The New Contemplative Science

The “monkey business illusion” makes a very dramatic point of how much we can miss when our attention is on something else (and if you haven’t already, make sure you watch it before you continue reading). But it’s not just when we’re driving that our attention is on our phones, and it is not just phones that pulls us from the here and now. I have watched college students ignore their dinner partners in favor of their text messages (and of course ignore my lesson in favor of YouTube), and I myself often become engrossed in thinking about all that I have to do later, or obsessed with thinking over a troublesome interaction from the past. I have to wonder what I have missed – probably not a gorilla or a clown on a unicycle, but certainly people I know walking by, a chipmunk scouting for food, or the tiny interactions between strangers.

The insight that we can miss such a lot with our minds on other things is nothing new – that is, it is certainly nothing new to the Buddhists who have been practicing mindful meditation for millennia, or to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has been leading “mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR)” workshops since 1979. I myself was introduced to the nascent contemplative science as an undergraduate enrolled in a course on Science and Religion, featuring Andrew Newburg’s “Why God Won’t Go Away” and ways of putting meditating monks in a brain scanner. And as was recently outlined in Shambhala Sun, Newburg was only one of many scientists who were ahead of the curve in building the new contemplative science. But it is relatively recent that the impact of meditation and other contemplative practices entered the mainstream.

Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

Now, mindfulness is everywhere. Interested in how mindfulness might help you overcome your psychological disorder? Whether it’s depression or anxiety or ADHD, there’s a mindful path for that. Struggling with your diet? There’s a mindful path for learning to savor. Are you and your spouse considering couples therapy? You can also consider the mindful path to a better relationship.  And mindfulness isn’t just a fad in pop psychology; it’s a trend in psychology research as well. Not only are studies on the advantages of mindfulness for attention being well documented in high-tier research journals, even broad professional groups like the Jean Piaget Society have begun holding conferences in topics like “developmental contemplative science” – and while I was one of those who leaped at the chance as soon as it was announced, others only slightly slower were relegated to a waitlist because the conference filled so quickly.

Clearly, mindfulness is the latest trend in research psychology as it is in pop psychology. In my mind, it is a much needed trend, perhaps a natural and inevitable pushback against the Internet age’s underlying assumption – that now we can have access to so many people and things at once we have to try to be there for everyone and do everything all the time and all at once. We still have a long way to go in understanding mindfulness’s impact on brain and body, and there is an implicit assumption throughout that mindfulness can only bring good things, but there is such an allure of mindfulness. I for one would feel safer on the road if everyone adopted mindful driving, and would be more likely to spot a gorilla, or at least a red light.

And of course, I dream of how wonderful my class would be if my students were present in mind and body, instead of constantly sneaking peeks at text messages and Facebook. I would at least feel less like the unseen gorilla at the front of the classroom.

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2 thoughts on “The New Contemplative Science

  1. At the risk of being too skeptical, I wonder how long this trend of mindfulness will last. In essence, mindfulness is not a quick fix and sooner or later, I believe that will turn off the majority of people.

    • Not being a quick fix is a concern, and people looking at benefits of mindfulness are aware of that – especially when it comes to treating psychological disorders, because “willingness to try out mindful, group-based therapy” becomes a de facto requirement for being in a study, and it may be that willingness that lets the mindfulness work.

      On the other hand, I still think that mindfulness can be useful in small doses. I try to make my students more mindful of the small choices they make: If you leave the class during my lesson, you are saying that whatever you’re leaving for is more important than what I’m teaching. Which is fine, as long as you have thought about it and decide it is actually more important, rather than just getting up and going. It makes a lot of difference to me, at least, and I think those tiny steps can make a difference to the students as well.

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