An astrophysicist asks: Does mindfulness mean anything?

Do you mind a little more on mindfulness?

If so, you’ll need to take a few breaths because that’s what you’re getting. On Tuesday, NPR ran a commentary by Adam Frank. According to the author bio at the end of the piece, he is: “is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described “evangelist of science.””

Evangelist of science? If you’re like me (if so, sorry!), you’re thinking this may come out not so good for the mindfulness crowd. Well, let’s get to his last line: “In other words, practiced with open eyes, anything that gets us to slow down and awake more fully to our interior lives should be a good thing.”

That sure makes sense. Now, though, let’s see how he got to that point:

But, depending on your perspective, the advent of mindfulness and meditation in America is either a milestone in the evolution of the culture — or a mighty avalanche of hype.

Given our ongoing discussion of science and religion here at 13.7, there are two particularly relevant questions the mindfulness explosion asks us to tackle. First, what exactly does mindfulness mean in relation to the spiritual practices it emerged from (mostly Buddhism). Secondly, how much do health claims made for mindfulness bear up under scientific scrutiny?

Before we begin, however, I need to make a full disclosure. For most of my life I’ve been staring at a wall in “contemplative practice” for at least a half hour per day. In other words, I’m a card-carrying meditator. Most of my practice has occurred within a Zen context but I have explored other traditions, as well. I could spend a lot of words telling you why I am committed to contemplative practice but, for now, let me just say I’ve learned things that I consider very, very valuable.

Maybe you didn’t see that coming. Frank dives into the question of whether the drive for a scientifically validated mediation is good — or bad. He raises a number of good points. I particularly struck by this:

Losing these religious, spiritual, ethical aspects of meditation as a practice when it’s transformed into mindfulness is what worries many Buddhist teachers. Traditionally, Buddhist practice was meant to be radically transformative and a means, among other things, of awaking to the reality that, on the deepest levels, the “self” is an illusion. But by stripping away this context into just “mindfulness,” many teachers fear the powerful transformative effects of the tradition will be watered down so completely that it becomes just a tepid form of “self-help.”

Thus, as the popularity of mindfulness meditation grows, questions about its effectiveness from both a scientific and a spiritual perspective will continue to be debated.

As someone congenitally averse to anything that seems to “self-helpy.” Frank for me at least drives home a number of key points: Would I be more likely to stick with a meaningful meditation practice if there was something more “hard science” to support it? If seemingly key elements — call it religious or spiritual — are stripped away, what’s left and what’s being measured? (If science found such meditation to be lacking, would that be a surprise?) What if the goal is just to get a little calmer, a little less likely to want to kill everyone on the road with you, rather than to dissolve the self? Is that worthwhile?

Perhaps the answer to some of these questions lies in his last line.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

3 thoughts on “An astrophysicist asks: Does mindfulness mean anything?”

  1. How about a post on what meditation is? I thought I would find a commonly agreed unambiguous definition. However, there are all kinds of interpretations and descriptions. Much like modern day usage of the word Yoga.

    If the objective is greater and finer awareness, relentless application of reasoning (a la Ramana Maharshi’s “who am i” questioning), without having to do circus or sit still in a certain way, should take us pretty far.

  2. precisely the same holds true for yoga practice: you strip it off its “religious, spiritual and ethical aspects” and you have, pretty much, gymnastics. not that this should in any way worry the yogis, but it can’t hurt to remind the gymnasts every now and then lest they get confused about the definitions.

  3. I agree with BT that some information on meditation would be interesting. Just as, in the west, yoga means wearing Lulu Lemon clothing and standing on one leg, we’ve turned meditation into a single thing: sitting quietly. In Buddhist tradition, there are different types of meditation. The mindfulness practices that are getting more and more traction are just the starting point. In the Tibetan tradition (and I assume in others), there are also visualization-based meditations (with some enormously complicated visualizations). There is also discursive meditation to investigate ideas. Mindfulness practices are supposed to help hone your concentration so that the other meditations can be added to your repertoire. I don’t know how Hindus in general or Pattabhi Jois in particular regarded meditation, except that he thought you needed limbs 3 and 4 in good shape to do it (and then it’s spontaneous, I think). It’s worth noting that most of the mindfulness practices popularized in the west seem to come from Burma, though, of course, Zen and Tibetan practices are made an impact, too. Richard Freeman started with a Zen practice, and I’m sure he could say a lot about meditation and how it fits into the yoga world.

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