David Paul Boaz
What are the neurobiological influences of mindfulness meditation on human behavior; how do these influences effect our sense of self-ego-I; our brain structure and function; relative human flourishing; and the ultimate happiness and freedom of liberation from suffering, enlightenment, and Buddhahood?
Buddhist masters and neuroscientists agree, “mindfulness of breathing” (“focused attention meditation”), and “compassion meditation” both facilitate 1) a beneficial shift of attention from obsessive, usually fraught self-referential thinking and concern for “I, Me, Mine”; which 2) bestows a sense of inner peace and self-acceptance; which 3) reduces anxiety and anger toward self and others; which 4) enhances altruistic thought, intention and action for the benefit of other beings, 5) enhancing well being and happiness. How shall we understand this amazing contemplative process in the gloss of neurobiology?
Unfocused, ruminating, wandering mind, under sway of the brain’s “default mode network”—the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)—significantly increase self-referential attention—”selfing”—with its always present fear/anxiety, anger/hostility, greed/pride, and negative judgments about self, which are then projected onto others. The micro-cognitive result of such afflictive negative emotion in the individual is stress and unhappiness. The macro-cognitive result in the human sociocultural cognosphere is alienation, despotism, and endless war.
Scientific meta-research, synthesizing data from thousands of research projects since 1970, reveal that all three of the classes of meditation—1) mindfulness focused attention (usually upon the breath); 2) open monitoring mindfulness (witnessing whatever arises in awareness without judging, grasping or rejecting); and 3) loving-kindness compassion meditation (feeling our natural empathy for living beings)—conclusively reduced or deactivated processing in some physical brain structures, while enhancing activity in others. Just so:
1) Meditation reduced processing in the default mode network (PCC and MPFC) of the “selfing” wandering mind; which 2) reduced self-ego-I self-referential processing—habitual attention and concern about I-Me-Mine with its attendant anxiety, anger and ill-will mind states; 3) reduced activity in, and reduced physical size of the amygdala which is responsible for fear and anger (“fight or flight”); 3) reduced stress related cortisol production by the adrenal cortex while blocking cortisol circulation throughout the upper body upon the autonomic vagus nerve (CN X); 4) enhanced beneficial brain alpha, theta, and high amplitude gamma band oscillations (25 to 42 hertz), while reducing excessive beta activity; 5) reduced activity in the right prefrontal cortex which is active in fear, anger, and ill-will mind states; 6) greatly increased left prefrontal cortex processing which enhances feelings of altruism, compassion and forgiveness toward self and others; 7) induced increased, long term frontal cortex gyrification (neuroplasticity), which is permanent, even when contemplative practice ceases (Siegel 2013; Porges 2014; Begley 2007; Wallace 2007, 2009; Scientific American, November, 2014).
The no longer surprising result of this neuroscientific meta-research is greatly reduced preoccupation with self and its obsessive narcissistic self-narrative; reduced psycho-emotional stress; induced and enhanced subjective feelings of connection, well being, good will, and subjective reports of increased happiness.
Thus does mindfulness and other types of meditation train the “wild horse of the mind” in the placement of attention, and continued focus of attention upon immediate, non-conceptual, present moment to moment sensory/feeling experience, upon the mindful breath—our eternal here and now connection—while shifting attention away from chronic unfocused wandering mind with its obsessive and unhappy attachment to self-ego-I.
Therefore, meditation clearly reduces or suspends the “selfing” that causes the terrible suffering secondary to our pervasive sense of a lonely, separate, mortal self. And all of this through a program of mind training in present moment, trans-conceptual feeling awareness upon the breath—the placement and maintenance of attention upon the breath which settles the “wild horse of the mind” upon the very source and “nature of mind”, boundless all embracing whole, nondual wisdom mind Presence of That, by whatever name or concept.
Yes, neuroscientific research demonstrates the profound value of meditation—especially shamatha calm abiding, and loving-kindness compassion meditation—in support of human flourishing and happiness. Indeed, there is a “mindfulness revolution” now abroad in the Western mind and its culture. Mindfulness training is alive and well in most of our institutions: education, medicine, psychology, the social sciences, business, government, military, and corrections.
