The Science of the Non-Existing Self
Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska

The Science of the Non-Existing Self

How Meditation Entered the Academic Consciousness
Tomasz Stawiszyński
time 10 minutes

According to Wikipedia, there are over 40 types of meditation. The majority of them have been proven to enhance physical health, the psyche, and even the function and structure of the brain. Contrary to the stereotype, meditation doesn’t need to have anything in common with religion or faith (but, of course, it can).

“Mantra? But really, what’s the difference between that and my patients who keep repeating shit, shit, shit over and over again?” was the question a certain outstanding and esteemed clinical psychologist from Harvard University asked when a young Daniel Goleman presented his idea for a PhD thesis to a group of professors. The title was “The Effect of Meditation on the Mind”. This also included meditation based on a mantra, or a technique involving the constant repetition of a word or phrase.

It was the beginning of the 1970s. In spite of the variety of subversive and extravagant ideas bubbling beyond university walls (as the counterculture was at its prime), behaviourism – the conviction that humans are organisms that one can reasonably speak of only from the perspective of their behaviour – prevailed in academic psychology

The inner experience? An intimate feeling of subjectivity? There is no such thing, grunted the behaviourists, visibly impatient. There are only bodies, the actions of which are shaped by the sum of penalties and awards, or so-called ‘reinforcements’. It was therefore no surprise that the idea of writing a PhD thesis on something as frivolous and exotic as meditation seemed utterly senseless to the psychology professors at Harvard, if not outrageous.


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Richard Davidson, who had been studying at the same university and who had chosen psychology under the very influence of a few articles written by Goleman and published in the rather eccentric and unprestigious Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, received similar advice: “Don’t follow the path of your older colleague; otherwise your career will bite the dust. Better if you look at more serious issues. Develop experiments on rats. Analyse simple learning mechanisms. But really, don’t go into that weird Eastern stuff.”

Harvard was adopting the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach at the time. The memory of the excessive behaviour of two employees of the Department of Psychology, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who had just a decade earlier conducted experiments (admittedly, they were rather casual in terms of methodology) with hallucinogenics was still quite alive in people’s minds. In 1963, both scientists were expelled from the university amid a scandal. It was an unprecedented event in the history of the institution. Shortly after these events, Alpert left for India and devoted his life to the study of… meditation. So it was probably for that reason too that the distinguished group of professors didn’t react too warmly to the idea.

But neither Goleman nor Davidson took the friendly advice to heart. Rather than obediently design behavioural experiments, they travelled to India and Sri Lanka over the course of several years, where they explored the Eastern methods of working with the mind under the watchful eye of local masters. Incidentally, the example of Richard Alpert, the defiant scandalist from Harvard, who had been going by the name of Ram Dass for some time, had no doubt influenced them. This is because Goleman’s first meditation instructor happened to be a certain Neem Karoli Baba, whose remarkable wisdom was recounted in numerous texts by none other than Ram Dass.

But with time, others appeared as well. They included S.N. Goenka, the creator of Vipassana, a modern version of Buddhist mindfulness meditation, commonly practised in the West during two-week retreat courses. Joseph Goldstein, one of the first Americans to obtain the right to teach Vipassana and other forms of meditation, also joined them, spending the 1970s in India. When Goleman and Davidson returned to America, after long voyages and many hours spent practising, they got right down to work.

Nowadays, Davidson is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His long-standing research on the effect of meditation on the brain has meanwhile become a classic of the genre. Goleman, on the other hand, abandoned his academic career right after he completed his PhD, and took to writing. He is the author of a number of bestsellers, including Emotional Intelligence and Destructive Emotions, in which he promotes Eastern and Western psychology.

Both are co-founders of one of the largest institutions specializing in the scientific research of Eastern practices and their promotion, namely the Mind and Life Institute, under the patronage of the 14th Dalai Lama. In their book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, published in 2017, they reveal the details of their private and professional interest in meditation. They discuss the difference it made in their lives, as well as the dynamically developing branch of research on its actual properties, which they basically built from scratch together with a few other researchers, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of the Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme. The new branch of science has been experiencing a genuine boom in recent years. Just look at the numbers. From the 1970s to 2009, anything between a few and several dozen articles discussing meditation would appear annually in English-language scientific literature. In 2010, more than a thousand were published. We are now seeing an upward trend, as more and more Western psychologists express their interest in the legacy of Eastern traditions.

We need to make clear here that we are dealing with a phenomenon that is significant not only from the viewpoint of Western science, which has tapped into knowledge about subtle methods of influencing human emotion, thoughts and behaviour, but also from the perspective of an order very different from science. What order might that be? The word ‘religion’ would be inadequate here; ‘spirituality’ wouldn’t work either. This is because both of these terms imply some kind of metaphysics. Meanwhile, the Western version of the spiritual practices we are discussing lacks any religious cloak and, in fact, doesn’t have much in terms of metaphysics to speak of. Rather, it’s a combination of certain Eastern techniques, which had up until now functioned in a strict religious context, with a very secular, scientific view. The points at which both these universes surprisingly intersect spark what are probably some of the most interesting conclusions made by modern knowledge with regard to humans.

