What's the Science of Zen? Enlightenment, meet the Enlightenment.

Slug Signorino

I’m curious if science has made any inquiries into enlightenment via meditation, including Zen Buddhism and similar methods. If you strip out all of the mythological and moral aspects of it, Zen is little more than a way of training yourself to not think—to stop the internal verbal monologue. As I understand it, enlightenment means you have completely and permanently rid yourself of this monologue, bringing about major changes. Since thinking is a biological/electrical process, isn’t this sort of thing measurable? Has there been any scientific investigation of this? —Adam Price

Oh, there’s been plenty. Longtime readers will recall the studies years ago by the Transcendental Meditation people, which among other things purported to show that a critical mass of meditation had reduced the violence in Lebanon. I have a special mantra I use when I come across claims like that: riiiiiiiight.

There’s no agreement on what meditation is. Meditation as practiced by Christian monks bears minimal resemblance to what their Buddhist brethren do. Even within the Eastern tradition, which is where one tends to see the extinction-of-individual-consciousness thing you’re talking about, we find a variety of techniques.

Some would argue these boil down to a basic two: concentrative meditation, also known as focused attention, where one concentrates on an object (a mantra, one’s own breathing); and “mindfulness,” where “the mind passively observes the spontaneous experience,” as one writer puts it. How does one accomplish the latter? At the risk of being thought cretinous, I’d say it sounds the same as concentrative meditation, except you don’t say “om.”

As for what Zen is “little more than”—that’s a typically reductive Western way of looking at things. Nonetheless, we do have a host of meditation practitioners making testable claims—for example, the TM crowd declares their technique improves cognitive function and increases intelligence. It’s to such folk we now turn. In the journals one finds numerous reports like the following:

Researchers using an MRI scanner claimed parts of the brains of 22 longtime Zen Buddhist meditators were significantly larger than those of a control group.

Two studies of more than 100 meditation novices who were taught mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes a day found noticeable changes in brain connectivity and white matter function in just two weeks.

A study of Zen meditation practitioners with an average of 23 years of experience found their brain connectivity was significantly greater than that of controls.

Studies have reported that Zen meditation practitioners experienced much less loss of grey matter over the years than controls.

A study of cerebral blood flow in different types of long-term meditators found roughly 10 percent greater flow in many areas of the brain, even when they weren’t meditating.

So, does meditation produce measurable physiological effects? It’s possible, though I don’t see anything suggesting meditators have somehow “permanently rid themselves of the monologue,” as you put it. But let’s take up a more important question: does meditation do you any actual good?

You can find mounds of research asserting that it does. Women who’d practiced TM for an average of 23 years were found to be a much lower risk for heart problems than controls. A study of stress-reduction techniques for black men and women, a population disproportionately prone to cardiovascular disease, found that after eight years of TM training practitioners were only two-thirds as likely as a control group to have died or suffered a nonfatal heart attack or stroke.

You’ll notice in both cases the mention of TM, adherents of which have been remarkably energetic in attempting to establish the scientific validity of what they’re doing.

An element of wishful thinking is surely involved here. A review of 107 studies of the effect of TM on cognitive function found only 10 to be scientifically valid. Of those, four reported a positive effect, four definitely didn’t, and two also didn’t but were less emphatic about it. In all four studies showing a benefit, the researchers had recruited subjects who were already doing TM or were enthusiastic about the prospect. In short, if we set aside studies of people biased in TM’s favor, the number showing a positive outcome was zilch.

Likewise, investigators funded by the NIH’s alternative-medicine group who analyzed 813 studies of five different meditation techniques offered this summary: “Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality. Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence.”

Translation: the research sucks and doesn’t prove squat. —Cecil Adams

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Meditation research quality is improving all the time.

The American Heart Association recently reviewed all the research they could find that was published in the last 5 years with respect to meditation and its effects on high blood pressure as part of an overall examination of the effects of alternate treatment of hypertension. Here's what they said about meditation and relaxation techniques:


Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood Pressure
A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association
April 22, 2013

Summary and Clinical Recommendations
The overall evidence supports that TM modestly lowers BP. It is not certain whether it is truly superior to other meditation techniques in terms of BP lowering because there are few head-to-head studies. As a result of the paucity of data, we are unable to recommend a specific method of practice when TM is used for the treatment of high BP. However, TM (or meditation techniques in general) does not appear to pose significant health risks.32 Additional and higher-quality studies are required to provide conclusions on the BP-lowering efficacy of meditation forms other than TM.

The writing group conferred to TM a Class IIB, Level of Evidence B recommendation in regard to BP-lowering efficacy. TM may be considered in clinical practice to lower BP. Because of many negative studies or mixed results and a paucity of available trials, all other meditation techniques (including MBSR) received a Class III, no benefit, Level of Evidence C recommendation Thus, other meditation techniques are not recommended in clinical practice to lower BP at this time.
Seems like there are at least two considerations: 1/ How could sitting quietly and calmly on a regular basis be anything but helpful, at least to some degree? 2/ If you organize your life to meditate regularly, there is likely to be a carryover effect in which you start to organize other aspects of your life to reduce stress. Either way, how could it hurt?
Some considerations: TM, for example, is a type of focusing on one thing, in this case a mantra, so that whatever else is being experienced goes into the background. Zen mindfulness practice teaches the noticing of moments of experience, dharma, as a moment to practise mindfulness by feeling the breath and opening to the rest of the experiencing of the bodymind in that moment. Practice is done sitting up straight with eyes softly open, facing a blank wall. Over time the tendency to focus on anything, thoughts, feelings, and other moments of experiencing wears out. Over time, the "internal monologue" ceases to grab attention and ceases to be a problem. Thoughts and feelings aren't the problem. The tendency to fixate on them can be a problem as it results in focusing on a very small percentage of actual experiencing in any moment.TM is one form of concentration practice. Zen mindfulness practice uses the noticing of concentration or focusing to open to the whole bodymind in the whole moment. Thank you for the inquiry by Mr. Price and the essay by Mr. Adams. An increasingly important topic in these times.
I've done TM for a number of years, and it doesn't involve any type of concentration. In the experience of transcending, the mind effortlessly becomes more quiet but at the same time more awake. This naturally produces a corresponding activity in the body, whereby it becomes less active. It's really the ultimate in mind/body experience, without your doing anything it all just happens.
Good point, Sterling. Really important to clarify what we mean by the words we use. By "focusing" I mean choosing to bring one thing foreground, for example a mantra or a candle flame or a sound (not TM but some other practices), and/or choosing to block out other areas of experiencing by closing the eyes etc. Thanks for the point.

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