Our Western mindfulness cognitive reconstruction has even entered monotheistic organized religion—Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Abrahamic Monotheism has lost, under sway of the dominant cognitive paradigm that is Greek animated Scientific Materialism/Physicalism (which has now colonized the Western mind), much of its foundation in the contemplative mythos and praxis of the highest nondual (subject-object unity) teaching of our great Primordial Wisdom Tradition (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism).
On this neurobiological view then, human happiness is very much dependent upon an awareness management skill set—where, when, and how we choose to place our attention. In short, both happiness and unhappiness are the result of our choices as to present placement of attention—negative emotion or love-wisdom mind Presence—each moment now.
Cognitive neuroscience has identified two ways of experiencing the self—two modes of self-reference: 1) narrative focus upon self, our urgent all consuming story-drama about ourselves; and 2) experiential focus, bodily proprioceptive sense experience, with direct trans-conceptual feeling experience. These two modes are often hypothesized by cognitive scientists to be neurologically distinct. Buddhism has unified them.
Once again, volumes of research have demonstrated that in both meditators and non-meditators the experiential focus mode involving non-conceptual “mindfulness of breathing” as the Buddha called it, reduced egocentric narrative self-referential activity, in a word “selfing”, in the MPFC and PCC of the default mode network. However, for highly skilled meditators habitual fantasy-reverie self-referential thinking of the untrained mind is absent during sitting meditation, and for varying periods of time following formal sitting meditation. Here, processing activity of the default mode network is nearly quiescent (Siegel 2013). These skilled practitioners abide in a “walking meditation” mind state most of the time. And this calm state persists through several sleep states during the night.
In short, “advanced” meditators have demonstrated in many studies (Begley 2007; Siegel 2013) the capacity to maintain such stable contemplative mind states, with their corresponding brain rhythms (theta and gamma) in “post-meditation” activities—while “hewing wood and carrying water”, and driving, talking, loving, and even creative thinking!
Therefore, meditation practice for established meditators seems to facilitate the choice of a fluent cognitive ambulation from conceptual self narrative mode to a peaceful, even blissful non-conceptual experiential mode, almost at will. Indeed, the mind states of the nondual mode are usually experienced as pervading and embracing conceptual self narrative mind states. There is no appreciable difference.
The global result of meditation practice is calm abiding quiescent peace of mind, and a happy felt sense of connection and interdependence with all living things; and indeed, with the unbroken whole of Kosmos itself—even as inexorable adversity continues to arise.
Mindful Thinking About Science and Spirit. We’ve just seen that hundreds of scientific studies with highly advanced Buddhist meditators, as well as beginning meditators, have demonstrated that subjective meditation states have objective neural correlates in the brain. Does this fact mean that trans-physical, post-empirical meditation experience can be reduced to merely physical brain states, as acolytes of our modern prevailing materialist metaphysic—the “scientific reductionism” of fundamentalist “Scientism”—believe?
Does the fact that Buddhist modernists, for example H.H. Dalai Lama, correctly state that Buddhism is, and has always been a contemplative “science of mind” mean that the Buddhist understanding of mind, and the very nondual Buddha nature of mind, is also an objective science of mind in the same way that experimental psychology, or physics is?
It does not. Is the “mind of enlightenment” taught by all of the buddhas reducible to the mere EEG brightening of the left prefrontal cortex during an advanced meditator’s heartfelt compassion for a living being in terrible pain? It is not.
It is useful here to remember that the spectrum of human knowledge—from the objective conceptual understanding of mathematical physics, to the deep subjectivity of Buddha mind—is, when engaged by discursive concept mind—pervaded by metaphysical, or ontological speculation. Philosophers of science and Buddhist Lamas agree: that appearing spacetime reality is ultimately objective and material/physical is an unproven, unprovable metaphysical belief. That reality is ultimately subjective and illusory is equally so. That reality is a centrist middle way between these two metaphysical extremes is still provisional, uncertain, fallible concept and belief. No problem at all. And the trans-conceptual definitive contemplative certainty of nondual Buddha mind? Clearly, that is beyond belief. We are thus referred to deeper, post-empirical contemplative strata of cognitive formation (Ch. V).
Metaphysical scientific reductionism—the ontological reduction of all appearing reality to mere physical phenomena—is the dogmatic hand maid to the prevailing Western cultural “global web of belief”, namely, the much valorized and idealized metaphysic of Scientific Materialism/Physicalism.
