Mindfulness Continues to Rise in the West, but not Without Critics
SEATTLE, Washington—Mindfulness, a practice derived from Buddhism that is sweeping across North America, is becoming increasingly mainstream in much of the Western world, receiving widespread attention in the media and among people from all walks of life. Yet, while its efficacy is widely recognized, not all those working in this field are comfortable with some expressions of mindfulness in the growing movement to secularize the practice.
“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” This is the definition Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) founder Jon Kabat-Zinn provides for “mindfulness.” Kabat-Zinn has been working on MBSR since the late 1970s. The practice draws together yoga and Buddhist meditation, and has been found to be effective for helping people deal with everything from chronic pain to depression to avoiding addictive behavior.
Kabat-Zinn has been adamant about the secular nature of his teaching. Jenny Wilks, an insight meditation teacher and clinical psychologist, quotes him from a 1979 retreat in Barre, Massachusetts, asking himself: “. . . how to take the heart of something as meaningful, as sacred if you will, as Buddhadharma and bring it into the world in a way that doesn’t dilute, profane, or distort it, but at the same time is not locked into a culturally and tradition-bound framework that would make it absolutely impenetrable to the vast majority of people, who are nevertheless suffering and might find it extraordinarily useful and liberative.” (Barre Center for Buddhist Studies)
As MBSR has grown in popularity, an increasing number of critics have come forth, worried about the direction mindfulness is taking. These critics are often committed Buddhists and/or meditation teachers themselves. They most often point to the perceived lack of an ethical framework in many forms of mindfulness taught today.
Among these are Zen teachers David Loy and Ronald Purser, who wrote the widely-read 2013 article, “Beyond McMindfulness,” in which they note:
While a stripped-down, secularized technique—what some critics are now calling “McMindfulness”—may make it more palatable to the corporate world, decontextualizing mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics, amounts to a Faustian bargain. Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will, and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots. (Huffington Post)
Another critic emerging this week is Matthieu Ricard, a French monk in the Dalai Lama’s tradition who was once deemed the “happiest man in the world.”
“There are a lot of people speaking about mindfulness,” Ricard told author and philosopher Roman Krznaric for TIME magazine. “But the risk is that it’s taken too literally—to just ‘be mindful.’ Well, you could have a very mindful sniper and a mindful psychopath. It’s true! A sniper needs to be so focused, never distracted, very calm, always bringing back his attention to the present moment. And non-judgmental—just kill people and no judgment. That could happen!”
Krznaric extrapolates from this that the more overtly secular brands of mindfulness provide “a ‘me me me’ mindfulness that might be good for you, but doesn’t necessarily make you good. In contrast, [Ricard] believes the ancient Buddhist tradition offers a much-needed ethical framework that integrates concepts like compassion, empathy, and caring.” (TIME)
While MBSR remains the best-known mindfulness practice, several second-generation mindfulness-based Interventions (MBIs) have also been developed. Several follow Kabat-Zinn’s secular direction, while others more strongly emphasize their Buddhist roots and context. Lynette Monteiro, clinical professor at the University of Ottowa and co-founder of the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic, told us that:
“MBSR” has taken on an icon status like “Xerox,” where the use of the acronym belies the wide range of forms it represents. This is important because (1) it is unfair to tar MBSR with the sins of unvalidated or “knock-off” versions and, equally so, to tar validated second-generation mindfulness-based programs with the sins of the parent. (2) There are a number of mindfulness programs (such as ours) that have been developed and are similar in protocol but significantly different from the MBSR ideology. Some of these also include explicit practices of sila, while others have a clear connection to cultivating values and virtues. In other words, we would be enriched by opening our conversation to the many different ways mindfulness is being taught and let go of the pointless stranglehold on MBSR/MBCT,* which no more represents the entirety of secular/clinical mindfulness than Xerox represents Canon or HP.
As the variety of mindfulness-based interventions and treatments continues to multiply, it will be important for both critics and the public to understand their differences—both to determine which, if any, will be most beneficial to them and to more carefully recognize deficiencies.
Monteiro wants those working in mindfulness to take this deeper analysis inward as well, “I also want to point out that zooming in on ‘explicit’ ethics as a debate point is a bit of a red herring. As I continue to work on this question, I’m struck by the power of the blind spot: what is implicit that we need to know? What are we conveying in our own way of teaching that is subtly a personal horse we ride, unaware that we are doing so? With the growth of awareness of cultural and religious influences, I think it is as important to ask the tough questions about our own biases as mindfulness teachers, Buddhist or otherwise.”
* Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy
How We Ruined Mindfulness (TIME)
Beyond McMindfulness (Huffington Post)
Life Lessons from the World’s Happiest Man (Esquire)
Secular Mindfulness: potential and pitfalls (Barre Center for Buddhist Studies)
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