of the mind, however Buddhist meditative practices provide a rigorous, cumulative, reliable, science of first-person experimentation, observation and refinement of the mind.


The gradual acceptance that introspection may be the only possible means by which consciousness may be studied has led to the engagement of Buddhist meditative practices in Western cognitive sciences. (Davidson, 1976, p.349) In the West, one of the greatest issues with introspection was that as a tool it was very poorly trained. (Luisi, 2009, p.173) In contrast, Buddhist contemplatives have learned to cultivate and sustain attention indefinitely, the very capacity that Western introspection has been lacking. (Petranker, 2001, p.89) Katherine MacLean’s experiment on the effects of intensive samatha meditation training demonstrated reduced vigilance decrement, meaning a decrease in the common phenomenon of reduced target-discrimination accuracy that occurs with increased time on task. (MacLean, 2010, p.829) The empirical test consisted of individually monitoring a group of 60 non-experts before, during and after an intensive meditation course by testing whether they had increased perceptual sensitivity whilst watching a single vertical line that would either be long (frequent non-target) or short (rare target) for 32 minutes. (MacLean, 2010, p.831) The results added to the increasing body of evidence that meditation training enhances attention. (MacLean, 2010, p.837). A mind perpetually in motion, that is weighed down by torpor or unstable is of little use in the introspective study of the mind, thus cognitive scientists increasingly engage with Buddhist meditative practices. Further to mental stability, Clifford Saron states that cognitive neuroscientists are in need of Buddhist input due to their practice in mental insight. Saron states tools used to measure brain activity are now so sensitive that a scientists may observe variation in neuronal activity between subjects carrying out the same task, yet it takes the input of the participant to decipher the information in that variation, ‘most people have very little training to report how they did a task’. (Barinaga, 2003, p.44) In sum, the capacity of advanced contemplatives to modulate, examine and report their experiences, whilst being able to remove the cognitive aspects habitually obscuring the implicit reflexivity of experiences in comparison with naïve participants has made Buddhist meditative practices invaluable in the fields of cognitive science. (Lutz, 2007, p.519; Yong, 2008, p.51)



By engaging in Buddhist meditative practices, Western cognitive scientists may be able to explore states of consciousness not otherwise accessible. The Dalai Lama states ‘Consciousness only arises from consciousness. It does not arise from matter’. (Luisi, 2009, p.175) The Buddhist understanding of three-dimensional consciousness, starting with the psyche, continuing to the substrate consciousness and culminating in primordial consciousness challenges Western understanding. (Wallace, 2007, p.60) The Western emphasis on investigating the neural correlates of consciousness is, in the Buddhist perspective, relating to “gross consciousness”. (Garfield, 2011, p.22) Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the dominant view of scientists is that consciousness is the product of matter. According to Buddhists, although specific modes of consciousness, such as visual perception or the human psyche, may arise due to the presence of the brain, there are other, subtler levels of consciousness that do not arise from either matter or the brain. (Luisi, 2009, p.175) It is through Buddhist meditative practices that these more subtle levels of consciousness can be explored. (Wallace, 2007, p.15) Antoine Lutz, John Dunne & Richard Davidson hypothesize that it is this context of investigation into the substrate of consciousness that long-term contemplatives, with stable and reproducible mental states, become most relevant in cognitive science as they may facilitate the opportunity for experimenters to better identify, control and interpret ‘large-scale integrative process in relation to subjective experience’. (Lutz, 2007, p.524)



