Meditation and Nonconceptual Awareness: Perspectives from Buddhist Philosophy and Cognitive Science

Lecture: Center for Buddhist Studies | March 14 | 5-7 p.m. | Alumni House, Toll Room

 Evan Thompson, University of British Columbia

 Institute of East Asian Studies (IEAS)

Mindfulness meditation practices are often traditionally said to induce “nonconceptual” forms of awareness, and scientists and clinicians often repeat such descriptions. But what does “nonconceptual” mean? Clearly, without a precise specification of what a concept or conceptual cognition is, the notion of nonconceptuality is equally ill-defined. I present an account of concepts, concept formation, and nonconceptual awareness based on combining ideas from Buddhist philosophy and cognitive science. On the Buddhist side, I draw from Dharmakīrti’s “exclusion” (apoha) theory of concept formation and the Yogācāra view of conceptual cognition as necessarily structured by the duality of “grasper” (grāhaka) and “grasped” (grāhya) (i.e., by the duality of subject versus object). On the cognitive science side, I distinguish between sensory discrimination, perceptual categorization, and mental conceptualization (the deployment of concepts in thought). According to both Dharmakīrti’s “exclusion” theory and cognitive science considerations, perceptual categorization is the most minimal form of conceptual cognition. It structures our engagement with the world at a basic and prelinguistic level, and it is motivationally and affectively biased. Combining these Buddhist and cognitive science ideas provides a philosophically precise and empirically useful way to define “nonconceptual awareness” and “nondual awareness.” Nonconceptual mental events do not undergo or result from “exclusion” (apoha), and they do not involve perceptual categorization. Nondual awareness in addition lacks the grasper-grasped (subject-object) structure and is not motivationally and affectively biased. I apply this framework to scientific studies of Buddhist mindfulness meditation practices, with attention to experimental studies of the effects of these practices on the perception and experience of pain. One take-home message is that cognitive scientists, clinical scientists, philosophers, Buddhist scholars, and experienced meditation practitioners need to work together. In particular, more attention needs to be given to the cross-cultural philosophical issues about concepts discussed in the lecture to clarify and advance the empirical investigation of mindfulness meditation practices.