We’ve posted on meditation research lately because it’s so compelling, and meditation music and instructions because so many creative people have found it liberating. But it’s always worth noting that a few meditation skeptics have weighed in with pointed objections to the large claims meditation teachers often make. And yet even after one of the most unsparing critiques of meditation research and teaching, science writer John Horgan still admits that “it might make you feel better, nicer, wiser” and plans to continue meditating in the face of his “perfect contempt for it.”
Another professional skeptic has gone even further along this road. Once spoken of as one of the dreaded “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism, Sam Harris has also long called himself a secular Buddhist, and has written “a guide to spirituality without religion.”
Wading into the politics of meditation means dealing with skeptics like Harris who treat Buddhism as quaint and archaic foolishness that just happened to preserve the scientific technology of mindfulness, and it means sorting through a lot of scientific studies, many of which—as is always the case—have a number fatal flaws in their method. Harris’ scientific claims about mindfulness have come in for their own critiques, from both mystics and secularists.
All of this said, the fact is that, like yoga and many other practices designed to harmonize mind and body, the benefits of meditation, placebo-induced or otherwise, are observable, and the risks entirely negligible. Many skeptical researchers have decided to dive in and try meditation before fully crediting their doubts. And that, supposedly, is the very instruction we find in what is often called the Buddhist “charter for free inquiry,” which tells practitioners to investigate for themselves and take no one’s word for anything, a few hundred years in advance of the British Royal Society’s motto, nullius in verba.
In this spirit, skeptics like Harris have investigated meditation and reported their findings. Many also, like Harris and academic researchers like Oxford psychiatrist Mark Williams, have recorded their own guided mindfulness meditations that correspond in many respects to the original ancient instructions. We’ve previously featured guided meditations from UCLA and a compilation of recorded instructions from new agers and scientists. At the top of the post, you can hear Harris’ very straightforward guided meditation, and further down a shorter version of the same.
In the video above, Harris employs just a little hyperbole in comparing mindfulness to the Large Hadron Collider. His claim that only through this practice can we discover “the self is an illusion” rings false when we think of the many other philosophers who have independently come to the same conclusion, whether as Taoists or Empiricists. But Harris isn’t only making the case for mindfulness meditation’s true correspondence to some fundamental nature of reality, but for its pragmatic usefulness in helping us move through the world with greater skill and peace of mind—reliable outcomes from regular meditation that no one has yet credibly denied.