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Secular or spiritual? Reflections on Roots and Values in Mindfulness, Buddhism, and Beyond

As an ex-Catholic German, trained musician, and ordained Buddhist who now lives in Scotland and teaches “secular mindfulness” to groups and individuals, where do I feel at home, spiritually and culturally? In a cathedral, a tenement flat converted into a Buddhist Centre, or a hired community hall? When singing German folk songs or British carols, chanting Tibetan mantras or staying silent? Or am I at home when being faithful to traditional Buddhist teachings and the communities preserving them, or in the company of free-thinkers who forge their own, individual paths?

It appears that all of these threads are coming together to create a new, distinctive fabric; a weft and warp of tradition and innovation. This has happened for immigrants through the ages—a relative rootlessness is experienced as a loss, as a yearning and an awareness of significant values. A voyage of cultural integration eventually brings forth new, creative forms of expression. Within that process, there is an inevitable, necessary voice that warns: “Make sure you don’t lose anything precious, anything essential.”

Such voices are also part of an ongoing discussion in the emerging modern mindfulness world, as ancient Eastern spirituality comes face to face with Western psychology and each is influenced by the other. Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life are now “doing mindfulness,” with courses held in areas as diverse as hospitals, schools, government offices, businesses, prisons, the military, yoga halls, and private therapeutic treatment rooms. Mindfulness teacher training has become an attractive addition to the career portfolios of many. What exactly are they all doing? What assumptions originating in their cultural, religious, or areligious upbringing do they bring to their mindfulness practice? What are they really looking for? Methods to reduce stress within otherwise unquestioned, materialistic ways of life? Or something a bit more radical and transformational? Guidelines for better living that examine the roots of both personal conditioning and systemic structures?

What are the emergent new support structures for lifelong practice? Where do people go for continued support when their eight-week mindfulness course has finished: a smartphone app? A Buddhist center? Drop-in sessions at their place of work, community center, or self-organized groups of friends? What are the new rituals emerging within such new communities? How do you celebrate a mindful Christmas, for example? And what role do they play in addressing the most pressing and urgent concerns of our times: the fragile political and environmental state of the world?  

At the heart of this enquiry are needs and values: how they often unconsciously govern our behavior; how they are exploited by clever manipulators of market interests; how we choose and cultivate them; and how they affect our well-being and that of other living beings. Historically, this has been a religious matter. The church—taken in the widest sense here, including Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim denominations—was and is there to orchestrate ritual reminders of what matters, of what moves the heart. It uses music, drama, color, and scent to powerfully affect people’s emotions, to stimulate faith, and to give moral direction.

The church also did/does a whole host of other things connected with vested power interests that make many modern Westerners wary of religion. They don’t appreciate the notion of Hell as a punishment for misdeeds. These days, many people interested in spiritual development—although they may not call it that—turn to mindfulness because it is “secular.” Definitions of “secular” put it in negative terms not connected with spiritual or religious matters. Apart from the sound of a meditation bell, whether analogue or ringing from a smartphone, there are no religious implements. There are no clerical hierarchies; the teacher doesn’t wear any special garments and doesn’t expect any deferential treatment. You simply pay them for a service. 

In practice, it is less clear cut. When Jon Kabat-Zinn* entered the University of Glasgow’s big lecture hall during a mindfulness conference, the auditorium—I almost wrote the congregation—rose to their feet and the reverent hush brought to mind elements of guru worship. Not that he did anything to engender that; if anything, he seemed a little uncomfortable with it. His answer to the question of whether he sees himself as a Buddhist was a little ambiguous. He did write this:

The early years of [Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction] and the development of other mindfulness-based clinical Interventions were the province of a small group of people who gave themselves over to practicing and teaching mindfulness basically out of love, out of passion for the practice, knowingly and happily putting their careers and economic well-being at risk because of that love, usually stemming from deep first-person encounters with the dharma and its meditative practices, often through the mediation of Buddhist teachers and acknowledged masters within a number of well-defined traditions and lineages.

(McCown, Reibel, and Micozzi, 2010, p.xii)

I have seen passionate altruism demonstrated by many “secular” mindfulness teachers and practitioners, but it is perhaps not the first thing we associate with the term, even if we would like our teachers to “walk their talk,” to embody calm and compassion. Secularity has connotations of individual autonomy and rationality, where nobody will be asked to believe anything that science can’t prove; there is no immaculate conception in mindfulness. It is a scientific discipline with thousands of research papers to prove it. Unlike religion, it doesn’t concern itself with the provision of ethical guidance.

But maybe in being so careful to distance itself from religion, secular mindfulness has missed an opportunity. There is a difference between preaching the law and sensitively stimulating ethical awareness. My experience of introducing the topic of values into mindfulness teaching has been encouraging; people are welcoming the conversation. They enjoy homework exercises such as gratitude practice and “random acts of kindness,” and they listen eagerly to research accounts that explain how generosity leads to enhanced well-being. Finding a sense of meaning or an “anchor” is frequently listed among the reasons for being on a mindfulness course. It seems that in the face of the many severe problems assailing the world, there is a pressing need for a more consciously and widely cultivated values-based orientation. It is disturbing that 18 per cent of young children in the UK don’t feel that their life is worth living.**

Where does a sense of meaning come from in this fast-moving, materialistic, digital-media suffused, extinction-threatened age? I don’t agree with the Dalai Lama when he says, “I think the best people to stimulate awareness about what’s happening and what needs to be done are not the politicians or leaders but the scientists. They are the real gurus in these matters.” (Tricycle) My impression is that scientists are more excited about what can be done—creating new organisms from stem cells or artificial intelligence, for example—than how, why, and whether it should be done. I think it may have to be us, anyone starting to wake up and consider more mindful ways of living, who are asked to clarify our ethical stance and take responsibility. Exploring these issues in our meditation circles, whatever their degree of explicit secularity or spirituality, could be of great support.

* Kabat-Zinn was the first person to introduce mindfulness courses into the American healthcare system and is seen by many as the father of the modern mindfulness movement.

** YouGov survey quoted in The Guardian, 10 February 2019: “Anxiety on rise among the young in social media age.”


McCown, Donald, Reibel Diane, and Marc S. Micozzi. 2010. Teaching Mindfulness: A Practical Guide for Clinicians and Educators. New York: Springer.

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