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“Mindfulness is a Moral Arc:” An Interview with Dr. Lynette Monteiro
What does clinical psychology have to say about mindfulness? Dr. Lynette Monteiro is an expert on how Buddhist techniques can be applied to Western psychology. A therapist and a professor at the University of Ottawa, she’s also an active teacher in the Canadian mindfulness community.
As the co-author of Mindfulness Starts Here: An Eight-Week Guide to Skillful Living (2013, FriesenPress), Dr. Monteiro started the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic, which teaches techniques of Mindfulness-based Symptom Management (MBSM). The MBSM programs deploy Buddhist-inspired techniques to deal with stressful life events and physical and psychological trauma. Dr. Monteiro is also an active blogger on Buddhist and psychology topics at the website 108 Zen Books.
I interviewed Dr. Monteiro about the connections between psychology and Buddhism, her own Buddhist practice, and why compassion is an essential part of mindfulness. Our interview has been somewhat edited for brevity.
Buddhistdoor Global (BDG): You had influences of both Buddhism and Catholicism in your childhood. Were you as a child particularly drawn to religion?
Lynette Monteiro (LMM): Growing up in colonial Burma, my childhood was the outcome of several influences. My father’s father was Catholic and his mother was Buddhist, and I grew up in a Catholicism of the more salvific flavor you’d find in missionary-based faiths.
However, my paternal grandmother was quite fierce in her own faith as a Buddhist and would take me to the pagoda to chant with the sangha of lay and monastic practitioners. So I was quite equally infused with Christian and Buddhist traditions. I can’t say I was particularly religious or drawn to religion. This is probably because I didn’t see it as something external to me, something to be drawn towards. Worship and practice was simply the fabric of who I was.
BDG: You were born in Burma but then immigrated to Canada. How old were you, and how did that move affect your sense of identity?
LMM: I was 11 years old when we left in 1965. Up until 1963, when the military government took over, my life was very idyllic. I was surrounded with a large, loving family and significant privileges that my parents had attained after World War II ended and Burma was being rebuilt. After the military takeover, life was smaller and more frightening because we were all so vulnerable, regardless of any previous privilege. My parents were on the verge of retiring; they had built their dream home when we had to leave.
Arriving in Canada presented us with many challenges. There was the loss of family and community, with nothing familiar to support us as we settled in. There was the expectation that we should be joyful and grateful and although we were, there was no room for the grief of what we had lost. My father got a job as a laborer in a steel factory and I remember him crying himself to sleep every night; he’d never worked other than in an office as an accountant. My mother fared better as she had a job as a secretary, which was her lifelong career. So, I suppose my identity was shaped along the lines of staving off any emotions that might cause more suffering.
Culturally it was really difficult too. Although I was nominally and physically identified as Asian, our culture was a mix of European and Asian heritage; we were Anglo-Burmese. While that was an advantage in a colonial context, it didn’t have any traction in a dominantly Anglo culture. That was very confusing because where I assumed I’d be accepted, I usually wasn’t because what people saw was a little Asian kid who seemed to presume that she was white. Well, having a British-colonial syntax to my language certainly added to the image of being arrogant and not knowing my place!
BDG: As an adult, you have connected your psychological practice with Buddhist practice. Can you talk about where you see the links between those two?
LMM: I am trained in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and I was drawn to that because my understanding (at that time) of Buddhist thought resonated so strongly with the tenets of CBT. The idea that our minds can so powerfully create and alter our perceptions was both liberating and terrifying! Also, through the work of [clinical psychologist] Arnold Lazarus, I began to understand how the entire body-sensation-mind system functioned. The rest, of course, became a meandering history through Buddhist and Western psychological ways to understand the thought-action systems.
BDG: What does your daily practice look like right now?
LMM: I do my very best to have a formal meditation session every day. I might be successful for a few months, but on days when I’m really tired or discouraged, I either forget or let go. Regardless of the formal sitting, I try to bring an awareness of my quality of mind into each moment, especially the ones where I feel hooked onto a runaway train going to a bad neighborhood!
BDG: You are trained in "Mindful Self-Compassion." What makes compassion for the self so important?
LMM: To start, I need to be clear that self-compassion is not about “the self” because we’re not emailing love notes to some otherness or entity away from us. Self-compassion is rooted first in awareness of our stance to ourselves. That means becoming aware of the anger, neediness, and confusion we pour into ourselves as a means of managing our fears of being rejected, absorbed, or ignored. To avoid these relational states, we engage in all kinds of strategies of self-manipulation. We criticize ourselves, punish every perceived wrongdoing, and hold ourselves to ridiculous, untenable standards to avoid our deepest fears.
Thinking back on the challenges of growing up in cloistered cultures (I was a child of privilege in Burma and then an immigrant in Canada) I can see how being rigid and uncompromising in thought, speech, and action was useful. It formed a safety net. The successes that came from fiercely pushing past any limit while pursuing my goals only reinforced that mentality. Of course, that way of dealing with others only creates a lot of suffering for everyone.
I also hadn’t connected with all the layers of my own suffering, many of which fed the need to be aversive to change, fearful of loss, and blindly convinced of my own rightness. So, when I started practicing lovingkindness, sadly my intention was to be able to ease the suffering of everyone else. That first round of “May I be free from suffering” was very confusing and painful. I came face-to-face with the deep, deep pain of who I had become.
Now I understand that my terribly unskillful ways were a defense and a means of emotional survival, but that doesn’t take away the harm and hurt they caused. I also began to see that how I treated others was a reflection of how I was treating myself. As it often happens, we seek to equalize internal and external states and I had taken my own fears of letting my family down, and my fears of being “less than” and needing to prove I was “as good as” my Canadian classmates to create this hell realm of competitiveness and conflict.
I remember sitting one day, dissolving into tears and sobs, when this realization sunk in. All I could think of were the words, “May I see myself as a limited being.” Much later I was able to add: “and my unskillfulness arises from those limits.” It was an act of managing to understand the roots of my poor actions and, I suppose, a moment of self-forgiveness.
Then the hard work began. How could I bring this into the everyday moments when I turned on myself with harshness? When we’re more attuned to our own ways of hurting ourselves, we resonate with that same emotional state in others. And then, we’re less likely to hurt them because we know what that feels like in us.
BDG: The term mindfulness is sometimes used in the West as a kind of secularized term, divorced from much of the religious trappings of Buddhism. What does that term mean to you?
LMM: Mindfulness is a moral arc inclining towards compassion. In other words, we practice initially to feel better: calmer, steadier, more grounded. As these faculties strengthen, we begin to see ways in which we can act, think, and speak more skillfully. I think, even here, we are still self-involved in that we try to improve so we don’t feel hurt or get in trouble in our relationships.
It might be that most of us stop here for a long time and feel quite satisfied by these improvements because mindfulness as a change in instrumental behaviors can be rewarding in its own way. The impact of our self-improvement may have ripples that improve our relationships. However, I maintain that that is a secondary effect.
In my view of what mindfulness means, that’s not enough. When we stop there at the strictly behavioral level, we’re still at risk of relapsing into our previous unhealthy habits.
For me it is reflected in how we teach mindfulness as a clinical approach. We need to realign ourselves with the values we hold close, the perspectives that enhance connection, and diminish the potential for doing harm to each other. So mindfulness is and has to be relational. We teach from the framework of examining the ways we feel out of balance with our values. Without this cultivation of our better natures, mindfulness is only a tool for momentary change, or even just magical thinking.
108 Zen Books (Official website)