What it means for contemplative practices to work—and what work such practices do—is different in diverse cultural contexts. This is something often obscured by scientific studies that see contemplative practices primarily in terms of brain-states. In these models, an individual performs a certain practice and, if done properly, a certain internal mental state arises. I want to shift away from thinking of contemplative practice primarily in terms of “states” that are the same in all times and places and instead propose an understanding of meditation as an array of practices aimed at cultivating certain ways of seeing and being in the world. By “world” here I mean specific historical and cultural lifeworlds constituted by a repertoire of concepts, attitudes, social practices, ethical dispositions, institutions, power relations, available identities, and conceptions of the cosmos. Contemplative practices are always embedded in particular lifeworlds and can only be understood systemically within those contexts. This creates a challenge to the scientific study of such practices, since operationalization necessitates a certain amount of decontextualization. Part of the solution to this challenge is the more rigorous incorporation of humanistic studies of these contexts and the roles contemplative practices play within them.

David McMahan, PhD

Franklin & Marshall College

David McMahan, PhD is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. He received his PhD in religious studies from the University of … MORE