May 16, 2012
The Meditative Mind, by Daniel Goleman
The Meditative Mind is an updated version of a book Daniel Goleman first published in the 1970s and revised in the 1980s. Goleman, who’s famous for his classic, Emotional Intelligence, was in on the first wave of research into the effects of meditation, having made a visit to India and having met some impressive yogis before returning to Harvard. Goleman has been ahead of the curve for a long time. This earlier parts of this book, he points out, first appeared at a time when the links between traditional Asian systems of mental training and modern psychological science were few and far between. They are of course far more common now, with an explosion of research having taken place over the last two decades in particular.
To take account of at least some of these developments, new material has been added, detailing some of the history of the encounter between meditation, on the one hand, and science and psychotherapeutic traditions on the other.
Title: The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditating Experience
Author: Daniel Goleman
Publisher: More Than Sound
Available from: Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.
The Meditative Mind is uneven in tone, but this is to be expected given that it’s a compilation of writings spanning several decades and having been composed for a variety of purposes and circumstances. The book is in five parts.
Part One: The Visuddhimagga: A Map for Inner Space
The first chapter, on Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, gives a comprehensive and useful overview of the sophisticated psychological theory that underpins practice in Theravadin Buddhism. Since I was already familiar with most of this material, I didn’t find this chapter particularly engaging. I’m also very aware that the commentarial tradition, including Buddhaghosa, departed significantly from the teaching found in the (much earlier) scriptural tradition, and I found that there was a skeptical barrier between me and my appreciation of this particular chapter.
However, to be fair, the point of the chapter is to present an overview of classic Theravadin spiritual orthodoxy, and not to critique it. The chapter performs its task well, and gives an impressive survey of the Asian tradition’s systematic approach to spirituality. What is outlined here is a comprehensive schema of the progress of spiritual development, and given the vague terms in which people tend to think about such matters, this chapter will no doubt surprise and enlighten many readers.
Part Two: Meditation Paths: A Survey
At the risk of making Dr. Goleman feel very old, The Meditative Mind, as far as the earlier material goes, constitutes a valuable historical document. Part Two of the book offers an overview of a number of meditative traditions: Hindu Bakti meditation, Jewish meditation, Christian meditation, Sufism, Patanjali’s Yoga tradition, Tantra, Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen. For me this was the most fascinating part of the book. In fact I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the most eye-opening spiritual documents I’ve read.
The commonalities between the various traditions are immense, and I came away with a deep respect for non-Buddhist traditions. It’s clear that within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc., there have been deep currents of meditative experience, and correspondingly deep insights. I’m convinced now that there have been enlightened practitioners in many traditions besides Buddhism — something I hadn’t really contemplated before. I still consider other traditions to be hampered by their theological baggage, however, and for that reason I do still consider the Buddha’s insight to have gone further than others’, but I am still humbled and reverential toward the Desert Fathers and other non-Buddhist meditators.
Part Three: Meditation Paths: Their Essential Unity
The third part of the book gives a brief outline of some of the commonalities (and divergences) of the various meditative paths, although the emphasis is on their essential unity. Particularly useful was the categorization of meditative techniques into those that involve concentration, “in which the mind focuses on a fixed mental object,” mindfulness, “in which mind observes itself,” and integrated, in which both functions are present simultaneously. As Goleman points out, few schools take a purist approach, and employ whatever means are found to be helpful. This is a valuable reminder not to cling dogmatically to one approach to practice, but to retain a pragmatic approach.
Part Four: The Psychology of Meditation
Part Four examines the spiritual psychology of meditation, and its “potential for cross-fertilization with western psychology.” It was originally written for psychologists in order to introduce them to non-Western systems of psychological theory. The Buddhist scholastic tradition of the Abhidhamma, which attempted to systematize and clarify the Buddha’s teachings, is the main focus. The overview of Abhidhamma (unlike the Abhidhamma itself!) is engrossing, and offers an overview of Buddhist personality theory, and a map of the Buddhist conception of mental health. The enlightened individual is then presented as the exemplar of religious views of the ideal of human “peak performance” and this is contrasted with the history of western psychology’s obsession with psychological disfunction, and compared with the way in which some western psychological theory has sometimes seen the healthy individual in terms very similar to those of the Buddhist tradition.
Part Five: Meditation: Research and Practical Applications
The final section of Meditative Mind offers an overview of some of the impressive findings from meditation studies. The degree to which meditation is able to affect our physiology and psychology — from enhancing the ability to recover from stressful incidents to affecting the immune system — is staggering. This section however, absorbing though it is, seems dated, with no reference to studies after the early 1980′s. Given the huge body of research that has taken place since that time, this is a puzzling omission. Dr. Goleman is well placed to offer such an overview.
So, overall my opinion of The Meditative Mind is mixed. One the one hand it contains much thought-provoking material on comparative psychology. On the other hand it doesn’t bring us up to date on the west’s embrace of meditative practice. There is no mention of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, for example, or of the many therapeutic techniques that it has given rise to. On balance, the book is certainly worth reading, although readers will want to turn to Goleman’s The Brain and Emotional Intelligence to get an overview of the dialog between meditation and modern neuroscience, and Ed Halliwell’s The Mindful Manifesto for an excellent survey of how meditative practices are transforming therapeutic approaches.