Is Mindfulness A Science?

If psychiatry and psychology are considered as sciences what then about mindfulness? It may serve mindfulness better if it is perceived as a science as isn’t science the closest thing to truth in our society?

Science has boundaries and is measurable in an objective sense. Mindfulness is in its infancy as a science therefore it is in the process of being constructed hence many refer to this as” construct mindfulness” as opposed to “spiritual mindfulness”.  One simply cannot deny mindfulness has deep roots in Daoism and Buddhism. Some go so far as to say mindfulness is but a secular version of the Dharma. However, attend the standard 8-week MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) or MBCT (mindfulness based cognitive therapy) and more often than not it will be a totally secular course unless you are taking a course in a Buddhist temple!

In fact the emphasis in mindfulness often focuses on problems or “diseases” of the mind namely anxiety, depression and stress. It would appear then that mindfulness is well on the way to being medicalized.

So, what we have been discussing may just be intellectual sophistry because what matters is does mindfulness in effect reduce your suffering and the discomfort you feel operating as a human being in society.

If the Dharma has been secularized isn’t part of Buddhism scientifically verifiable?

As I have said it is virtually impossible to provide a clear and clean-cut definition of mindfulness. Essentially you must decide what it means to you. If it is so subjective how can it be a science capable of being verified by a third party! Yet there exists a large body of empirical evidence showing the effects of mindfulness particularly pointing to stress reduction and alteration in the structure of the brain.

Now if construct mindfulness is a science there is also Buddhist mindfulness which is not construct mindfulness but scientific evidence does exist that it too can reduce stress!

If mindfulness is profoundly personal is it capable of being measured? We can see how it affects your brain by undergoing an MRI or EEG. Mindfulness meditation (state meditation) does effect the operation of the brain. For example, Richard Davidson, some 10 years ago attached electrodes to a Tibetan monk’s head and the brainwaves generated during meditation showed very deep and intense thought so much so that it exceeded 30 times more gamma activity as Davidson’s own meditating students.

Davidson’s view that regular meditation caused structural changes in the brain that caused people to be more compassionate and mindful even when they are not meditating i.e. trait mindfulness. In other words, mindful meditation can alter your personality. Davidson’s work gave credence that mindfulness was indeed a science.

One can’t ignore the usefulness of asking mindfulness meditators how they feel during and after meditation but who determines what questions to ask and how to interpret answers. So you see the biases that this “self reporting” has.

It is worthwhile noting that depression can be measured by a series of questions contained in a Beck Depression scale and mindfulness can be measured in a mindful attention awareness scale (MAAS).

Now since you have read this far perhaps you deserve a definition from the American mindfulness guru John Kabat-Zinn; “Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non judgementally.”

Kabat-Zinn’s definition is a decent one but not without its flaws.



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About the Author

Robert Stephen (CSW)
Robert K Stephen writes about food and drink, travel, and lifestyle issues. He is one of the few non-national writers to be certified as a wine specialist by the Society of Wine Educators, in Washington, DC. Robert was the first associate member of the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada. He also holds a Mindfulness Certification from the University of Leiden. Be it Spanish cured meat, dried fruit, BBQ, or recycled bamboo place mats, Robert endeavours to escape the mundane, which is why he loves The Square. His motto is, "Have Story, Will Write." Email Robert Stephen

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