Advancements in neuroplasticity have prompted an exponential growth in research of Buddhist meditative practices since the early 2000s. (Lutz, 2007, p.520) The study of a group of non-expert jugglers who over three-months learnt a classic three-ball cascade juggling routine demonstrated that the structure of the brain can change in response to training. (Draganski, 2004, p.311) These changes were transient however, as three months later the bilateral expansion in grey matter had decreased and their juggling capabilities diminished. (Draganski, 2004, p.312) Meditation practice is reported to manufacture positive changes to the brain that extend beyond the time the subject is formally meditating. (Hölzela, 2001, p.1) Using magnetic brain imaging to access cortical thickness in twenty subjects with extensive insight meditation training, Sara Lazar produced the first structural evidence based on meditation practice for experience-dependent cortical plasticity. (Lazar, 2005, p.1) This form of meditation involves cultivating ‘mindfulness’, meaning ‘a specific non-judgmental awareness of present-moment stimuli without cognitive elaboration’. (Lazar, 2005, p.2) The data collected by this 2005 experiment identified that most of the regions in which cortical thickness increased was in the right hemisphere, especially the right anterior insula. Hugo Critchley states that the right insula cortex is enhanced by ‘awareness of emotionally potent stimuli, suggesting that this region provides an interface between mapping of bodily arousal and representation of these states as subjective feelings’. (Critchley, 2004, p.189) A controlled longitudinal study investigating changes in brain grey matter concentration after an eight-week MBSR course illustrated increase in grey matter density in brain regions correlated with memory processing, learning, self-referential processing and emotional regulation. Further more it was confirmed that the concentration of grey matter in the hippocampus was denser. (Hölzela, 2001, p.3) Cross-sectional studies have illustrated that differentiation in regional grey matter is related to improved functioning of the relevant area. (Hölzela, 2001, p.2) The hippocampus plays a principle role in regulating emotional response. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that several pathological conditions, such as major depression, is associated with a decrease in density of the hippocampus. (Sheline, 2003, p.1517) Therefore, Buddhist meditative practices and the development of mindfulness may go some way in undoing some of the negative structural changes caused by mood disorders. 



Regulation of cognition and emotion is instrumental for healthy psychological functioning. Therefore, studies illustrating the changes in the brain associated with these functions have greatly motivated the engagement of Buddhist meditative practices in Western cognitive sciences. Unlike the emphasis on mental illness in the West, Buddhism has a highly evolved and applicable science of mental health. The Dalai Lama explains that nothing in the mind is static; instead it is in a constant state of flux. (Dalai Lama, 2003, p.99) It is this principle of impermanence that enables the potential for transformation and progress. (Dalai Lama, 2003, p.100) The fact that change occurs when one phenomena meets an irreconcilable phenomena is the second principle that facilitates transformation of the mind. (Dalai Lama, 2003, p.100) The Abhidharma thus teaches meditation practices that cultivate ‘virtuous’ states of the mind such as joy, compassion and loving-kindness, whilst negative states of anger or hatred diminish. (Barinaga, 2003, p.45) Sharon Salzber elucidates that loving-kindness and mindfulness are intrinsically fostered in unison. (Williams, 2011, p.10) ‘Mindfulness’ is not just knowing what is happening, but to know free from grasping, aversion or ignorance. (Williams, 2011, p.10) Through a clearing of mental distortions, one comes to see what is true. Salzberg states that loving-kindness follows because insight encompasses understanding that our lives are inextricably interconnected, therefore an inclusiveness of caring arises. (Williams, 2011, p.10) Not only is there scientific evidence for the effectiveness of Buddhist meditative practices for those suffering from mental or physical conditions, but these practices are systematised and methodical, making them accessible to all.


