Imagine, you have just arrived in the US after a gap of 20 years and begin to catch up with the mindfulness movement. You notice the wide coverage in TV and print media; you find there is a rapidly increasing number of mindfulness therapists, instructors, trainers, and coaches not just in health and business, but across the spectrum of occupations; you read about short term courses and graduate degree programs being offered by more and more universities; hear about the increasing number of public schools introducing it to their students; and come across reports of Hollywood, sports and political celebrities practicing mindfulness. You might conclude that mindfulness has become very trendy and is starting to take roots in the US and UK also.
In this essay, I propose that, as students and practitioners of Buddhism, we welcome the introduction and growth of mindfulness meditation in the West. In the face of many challenges, I urge you to participate more intentionally in its development as a transformational discipline and not just another feel good or stress management movement.
The MSBR version of mindfulness
Regardless of the particular tradition of Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhism that you practice, there might have much to criticize or be disappointed about or even have ideas as to what and how mindfulness should be taught and practiced. In this essay, I take a slightly different perspective, based on my experiences as a student and practitioner of the Vajrayana discipline, as an organizational consultant and executive coach as well as someone, who over the past couple of years, has delved into the world of mindfulness as taught and written in the US and UK. It is also based on my having taken the standard MBSR training as well as courses on how to teach it to students, from three organizations: in the US, UK and Canada, and just started to introduce it to teachers of international schools myself. In addition, starting in 2005, my late wife, Elizabeth, who was an epidemiologist at the University of Maryland, and I had many conversations about how the meaning and practices of MBSR was shaping research protocols and hence the analysis of outcomes. She was already studying the health effects of MBSR mindfulness well before the NIH began to fund mindfulness research. She was also a student of Vajrayana.
I take the perspective that it is better to welcome mindfulness and meditation in all its variations as there is a long learning curve in the West. We are really only in the infancy phase and facing growing pains as it continues to grow and develop in the West.
The current meaning and practices of mindfulness in the US and UK have been shaped by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered its application in a clinical hospital setting in the US, calling it Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR. He says he wanted to introduce the basic concepts and practices of mindfulness, which he had learned from Buddhist teachers, in a language and methodology that could be heard and that made sense in America in the late 70’s when he was given permission to open his clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In his first book, Full Catastrophe Living, Jon wrote about the linkages and sources to Buddhism, particularly Theravada and Zen. This fact is often downplayed or not acknowledged in the US by many MBSR mindfulness instructors, perhaps because of legal, religious and cultural implications in the US it seems. However, since 2014, Jon has begun to talk and write more openly about the Buddhist roots of MBSR mindfulness. I must admit here that the British seem more willing than Americans to acknowledge that mindfulness is inherited from Buddhist traditions. This is quite obvious in a BBC report on mindfulness as compared to Anderson Cooper’s report on CBS show Sixty Minutes.
In all the courses on mindfulness that I have taken, aimed primarily at teachers, there was no elaboration on the nature of perception, awareness, present moment and non-judgmental, all of which are critical concepts and practices in the larger context of meditation. Nor do the current books on MBSR mindfulness attempt to define these terms. So, it could be argued that there is a certain McMindfulness approach appearing in the US; that the MBSR meaning of mindfulness focus on stress regulation, calmness, stress management is attracting large numbers of people; but that what is not included in the popular version of mindfulness are: ethical behavior, dealing with negative emotional patterns and increasing positive ones of love, kindness and compassion, the nature of self, all key aspects of the Buddhist path. So, I understand concerns about that such a limited version of MBSR mindfulness may become the brand to take root in the US.
In a recent book that he co-edited with Mark Williams, a co-founder of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Jon Kabat-Zinn has written that mindfulness also includes awareness of one’s conduct and quality of one’s relationship, inwardly and outwardly, in terms of their potential to harm and as such are intrinsic elements of mindfulness. Mindfulness in everyday life is the ultimate challenge and practice… Or that mindfulness is not one more cognitive-behavioral technique to be deployed in a behavioral change paradigm, but a way of being and seeing that has profound implications for minds and bodies, and for living life as if it really mattered. (from the book Mindfulness-diverse perspectives, edited by Williams and Kabat Zinn, 2013). The other writers in this book also challenge, provoke and offer their views and suggestions, all of which are also influencing the development of mindfulness in the West. While research centers in the US and UK are major players, Germany’s Max Planck Institute has also emerged as an influential research institution.
