Worthy panel discusses the problems of secular mindfulness

Last week, Eric Rea featured a panel discussion on the secular implementation of mindfulness on his BBC radio show. His guests were Christopher Titmuss Buddhist teacher and founder of Gaia House, Chris Cullen mindfulness teacher and psychotherapist at Oxford Mindfulness Center, and Rebecca Crane founder of the Center for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University. Eric’s questions were challenging and intelligent. I urge you all to listen to the entire 30 minute show.

Below are some highlights:

ER: How would you define mindfulness?

Christopher Titmuss: “To be conscious of what is unfolding and revealing itself, a sense of one’s inner life and outer life; an intimacy and closeness with the ordinary and everyday… I wouldn’t like to emphasize mindfulness exclusively. In Buddhism, mindfulness must contribute to inquiry, understanding of causes and conditions. A healthy right mindfulness contributes to harmony and well-being. Unhealthy mindfulness, for instance a thief is very mindful while burglarizing, but what an unhealthy intention for applying mindfulness.”

Chris Cullen: “The practice of present moment awareness is really what mindfulness is about… We live so much of our lives pre-living and reliving our experience, and mindfulness is an invitation to come back out of the cinema of the mind and its thoughts and be here now. Anyone can do this and taste the benefits of it.”

Rebecca Crane: “Mindfulness releases us from suffering moment-to-moment. I can be unhooked from patterns that might give rise to shame and bring myself back to the immediacy of experience.”

Notice the remarkable difference between the profound definition of a Buddhist teacher and the one-dimensional response of the secular mindfulness teachers who seem focused on the prophylactic effect of ‘present moment awareness’ as a method for symptom reduction. As a clinician and Buddhist teacher I favor Christopher Titmuss’ response because it represents a deepened-in relationship with mindful attending, which merges inquiry, insight and ethical, compassionate responsiveness to actual experience.

ER: What is the difference between meditation and mindfulness?

RC: “Meditation is the method of cultivating mindfulness and mindfulness is the process.”

CC: “Since 2013 eighty-five members of the British Parliament (MP’s) have taken an 8-week mindfulness course to reduce their stress.”

CT: I have some concern about these courses, which at the present time do not include any exploration into the main sources of major stress like war, environmental degradation, or tensions that exist between people and nation states. We are at an early stage in delivering mindfulness practice and it will take courage and conviction by those who offer mindfulness in this context to go deeper and awaken the MP’s.”

CC: “In secular mindfulness courses ethics is implicit rather than explicit, there is a sense as people deepen in mindfulness practice they do wake up to how we live and the consequences of the pressures on society.”

RC: “The way we pay attention with ethics in our mindfulness courses is to train teachers well. We have a huge emphasis on having teachers work with their own experience, their own mindfulness practice and ethical process. These courses should not be attached to any particular tradition.”

CT: “Bravo for the medical use of mindfulness to treat depression, chronic pain, etc. But when we talk about delivering mindfulness in political and corporate world where issues of corruption, violence, exploitation—all of that has to be offered in the context of a dialogue about people of privilege and power developing compassion.”

CC: “If it is not ethical and it is not about a paradigm shift away from greed, hatred and delusion, then it is not mindfulness. Mindfulness is radical and it changes lives if it is practiced properly.”

I will write more on the subject of the supposed ‘implicit ethics’ of mindfulness in my next post.

4 thoughts on “Worthy panel discusses the problems of secular mindfulness

  1. As a psychotherapist, I teach mindfulness in a non sectarian manner so it can appeal to all. What may start as stress management for many often evolves into a way of doing therapy that is much vaster than traditional talk therapy.

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  2. I find it interesting that the discussion around teaching mindfulness in a secular context seems to be around splicing the ‘definition’ of mindfulness, or how one person frames it over another. I believe that when mindfulness is taught appropriately in its practice, regardless of how one might try to wrap a verbal or conceptual description of it.. what it does is show people a way of inquiry that brings awareness to the present moment; and as a result the effects of our actions in the present moment become clear over time. So, if what we are doing is ‘burglarizing’ ‘mindfully’ (and I feel like this oft used description of the case of ‘unwise mindfulness’ is used without reflection upon the reality of what a ‘mindful burglar’ might actually be doing, and seems to be thrown around without any contemplation of what that would truly look like… ), it may be the case that in the short term this increases the effectiveness of the burglar’s unethical activity, however it also begins to do its work on the burglar who will find it more and more difficult to continue the behavior without starting to see the painful effects on himself and others. This is not at all different from the process that happens with Vipassana practitioners in the arc of their practice.. when problematic behaviors sometimes become more obvious and extreme at some point before they are able to learn how to work more skillfully with such a powerful practice. Mindfulness practice, when taught in the context of the MBSR program as it was created, which uses Vipassana as its foundation – as opposed to the teaching of simply some kind of general ‘awareness’ – teaches awareness in the body in the present moment with a sense of inquiry. This in itself is a powerful practice which will eventually evolve into an ethical foundation which develops internally, as opposed to having some external ethical dogma hoisted upon people, which people do not tend to respond well to unless they are already predisposed. Although the time period for which this fruition takes place depends upon the karma of the individual, it is not in the spirit of how the buddha taught to impose views and beliefs; he tells us to find out for ourselves. And that is what mindfulness practice is: the act of finding out for ourselves. I do not find an absence of ethical structure in the MBSR program with it’s various focus on how our speech effects others, how are actions effect others, how our thoughts effect ourselves and others, and how what we take in in the world effects us. This is not so substantively different than the guidance offered in the 8 fold path. To quote the suttas about ‘unwise mindfulness’ (ie: the burglar reference) is akin to quoting the bible on some obscure commandment not to shave your beard, or that homosexuality is a sin… it might just be taken out of the context that we understand today. (and I wonder if the singular term ‘mindfulness’ in its translation might have missed more subtle variations of meaning in the way it was used in various contexts in the 2500 year old texts.) And, to cut off the idea of mindfulness from any effect on all of the other factors, is to be in error regarding the inter-connectedness of all things… we cannot act in a way that does not have consequences, mindfulness practiced in a secular environment does not lose it’s connection to the development of ethical conduct merely because it is not taught in the same exact context as ‘buddhist’ meditation.

