You know the old saying about Zen meditation, Tibetan meditation, and Vipassana meditation? Well, no, you probably don’t. It’s a saying that’s meant to capture the difference between these three Buddhist contemplative traditions—Vipassana, with its emphasis on mindfulness; Tibetan, which often steers the mind toward visual imagery; and Zen, which sometimes involves pondering those cryptic lines known as koans. Here’s the saying: Zen is for poets, Tibetan is for artists, and Vipassana is for psychologists.
Like most stereotypes, this one exaggerates contrasts, but it does contain a valid point: Mindfulness meditation, the main vehicle of Vipassana, is a good way to study the human mind. At least, it’s a good way to study one human’s mind: yours. You sit down, let the mental dust settle, and then watch your mind work.
Strictly speaking, of course, this isn’t what psychologists do. Psychology is a science, and sciences, by definition, generate publicly observable data, experimental results that are out there for all to see. In contrast, the things you see when you watch your mind can’t be seen by anyone but you. They’re not data in the strict sense, so when you’re meditating you’re not being an experimental psychologist. If you emerge from a meditative state and declare that the self doesn’t exist, that’s not scientific evidence that the self doesn’t exist.
No, if anything, the relationship between science and meditation works the other way around. It’s not that meditative observations about your mind validate theories, but more that theories can help validate meditative observations about your mind. If during meditation you see things that are consistent with credible scientific models of how the mind works, that gives you a bit more reason to believe that, indeed, meditation is helping you see the dynamics of your mind clearly.
Take the modular model of the mind, for example. There is good scientific reason to take it seriously. Well, if this modular model is truly an accurate picture of the mind, and if Vipassana meditation—insight meditation—indeed gives us insights into the workings of the mind, then you might expect this kind of meditation to give us glimpses of a modular mind at work.
I think it does….