We were stewing in a stone slab hot tub large enough to fit a dozen people under the stars at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Hot sulphurous spring water enveloped our skin while ocean waves crashed against the steep bluffs below. It was quite a relaxing moment after a day of meditation and yoga, and a fellow retreat participant asked me:
“Since you’ve done your PhD in neuroscience, what do you think about all this mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism stuff? Does scientific research agree that it’s good for us?”
Yikes! While I felt honored to be asked such a question, I was scrambling on the inside for a thoughtful answer. It felt like I was thrust onto a lecturing podium in my damp bikini.
I can’t recall what I said, but I remember deflecting the question with something vague, like “science doesn’t really address the same issues as spirituality does.” She seemed happy with that statement. Phew!
But this question haunted me in the past several months. I felt I had not reflected on this fundamental subject enough, especially in a way that related to my personal practice.
So here I am, with my clothes back on and a better answer...
The Buddha’s Brain Doesn’t Matter
There is a growing body of research on the neuroscience of Buddhism, such as those that compare the brain waves of experienced meditators with non-meditators/beginners. There is also data showing stress reduction and other benefits that people often seek related to productivity. So sure, there’s neuroscience studies showing that mindfulness, meditation, etc. are good for you.
But for my personal practice, none of the science matters.
I’ve avoided telling people this answer, because it’s not what people expect from a Buddhist with a neuroscience background. What someone might instead assume is me praising the convergence of modern science with ancient knowledge from the time of the Buddha, proving that hey, that guy was right!
That would be the easy answer.
The harder answer is this:
- The real benefits of cultivating mindfulness practice are sometimes at-odds with what scientists are interested in. One of the core tenets of Buddhism is letting go to reduce our suffering, and this includes getting off the relentless self-improvement treadmill we put ourselves on. But “who can let go more?” is almost like a zen koan—how does one measure an anti-quality?
- While I’m glad that there’s more scientific interest in understanding the benefits, the hypotheses are sometimes “a priori”-i.e. if one is searching for an effect, one is bound to find one. So while these data are interesting to learn about, I don’t think they are reasons to practice.
But the Buddha’s Mental Models Do Matter
If science doesn’t motivate me to practice, what does? It's learning how the Buddha encouraged people to think for themselves, and how his mental model can apply to good decision-making about spiritual practice.
The story takes place in an unusual setting where he wasn’t speaking to his followers, but to the Kalama tribe, who didn't know who he was. They had a string of spiritual gurus visit their town, and the Buddha was just one of many!
So they asked the Buddha (paraphrasing here):
“There’s so many people like you teaching around here! How do we know that what you’re saying is legit?”
The Buddha replied:
“Do not go by oral tradition, a teaching lineage, common talk, scripture, logic, intuition or reasoning, or by reason of the competence of the speaker, or because he or she is one’s own teacher.”
What the heck does that leave?
When I first heard this story from Gil Fronsdal, I remember thinking, “no logic, intuition, or reasoning?! Those are my favorite mental models for decision-making!”
But the Buddha instead advised:
1) Attuning to one’s personal experience (mind, body, and action) of suffering and happiness
- Mind: When I first learned about this advice, my knee-jerk reaction was “well, if I knew whether I am practicing correctly, I wouldn’t be asking this question!” And I see the same feelings with a lot of beginner meditators—a consistent background static of self-doubt and confusion. And I was “stuck” for several years because I thought “personal experience” meant what was happening just in the mind—and what I experienced was a lot of recursive thoughts and negative self-talk during meditation.
- Body: But if I can go back in time, I would tell myself to learn to shift my attention to my body and its needs during a meditation session. What I didn’t realize was that “personal experience” meant attuning to my body first and the importance of relaxation as a prelude to stillness of the mind. Only then is it easy to move onto, e.g. mindfulness of breathing, and other practices that require this “base” of stillness. Tan Nisabho, another favorite teacher of mine, commented that as Western Buddhist practitioners, we are often “brains on a stick,” with an overemphasis on the mind and neglecting the body.
I thought the solution was to “clear my mind” by either forcing it to do so or to hyper-focus on my breathing, which are common (and effective) meditation practice if correctly applied.