Why do I bring this up?
As Buddhists, we often forget the long development cycle it took Buddhism to take root in different countries, and in different forms and practices. Take Tibet as an example. The Kings of Tibet were big supporters and investors in bringing over Buddhist masters from India to teach and establish Buddhist traditions, in the translation of texts and practice manuals often inventing a new language to suit the particular culture and understanding in Tibet. Masters were also brought over to clarify when there were mixed or different points of view on key issues such as meditation. Take the case of Atisha in the 11th century who was invited to Tibet to clarify shamatha and vipashyana after centuries of Buddhism growing and declining. And, earlier in the 8th century, Kamalasila was invited to debate the Chinese meditation master Hashang and thus clarify once again the practices of shamatha and vipashyana, which even today is considered an essential text, Stages of Meditation, or as quoted in The Treasury of Knowledge by Jamgon Kongtrul. Prof. Robert Sharf also points to other debates that took place in Tibet in his article Is Mindfulness Buddhist, In our times?. The Mind & Life conferences between Vajrayana masters and scientists have been engaged in a different kind of debate and dialogue, but one that serves to keep the intellectual foundations and practices of Buddhism under investigation while also collaborating with scientists to investigate meditation.
So, the growth and development of mindfulness meditation in the West, according to Buddha’s path may take many many more decades of debates and experiments in terms of its pedagogy, the different meanings and interpretations, new language, new practices, new teaching methods and styles, the use of computing technology and the internet, bio-medical technology and other innovations. I am suggesting that, as students and practitioners of Buddhist meditation, we engage in its developmental process in the West as co-creators and not as bystanders. After all, we are constantly reminded in the core teachings that, embedded in the wisdom of shunyata, is skillful compassionate action.
What are some of the current challenges facing the development of mindfulness?
Scientific paradigm and mindfulness research
We must appreciate that Western scientists and their funders, both private and government, have begun to investigate the MBSR version of mindfulness and now slowly branching into the larger world of meditation, including compassion meditation. In the US, the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest funding agency for medical research, began in 2008-9 to fund serious research into mindfulness based on the MBSR meaning and protocols. It must be said that both scientific and public attention began to increase with reports of fMRI scans of the brain during mindfulness of not just monks, but more importantly of average people with just eight weeks of the standard MBSR training. So, it is very important to understand the paradigm of scientific research and its role in both supporting and hindering the growth of mindfulness.
The Cartesian duality
If we go back to 17th century Europe, there was a very exciting and innovative view proposed by René Descartes, during an era where the Catholic Church was the main gatekeeper of knowledge in science, and very ruthless against its dogma, as we know from the story of Copernicus and Galileo. Descartes proposed that the body and mind were separate entities, one material and other immaterial but not mutually interconnected. Mind was the domain of spirit and soul, and hence God (and by default, the priests) mediated between the body and mind. By separating the soul, God and the priests from the physical body, scientists could study its anatomy and physiology – a brilliant move back them. Descartes was also a mathematician and philosopher and is considered to be a key founder of the current Western scientific paradigm, namely rationalism and empiricism. One cannot help but appreciate what a huge role he played in enabling scientific thinking and research to flourish in the West, including in medicine. The study of anatomy and physiology without worrying about the dogmas of the Church, gave enormous insights into how the body functions and hence how to treat it as a mechanistic system. Now, of course, the dogma of body-mind dualism is revealing the blindness and limits of Western medical science. So, it is important to both appreciate and understand that this 300-year-old paradigm continues to shape current research investigations into mindfulness, the brain, mind and body.
Scientists are caught in a bind because their absolute insistence in only third-person investigation of a material or objectivity-only world prevent them from fully studying the nature of consciousness, thinking, feeling, which require a first perspective experience. There is also a very subtle historical and cultural bias against anything that seems like religion. The word meditation is actually a Christian term even if today it is widely associated with Eastern spiritual disciplines. Religion and spirituality is kept out of research labs by scientists, and this bias is seen in how they view Buddhist meditation or other mind-body disciplines such as yoga and chi-gong.
