Meditation as a Science of the Mind
In this short article, I would like to make at least two (potentially) outlandish claims.
Outlandish claim # 1: It is possible to train one’s mind to behave in such a way as to gradually reduce the amount of misery it creates for self and others, while simultaneously increasing its output of positive emotion.
Outlandish claim # 2: This retraining can be achieved largely by applying the basic principles of observational science to the activities of the mind itself.
Let me restate these claims. You can retrain your mind by simply observing it very carefully — and this retraining can make life much more worth living.
As to the potential positive outcomes of a concerted practice of mental training, much has been written. Put simply, after some consistent work you are likely to find yourself (again, gradually) less driven by negative emotions such as resentment, craving, and confusion and more moved by positive emotions like friendliness, concern, and generosity.
The point of this short article is not to detail the potential benefits of meditation, however (which is what I mean by mental training). The point of this article is to suggest that the practice of meditation is very successfully framed as a scientific practice, and to offer* a model for thinking of it as such.
What do I mean by all of this?
I’ll rephrase Outlandish Claim # 2: meditation is an act of retraining the mind achieved by applying the basic principles of observational science to the activities of the mind itself.
What are those principles? I will take the liberty of positing three guiding lights.
Science is the act of:
1) Gathering data on a pre-determined phenomenon,
2) with increasing refinement,
3) and a willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads**.
In other words, the practice of science is about selectively attending to a particular phenomenon in order to create an increasingly accurate and fine-grained model of how it works, regardless of what you either expect or desire that model to look like.
This is an incredible engine of discovery that has allowed human beings to decode (in many cases only partially) the laws that govern everything from the interactions of subatomic particles to the mechanics of space travel.
Practitioners of science have generally restricted themselves to what we might call external phenomenon. The three principles I outline above, however, are equally productive when used to guide an observation of a very internal phenomenon — which is to say the workings of the mind.
I have said this a number of times and you may be wondering why I think I can make such a claim. The reason is that (I would argue) many contemplative practices — particularly those formalized by the Buddha — consist of just such an inquiry.
The Buddha’s instructions for contemplative inquiry are (as far as I can tell) almost unbelievably well-developed. His already impressive methodology has been even further refined by later generations of practitioners. I have been particularly struck by the work of Shinzen Young (and a man named Culadasa, to whom we will return soon).
Young’s approach to meditative practice is particularly scientific. His system is very precisely defined and takes some time to digest in full, but allow me to attempt to simplify it here.
Above, I suggested that science works by first selecting an object (or process) for inquiry. Meditation typically takes the mind as this object. The mind, however, is notoriously hard to pin down. In Young’s system of meditation, he looks at the activities of the mind (both what the mind produces and how it does so), and subdivides those activities into three domains:
The domain of See, which refers to external visual experience and mental imagery;
The domain of Hear, which refers to external sounds and mental talk;
And the doman of Feel, which refers to body sensations caused by physical contact and those caused by emotional stimuli.
See. Hear. Feel. These are the constituents of our first person-experience. How would a scientist of the mind observe these domains?
With the three principles we outlined above. Young calls them by these names:
1) Concentration Power: the ability to focus attention on an aspect of experience that seems most relevant in the moment (be it See, Hear, or Feel);
2) Sensory Clarity: the ability to track the moment-to-moment changes in the content of that domain, with increasing degrees of refinement; and
3) Equanimity: the ability to observe an arising experience without attempting to interfere with it in any way.
As far as I can tell, these are the exact same principles that allow a person to decode the behavior of objects in the physical world.
This brings me to the why question. Why would someone do this?
Whereas it’s relatively clear why having a greater knowledge of the workings of physical materials and processes is to our benefit, it is perhaps less clear why one would want to extract this same information about the workings of the mind. What good may come of the mind better understanding itself?
One possibility that is becoming more and more feasible to me is that what we call ‘the’ mind is in fact a group of interconnected sub-minds. This is an argument that Culadasa makes — one that echoes the work of computer scientist Marvin Minsky. It might be that what we think of as our mind is actually a number of smaller minds that often work against each other.
It may be possible, however, to help those minds play more nicely together. Meditation could be understood as a process of applying concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity to the different domains of subjective experience in order to allow the various parts of the mind to understand how they are interconnected, the ways in which they work together, and the ways in which they work at cross-purposes.
This still leaves us with the question of why acquiring that knowledge might produce positive results.
The simple and almost assuredly unsatisfactory hypothesis is that as the various parts of the mind get an increasingly refined sense of how they function, this growing understanding will change their behavior in desirable ways.
It may allow them to act more often in concert with than in (perhaps ignorant) opposition to each other. If it is the case that conflicts between sub-minds manifest themselves as tension (what we might call suffering) on the level of conscious perception, it may also be the case that harmony among the sub-minds results in the experience of well-being on that same level.
In short, as the various parts of the mind become more aware of each other, each individual mind will cease to operate based on a faulty model of its relationship to all others. As a result, the frequency with which they are in conflict will continually decrease. This will allow them to work together, which will result in less self-destructive behavior, more subjective well-being, and the ability to work happily for the benefit of others.
I smuggled a lot of assumptions into that description. Isn’t it possible that conflict in the mind is good? Isn’t it possible that if the mind were to become unified, it could become unified around a goal to subjugate the world? Isn’t it possible that a unified collective of sub-minds might simply pursue a vision of self-centered hedonism at the expense of all else?
I think this does happen. Even a cursory perusal of supposedly spiritual figures discloses many frauds. Many are deceived by their interest in contemplative practice into thinking that they are somehow morally or otherwise superior to others. This is a very easy trap to fall into. I fall into it all of the time.
The words of Richard Feynman apply as well to mental inquiry as they do to inquiry of the physical world: “The only person you must not fool is yourself — and you’re the easiest person to fool.” Any would-be meditator would do well to take those words to heart. I find that I need to constantly reflect on them.
If you are able to successfully steer yourself away from inevitable periods of self-deception, however, in the long run a trained mind tends to produce much less classically selfish behavior than an untrained one. The goals it pursues are often much kinder and gentler than the ones it used to.
These are of course mere speculations, and the only way to evaluate them is to put them to the test by meditating.
How might one do that?
There are a number of ways. Addressing them is beyond the scope of this short article, however. For now, I’ll content myself with restating my original outlandish claims.
Outlandish claim # 1: The mind can be retrained to produce less bad stuff and more good stuff.
Outlandish claim # 2: You can do so by paying close attention to what it does.
Have I convinced you to test these claims for yourself? If yes, the next step is to evaluate the different meditation techniques that exist and choose one that resonates with you.
Shinzen’s system works well for me. He has written extensively about it on his website. For an accessible introduction, I would recommend a video series created by instructors he has trained:
I will write more about my experiences with this system if anyone wants to hear about them.
*Borrowed almost entirely from other thinkers, most notably the meditation teachers Shinzen Young and Culadasa.
** Which indeed may lead you to rethink entirely what it was you thought you were studying.