Beyond Mindfulness: The Art of Perception
First published in UCL News on 5 May 2020
The science of meditation is in its infancy. Maps that may help in traversing the universe of meditative practices and experiences have only just begun to be drawn. Within this vast expanse, mindfulness meditation has been the primary object of scientific inquiry and media attention. Our view of what meditation “really” is (or can be) has inevitably been shaped by this predominant concentration on mindfulness, yet there is far more to be discovered.
As the gushing waves of the mindfulness hype descend from their crest, more nuanced frameworks for understanding meditative practices have started to emerge. They both include and transcend mindfulness. Ergo, the ability to mindfully attend to moments of experience – including body sensations, thoughts, emotions, and the sense of “I” seemingly located behind the eyes – is one among countless trainable meditative ways of looking at our lived experience. Valuable as it is, being mindful is but one mode of relating to our perception of what is happening. Indeed, the quasi-archetypal images of simplicity, “bare attention”, and “being-with-things-as-they-are” have offered respite for our agitated modern souls. Yet the view that mindfulness alone could offer a panacea for the complex mental demands of modern life has turned out to be both limited and limiting. A unilateral focus on cultivating mindfulness could hinder the diversification of a meditator’s toolbox, which is needed for a skilful responsiveness to the ever-changing terrain of our lived experience.
As we are waking up to the wide and varied range of meditative training, the question “Does meditation work?” becomes too crude to elicit subtle answers. In contemplative research labs and meditation halls alike more refined inquiries begin to arise. How, when, and under what circumstances is a specific kind of meditative way of looking most conducive to serving a meditator’s intentions while appreciating their individual differences spanning attitudes, personality, and worldviews? How much does a meditator’s (or researcher’s) view of what-meditation-is influence their very meditation experiences (or research)? A taste for questions more complex than those that have hitherto dominated the discourse on meditation may have to be acquired.
Furthermore, people’s reasons for maintaining a regular meditation practice have proliferated beyond the more common therapeutic, medical, religious, and soteriological motivations. Novel images abound. Meditation as art of perception (for art’s sake!). Meditation as open-ended exploration of awareness. Meditation as nourishing the mundus imaginalis. An atmosphere of unprecedented contemplative creativity has arisen. To mature, the science of meditation will have to deeply contemplate and grapple with these evolutions.