Some people claim that specific sorts of meditation practices are akin to a science that produces the same results, no matter who is doing the meditating or where the meditation is being done.
A thoughtful piece by David L. McMahan, "How Meditation Works: Theorizing the Role of Cultural Context in Buddhist Contemplative Practices," casts doubt on this claim.
I came across McMahan's essay in a re-tweet by David Chapman of someone else's tweet:
I had to jump through some online hoops to download the PDF file. Here it is:
The general thesis seems totally believable to me.
People who meditate are influenced by the culture in which they live, which includes the context of the religion or spiritual approach that their meditation practice is embedded in. So there's no such thing as a "pure" form of meditation that stands apart from the mind of the meditating person.
Here's some quotes from the essay that will give you a feel for McMahan's approach. His "Two Meditators" introduction sets the stage for later arguments.
I would like to begin with a simple proposition: meditation works. Now to a qualification that makes things more complicated: what it means for meditation to work—the work meditation does—is different, sometimes radically different, in diverse contexts.
Let me illustrate this by imagining two practitioners of the basic Buddhist meditation practice of mindfulness of the breath. One is a contemporary American female professional who practices modern insight meditation (vipassanā) and modern secular mindfulness practices.
The other is an ancient monk—let’s say around the beginning of the common era—in the movement established by Gautama the Buddha. Both are serious practitioners, and both are drawing from the same text, the locus classicus of Buddhist meditation, the Sutta on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
They both sit down in the same posture—legs crossed, back straight, hands in the lap—and bring their attention to the movement of their breath. If we could secretly scan their brains, the same parts might be lit up with activity, while blood flow to other parts is slowed to a trickle.
But more to the point, similar meditation practices are apparently accomplishing aims—for example, “engag[ing] the world rather than withdraw[ing] from it”—nearly the opposite of the ideals of ancient meditation practices, which explicitly recommended withdrawal from the world. The work meditation does, therefore, is determined by the surrounding ideas, aims, attitudes, and cultural context of the practitioner.
Again, such practices do not simply produce particular, precisely reproducible mental “states” that are the same across time and space. They are part of larger complexes of ways of being in the world in particular social imaginaries.
We all make maps of the world. Not geographic maps, but a mapping of how reality is and how we fit into it. Meditation isn't separate from these maps; it is part and parcel of how we view the world. So the idea that meditation shows us reality "as it is" is false.
As McMahan says, there's a strong inclination to have experiences that conform to our map of reality. How often do Buddhist meditators have a vision of Jesus and convert to Christianity? How often do Christians have a meditative insight that leads them to convert to Islam?
Very rarely, if ever.
Most meditators have likely considered their maps to correspond to a pre-existing architecture of the mind and reality; therefore, they have considerable incentive to interpret and produce experiences that conform to the map.
Buddhist meditators, therefore, have striven to identify the markers of transition between the first jhāna and the second, to look for signs that they have attained stream entry, or to discern whether they have truly had insight into the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence.
They have questioned basic intuitions, like that of a continuing, enduring self, and instead have tried to isolate and identify the five aggregates in their own experience. In later traditions that insist that all phenomena are illusory, practitioners must train their minds to see the world itself as a dream. In some traditions, they must try to imagine the world and themselves as having Buddha nature, perfect and already awakened, despite the ample evidence to the contrary.
They must, in other words, reimagine themselves and the world in ways suggested by these maps, not only interpreting but also cultivating their experiences accordingly.
Near the end of his essay, McMahan revisits the two meditators.
Are the modern professional and the ancient monk doing something utterly different? Certainly there is overlap: both follow their breath, calm their minds and bodies, try to cultivate compassion and avoid hatred, greed, and delusion. But the familial, institutional, social, cultural, civilizational, and cosmic contexts in which they enact these values could hardly be more divergent.
The modern professional has a family to which she is deeply committed, a job that sustains her, arts and entertainment, and broader commitments to gender equality, human rights, individual choice, and many other non-negotiable goods. She lives, in other words, in an entirely different social imaginary with different default intuitions and a different repertoire of possible ways of being.
Some of the things that mindfulness helps her with are expressly forbidden the monk: parenting, money-making, love-making, play-watching. So mindfulness and meditation help to cultivate a very different kind of person in this case than in the earliest contexts (as well as monastic contexts today).
Moderns have discovered new uses for ancient tools. Clearly these are flexible practices that have been adapted today to quite different ends within very different lifeworlds.
Of course, if you really want to understand the subtleties of McMahan's excellent essay, read the entire piece.
I've just shared an overview of some key concepts. Here's a quote from the end of the essay that points to McMahan's emphasis on looking at both the "inside" of the meditator and the "outside" of cultural influences to grasp what works and doesn't work in meditation.
By all means we should measure what is measurable, but we should not think that such measurements—be they oscillating brain-waves, blood flow to various parts of the brain, respiration, and so on—get down to the real “facts” about meditation to which all other “data” (beliefs, social situation, cultural factors, relations of power) are extraneous.
We must understand all of these factors together systemically. The study of meditation should not succumb to the modern cult of calculability in which something is only real when it is measurable and measured.