This highly enjoyable book is a must-read for those who want to know what the best studies really say about meditation. When I finished it, I was surprised at how much of the information, rather than being merely academic, was actually of practical help in my own faltering attempts to get the most out of mindfulness.
For example, in the chapter titled "The Meditating Brain in Action: Attention, Body, and Self," Verhaeghen describes research in which veteran meditators practiced inside an fMRI scanner with a feedback mechanism-blue bars on the screen indicated a deeper meditative state; red showed increased activation of the part of the brain associated with the "default mode network," i.e. the ever-selfing monkey mind.
One of the graphs that went the deepest blue during the study, Verhaeghen writes, belonged to that of a meditator who later said, "I noticed that the more I relaxed and stopped trying to do anything, the bluer it went."
"Can I get a witness!" say untold generations of Zen masters.
Indeed, I've heard this instruction a million times, but I always forget it and go back to my tendency to over-strive. Since reading this section of Presence, I have backed off of the pushing and pulling, to good effect.
Later in the same chapter, the author describes how meditators who self-report expansive states always show, in the scanner, changes in regions of the brain that you might not naturally assume would be involved-namely, those associated with body awareness. "meditators who are trying to achieve a timeless and/or spaceless state," Verhaeghen writes, "do so (knowingly or unknowingly) by altering the perception of the body-a more diffuse sense of body boundaries may well allow the meditator to feel free from the confines of time and space as well."
Mindfulness of the body, in other words, might seem distinct from the more ethereal realms associated with meditative experience, but in fact the way in is the way out. It's a classical pointer, now supported by fMRI research. Cool.
Presence also reveals how, in some cases, emerging evidence can help us better understand how different meditative traditions can arrive at seemingly contradictory perspectives. Take the research, described in the book, into so-called nimitta or the "visions of light" that many meditators experience. Some traditions see this as a sign of progress, others as something to be ignored, and still others as a kind of tool to be manipulated by the yogi. In Verhaeghen's brilliant (pardon the pun) description of the brain science behind these phenomena, he shows how all of these traditional perspectives can be seen as valid in their own way. With little fanfare, science seems to have nicely resolved a centuries-old disagreement among contemplative types.
When I first started practicing meditation about 25 years ago, I would run into difficult spells of doubt after encountering off-putting superstitions or religious claims. I'd meet someone who meditated, but who also claimed to be a reincarnated ancient Egyptian. Or a person would say something like "Tibetans aren't like us; they can fly." With chapters exploring the evidence around what monks, nuns and other "Olympic athletes" of meditation actually can do (spoiler: flying isn't in there); covering the best evidence of how different practices change the brain in the short, long and medium term; and examining the research into how meditation can affect health and well-being, this book is something I wish I'd had available to me back in the day.
That said, Verhaeghen doesn't pitch meditation as a panacea. In the book, he is quite clear about the things we don't know yet, and about the evidence that is either methodologically questionable or simply unclear. The writing is lucid, funny and even poetic at times, as when Verhaeghen describes smashing a bottle of orange juice during a run-in with his obstinate three-year-old son. "I had given a mere flicker of anger a set of black wings, as if I had no say in the matter, as if I had no freedom," he writes.
The painful event sparked his journey back into meditation practice and a greater sense of freedom and maturity. One of the results of that decision--this book--is no doubt already supporting many other people as they embark on this journey as well.