- Action: This is another often-neglected aspect of mindfulness practice—how we relate the time we spend on-the-cushion to those off-the-cushion. Similar to the issues with studying mindfulness using neuroscience, there’s often focus from Western meditation practice on alleviating anxiety, enhancing productivity, etc. But a more meaningful barometer to me (and one more emphasized in Buddhist practice) is the impact on one’s greed, ill will, and delusion—Am I clinging less to wanting certain outcomes? Am I a little more patient and slow to anger with myself and others? Am I kind?
2) Enlisting the help of wise people so that we don’t fool/under-challenge ourselves
The Buddha also recommends the help of wise people so we don’t fool/under-challenge ourselves. My issue with this was, “If I’m not exactly wise myself, how can I tell who’s wise and who isn’t?” Unfortunately, the world of spirituality/religion is full of unwise beings. But one Buddhist teaching I found useful from the Tibetan tradition is in their explicit advice on how to assess a teacher—take your time. Years even.
And while we cannot assess whether someone is enlightened or not, what we can do is to observe how these teachers behave. Are they kind? Do they speak with words that promote harmony? How do they drink their tea, is it with care and grace? Of course, it’s important to evaluate continuously and not put a teacher on a pedestal. I also find it helpful to have several teachers, both lay and monastic, in rotation for a balanced view. (My goal is to put together a “curated list of teachers”—stay tuned!)
What’s tricky is that it takes a lot of time, skill, and effort to evaluate a teacher and to attune to one’s personal experience. But I highly encourage learning more about the Buddha’s mental model if you’d like to deepen your practice—Gil’s essay is excellent and contains important details I’ve omitted for the sake of brevity.
So this is my answer to the question about neuroscience, mindfulness, and Buddhism, but it’s deeply personal to my motivations to keep practicing, despite not having certainty on its beneficial outcomes. But if having directional data on its benefits is useful to your practice --please don’t let me discourage you! (Rick Hanson’s book aptly titled Buddha’s Brain is fantastic on the topic.) If there’s one thing I have learned from neuroscience classes, it’s to appreciate the uniqueness of our perspectives and the way we motivate ourselves.
Hence, I would love to learn more about your perspective—what do you think about mindfulness practice and neuroscience? If you meditate, what keeps bringing you back to the cushion?
This essay was written for the Write of Passage prompt:
What is the definitive answer to the question that people ask you most often?”
Gratitude to My Reviewers:
- Salman Ansari
- Florian Maganza
- Gayatri Taley
- Sparz Jordon
- Gaurav Bhatnagar
- Azul Wells
- Krzysztof (Chris) Przybylski
- Vicky Zhao
- Hugo Cardoza
- Rachel Koppelman
- Chris Wong
- Stefan White
- Jonathan Miller
- Forrest Driskel
- Tyler Lee
- Kelly Heller
- Sibo Lu
- AJ Heller
- Alyssa Ferdinando
- Yuhong Wang
- Draft 3 / 2021-09-15:
- Implemented further reviewer feedback on phrasing, and moved some sentences around for clarity. Added ending that refers back to the original question.
- Future topics to explore:
- Paraphrasing the Buddha’s advice (tricky to do in a hurry without potentially distorting what he said!)
- Examples of anti-qualities/paradoxes the Buddha advised one should pursue
- What makes a good vs bad meditation teacher
- Draft 2 / 2021-09-12:
- Incorporated language suggestions from reviewers
- Revised the question—instead of having a “re-interpretation” of the question, just make the question more clear
- Revised tone to be less dramatic, and decreased my worry about the questioner since I have changed my answer (it was originally going to be about science reproducibility… but I felt it didn’t actually address the question after writing about it. So writing clarified my thinking here!)
- Added section on the Buddha’s mental model - I realized that this might interest and surprise readers! And I added more personal examples illustrating the mental model.
2-3 most challenging remaining questions during essay development
- I added a section on the Buddha’s mental model and expanded on my answer with personal examples. Is it clear? In particular, is the term “mental model” correctly applied here--I actually mean correct decision-making skills, but that’s not as catchy...
- I need to take one more pass to fix language issues, so sentence structure/grammar feedback is highly appreciated! I write complicated run-on sentences, and have tense issues because I live in the past/present/future simultaneously (or because I grew up learning Chinese first…)
- Which part (if any) of this article POPs?
- How can I simplify/streamline the article more? I feel it is a bit too complex in structure (but maybe I'm wrong about that!)
- Is it worth trying to write/work through this article, even though I feel it turned out quite unexpectedly difficult? The whole point of WOP is to learn to "push through" right? 🤔