Mindfulness: Context Matters

Context Matters

Does mindfulness as therapy have integrity? Is mindfulness meditation an authentic Buddhist practice? Is mindfulness a form of social control or can it create a more just society and sustainable future?

A couple of weeks ago, I joined a panel discussion with Vishvapani, who does the Radio 4 thought for the day Buddhist slot, Kirsten Kratz, who teaches at Gaia House and a lovely man in a kilt, Ratnadeva. We were discussing Mindfulness: social revolution or limited spirituality, under canvass in the Blackdown Hills at Buddhafield Green Earth Awakening (GEA). Can mindfulness create a social revolution – a more just society and sustainable future – and if so how do we, who teach it have to change first?

 Mindfulness meditation as we know it today has come out of therapy. First to manage chronic, “untreatable” physical pain and then to prevent emotional pain – depression. Pioneers who developed these therapies, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), have succeeded in building a bridge between Buddhist meditation techniques and a very modern way of understanding the mind. How did this happen?

 To answer this question we need to turn the clock back 100 years and more. Around the beginning of the 20th Century, Buddhism in South East Asia needed to adapt to a changing world. In Burma, institutions of state and “religion” were crumbling under British colonial rule. A natural leader, the monk Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923), came up with a new theory to make it possible for lay Buddhists to become the guardians of Burmese Buddhism and so preserve Burmese cultural identity. This new approach was based on the notion that liberating insight could be gained by short-cutting traditional approaches to meditation and academic learning. Ledi Sayadaw taught that liberating insight could be gained by directly observing processes of experience in meditation.

Thailand escaped colonisation under the rein of King Mongkut (1804-1868) who modernised Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism became an official state sponsored religion. Superstitious traditions were discouraged and strict obedience to monastic vows became centrally important. Acceptance became a cornerstone of Thai Buddhism.

Now, these closely related forms of Buddhism have shaped key tenets of mindfulness as therapy: observation of psychological processes and acceptance of the way things are. Mindfulness meditation is finding a new audience as these principles seem to answer a contemporary need and can be explained in psychological terms.

To satisfy the requirements of evidence-based interventions a hypothesis, built on existing evidence-based theory, was tested in a clinical trial. The intervention under examination (MBCT to prevent depression) had to be deliverable in a repeatable dose like any drug. Evidence is value-free and the intervention is standardised.

Some Buddhists are critical of this. They argue that Mindfulness, in any shape or form, should not be stripped of ethics yet alone its philosophical framework. It is, I believe, important to examine the assumption behind this view and questions that arise from it.

  • Are claims of traditional authenticity valid?
  • What are the implications of teaching mindfulness as a value-free intervention?
  • Can secular mindfulness provide a rational framework for ethics?

We need examine these questions because contemporary society needs a secular framework for ethics. We need to replace the prevailing idea that self-interest drives evolution and economic development because this ideology is creating dangerously unstable levels of social inequality and fuelling patterns of consumption that are destroying the life-support systems of the planet.

Vishvapani opened the discussion at Buddhafield GEA. There is a reason why he is the voice of Buddhism on Radio 4. He is not only a bit of a Buddhist geek and an experienced Mindfulness teacher but his voice carries the assurance of “The Establishment”. He is closely involved with the quasi-autonomous non-governmental activities involved in making mindfulness more accessible across society.

Vishvapani made a strong case for the benefits of secular mindfulness. It’s hard to criticise mindfulness as a therapy because it has helped many thousands of people as a “value-free” package. How could Buddhists object to secular mindfulness that frees so many from a lifetime of suffering?

A question from the floor really asked the big “Buddhist” question: Was the growth in interest in secular mindfulness going to be the end of Buddhism? Was secularisation going to be the death nail of all that is sacred in Buddhism?

Let us revisit the assumptions behind the question. What is now taught as secular mindfulness is sometimes presented as a well-crafted vehicle for the Buddhadharma. In fact, John Kabat-Zinn claims:

“Since all mindfulness-based interventions are based on relatively intensive training in awareness in the context of a universal dharma framework (and as I have been asserting here, not different in any essential way from Buddhadharma), the various maps of the territory of the dharma can be hugely helpful to the MBSR instructor in certain ways. Paradoxically, they can also be hugely interfering and problematic.” Kabat-Zinn, 2011.