Third-person and first-person research
In fact, Francisco Varela the scientist co-founder of the Mind & Life Institute, after the first conference was held in 1987, admitted that one of the main reasons it did not go so well, was that most of the scientists were not open to the possibility of first-person accounts, nor open to the possibility that the mind and consciousness could be anything other than a product of matter, that is, the brain. The current approach in scientific research continues to be based on this same rationalist, empiricist view: that the world is made up of only matter and that the brain is what produces mental events and consciousness itself. So, that is why despite years of efforts by scientists like the late Varela and others, the idea of third person investigation being integrated with first person account has yet to take off. In the meantime, scientists keep looking for evidence of the benefits of mindfulness and meditation on what they call bio-markers, neural and electro-chemical changes in the body. Without such evidence, scientists will continue to remain skeptical and many will refuse to give up their standard assumption or unproven theory that the brain is what produces all and any kind of consciousness.
The brain-mind duality is still alive in the medical world, from education of doctors, to their practices and their research programs. The fact that integrative medicine is a specialty that has less than a 20-year history in the US is very revealing. Contrast this to the Asian or Buddhist paradigm of the body-mind-emotions as one whole system. I point this out to remind you that mindfulness is often seen as a state of mind, like a separate phenomenon. In this essay, I will not venture into the meaning of mind and consciousness as seen from science and Buddhists. That will be included in the book that I am writing.
The other dualism that is also very widely accepted in medicine, business, politics and social science is that of thinking and feeling. Until brain scientists showed that both thinking or so-called cognitive functions and emotions-feelings happen in the same brain, the predominant view was that emotions were considered not just separate from thinking but also a real mystery. Medical doctors and business managers were taught to keep emotions out of their analysis and decision making. Today, brain scientists claim that all decision making involve some aspects of feeling-emotional functions of the brain, and that recognizing feelings involve language and hence the thinking part of the brain. In fact, in the brain, different parts are interconnected in varying degrees to function as an ensemble. The new findings from neuroscience have enormous implications for educators at all levels and they call into question current beliefs about the nature of cognition, knowledge and knowing and hence the existing pedagogy in schools and colleges.
Unfortunately, many reports by journalists fail to point out another critical fact: the current research on mindfulness and the brain are based not on direct causal factors but more on co-relationships, two very different scientific analyses. The majority of the public confuse co-relationships with causal factors believing that the fMRI images are proof of the direct links of specific brain parts with specific practices. Neuroscientists like Richard Davidson make it a point to say correlates not causal when talking about specific brain reactions from mindfulness.
Differing aims of mindfulness
A key criticism of the current meaning and practices of MBSR mindfulness is about its aim and how different it is from the Buddhist approach. The current approach, as I have noted earlier, is based on Kabat-Zinn’s successful application in a clinical setting where the aim was and is to reduce pain and suffering, both physical and psychological. Hence, the popular understanding of mindfulness is about helping to reduce stress, bring about more inner peace and calmness, and reduce some of the psychological problems or suffering. Clearly in my view, in the current situation in the West, given its history of science, the Judeo-Christian religions, capitalism, education, legal and political systems, what has become acceptable is the popular meaning which Kabat-Zinn started off with, the MBSR version. In essence, the brand MBSR sells.
It is very revealing to note that in the education sector in the US, the word meditation is not acceptable but mindfulness is. You see, meditation is seen as an Eastern religious belief and practice, and therefore cannot be taught in schools nor be mentioned in scientific research. Prayers, even Christian ones, were ruled illegal in public schools. In the business world, the focus is on how mindfulness can lower costs, through better stress management, lower absenteeism, improve productivity and performance as well as better decision making, all very important in a competitive, dog-eat-dog, greed-is-good environment. I must admit that I agree with Thich Nhat Han who says, the teaching of genuine mindfulness will lead to a deeper examination of the entire corporate and capitalist culture.
Of course, the challenge for him and us is how do we promote a wider and deeper meaning and practices of mindfulness as part of the larger world of meditation, beyond just this popular version of MBSR, keeping in mind the legal, cultural and political challenges in countries like the USA.
An interesting side story is a recent report on mindfulness by a group of all-party MPs in the UK. They were learning and practicing an MBSR version. They have endorsed mindfulness and call for government funding of its application in health, education and industry. (see A Mindful Nation, UK 2015).
