In June, one of Mind and Life Europe’s Communities, the “Initiative for Contemplative Phenomenology”, organised its first public meeting. A group of thirty philosophers, psychologists, neuro-cognitive scientists and medical doctors, all practitioners of meditation in various traditions, gathered in France to explore and describe their lived experience of contemplative states.
‘The workshop was a great opportunity to go deeper into meditative experience and to engage with pioneers, smart, kind, and rigorous thinkers, therapists and researchers interested in a non-reductionist look at conscious experience.’ Workshop participant
Describing state of consciousness from within
Most Western scientific approaches to contemplative disciplines investigate meditation from an external point of view. Phenomenology provides an alternative. It is a method for delving into lived experience while suspending any belief about what is experienced and consequently being able to describe features of this experience. Phenomenology relies on the self-transformation of phenomenologists, and therefore bears striking existential similarities with contemplative disciplines.
The workshop was structured to explore these similarities. ‘we first cultivated a state of consciousness that is common to contemplative disciplines and phenomenology, we then described this state by remembering it and answering non-directional questions about it, and finally we used textual resources in Western and Buddhist phenomenological writings to make sense of our findings,’ explains Michel Bitbol (host of the workshop and moderator of the Initiative for Contemplative Phenomenology).
‘I entered this workshop intellectually cognizant of the continuity between phenomenology and contemplative practice, but I left this workshop "knowing" the continuity between phenomenology and contemplative practice.’ Workshop participant
Objectivism is insufficient for understanding the true content of contemplative research
The workshop revealed the importance of strengthening phenomenological methodologies to fill in an important gap of the field of contemplative science. ‘The historical phase of validating contemplative practices through experimental methods has served our field very well – and experimental work should and must continue. But, on its own, objectivism is insufficient for understanding the true content of contemplative research. If our field is to grow and have a meaningful influence on our culture, the emphasis on phenomenological methodology (not just frontloading some of its ideas and data for experiments) needs to be strengthened. Phenomenological epistemology and consequent descriptive first person methodologies need to be foundational to contemplative science – not merely supplemental. This workshop model is the future of contemplative science,’ reflected a participant.
‘This experience has sharpened my attention to patients' feelings during my consultations. I now feel I am better able to decipher their fears and anxieties related to the surgical procedure they will undergo.’ Workshop participant
‘A remarkable never to be repeated experience!’
The workshop came only two weeks after an international conference on “Phenomenology and Mindfulness” organised in New Jersey by James Morley, and a few months after another international conference on “Phenomenology and Buddhism” organised by Victoria Lysenko in Russia. ‘These conferences further strengthened our conviction that our research about the phenomenology of contemplative experience has started at an opportune time,’ according to Bitbol.
Taking into account this sudden blossoming of international research in contemplative phenomenology, future workshops in collaboration with several participants were discussed. ‘However, the content and themes of future workshops needs to be managed closely to avoid a mere reproduction that could hardly be as creative and successful as this first workshop’, says Michel Bitbol. James Morley, a member of our faculty, expressed this sentiment: ‘It was such a remarkable never to be repeated experience!’.
‘The space created for experiential inquiry by the organisers and participants was quite unlike any other in its academic rigour, depth and sincerity. I would wholeheartedly recommend any future event of this nature, to contemplative practitioners, scientists and phenomenologists wishing to open up their work or practice within a joyful community of inquiry.’ Workshop participant
Mind and Life Europe’s communities of practice
Mind and Life Europe’s future work is based on communities that connect scientists, scholars and professionals in the development of contemplative science. These communities cover both fundamental research in areas such as neuroscience, cognitive science, anthropology and philosophy, as well as applied research in education, health care and management. They are characterised by the transdisciplinarity of scientific approaches, with regional and national diversity representing all of Europe, and contemplatives representing multiple wisdom traditions. The communities translate outcomes into regionally and nationally relevant frameworks that professionals and policymakers can put into action. Our aim is to establish more communities in applied research fields, in the domain of contemplative education, and in leadership for societal change.
For more information on the Initiative for Contemplative Phenomenology or other Mind and Life’s communities of practice visit our website.