Kabat-Zinn is claiming that mindfulness-based interventions are in some way taught in the context of a universal dharma framework (and that this is not different in any essential way from Buddhadharma). Is this really true?

Kabat-Zinn is clearly asserting that he is teaching “universal dharma” and this is Buddhist. What he is teaching may be his interpretation of “universal dharma” and Buddhadharma but I believe that like so many claims of authenticity based on tradition this is hard to sustain under examination.

The explicit objective of the Buddha’s teachings was to escape rebirth in lives to come, in this or other worlds. Suffering and life are inseparable and to escape suffering we must escape the endless cycle of rebirth. For most, those in search of Nirvana renounced the world and became monks and nuns. Monks and nuns live by the generosity of the lay population who gain merit by giving them food and, if wealthy, building monasteries in which they could live. The merit gained by giving alms to monks and nuns then improved the lay Buddhist’s prospects for a better rebirth in the next life. Today, this idea has been transmuted into reducing psychological suffering caused by stress and living better in the World – a very different objective to that taught by the Buddha.

The techniques applied in contemporary mindfulness course are based on modern developments of Buddhism in South East Asia combined with Zen meditation and even influences from non-Buddhist thinking. “Choiceless Awareness” (a term used to describe non-directive or open monitoring meditation in MBSR), for example, is a term that a modern teacher of a nihilistic form of Advaita (“Hindu” non-duality) taught by the popular twentieth century guru-like, Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti even argued against formal meditation as it set up an unhelpful objective of something to do to achieve something. Rather, as Kabat-Zinn says, we would do well to realise that there is “Nothing to do and nowhere to go”.

Kabat-Zinn’s Buddhist personal practice came from Zen. He then based MBSR on techniques from modern South East Asian Buddhism (Theravada) and the contemporary form of Yoga he was exposed to. Some Zen approaches are characterised by an attempt to confound the rational mind and stress realisation through direct experience in meditation. This fitted well with Ledi Sayadaw’s theory and this is what has lead to a common notion that mindfulness is about not-thinking and living in the present moment. Sensory experience is somehow reality and thoughts have no substance.

This is particularly useful in helping people disengage from beliefs and thinking that causes stress, anxiety and depression. It is a value-neutral antidote to the modern mind. It frees us from self-criticism and distorted expectations of the risks which confront us from day to day but it also implies that experiential distress in the face of injustice is just imaginary. It creates a form of moral relativism. Values and ethics are just a subjective choice. They are culturally derived. They have no intrinsic meaning. There is no universal truth that give rise to them.

Traditionally, philosophical understanding and ethics were inseparable from meditation. In fact, on one occasion following a teaching, the Dalai Lama was asked what form of meditation he would recommend for westerners. He answered something along the following lines: “Single pointed concentration [is] not much good. First study, study, study, then you know what you are doing.” The importance of philosophical education, central to more traditional forms of Buddhist teaching, has to a very significant extent, been lost in contemporary models of mindfulness derived from Zen and modern Theravada – translated into a psychological self-help system.

Let us wipe the historical slate clean and recognise that contemporary mindfulness, while it may have come out of Asia, is largely a modern phenomenon. This makes it possible to go back to first principles to understand what is going on. Is mindfulness leading to a social revolution?

To answer this question let’s first look at the context in which it is being taught as a therapy for depression. This is the place to start because this is where it has gained an evidence-base, which has resulted in an explosion of research and its popularisation as a self-help technique to manage stress.

MBCT is positioned as an alternative to CBT or Anti-Depressants. Different people suit different approaches but all these three approaches are roughly equally effective at preventing the storm clouds of depression returning in a person’s life. I would argue that much mental illness including depression is a product of modern social conditions and as such preventing depression is then a way to help people cope with those conditions. Social and economic conditions, as I have mentioned before, that are creating dangerously unstable levels of social inequity and levels of  consumption that are destroying the life-support systems of the planet.