Buddhist ethics connects vice and suffering to aversion and attachment, culminating in deep confusion about reality and particularly the nature of the self, resulting in primal fear. (Garfield, 2011, p.28) Moral progress and the training of the mind through deep introspection and intensive transcendental reflection enables the subconscious awareness of impermanence to transform into a genesis of joy and compassion rather than grasping and fear. (Garfield, 2011, p.28) Jayl Garfield states this is the rapidly growing field of ethical development and positive psychology, a domain where Buddhist theory and practice has much to contribute to cognitive science. (Garfield, 2011, p.29) In contrast to Buddhism, psychologists generally do not differentiate between harmful and beneficial emotions. (Ekman, 2005, p.62) Instead of trying to eliminate, transcend or transform an emotion as Buddhists do through introspection and the cultivation of the opposite emotion, the goal of psychology is to purely regulate the experience once the feeling arises. (Ekman, 2005, p.62) Buddhist practices can act as a corrective to Western understanding of mental health and emotions in three ways. Firstly, Buddhists call on psychologists to make nuanced distinctions between emotional states. Secondly, they present practices that enable subjects to understand their own mental processes and to cultivate the positive emotional states that naturally preclude the negative states. Thirdly, Buddhist meditative practices offer a therapy for the mind that is not just for the already disturbed but for anyone wishing to improve the quality of their lives.



The engagement with Buddhist meditative practices in Western cognitive sciences is attested by the widespread and routine use of MBSR in the medical environment. This method, now mandated by the NHS, is primarily based on Buddhist practices and is proven to be effective for depressive disorders, anxiety, psoriasis and chronic pain. (Williams, 2011, p.2) MBSR helps patients distinguish the primary sensory experience, such as the physical feeling of anxiety or chronic pain, from secondary cognitive or emotional processes that are a reaction to the primary experience. (Lutz, 2007, p.521) The approach supposes that greater awareness will facilitate increased veridical perception, improve vitality and coping whilst reducing negative affect. Studies have shown that the rate of relapse of depressives in remission halved when their treatment was supplemented by MBSR. (Grossman, 2004, p.40) Through an increase of dialogue between Buddhists and Western scientists and advancements made in the fields of neuroplasticity, there has been a gradually subsiding resistance to the idea that the mind might have a significant role to play in medicine and affecting the body. (Cabezón, 2003, p.57) Lutz, Dunne and Davidson investigated whether mental training could have an effect on the body in a way that would significantly impact physical health. They hypothesized that because of the bidirectional communication between the peripheral nervous system, it is theoretically conceivable to affect those kinds of conditions by inducing changes in the brain through meditation. (Lutz, 2007, p.521) The data produced (see figure 1) from exploring the relationship between the brain and immune function changes with meditation, found that meditators displayed notably greater antibody response to the influenza vaccine. (Lutz, 2007, p.522) Therefore suggesting an association between neural and immune changes. There is cumulative clinical evidence that is supporting the notion that Western medicine should incorporate mind-body therapies, rather than exclusively biologic-genetic models of health. (Astin, 2002, p.141) The relationship between the body and mind is another fertile area of engagement between Buddhist meditative practices in Western cognitive sciences.



The cognitive sciences have increasingly engaged with Buddhist meditative practices due to several important and related factors. The fact that investigating the supposed neural correlates of consciousness has wrought few conclusive results, along with a breaking down of the materialist view of the universe, has led many contemporary scientists to view introspection as a valid, if not the only, method in the bid to attain a deeper understanding of the nature of the mind. Socrates wrote, ‘I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself; and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that.’ (Wallace, 2003, p.50) For scientists to write off the investigation into the mind as ‘unscientific’ highlights a lack of tools or a systematized method for introspection. Buddhist meditative practices are carried out with the same scientific principles of skepticism, rationalism, pragmatism and empiricism. This enables a complementary relationship between Western science of the material and the Buddhist ‘science’ of the mind. If science is dependent on observation through the best available instruments, and the minds of Buddhists are the most refined instruments for the study of the mind, then ‘then trained introspection amounts to science’. (Garfield, 2011, p.22) Beyond the search for consciousness, Buddhist meditative practices yield many practical benefits which complement Western understanding of mental health, psychology and medicine. Studies of neuroplasticity have scientifically confirmed the effectiveness of meditation, thus validating their widespread use in medical environments. While science habitually embraces the shockingly new, it has difficulty embracing the shockingly old, however Buddhism may act as a corrective and point of reference both practically and conceptually as the cognitive sciences continue to expand.




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