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Meditation under the Microscope

Julie Caouette is a social psychologist who’s attending my current mindful reflection workshop, and she’s begun an interesting discussion of meditation as studied in the scientific community. She found 231 published studies since 2008. Before that there are another 3,309! The most recent list, with abstracts, is here, for anyone who’d like to peruse them. She also just pointed me to the study of terror management.

This all has lots to do with the things we discuss in the Quiet Mind, so if you’re scientifically inclined, why not take a look? As the Dalai Lama has said, there are three important points of contact between Buddhism and science; both:
1) depend heavily on empirical method,
2) accept a-priori that the universe operates through cause and effect
3) maintain a deep distrust of absolutes.

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4 responses to “Meditation under the Microscope”

  1. Julie Caouette

    Hello everyone!

    Let me first thank Stephen for allowing me to share a few of my insights, from the point-of-view of a social scientist.

    As Stephen said in class, with need to look at ourselves honestly, and last night, for the first time since taking this class, this was challenging for me. Specifically, I found the ‘onion’ meditation routine utterly painful to go through (by the end, I had to struggle to end it and open my eyes and keep focused). What about you? Especially for me, trying to grasp with the idea of letting go of my intellect is unimaginable. I am a scholar, my life, my friends, my career, almost everything I do found somehow connects me back to social psychology, my field of study. In fact, I found this to be quite distracting while I listen to Stephen talk, as I can make various connections to different theories in social psychology. However how painful the ‘onion’ meditation was, it made me realized that my self-esteem was perhaps too ‘contingent’ on my intellect. Social psychologists refer to contingent self-esteem when the level of one’s self-esteem is directly depending on a specific aspect of one’s life. For example, for some people, their self-esteem is deeply contingent on their body weight. This means that as soon as this aspect of their self is threatened (i.e. you gain a few pounds) you self-esteem goes down and is totally crushed. Obviously, having a contingent self-esteem is not ideal. But how to attain a self-esteem that is not contingent? Stephen? 😉

    Actually, my main point about self-esteem is not so much about it becoming ethical as becoming creative. Non-contingent self-esteem begins with a healthy sense of self, based on well-rounded self-respect and measured by one’s capacity to respect others. it not only allows for compassion but actually nurtures it. A competitive sense of self is unhelpful; it presupposes that what’s good for you is good for me. It’s two-dimensional; it ignores individuality and is distinctly uncreative. Competitiveness actually masks a wish to conform—to actually be rewarded for conforming better than others! Unfortunately, the advertizing and marketing machines of our free market economy pounce on and reinforce that insecurity; it’s very profitable. This is a time to not go with the flow. The flow we need comes from exploring who we are in mundane ways, and not in the fantasies that come from comparing ourselves with the most “successful” of society—namely, film stars, billionaires and power-brokers whose images are produced by spin-doctors and not personal acquaintance. Self-esteem has become important today as a remedy to self-loathing, for not being one of the chosen. The result is an proliferation of ersatz success with its accompanying dearth of ethical self-respect and overflow of middle-class anomie. The key is to disable the mechanisms that bind us to this common view and seek our own path. This takes time, is a non-cerebral task, and requires the cultivation of no-effort. Read the Tao te Ching.

    If you are interested in learning more about self-esteem from a social psychological perspective, I highly recommend reading this following online article from some leading scholars in the field. The article is entitled ‘Exploding the self-esteem myth’: Boosting people’s sense of self-worth has become a national preoccupation. Yet surprisingly, research shows that such efforts are of little value in fostering academic progress or preventing undesirable behavior


    In a similar line, Stephen was also talking about self-help books, and how they are not always so helpful. Interestingly, a Canadian psychologist has recently presented a research demonstrating how self-help books are quite detrimental, especially for those people who are low in self-esteem:

    See the link:

    There were headlines in many mainstream media saying
    ‘Sorry Oprah, self-help books don’t work’

    On a last note, a woman in the U.S. decided to do a little informal experiment of her own, doing EVERYTHING Oprah recommended for a year. Curious to know what happened? Read this link (or read the fascinating book that she wrote):


    See you next week!

