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  • Contemplative Science and Practice: “How to Do Research You Love”

    In early January I presented a lecture on “Contemplative Science and Practice: How to Do Research You Love” to the Faculty Forum at the Wright Institute. I told my personal story (how a meeting with Paul Ekman, the world-famous emotion researcher upon whom the TV series “Lie to me” was based, directed me to Tibetan Buddhism and a Tibetan Buddhist practice). I told a research story, and provided an overview of current findings in contemplative science, including the findings from our own lab at the Wright Institute, the Emotion, Personality and Altruism Research Group (EPARG) ( A few days later, an opinion piece appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Owen Flanagan, essentially trashing what he called “Hocus-Pocus Buddhism.”

    To briefly summarize, Flanagan suggests that we consider Buddhism without any of the magic, mysticism, and romance that often accompanies Buddhism and that may most strongly pervade the practice known as “Tibetan Buddhism.” Describing himself as a naturalist (and making sure we all know that he is not himself a “Buddhist”), he disputes the findings from contemplative science suggesting that Buddhists (including the Tibetan Buddhist practitioners) are particularly happy as a group. I’m not sure how, or why, he comes to that conclusion, this he fails to explain. I assume he’s questioning the neuroscience-based study of highly “realized” adepts (meaning meditators who have practiced meditation for 12,000 to 60,000 hours), carried out by Richard Davidson and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in collaboration with the Dalai Lama and the Mind-Life Institute. The high-level meditators Davidson studies happen to be practitioners of what he considers the most “hocus-pocus” based kind of meditation, known as “Tibetan” although practitioners are no longer only, or even primarily, from Tibet. Flanagan’s commentary not only countered results from Davidson’s lab, but also results from our own empirical studies (at EPARG). Our findings support the neuroscience studies done at Wisconsin and elsewhere; the Tibetan Buddhists in our sample werehappier. Using tried and true (if simple) methods with data collected anonymously online, we found the Tibetan Buddhist population (N=98), most of whom were American Tibetan Buddhists, significantly lower in depression, in anxiety, and in the types of empathy-based guilt that have been associated with pathogenic beliefs and various mental disorders or disturbances, when compared to a non-Buddhist population (N=450). I didn’t know if we would get such strong results, but we did. If anyone is interested in participating in this anonymous study, it’s still going on at:

    I wish Flanagan had let us in on how he came to his conclusion.

    I’m a “naturalist” or “materialist” by nature, an evolutionist and tried and true atheist, so I might be expected to be as harsh as Flanagan. But I think he’s wrong, based on the neuroscience, our own empirical studies, and also based upon my own personal experiences with Buddhist practices. I know personal experience is “anecdotal” and frowned upon by the ultra-scientists in my field, but if we look behind many (if not most) studies, we see scientists studying things they believe may be important, because they somehow touched their lives personally. This is not anti-scientific, it’s highly motivational and not to be knocked as an important factor.

    What Flanagan neglected to note is that there are multiple methods—yes cognitive and affective methods if you will—that he should have noticed, that might conceivably account for the findings from these two kinds of science, that is that Buddhist meditators appear happier and less burdened by our contemporary epidemic of depression. I struggle with the supernatural, the magic, the mysticism and superstition, or “hocus-pocus” as Flanagan called it. I debate the belief system that may or may not have any relationship to the methods prescribed by Tibetan Buddhism (and I suspect other forms of Buddhism as well). Nevertheless, I have a degree of trust in the findings of my lab, especially since they have been supported by my own real life experimentation, anecdotal though that may be. In Flanagan’s insistence that he is not a Buddhist, I get the feeling that because he questions the “beliefs,” he failed to engage in the practice and furthermore, he has a bias against Buddhism or any religion. I suspect it’s due to his self-proclaimed aversion to anything that fails to be explained in what he sees as naturalistic terms. Meaning, I don’t think he tried out the methods involved in the “magic” of Buddhist practice, he couldn’t let himself engage at that level. This is a shame for him, and for the readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education who believed his conclusions (although I failed to decipher upon what data his conclusions were based) without trying them out themselves.

    Flanagan called for a secular Buddhism; he failed to mention that there already is a secular form of Buddhist meditation. Secular Buddhism known as “Mindfulness-based stress reduction” (MBSR), first developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and studied at major medical institutions, is now being used widely in medicine and psychotherapy, with results demonstrating the usefulness of meditation, even when presented without any “hocus-pocus.” This is yet another line of empirical studies that suggest people who meditate, using the methods initiated in Buddhist practice, are “happier” or at least better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at them. Flanagan’s position seems unsupported by scientific research; I suspect it is based on an aversion to “religion” in general, he probably thinks it’s simply uncool to lean on superstitions, magic, or any of the other intangibles found in religions. He may here be missing the broader scientific or evolutionary perspective. Religion is universal, we seem to be wired for it, and according to evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson,, the adaptive function of religion is found in “group selection.” Groups held together in part by religious beliefs, are likely to outdo groups lacking organized religion, in between-group competition. If Buddhist practitioners aren’t exactly “happier” (although our own research suggests they are), they are surely higher in levels of subjective wellbeing, when compared to groups with no contemplative (a relatively more academic-sounding name for meditation) practice.

    To read the Flanagan opinion piece, Buddhism Without the Hocus-Pocusfrom The Chronicle Review (available free if you have a subscription):

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