Meditation and Science: Two Views of Life

At the Spiritual Naturalism Society website, Jay Forest’s fine article on “Introduction to Insight Meditation,” also known as mindfulness or Vipassana meditation, opens with several helpful definitions by teachers and writers of what this meditation is about. The explanations include, for example, “observation of the reality within oneself, to see the laws of life by our own true, careful, and direct observation” and “penetrative observation [to realize] the nature of our mind and body process.”

The theme in many of these phrases is observation and perhaps it was that word that caught my attention. I meditate irregularly but often enough to know a little of the calm and sense of clarity that comes with it. What had not dawned on me before is that I feel a similar calmness when I try to observe in my imagination the long chain of living things of which we are all a part. I know that meditation is very different from “thinking” and is also not the same as “imagining” or “envisioning.” To meditate is to try to experience  being “from the inside,” so to speak, while science is a view of life from the outside. But in combination, as observations of “the nature of our mind and body process,” they are, in some ways at least, oddly complementary.

Forest himself writes that Vipassana is “the exploration and observation of inner space, and one who practices Vipassana is a scientist of inner space.” The comparison of the meditator to the scientist works in the other direction as well. A scientist’s position of calm, careful observation can be a spiritual one, in that a scientist, like the meditator, sets aside words in order to let phenomena speak for themselves.

The relation between insight meditation and the study of 3.8 billion years of life might be compared to the difference between a novel and a history book. Both are narrations of human affairs, but the novel zooms in on one person’s thoughts and emotions while histories track the highlights of many lives over time.

The difference might also be compared to the tone of an instrument such as a French horn and an entire piece of music such as a horn concerto. The first sound is (like meditation) concentrated, distilled; the second (like the history of biological life) is a story. One is a single sound, the other is music. Each one implies and makes possible the other.

Observing the inner life and contemplating the history of all lives are good ways to spend portions of our own life.

P.S. An unrelated note: Chet Raymo is one of the very best writers on the topic of science and religion and his blog at has been a joy to read. Chet has announced that he has ceased writing it—he has been dealing with illness—but all his posts over many years are there and I recommend them.


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