Over the past few years, in my study and research of mindfulness in the US and UK, I have noticed that the MBSR version is being challenged by other scholar-practitioners, the most public one is in the book, Mindfulness, Diverse Perspectives. Two other examples come to mind: The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert, 2009 and The art and science of mindfulness by Shapiro and Carlson, 2009, in which they acknowledge the linkages to Buddhism and how its aims are different from the current popular version in the West. In essence, in Buddha’s path, mindfulness is a very important method to address not just psychological or mental suffering and pain, but also the deeper existential ones, from an intellectual and experiential way. Whereas today in the West, neither scientists nor psychologists have an intellectually coherent theory and practice to deal with the deeper existential challenges and potential of what it means to be a human being. I must, however, point out two centers that are at the leading edge of mindfulness, emotional intelligence and education: The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, USA and the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
The independent self and mindfulness
Another key challenge we face in the growth of mindfulness in the West, from an intellectual and emotional perspective, is the unquestioned belief in an inherently independent, separate and singular self, I or identity. One of my non-Buddhist teachers, Fernando Flores, friends with Chilean neurobiologists Varela and Maturana, told me in 1986 that it would probably take a century before the concept of self or I as a conceptually constructed identity would be accepted in Western academia. In the West this inquiry is further complicated by neuroscientists who keep searching for neural evidence in the brain for the experience of self or I, but cannot find it. So, they conclude there is no self, but this is not the same view as in Buddhism, where you embrace the paradox of a conceptually constructed self, I or identity with the view of shunyata, while living in the conventional world of health, money, family, and so on.
In the current MBSR mindfulness training, the topic of self or identity as conceptually constructed is just not brought up even as something to investigate. It seems, to me, that Western teachers of mindfulness have been trained to avoid this topic altogether. On a related note, despite the popularity of the concept of emotional intelligence EQ and its widespread training, there is almost no connection of EQ with the nature of mind, self and I. The implications are enormous in terms of ethical behavior, the practice of karuna or compassion, and the reduction of negative or afflictive patterns of thinking-feeling-behaving. The central aim of Buddha’s path is to eliminate afflictive or destructive emotions and realize the nature of one’s own self or mind and live in harmony with genuine kindness, love and compassion, not just reduce stress, be more calm, perform well at work and show more loving kindness. At the heart of this path is an examination of the nature of self, identity or I, the nature of perception, knowing and cognition, emotions and hence our actions.
To me, this is where a major intellectual and pragmatic difference lies in why and how mindfulness is taught in the West and in Buddhist meditation.
Negativity bias in the brain
I want to bring up what seems to be a common pattern for most of human beings. According to Rick Hanson, quoting other scientists, as we humans evolved our brains, mind and behavior, learned that avoiding danger and risky situations or sticks was more important for survival than getting carrots. As he says, “While you could get by occasionally missing a carrot, it was very dangerous to miss a stick as you may not survive. The alarm bell of your brain, the amygdala, uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory, in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. Unfortunately, the brain is inefficient at turning positive experiences into neural structure. This design feature of the brain creates a kind of bottleneck that reduces the conversion of positive mental states to positive neural traits. Most positive experiences are wasted on the brain.”
Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain and Hardwired for Happiness.
In the world of management and relationships, we tend to notice what is missing, what is broken or not working, or what we don’t like, much more than what is working well, or the positive acts and words of another person or even of oneself. No wonder, according to John Gottman, the pre-eminent marriage and relationship guru, at least in the US, we have to maintain a 5:1 or at least a 3:1 ratio of positive, affirming, caring deeds and words to negative ones in order to maintain a healthy and happy relationship.
Likewise, we have to find ways to appreciate the growth of mindfulness in the West, while also examining what is not working and missing, and actively participate in its unfolding.
Appreciate and engage in its unfolding
Given the brief history of mindfulness and Buddhist meditation in the West; given the paradigm of science and scientific research; given the predominant role and influence of money, capitalism, greed-is-good attitude in society; and given the widely accepted belief in individualism and independent self or identity, it is important that we recognize and appreciate that despite these obstacles mindfulness is gaining more acceptance in the West. At the same time, there needs to be a healthy dialogue and debate to examine what is missing, what could be improved or changed or transformed, with the intention of contributing to a richer and deeper growth of this ancient but very relevant practice.
In my view, it is imperative that as students and practitioners of Buddha’s path we find ways to influence the unfolding of this practice in the West and not sit on the sidelines just commenting on what is inadequate. After all, mindful awareness is a capacity that we human beings are born with, no matter in which country.
Just recently, I embarked on a mission to introduce in schools and colleges an approach that integrates a deeper meaning and practices of mindfulness with emotional skills and conversational and linguistic intelligence that is consistent with Buddha’s path. So, one of the first steps is to develop a network of master trainers in the region, who in turn can train school teachers, not just in English but also in their respective mother tongues.