Over the past 2500 years, mindfulness practices have been slowly moving from Northern India across most of Asia and finally reaching Western science and culture at the end of the 20th century. This has marked an important event in human history because, for the first time in two and a half millennia, the wisdom of contemplative traditions could be globally shared, understood, and adopted by humans and assessed by science. These mindfulness practices have given birth to a new field of knowledge – contemplative sciences, which goes beyond its starting point (mindfulness) and is devoted to human flourishing.
Mindfulness in Science
The foundations of mindfulness practices were said to have been established by the Buddha, and to this day, they serve as the quintessential guide towards greater peace, freedom, and happiness. There are four mindfulness stages:
- Mindfulness of body and elements (mindfulness of breath, of our steps while walking, of chewing in mindful eating, mindfulness of our organs, etc.);
- Mindfulness of feelings (mindfulness of pleasurable, painful, and neutral feelings);
- Mindfulness of consciousness (mindfulness of the state of our mind); and
- Mindfulness of mental objects (mindfulness of our thoughts, ideas, and conceptions).
These four significant foundations of mindfulness practices show us how we can begin with something as simple as mindfulness of breath and flourish into deeper levels of ourselves to cultivate greater peace, freedom, and happiness in our lives. To quote the godfather of modern mindfulness, professor Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is the practice of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment,” which is a skill developed through focused meditation.
Mindfulness, and other eastern contemplative traditions such as meditation, yoga, intensive breathing, mantra recitation, eventually gave birth to the contemplative sciences movement in the West. The Buddhist practices incorporated in contemplative sciences include diverse methods for cultivating meditative stillness (Samatha) and contemplative insight (Vipassana). These meditation practices are taught in both Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism, with some minor differences in approach.
What is Contemplative Science?
Contemplative science poses as the bridge between the empirical study of the science of consciousness and its subjective analysis through contemplation. This field of research focuses on the changes within the human mind and body as a result of contemplative practices, such as yoga, mindfulness-based meditation, or tai chi. Contemplative science is interdisciplinary and aims to clarify such mind/brain/body changes across cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and perceptual domains. These focus on relating such changes to neurobiology and first-person experience.
Contemplation as a term comes from the Latin ‘contemplatio‘ and Greek ‘theoria.’ The term also often appears in the Bible along with the word ‘meditation.’ Still, it is also seen in other wisdom-based traditions and religions. In the classical period, contemplation and meditation were seen as a general technique of focusing attention to deepen the states of tranquility, concentration, and insight.
Contemplative sciences also include an investigation into fundamental principles of our well-being, including a sense of meaning and purpose, ways of knowing and experiencing the world, altruistic types of motivation, kindness, love, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, and philosophical understanding of ourselves, wisdom, and the nature of suffering. Additionally, contemplative sciences may also involve investigation into social justice, conflict, and peace for humanity.
Contemplative Practices and Their Benefits
Contemplative practice refers to a specific type of observation in which there is total devotion to revealing, clarifying, and manifesting the nature of reality. Contemplation also refers to a reflective style of cognition that can enable us to engage in significant action, serving ourselves and others in society.
In recent years, numerous studies have shown that mindfulness meditation techniques are associated with reducing stress, strengthening immune function, moderating depression and anxiety, and decreasing reports of chronic pain in patients. Considering the obvious psychological and physiological benefits of meditative techniques in alleviating anxiety, stress, and depression, it seems pretty clear that Eastern and Western approaches have successfully integrated.
Further advances in contemplative science and its practices allowed us to reveal ways of caring for ourselves and others that promote peace, happiness, health, and well-being for individuals and communities. By studying diverse, evidence-based contemplative practices, we can now identify why, how, and when certain practices can benefit our health, focus, well-being, learning, self-compassion, empathy, positive emotions, compassionate action, communication, and burnout prevention.