After all, it seems that we should consider the state of the complete demise of the feeling of individual identity, or the separated, personal ‘self’ (the so-called ‘nirvana’ or samadhi), as a metaphysical experience par excellence. However – and this is something that Goleman and Davidson write about at length in their book – from the perspective of current neuroscientific knowledge, our personal ‘self’ is a type of… illusion. Or rather, as the outstanding American philosopher Daniel Dennett told me more than a year ago in an interview, it is something like a computer user interface. On a laptop screen, we do indeed see a lot of different icons and tools, but at the same time, we know that what we see is only the product of the activity of various components; that in fact, there is no folder in the form as it appears before us.

The case is similar for our individual ‘self’, which basically is only the result of numerous processes running in various parts of the brain, though it may seem to be the most intimate and most real of all phenomena that we experience. The backdrop against which the ‘self’ can appear, and thanks to which it appears as a separate structure at all, is something that is pure and non-dual; something that is not split into subject and object, the observer and the observed. That something is consciousness. Buddhist tradition has been teaching about its existence for over 2500 years. Meditation, and thus regular, careful observations of all the thoughts, emotions and perceptions that appear in your mind, will sooner or later allow such awareness to be experienced directly.

The American philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris – one of the Four Horsemen of the atheist apocalypse, next to Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – has been practising and promoting meditation for years. He even created a special application not too long ago, with the help of which you can practice under his guidance. In his outstanding book Waking Up, Harris demonstrates that practising meditation oriented towards experiencing non-dual awareness on a regular basis could constitute a type of remedy for all the quandaries of the West: violence, inequality, depression, the feeling of loneliness, the lack of empathy. To a large extent, he argued, these quandaries stem from false convictions about ourselves and other people. Profoundly experiencing non-dual awareness, and at the same time some form of unity with your entire existence, could fundamentally refocus our way of thinking about the world – and the correlation you may see here with psychedelic experiments of the type that Michael Pollan referred to recently in “Przekrój” is quite fitting indeed. This, of course, should happen within certain limits and without any neophytic exaltation. The author of Waking Up is, after all, 100% rationalist and an advocate of science.

For this very reason he, much like Goleman and Davidson, tries to extract from the rich world of Eastern belief elements that can constitute a method of working with the consciousness – one that can be defined, studied and tested. He also attempts to separate it from the entire cultural and religious staffage that a representative of Western culture cannot fully grasp anyway, or rather cannot understand. Harris is not interested in stories about reincarnation, the obsequious attitude towards gurus, or sophisticated mythologies with pantheons of gods – which, by the way, happen to be crucial elements of many different Eastern belief systems. The only thing he is interested in is the experiencing of non-dual awareness and the demise of the personal ‘self’.

Of course, this does not necessarily need to be the primary goal of meditation. The overwhelming majority of forms of contemplation adapted to Western reality by Goleman and Davidson do not have such ambitions at all. Jon Kabat-Zinn, mentioned earlier, created a type of mindfulness meditation in the 1980s that focused primarily on therapeutic goals. In the Stress Clinic created at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, he conducted a dozen or so studies that were later repeated. The results of these studies suggest that while practising mindfulness on a regular basis does not work miracles and is not a universal cure for somatic and mental disorders, it certainly lowers blood pressure and cortisol to sustainable levels, and also reduces the excitability of the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions, including fear). For this reason, it proves to be effective in the treatment of anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders, chronic depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In the US, there are currently a number of therapeutic programmes based on mindfulness being rolled out in preschools, schools, and even prisons. Indeed, these programmes do deliver tangible results for participants: improved concentration, the ability to control impulses, and a reduced level of aggression.

It therefore turns out that meditation, once looked upon in the West as something exotic or quirky at best, is currently entering our culture through many different doors. It is revolutionizing not only our perception of the mind and the therapeutic methods that can affect it, but also the way in which we think about ourselves, other people, and the world as a whole. The long-term effects of this revolution are impossible to foresee today. Much like how 40 years ago, it was impossible to predict the gigantic success that Eastern methods of working with the mind would achieve, and not only in the scientific world.

That’s why, in the end, we can forgive the esteemed clinical professor from Harvard for his erstwhile impertinence.


Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon

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Yoga for the Voice
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Yoga for the Voice

Why Singing Is Good for the Mind
Aleksandra Reszelska

The floor of the great auditorium smelled of cleaning paste. The cleaners must have scrubbed them well. The school ceremony was about to begin. Children from all eight grades were seated on small, evenly arranged chairs, the parents crouched here and there on the floor. All of the faculty sat in the front row. A slender twelve-year-old girl stood at the microphone. From all sides of the room, eyes filled with curiosity stared at her.  She opened her mouth. Nothing. In a stage whisper, one of the teachers started to hint the words of the song for the special occasion. But that wasn’t it. It wasn’t about the forgotten lyrics. The girl’s throat ran out of voice, just as when a person runs fast they run out of breath. No sound came out of her wide-open mouth. It lasted just over ten seconds, but to her it felt like she was standing in silence for an eternity.

That girl was me. Almost three decades after this excruciating performance, I signed up for singing lessons. At the very first meeting, Jodie—my Australian teacher—said that the tone of my voice was the result of my state of mind and certain past choices.

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