The “scientific method”—systematic objective observation, measurement, experiment, and the experimental formulation and testing of hypotheses—is wondrously capable of revealing truths in the conceptual dimension of objective, physical spacetime appearing reality; the world of physics, cosmology, mathematics, and biology. Yet, such a monistic metaphysic, ipso facto, methodologically ignores the entire dimension of subjective, non-conceptual, non-physical human experience, to wit: 1) the feeling emotional experience of personal and spiritual love; 2) the trans-conceptual contemplative experience of the perfectly subjective nondual primordial wisdom of the Buddha and the Christ; and 3) the great Primordial Wisdom Tradition of humankind that transcends yet embraces the objective realm of modern science.
Physical science and contemplative science must work together to pragmatically unify our essential human cognitive capacities—objective conceptual, and subjective contemplative—that is so profoundly displayed through these two complementary sciences. That is our joyous urgent wisdom project as we enter in the 21st century Noetic Revolution that is now upon us. (Boaz 2021b, excerpted at davidpaulboaz.org)
Therefore, subtle primordial wisdom, beyond but including conceptual knowledge, requires that we human beings utilize our innate noetic cognitive doublet that constitutes both the objective and subjective voices of the nonlocal, nondual whole of our human wisdom mind. We must understand that these two are an ontologically prior, yet an epistemologically and phenomenologically present complementary, indivisible unity. We utilize this handy cognitive doublet to ascertain both provisional and definitive truth, both relative and ultimate truth, and the ontic prior but always present indivisible unity of these two human cognitive modalities.
Philosophy—philo-sophia—Western or Eastern is so much more than sterile academic philosophy. Traditionally, philosophy is the love of wisdom. Ultimately, philosophy is the prior and present unity of love and wisdom. For the spiritual practitioner philosophy is understanding the practical, skillful expression in compassionate conduct of this love-wisdom unity for the benefit of living beings. That is how we can be happy now.
Kuhnian (Thomas Kuhn’s 1961 Structure of Scientific Revolutions) scientific “paradigm shifts” produce “scientific revolutions” every generation or two. Cases in point: the 17th century Newtonian Revolution utilized, but enhanced Galileo’s theory of relativity; Einstein’s Special Relativity Theory (SRT) replaced Newton’s relativity, and established the present relativistic scientific paradigm. Quantum electrodynamics (QED) corrected and included Einstein’s Special and General Relativity Theory (GRT) establishing the prevailing physics Standard Model (ΛCDM) of particles and fields, revealing in the process its own quantum incompleteness, as Einstein was quick to point out (Appendix B).
We are now perched rather precariously upon the cusp of a new knowledge/wisdom paradigm, a Noetic Revolution in matter, mind and spirit (Boaz 2021b) that begins to heal the relentless subject-object split between our objective and subjective cognitive modes of experience. Buddhist contemplative studies is facilitating this process as dialog continues between physicists, philosophers of physics, and practicing Buddhist scholars. And we need a lot more of it.
Therefore, lest we valorize too much in our clinging to the descending “scientific” metaphysic that is modern Scientific Materialism/Physicalism (“Scientism” in its fundamentalist cloak) let us understand that all scientific theories are fallible, provisional and incomplete; impatiently awaiting that next more inclusive, syncretic but ever incomplete theory. Just so, Buddhist dialectics is incomplete. Such is the destiny of conceptual, dialectical, relative conventional truth, whether scientific or religious. Absolute objective certainty is a pipe dream.
Clearly, the neuroscientific implications of meditation for the reduction of human suffering and for human happiness are profound. Mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation offer skillful regulation of negative emotional response to life’s inexorable adversity by transforming the painful narcissistic self-narrative into peaceable, and altruistic states of mind.
We have now seen that through the assiduous practice of the Buddhist Path we learn to place our present moment to moment awareness—our attention—upon our direct trans-conceptual feeling experience. This contemplative process opens a finite awareness portal into infinity wherein we connect with an aspect of ourselves that is selfless, non-conceptual, and profound. We come to understand that we need not believe and defend our adventitious dreary and destructive negative ego-centric thoughts and feelings; stress is reduced; and human happiness is enhanced.
The psychological/emotional takeaway here is this: our thoughts and feelings—positive and negative—are fleeting, inherently evanescent, ever changing, and impermanent (anitya). Understanding this, we, as self-ego-I, give them as much power as we choose. We do have this choice. Perhaps we might take ourselves less seriously, and with a bit of ego-self-effacing humor.