A wonderful, Brief History of Contemplative Science and Contemplative Studies from the Mind and Life newsletter (http://www.mindandlife.org/pdfs/ml.11.spring.newsletter.pdf).
Scientific research on meditation and contemplative practices dates back to the middle of the 20th century. In the 1950s and 1960s, Eastern teachers such as Suzuki Roshi, various rinpoches, teachers from Burma and even Alan Watts were teaching and writing about Zen, Vipassana, Vajrayana, and other traditions in which contemplative practice plays a central role. Many people were attracted to these teachings during that era, and some initial studies on meditation and its effects were conducted. However, studies on meditation during the 60s and 70s, […] often had methodological flaws that prevented unambiguous interpretation.
First, the study designs usually lacked adequate control or comparison groups. Second, at that time meditation was often considered a homogeneous practice, and research often failed to distinguish between the different styles and goals of various meditation practices. These shortcomings led to skepticism in the scientific community, and for a time credible research on meditation all but ceased.
However, some of the younger people who became interested in contemplative practices in the 60s and 70s were also scientists who, over the years, developed successful lines of mainstream research and established academic and research credibility. As their careers progressed and their study of contemplative practices deepened, they were able to conduct better-designed investigations that were increasingly accepted by the scientific community. Some of these scientists, including MLI board member Richie Davidson, are now the most influential investigators in the current field of Contemplative Science.
In addition to scientific research, MLI board member Jon Kabat-Zinn’s introduction of MBSR in the 80s and 90s brought awareness to the medical community of the potential utility of meditative practices for pain management and emotion regulation. Programs such as MBSR allowed for another shift in the research. The defined protocol of MBSR has made it possible to institute pre- and post-training designs. When coupled with randomized assignment to the training versus a control condition, this allowed for greater ability to interpret outcomes as specifically related to the training itself. By contrast, previous studies comparing long-term meditators to non-meditators presented the challenge of discerning whether or not the effects were attributable to the meditation practice itself or related to personal attributes of people who self-select into meditation practice.
Computers, developments in applied nuclear physics, and advances in solid-state circuit technology have produced unprecedented functional brain imaging methods capable of measuring subtle changes in blood flow, and in electrical and magnetic activity in the brain. Scientists’ ability to now observe, in real time, what is occurring in brain physiology during meditation has also contributed significantly to advancing this field of research and gaining increased attention from the neuroscience community.
With an increase in rigorous research, the interest in sharing, learning and networking among scientists studying contemplative practices grew. In response to the need for a forum to explore the research and encourage new investigators, MLI founded the Summer Research Institute (MLSRI) and accompanying Varela Awards in 2004. MLSRI helped to further expand and legitimize the field by giving scientists and contemplatives a place to share, learn, network and innovate. Ideas that often grew out of MLSRI interactions were eligible for pilot grants in the form of Varela Awards. These awards not only seeded the field through research at Universities, Colleges and laboratories across the country and the world, but also helped stimulate an explosion in research that has been published in a range of highly respected peer-reviewed scientific journals. Since 2004, 45 articles such articles have been published by Varela Awardees, and $12 million in follow-on funding from federal and private grant sources has directly resulted from the Varela Awards.
During the first decade of this millennium, the term Contemplative Science was used to describe the collaboration between research and contemplative practices, and properly so, as rigorous scientific investigation has, to date, been primarily responsible for helping us understand the correlates, mechanisms, and benefits of contemplative practices. However, as we continue and deepen the investigation, the need to include the humanities, philosophy, social sciences, and education, and to rigorously integrate first-person and historical perspectives has become clear. These elements are critical in developing a comprehensive understanding of contemplative practices, including their phenomenology, origins, and social implications, and most appropriate modes of instruction within developmental and cultural contexts. Therefore, the term Contemplative Studies is increasingly being used to more accurately reflect the totality of research and investigation in the field at present.
Looking ahead, the next steps in Contemplative Studies include continuing investigation of meditation effects on brain and behavior from neuroscientific and other basic science perspectives, increasingly rigorous research on the potential role of meditation in clinical and educational settings, and increasingly sophisticated studies of the first-person experience of meditation practice across different cultures, and often in combination with third-person scientific observations.
MLI is currently looking for ways to bring the humanities, philosophy, and social sciences into greater interaction and collaboration with basic and clinical contemplative science to generate a richer and more sophisticated understanding of the correlates and consequences of contemplative practices. Simultaneously, MLI has been exploring ways to encourage high-quality research in developmental science and in school, college, and university settings in which contemplative practices are being explored. Although MLI initially focused its initiatives within North America, international efforts in Europe and Asia are currently underway.
In academic settings, interest in the potential for an interdisciplinary field of Contemplative Studies, including contemplative basic science, clinical science, social science, philosophy, humanities, and education has been gaining momentum. Fifteen years ago, only a few scientists and scholars were systematically studying contemplative practices. Today, many well-known and respected research centers and groups at prestigious institutions are fully engaged in this inquiry.
As the interdisciplinary field of Contemplative Studies continues to grow, the demand for well-trained scientists and scholars who collaborate with contemplative practitioners will also continue to grow. And as the generation of scientists and academics who studied with the initial wave of contemplative teachers move toward retirement, the need for qualified new scientists and scholars will increase.
The impact of Contemplative Studies on culture and society has also been growing. Directly and indirectly, scientific and scholarly studies of contemplative practices have likely played a role in the increase in Dharma centers, sanghas, and non-sectarian mindfulness and meditation centers and workshops. Contemplative Studies have helped bridge the gap between contemplative practice traditions of the East and the scientific and skeptical culture of the West. Also, specific contemplative-based interventions, such as MBSR or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for various clinical conditions, have contributed to a growing interest in contemplative practices within medical and mental health settings.