    I think that the concern should be that there is an oversight around people teaching mindfulness with proper credentials (read: have some maturity of their own practice) and having the appropriate level of understanding of the practice so that people who don’t understand what mindfulness actually is, aren’t teaching things that aren’t truly mindfulness. I think that the discussion around whether mindfulness can be taught in a secular context is not truly what the issue is, and that there is more confusion around that than anything.

    I’m not saying that there aren’t issues to be concerned about in the secularization of teaching mindfulness and maintaining the coherence of what mindfulness is… however I do think that the idea that mindfulness can be used to ill-ends is not an entirely accurate evaluation of what those issues are.

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond to this issue at length, I look forward to hearing any responses-
    Genevieve

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    • Thank you for your comments. I think you have capably distilled the arguments being used to claim that MBSR delivers a “universal dharma”. I invite you to listen to the Dharma talk I gave refuting this notion from a scholarly and practical point of view. Links are included in the post “Universal Dharma… Not”. Best to you in your work.

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  3. Dear Lisa,

    Thank you for your response and your invitation to listen to your talk. I listened with interest and in the spirit of good ‘dharma combat’, and with gratitude for your call to promote stimulating and thought-provoking discussion in this highly controversial topic.

    I must take issue with your suggestion that my argument was advocating any such idea that secular Mindfulness practice represents a “universal dharma”. As per your talk, I have also not heard any such argument from those within the MBSR camp. (not to say someone hasn’t said it, but I’ve not heard anything of that nature, nor anything that suggests it)

    My argument was, and is, that mindfulness as a practice in a secular context is not potentially ‘dangerous’, nor does it lead to, or encourage, unethical or harmful behaviors, or do any kind of disservice toward that end. And, in fact, I do believe – I suppose controversially – based on my own Dharma (not MBSR) practice and understanding, that mindfulness practice does plant a seed that ripens into ethical understanding based on the increasing sensitivity that is developed, I do think that it is impossible to do mindfulness practice –whether it begins in unwise or wise understanding- without this development over time. Although maybe not in fast enough time for some observers. In other words; while it’s true that mindfulness could potentially be ‘used unwisely’, that is not the same things as saying that unwise mindfulness can’t or doesn’t, eventually, lead to wise mindfulness. Overall, the effect is beneficial.

    I do, however, agree with you that MBSR is not the ‘whole path’ and again, I’ve never heard anyone else say anything that would suggest otherwise. I would never suggest that MBSR practice be engaged as a way of ‘attaining’ anything other than the practice of mindfulness itself. Further engagement and development in a spiritual path would best be accomplished by a spiritual practice which includes all the aspects of the dharma taught by the Buddha, including those aspects touched upon in your talk, or of those from another tradition incorporating it’s entire teachings and practices.

    As it is true that mindfulness does not represent the whole path, it is also true that it represents the dharma only in part as one of the 8 limbs, as you indicated. But I would take issue with the notion that each of the ‘limbs’ is an island unto itself IN THE CONTEXT OF DHARMA PRACTICE. The suttas themselves indicate otherwise, as ultimately each limb encompasses all of the limbs – it is a paradox of understanding as the dharma tends to love. One does need to begin someplace, and there are many ‘dharma doors’ from which one can enter. Taking a view that one must proceed in a particular rigidly structured way of dharma practice belies the many approaches taken by different masters even within the Theravada tradition itself. Utilizing quotation of scriptures in order to prove a particular point can be engaged to ‘prove’ any number of conflicting points depending upon the intention, the understanding or translation and the context. This is true in any dogma or tradition and particularly tricky when texts represent translations of the original, as nuances of meaning and context can be lost. It is, after all, a text which is a pointer and not the ‘truth’ itself.

    It is also not a logical conclusion to say that because “meditation isn’t Buddhism” or that practicing mindfulness doesn’t “create well-being ‘forever’” as you’d stated (and both statements I completely agree with), that this in any way undermines the skillfulness or usefulness of secular mindfulness.

    While I personally do not feel the need to strip away any and all dharma in teaching MBSR, I do not think it is necessarily a liability to do so. Teaching mindfulness secularly is nothing more than a skillful means to understanding suffering, and can be engaged on a number of levels without ill effect. Of course, I have seen great misunderstandings in students within the context of the dharma, just as there is prone to be misunderstanding in the context of secular mindfulness teachings, depending upon the skill of the teacher and the aptitude of the student.

    Mindfulness has never, in my understanding, represented itself as a “universal dharma”, but as a skillful means, a tool originating in the dharma.

    With Bows to you for offering the this medium for discussion,
    Genevieve

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