To put it simply, contemplative practices train skills by placing some degree of constraint or imposing some discipline on a typically unregulated mental or physical habit. Their defining characteristic is that they require people to exercise voluntary control to focus on specific objects (for instance, their breath) or mental contents (such as their suffering or relief from it). Such attentional, mindful practices result in developing the ability to concentrate, effectively understand and manage emotions and stress, gain knowledge about yourself, and cultivate a prosocial attitude.
Nonduality and Contemplative Sciences
Cultivating a perceptual change away from a predominant ego self-identification to self-realization and nondual awareness is an aim of many meditative philosophies and practices, including contemplative practices. Methods of nondual realization are numerous and include cognitive processes of disidentification, contemplation of the age-old question ‘who am I?’, sitting in awareness without any object of focus, isolating nondual awareness via focused attention, or the use of mantra. Although mindfulness by itself isn’t a nondual awareness, it can be one of the paths used to approach it.
Through this method of nondual realization, a person loses any sense of separation from the world and experiences the world as self. Such a state of awareness is typically characterized by a great sense of love for others and a sense of freedom of thoughts and feelings. As doctor Javier García Campayo explains in his book ‘Vacuity and Non-Duality,’ knowing oneself through nondual realization enables us to let go of less authentic, ego-driven identity. It is a goal worth fighting for.
Contemplative Sciences and Fundamental Peace
While neuroscience and psychology have all shed their light on the cognitive processes that allow us to survive and flourish, contemplative science provides a groundbreaking perspective for expanding human capacity to realize genuine well-being. It also creates a link between the material world and the subconscious realm that exceeds the traditional science-based understanding of the self.
Without training the mind and heart, people are unable to be at peace with themselves. Thus, they are unable to create a peaceful world for themselves and others. Cultivation of love, peacefulness, compassion, and harmony is vital to solving the conflicts and problems humanity faces today. Real peace, tranquility, attentional ability, and focus are crucial tools for those who desire self-exploration and self-understanding. If the purpose of our lives is to ‘know thyself,’ there is no better way to do so than through contemplative practices.
Why? Because contemplative practices are a solution to the suffering caused by the neglect of our inner lives. Only by incorporating and integrating contemplative practices can we reach fundamental personal peace and start healing the world. By combining these practices, we can learn to handle the ups and downs of life better and cultivate ethical values and positive emotions such as love, peace, compassion, and equanimity. Moreover, these practices can help people in their intellectual pursuits by refining their attention, developing lasting focus, and giving them tools to handle the hardships of life. Thus, contemplative sciences and their practices can be seen as the way out of suffering for people and the whole world.
Studies have shown that when people learn meditation or any other contemplative practice, they know that it is possible to stop repetitive emotional and conceptual patterns and tune into the mind’s true potential. They may experience freedom from depression, anxiety, rigid judgemental thinking, etc. They can reach a sense of empowerment in meditation when they realize that they don’t have to be victims of the repetitive negativities of the mind. They can witness how this confidence slowly enhances all areas of their lives.
Although meditation is sometimes perceived as the modernist impulse for self-discovery and transformation, what contemplative scientists expect a person to discover is the non-existence of a unified self. However, suppose meditation or any other meditative practice is taken as a tool for self-improvement. In that case, it can strengthen the ego and the notion of self instead of leading to non-self. Thus, the correct way to go about these practices is not to pursue self-improvement but compassion towards all. Otherwise, contemplative practices undertaken for self-improvement will inevitably foster self-identity.
The point of mindfulness, meditation, and contemplative practices is not to disengage our minds from the phenomenal world but to enable the mind to be fully present in the world and cultivate compassion, love, and peace in our interaction with the world. We need to be fully present in our actions so that our behavior can become progressively more responsive and aware not only of our perceptions but to the whole through a compassionate insight into the predicament of others. The truth is, we can change the world for the better, but to change the world, we have to start from ourselves. A worthwhile goal, indeed.
With the new World Happiness Foundation Chair on Contemplative Sciences at the University of Zaragoza in Spain, we are creating one of the most advanced centers to go beyond current knowledge and practice.