A woman I know, Judi, was pursuing her doctorate in pharmacology in the seventies. Since a doctorate in the hard sciences is not for the faint of heart, it was a very stressful time for her. Her thesis adviser, Dave, suggested she try meditation. She thought it was probably a passing fancy for Dave. Not one for fads and easy fixes, she demurred. He left her a brochure for the local meditation group anyway.
After a few weeks, begrudgingly, she looked at it. Curious, she trundled down to the meditation center. She took some classes and did some sitting, and before long she discovered meditation was worthwhile. She took it up for good.
When I met Judi, she was a postdoctoral fellow doing neuroscience research at the National Institutes of Health on brain processes that regulate blood pressure. At one point, she wrote her Buddhist teacher a letter inquiring whether he thought she should leave science and find a new career because some of her research involved killing animals. In reply, he encouraged her to continue to pursue her work as a scientist but to try to find a way to not kill so many animals.
When I married Judi, I married a fellow meditator and a fledgling Buddhist. But I soon realized I’d also married a scientist. Science isn’t a day job. It’s a frame of mind you carry with you all the time. It’s quite possibly a way of being. Science journals share space on our coffee table with meditation magazines. Dinner-table conversations have often required me to go to the dictionary to refresh my memory on phosphorylation or metabolite or teratogenicity.
The main feature of the scientific mindset, I discovered, is searching. While authority or tradition may give you hints, it’s evidence that makes all the difference. When I visited the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) in Madison, Wisconsin, and spent time with Richie Davidson and his family of researchers, I felt very much at home. The people I met demonstrated the habits and virtues I associate with science.
For one thing, they test assertions more than posit answers. If I tried to wrap something up in a neat package, the response was often “my research doesn’t show that” or “we can’t say that yet.” This commitment to evidence is not only admirable, it’s very helpful. Modern public institutions like hospitals, schools, and government agencies require secular evidence using scientific methods to verify the effectiveness of treatments and training programs. If a mindfulness program is to be instituted in a hospital or school, simply stating “the Buddha says it works” won’t suffice.
Scientists also learn how something works through an inquiry process, which is why the center has “investigating” in its title. What passes for learning and knowledge in day-to-day affairs is often a matter of accepting what someone else has told us rather than asking fresh questions. The Buddha himself was a fresh-question-asker, a scientist. He wanted to get to the bottom of suffering, so he kept investigating. This spirit is still alive in the Zen principle of not-knowing, which causes one to keep looking. At Davidson’s center they keep looking. They ask, “Are we so sure what the human mind is capable of? How far can it go if we train it?”
Finally, scientists have a sense of wonder, the feeling you may have had in the best kind of science class, where you marveled at red giants and black holes or what sulfuric acid can do or how single-celled organisms behave. For the researchers at CIHM, it may be a feeling of wonder in observing how the brain changes when a very experienced meditator arouses compassion or marveling at the startling transformation of a veteran with post-traumatic stress who has followed a regimen of yogic breathing.
In this issue, we mark the meeting of science and contemplative traditions. It’s come a long way over the last forty years, as the timeline starting on page 58 shows. And, as Jill Suttie’s survey of the Mind & Life Institute’s pioneering work makes clear, it’s also not one-sided. It’s a dialogue. Traditional scientific evidence is heavily rooted in thirdperson external observation. That’s what “objective” evidence has always meant. But meditators, particularly scientists who meditate, also believe that first-person evidence is valid—especially the kind we hear from those whose training has made them adept at observing nuances of mind.
What counts as scientific evidence where mind is concerned? Is the mind of a great meditator a research instrument whose results are as valid as a printout from an MRI? This is up for discussion. I know we’ll be talking about it in my house.