Mindfulness meditation: Reinventing the wheel?

Image courtesy of http://flic.kr/p/efTJfW
Image courtesy of http://flic.kr/p/efTJfW

“You’re just reinventing the wheel! This has all been said before! What’s the point?”

Some people imagine that inspiration comes from nothing, that creativity is like a sort of psychological Big Bang. It doesn’t. It isn’t. Scientific ideas evolve over time, and they’re often based on earlier, non-scientific ideas, at least to start.

Take the atomic theory — the idea that the stuff we see around us, be it water, tables, or cats, is made of little particles. The idea was first talked about in ancient Athens. But, and this is the crucial point, the ancient philosophers also had a bunch of other ideas about how the world works that science has demonstrated are wrong. Despite two thousand years of work, we have found no evidence that matter is made up of differing proportions of fire, earth, water, and air. That idea has fallen out of favour entirely with scientists because it doesn’t help explain the phenomena we see, and, more importantly, it doesn’t help us build bridges, and engines, and drugs, and computer chips. The atomic theory has evolved considerably, and does help us do those things.

The very fact that some ideas were good enough to survive the winnowing-down of history means that scientists, and perhaps especially psychologists, are faced with the accusation of reinventing the wheel, or saying the same thing in different words.

Let’s take a concrete example to see how this works.

As a contextual behavioural scientist, I have an understanding of how we humans learn to think the way we do. That understanding is based on years of lab work by my very wonderful colleagues around the globe, but because these are scientific theories, not merely ‘ideas’ or ‘concepts’ my students can test them out in the lab and see whether the results of their own experiments comport with the published theories. (That’s why science is self-correcting and progressive over time.)

This work shows that humans learn, and thus change their behaviour in two main ways. One way is that we “just sort of pick up” a new behaviour through trial and error. We sometimes struggle to describe adequately what we’ve learned this way and resort to saying things like ‘gut feeling’ and ‘I just know’. Another way is based on words or ideas. Someone says “that plate is hot” and assuming you’ve had some experience of the word “hot” before you probably will avoid touching the plate with your bare hands. If asked for a reason you’ll find it easy to describe. “It’s hot!” You’ll say. And if pressed further, “I don’t want to burn myself!”

That we can learn new ways of behaving so quickly, based on the experience of others, is the very core of what it means to be human. It’s why we have culture. And its also one of the ways in which human thinking and behaving can go the most wrong. In any given situation, all that any of us can hope is to infer the rules of life fairly accurately. Sometimes the rules of the game change, and we’re left following an outmoded rule book. This is one of the ways that language, and our logical, linguistic mode of thinking gets us into trouble.

Now it just so happens that for the better part of three millennia, people have been developing practices to reduce how much attention we pay to the rule-book, and to get us back in touch with the game itself. These are practices to reduce the power of logical, analytical thought, for those situations when that thinking gets us into trouble. These practices usually go by labels like “meditation” and “mindfulness” and “Vipassana”. These practices seem to render verbal learning less powerful and may leave a teensy bit of room for more trial-and-error type learning. (This is a slight over-simplification, but let’s run with it.)

As a result, Western psychological science has quite rightly borrowed these practices. It’s changed them, morphed them, to be even more in line with the theory, and it teaches them to people as part of coaching and therapy programmes the world over.

And then people say, “You’re just reinventing the wheel!” “You’ve just stollen ideas from Buddhism and pretended you came up with them!”

The ancients had wheels. The wheel was invented about 5000 years ago. Would you prefer that your car ran on wooden Roman chariot wheels? Would you prefer that lovely Audi or Chrysler ran on the wooden-spoked carriage wheels of the 19th Century? No. We now have alloy wheels with steel-belted radial tyres. They’re better. They’re still wheels.

We reinvented them.

 

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