- Empathy, Intimacy, Attention, and Meditation:An Introduction
On October 31, 2008, at the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting, the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies sponsored a well-attended afternoon session titled "Cognitive Science, Religious Practices, and Human Development: Buddhist and Christian Perspectives." This issue of Buddhist-Christian Studies contains three of the papers presented: Wesley J. Wildman's "Cognitive Error and Contemplative Practices: The Cultivation of Discernment in Mind and Heart," Noreen Herzfeld's "'Your Cell Will Teach You Everything': Old Wisdom, Modern Science, and the Art of Attention," and Robert Aitken's "'Who Hears?' A Zen Buddhist Perspective."
Each paper addresses in some way the connections between meditation and accurate perception. Wildman traces how cognitive errors rooted in innate perceptual biases give rise to mistaken beliefs and self-defeating behaviors. He highlights various ways religious practices both promote and ameliorate common cognitive errors. He claims some meditation practices are particularly effective in amelioration. While Wildman's paper gives detailed attention to various types of cognitive errors and ways to curb them, Herzfeld's and Aitken's papers have, in some ways, a broader focus. Both include material that suggests that meditation can clear, sharpen, and steady the overall perceptual lens though which humans interpret and construct all of their relationships. (Most contemporary neuroscience assumes that "what" is perceived is the relationship between the perceiver and the "object" of perception.) Herzfeld cites research suggesting that "empathy" is one socially beneficial characteristic of the "focused, close attention" developed by the solitary meditation practices of the Christian Desert Fathers. Aitken claims that Zen practice develops the attentiveness needed to perceive the "intimacy" between the perceiver and what is perceived.
I suspect that the neurophysiology of attention behind Herzfeld's "empathy" and Aitken's "intimacy" is profoundly similar. Aitken, comparing Zen's emphasis on experiencing intimacy with Tibetan Buddhism's emphasis on developing compassion, points out that "Compassion by etymology is 'suffering with others'—the realization of social intimacy." "Compassion" is derived from Latin, while Herzfeld's [End Page 55] "empathy" is derived from Greek. Both express the "suffering with others" Aitken identifies with social intimacy.
I will first review the ways each paper connects attention-based perception with meditation, and then consider more carefully the common ground shared by Herzfeld's "empathy" and Aitken's "intimacy," suggesting it may lie (in part) in ways socially activist Christian and Zen traditions have drawn upon the cosmological assumptions embedded in the core texts of Zen and Christian traditions. I will close by proposing a topic for further study based on Wildman's claim that religious traditions have fostered a wider variety of meditation practices that have broader benefits than secular meditation programs that teach "nonreligious" adaptations of religious practices.
A Review of the Three Papers
Wildman teaches theology, philosophy, and religion and directs a PhD program in science, philosophy, and religion. His paper reviews seven types of cognitive errors grounded in neurologically based "cognitive and perceptual tendencies." While in life-threatening situations these tendencies can aid survival, they do so at the cost of day-to-day "mistaken beliefs" and "self-defeating behavior." Drawing on Thomas Gilovich's typology, Wildman reviews three types of errors based in pattern recognition skills gone awry, three types based in "social and motivational" factors, and then adds a seventh type: "self-defeating behaviors." He next reviews five potentials for detecting and ameliorating such errors and explores how three "techniques for mitigating cognitive error"—meditation practices, psychotherapy, and rigorous intellectual training—draw on these five potentials.
Citing Jean Kristeller's multidomain model of meditation effects, Wildman notes the "significant empirical evidence" in "relevant research studies" that various meditation practices can mitigate a variety of cognitive errors. He reviews research that suggests that neuroplasticity (the potential for structural brain change that affects function) is a lifelong possibility, including studies by Richard Davidson, Antoine Lutz, and others involved in the Mind and Life Institute's efforts to demonstrate the brain-changing effects of Buddhist meditation. Wildman cautions: "The longitudinal studies of meditation needed to settle the question of whether meditation produces neurologically detectable changes in brain structure or function are only just now under way." But...