I was brought up as a product of The Enlightenment… in an academic, scientific, generally agnostic worldview that took the separation of church and state and of science and religion as an absolute given—even a moral necessity. My postdoctoral science training reinforced this: I trained in a medical center neurology department studying biological bases of a behavioral disorder which made employment of a psychologist to interact with research subjects necessary. And if my colleagues found the “soft” science of psychology a bit distasteful, they were downright allergic to any talk of spirituality. When the Fetzer Institute joined with the National Institutes of Health to offer a grant to study spirituality and alcoholism, my department chair authored a petition protesting this use of federal funding despite the fact that Alcoholics Anonymous, an essentially spiritual intervention, had continued to far and away surpass any biological treatment for alcoholism in clinical effectiveness.
Though I fully appreciate the historical necessity of the Cartesian split, even from an early age I couldn’t quite rest in a purely materialist worldview. I could see how the exclusion of the inner world was going to limit our quest to understand the true nature of reality. But I wasn’t sure how to bridge the two worlds until I went to college to study psychology and took a course on Buddhism. As I learned about this essentially empiricist worldview (meaning that it’s based on observation rather than on “faith”), I finally found a framework that described the inner world in great and profound detail but was not incompatible with science!
That’s how I came to join the many other scientists who understand that spiritual traditions hold sophisticated understandings about the nature of reality and pathways to well-being and virtue, and who believe that the insights and wisdom embedded in spiritual traditions shouldn’t be off limits to scientific investigation. Studies of meditation, particularly in forms that are derived from Buddhism, have increased exponentially in recent years; other forms of contemplative practice are beginning to be studied as well.
Fast forward to a presentation I made last month on the results of one of our studies to 350 people who practice and teach Centering Prayer, a Christian form of meditation. Joining me was friend and colleague Michael Spezio, a neuroscientist and ordained priest from Cal Tech. The following week I headed to Stanford to talk to 200 health-care professionals, psychologists, and psychiatrists about my research on meditation for post-partum depression.
Research on meditation is not off limits any longer. This week IONS announced our newly updated bibliography of meditation research with more than 6000 references, a number that reflects a steady increase in meditation research over the last five decades.
Can we just stop and reflect on that for a minute? I love that the 21st century is finding a way to respectfully bridge these worlds in so many ways! Scientists are learning from the spiritual traditions without contaminating the scientific method. Spiritual groups are seeking scientific evidence for the role of meditation to better understand their practice and deepen their faith. Health interventions are benefitting from centuries of scientific research as well as millennia of spiritual inquiry. This is something that we get really excited about at IONS. And meditation research paved the way.