    Julie 😉

  2. Julie Caouette

    Ok, me again! 🙂
    I had this email exchange earlier today with Stephen, and he thought I should share with all of you (some comments may be redundant with my previous posts: but, they say we learn better with repetition 😉

    Hi Stephen!

    My first thought, about self-esteem. It’s interesting how you mention about how self-esteem can be changed from being defensive to being more ethical. Social psychologists have had a long interest in the study of self-esteem, and have now moved beyond conceiving self-esteem as uni dimensional. Instead, we now have research into ‘contingent’ self-esteem,’fragile’ self-esteem, ‘implicit’ vs. ‘explicit’ self-esteem, etc. And although many people in our society believe that having a high self-esteem is a panacea for many ills (e.g. boosting kids’ self-esteem as a tool to help them at school), in fact social psychologists disagree with this point- of-view, and they would argue that self-esteem is not the CAUSE of many of our social problems, but only a SYMPTOM, and that we need to work on other aspects of ourselves, instead of trying to superficially boost our self-esteem. Instead, we need to work on ‘fixing’ the faulty cognitive processes that lead to unhealthy types of self-esteem.

    Here is an interesting article Exploding the self-esteem myth: Boosting people’s sense of self-worth has become a national preoccupation. Yet surprisingly, research shows that such efforts are of little value in fostering academic progress or preventing undesirable behavior.

    Also, there is a Prof in my department (Mark Baldwin) that has been working on the underlying mechanisms of self-esteem for years. He has a cool website about this, with interesting games to help people change their unhealthy thought patterns.

    By the way, I think you would thoroughly enjoy studying social psychology. What we try to do is to explore how the individuals are related to their social world by understanding the mechanisms involved in the mind. By using the scientific method, social psychologists seeks to understand the causes of social behaviours and social thoughts: they try to characterize mental processes by finding links between what goes on in the world and what goes on in our heads.
    Here is how I define social psychology in my class:

    *Allport (1968): Social psychology is the scientific attempt to understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of other human beings. MAIN ELEMENTS: 1) Social influence (power of social situation); 2) Actual, imagined, implied presence of others; 3) Tripod of cognition, affect, behaviour; 3) Cause-effect template (situation →individual, individual → situation, individual ↔ situation); 4) Focus is the individual.

    * As seen in the definition, a main theme of social psychology is the power of social influence. Are we at the mercy of the social situation? Where is my free will?
    * The application of the scientific method to age-old philosophical questions about human behaviour and mental processes gave birth to (social) psychology.
    * Examples of such philosophical questions are: Is human behaviour freely chosen or is it determined? What is the nature of human nature (e.g. are we inherently aggressive)?
    * By using the scientific method, social psychologists seeks to understand the causes of social behaviours and social thoughts: they try to characterize mental processes by finding links between what goes on in the world and what goes on in our heads.
    *Variables that can influence social behaviours and social thoughts are: 1) The actions and characteristics of other persons; 2) Cognitive processes; 3) Environmental variables (impact of the physical world); 4) Cultural context; 5) Biological factors.
    * Social psychologists currently recognize that social thoughts (how people think about themselves and others) and social behaviours (how people act in social situations) are two sides of the same coin: there is a continuous, complex interplay between them.

    Stephen last night was talking about how, in the schools, we are trained to think… The focus is on the ‘thoughts’, all the knowledge to be acquired. I agree with Stephen, that schools should be about much more.

    Recently, there was a conference co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA), where psychologists, along with other major thinkers, including Buddhist thinkers, were asked to ‘re-think’ our education system.

    Curious to know their conclusionss? Read the online article: More compassion, less competition

  3. Measuring Mindfulness

    […] literature and you’d think the clinical study of mindfulness is proceeding at full steam. One of my students recently found 3,540 ‘meditation’ studies on PsychInfo, a database of psychology research. Some […]

  4. Verda Gandee

    Thanks so much…

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