In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Meditation

  • Introduction
  • Criticism and Controversy

Psychology Meditation
Willoughby Britton, Jared Lindahl
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0169


“Meditation” is an umbrella term for a variety of practices that are intended to cultivate a particular state or quality of mind or body through the regulation or modulation of cognitive, affective, and perceptual faculties. Across various studies, there is considerable disagreement about what constitutes meditation. The various types of practices that are commonly considered “meditation” will be discussed below (see Types of Meditation). Furthermore, movement-based practices such as qigong and tai chi have been considered a form of meditation by some, but not by others, and therefore will not be included in this review. Many meditation practices that are used in Western psychology are derived from contemplative religious traditions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. Some of these Buddhist-derived or Hindu-derived practices have been modified to be applied in secular, medical or clinical contexts, with varying degrees of implicit or explicit spirituality. Thus, in the context of western psychology, “meditation” refers to a multiplicity of practices oriented toward a number of possible religious, spiritual, or secular goals. Thus, some research in the psychology of meditation frames the goal of practice as Enlightenment, Awakening, or Cosmic or Transcendental Consciousness, whereas other research seeks improvements in attention, emotion regulation, physiological stress, or mental health. Both secular and religious approaches to meditation have become allied with Western science. The interest in meditation has been growing steadily since the 1960s and is arguably at its historical apex. The increased interest in and popularity of meditation has inspired a proliferation of meditation-based programs and treatments, as well as a multitude of scientific research studies with varying degrees of methodological limitations. The surge of public interest, the range of different practices, and the various applications and research studies of meditation is both staggering and also the source of much controversy and confusion. One goal of this entry is to help bring clarity to the field by highlighting points of confusion and controversy and by providing resources for further reading on these topics. Thus, our choice of sources for any given section intends to provide a broad overview, while also emphasizing areas of confusion, or in the case of scientific research, where public perception or interpretation of the studies diverge from the original data. This entry begins with a history of meditation and its interface with Western psychology and science. The section Types of Meditation characterizes different approaches to meditation practice according to both traditional and scientific classification systems. Current Research in the Science of Meditation addresses central findings from current research on the science of meditation and on the efficacy of meditation-based interventions in clinical psychology. The section Unexpected, Adverse, and Understudied Effects of Meditation introduces a range of meditation-related experiences and effects presently not well understood from psychological or scientific perspectives. The final section, Criticism and Controversy, tackles issues that have arisen on account of the process of cultural translation as meditation traditions are reimagined in the context of Western psychology.

History of Meditation in the West

Addressing the specific historical conditions that led to the widespread appeal of the science of meditation and the clinical application of meditation-based techniques has been the subject of a number of important book-length studies. Lopez 2008 focuses on interactions between Asian Buddhists and Westerners in the 19th century and how the attempt to present Buddhism as compatible with science has endured to the present day. McMahan 2008 addresses a similar time period, but also contextualizes the rhetoric of Buddhism as a “mind-science” in the broader context of the formation of Buddhist modernism. Multiple chapters discuss the relationship between Buddhism and psychotherapy and the neuroscience of meditation as illustrations of how “Buddhism” has been redefined in relation to Western values. Braun 2013 provides a detailed study on the development and rise of Vipassana meditation, a dominant meditation tradition both in Southeast Asia and in the United States that is commonly referred to as “Insight meditation.” Payne 2012 is a concise and focused article-length argument on the mutual development of Buddhism, psychotherapy, and Western occultism, suggesting that all three were characterized by a turn toward interiority and subjective experience and sought legitimation in relation to science. Wilson 2014 provides the first book-length study on the history of the mindfulness movement, focusing on the proliferation of mindfulness-based applications and how they have been marketed as addressing a wide variety of modern American cultural needs. Williamson 2010 offers a good introduction to similar issues within Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs). Her study focuses more on distinguishing the history, development, and impact of three HIMMs in the West, although there are important references to the importance of positive psychology and relationships to science throughout. For a more focused analysis of the importance of science to the Transcendental Meditation movement, see Humes 2010, whose study specifically details the strategies Maharishi Mahesh Yogi employed to create an alliance between TM and science in order to distinguish it from religion and for legitimizing and promoting the practice.

  • Braun, Erik. 2013. The birth of insight: Meditation, modern Buddhism, and the Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226000947.001.0001

    In-depth study of the 19th-century origins of Vipassana, or Insight meditation, one of the dominant meditation traditions in the West. The last chapter explains how the unique approach to practice of Burmese Vipassana came to influence American Buddhism in general and the Mindfulness movement in particular, which adopts, but also departs from, the rhetoric and approach of Vipassana.

  • Humes, Cynthia A. 2010. The Transcendental Meditation organization and its encounter with science. In Handbook of religion and the authority of science. Edited by James R. Lewis and Olav Hammer, 345–369. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    This study of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation, explores his relationship to the authority of science, beginning with his branding of classical Hindu scriptures as “Vedic science.” Maharishi also promoted TM practice as a “natural” technique that transcended religious ideology and which was part of a perennial philosophy he called the “Science of Creative Intelligence.”

  • Lopez, Donald S. 2008. Buddhism and science: A guide for the perplexed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226493244.001.0001

    This book identifies the origin of the rhetoric of the compatibility of Buddhism and science in 19th-century encounters between Asian Buddhists and Western missionaries. Shows how Buddhists actively promoted their tradition as compatible with science in order to grant it legitimacy (and superiority over Christianity) in the eyes of the West. These claims have continued in various similar forms for the past 150 years.

  • McMahan, David L. 2008. The making of Buddhist modernism. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book thoroughly documents the rise of Buddhist modernism. Central to the argument is the legitimizing role of science. McMahan devotes a chapter to showing how Asian Buddhists subsumed scientific rhetoric into Buddhism, thus setting the stage for its elevation to the status of a “mind-science.” Another chapter explores the alliance between Buddhism and psychology, as meditation was promoted as an authentic method of introspection and as a psychotherapy.

  • Payne, Richard K. 2012. Buddhism and the powers of the mind. In Buddhism in the modern world. Edited by David L. McMahan, 233–256. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    Argues that the perceived fidelity of Buddhism and psychotherapy is in part due to romantic ideas that Buddhism is a precursor to psychotherapy or a repository of psychotherapeutic techniques. Contends that the psychotherapeutic reading of Buddhism arose in conjunction with the interplay between psychotherapy and Western occultism, which, like Buddhist modernism, appealed to science and to direct experience to construct and legitimate the tradition.

  • Williamson, Lola. 2010. Transcendent in America: Hindu-inspired meditation movements as new religion. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    Identifies how Hindu-inspired meditation movements (HIMMs) were created by modern Hindus revisioning their tradition in relation to a “Vedic” ideal as well as the process of acculturation as Hindu gurus came West. Details the appeal of meditation, personal experience, positive psychology, and personal growth in the rise of three HIMMs.

  • Wilson, Jeff. 2014. Mindful America: The mutual transformation of Buddhist meditation and American culture. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199827817.001.0001

    Traces the history of the mindfulness movement from early 20th-century Buddhist scholars and practitioners to the present day. Through analysis of the commercialization and marketing of mindfulness to a wide-audience, Wilson provides a balanced assessment of mindfulness that attends both to its traditional Buddhist roots and to its allegedly secular applications in mainstream American culture, where mindfulness has been designed to meet various cultural needs.

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