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Meditations on silence: The (non-)conveying of the experiential in scientific accounts of Buddhist meditation
University of Exeter, UK.
National University of Singapore, Singapore.ORCID iD: 0000-0001-7619-5770
University of Exeter, UK.
2016 (English)In: The Silences of Science: Gaps and Pauses in the Communication of Science, 1st Edition / [ed] Felicity Mellor, Stephen Webster, Routledge, 2016, p. 193-218Chapter in book (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

This volume attends to an under-appreciated aspect of science communication: its silences.1 As discussed in the Introduction, one way of opening up silence as a phenomenon is to note that what counts as silence can vary across situations. Just when the absence of sound becomes treated as ‘silence’ varies depending on whether one is listening to the radio, working in an open plan office, at home enjoying a cup of tea before bed, or talking with a friend over the phone. Thus, the question ‘What is silence?’ needs to give way to questions like ‘Silent for whom?’ ‘When?’ and ‘In what manner?’ Silences are enacted in specific contexts and also help to define those contexts. Being produced through contingent and situated practices, silences come in many forms: what goes without saying, what is unspeakable, what has been censored, what is known but not sayable, and so on. Accordingly, to be silent can be recognized as a way of demonstrating deference or defiance, understanding or lack of understanding, giving or avoiding offence, as well as displaying or suppressing emotion. In this respect, silences are pregnant with possibilities. In this chapter we develop these points by exploring the struggle to render present what is considered silent in a specific context: the recent (renewed) attempts to scientifically demonstrate the effects of Buddhist meditation on the human brain and behaviour. Silence and meditation seem natural companions: through stilling the body and quieting the mind, people create the conditions for experiencing what is happening in the present moment. Yet silence, in various guises, also mediates accounts about meditation, which must grapple with how best to do it justice as a kind of practice. Efforts to convey what meditation ‘is’ face a number of tensions deriving from the idea that the best, and ultimately only, way of knowing it is through first-hand experience. By shifting the focus from ‘telling’ to ‘showing’, scientific approaches using brain imaging and other physiological methods have expanded the possibilities for conveying meditation experiences. In the process, these approaches invite, necessitate and shape particular forms of silence. Overall, we are interested in how silences work across and in the collaboration between the varied traditions that speak about meditation. Unlike mere gaps that hinder the development of knowledge, we argue that the interlacing of what is said and what is not said about the experiential helps cohere different traditions. In doing so, silences are consequential in helping define notions of expertise and producing forms of scientific accounting. The next section begins by introducing some of the general complications associated with describing lived experience. The third section considers how such complications play out within Buddhist contemplative traditions, indicating how and why accounting (in words) for experiences of meditation is seen as problematic. The fourth section examines scientific and popular-scientific accounts of neuroimaging and other experimental studies on the effects of meditation, in particular by attending to the case of a Tibetan Buddhist meditator who has assumed a high prominence. In this examination, we focus on what is not present in write-ups of experiments and on the manner in which the lived experience of meditators is rendered present and absent in such accounts. The final section surveys how accounts of lived experience of meditation have been positioned within the fields of neuroscience and so-called ‘neurophenomenology’ in the last few years and how this might develop in future.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Routledge, 2016. p. 193-218
National Category
Other Humanities
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-153851ISBN: 9781472459978 (print)ISBN: 9781315609102 (electronic)OAI: oai:DiVA.org:liu-153851DiVA, id: diva2:1368754
Available from: 2019-11-08 Created: 2019-11-08 Last updated: 2019-11-08Bibliographically approved

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