Therapy becomes a means of social control if it doesn’t address the underlying causes that are creating the conditions that are producing so much stress in modern life. We need to create organisations in which people can flourish and conditions in wider society that foster mental wellbeing. Our problems are systemic. Can mindfulness truly become a social revolution and succeed in changing the way things are done? If so, we need to think about mindfulness meditation in this context to build courses that can have a systemic impact on the way we go about things at work and in our private lives. How?

Mainstream models of mindfulness are based on a notion of an individual psychological self and subjective experience is dependent on complex neurological processes. This model has produced psychological explanations that can be tested in trials. This is changing the way we treat stress, anxiety and depression but this is evidence-based approach has its limitations.

Firstly, when an intervention is shown to be effective, the dose and delivery system need to be reproduced to reproduce the outcomes predicted by trials. Much is invested in teaching and training the proven approach but this obstructs adaptation. Now, we need to adapt mindfulness meditation programmes to a new context – a context of organisational and social change if we wish to address the social causes of the conditions that are producing the problem in the first place.

Secondly, it is very difficult to apply an evidence-based approach to complex processes. Mindfulness meditation is a complex intervention and understanding its complexity is very difficult to do with quantitative methods.

We need to adapt mindfulness meditation programmes by applying interdisciplinary, systemic thinking and qualitative approaches to assess their impact. We need to acknowledge the complex nature of the challenge of teaching mindfulness meditation and to do this we need to recognise that individual experience is a reflection of social conditions. We need to think about mindfulness meditation as a social process to apply it to organisational and social change. To do this we need to design programmes that teach mindfulness of social experience as opposed to mindfulness of psychological experience of the individual separated from their social environment.

When we teach mindfulness in a social context, mindfulness of personal experience becomes mindfulness of experience in relationship with others. When this happens, we recognise that the insights we have into our own automatic processes that produce stress, anxiety and depression are no different to automatic processes that drive others’ behaviour. We realise that we have to bring an accepting attitude to ourselves as we begin to see how our mind and our behaviour is driven by mindless habit.

As we begin to understand our own mindless habits we begin to see that our reactions of negative judgment, anger, frustration, impatience to others is just one more mindless habit and it doesn’t feel great. We learn that it feels much better to respond to others with the same acceptance, curiosity and compassion we learn to apply to ourselves in our personal practice. In a social context, mindfulness meditation naturally leads to a more compassionate and understanding way of relating to others.

In a social context, mindfulness becomes value driven. In a social context mindfulness enables us to build a sense of what feels better in the way we relate to others. Then, it helps us construct an experiential framework for ethical behaviour and values that are congruent with our experience.  Mindfulness in a secular social context brings with it an experiential basis for understanding Dharma.

Kirsten Kratz shared her desire to see the sacred in contemporary Buddhism. Chatting to her after the panel discussion she recognised that Buddhafield, produced by a team of Triratna Buddhists, who love their Tantric Buddhist rituals (which come from Tibetan Buddhism), did not need this message. Her message was relevant in the context of contemporary Buddhist approaches that are much more closely aligned to the development of modern mindfulness meditation.

However, let’s just address the concerns of Buddhists who fear that secular mindfulness may bring about the end of the sacred so precious to Triratna Buddhists. Now, as Vishvapani explained, teaching mindfulness presents an opportunity for right livelihood for a Buddhist and it brings great benefit to many. More than this, however, in a social context, mindfulness meditation becomes the foundation for understanding and compassion. Does this exclude the sacred? In my mind it does not. In fact it provides a rational experiential path to establish it – the foundation of the Tantric Vehicle.

The sacred in experience relates to symbolic representations of archetypes that in secular terms are expressed as values. These things may be complex constructs but they are no more or less real than the phenomenological arising of direct sensory experience in the present moment (the focus of modern mindfulness meditation), however, unlike the later they reflect a deeper sense of meaning. As a Buddhist they become objects of concentration where their power is generated. In their completion they transform reality itself.

First published as a guest blog for The School of Mindfulness, Oct 8 2016