Book review: What’s wrong with mindfulness [or] Reflections on an open barn door

barndoor-small What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and what isn’t): Zen perspectives (Wisdom Publications Inc., 2016; please purchase this book from the publisher to support their work) is edited by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magrid. Contributors attempting to tease out the Zen rights and secular wrongs of mindfulness are a list of teachers who in the Zen world certainly are well-respected for their teachings and social engagement. The Epilogue is written by Robert Sharf and is best read before launching into the book itself.

I have been looking forward to reading this book, feeling a sense of trust in the editors and contributors simply because of their respectable training and, in cases of Magrid and Grace Shireson, being grounded in the secular world of psychology and psychotherapy.

The premise of the book is that there is much right with mindfulness and much wrong, the latter being of significant concern with regard to the safe-guarding the integrity of Buddhist teachings and practice. In principle, I doubt anyone would debate this as a general statement applicable to any conceptualization of mindfulness, either Buddhist, secular or Secular Buddhist. Magrid and fellow authors however seem to take an ambivalent stance. (Note bene: in this case “fellow” is sadly beyond accurate as the lead chapters are primarily written by men, with the exception of Sallie Jiko Teasdale; and, her chapter had less to do with the dialectic of religious and secular mindfulness than the zaniness of the hippy-like atmosphere at the Omega Institute.)

There is much right and much wrong in this book. In part, it seems an attempt (as are many criticisms of modern mindfulness) to shut the blasted-open barn door by hoping that these criticisms will bring prodigal ponies back home to their stalls.  But all is not totally lost, irreversibly. The writings on Zen found primarily in the first section of Critical Concerns are good (if you read around the criticisms) and what one would expect of such lauded teachers. The second section on Creative Engagement slides around with little to anchor it in mindfulness (the primary consideration here) and much less to give one confidence in what isn’t wrong with it. The sole exception in this section – and in fact in the whole book – is the chapter by Gil Frondsal and Max Erdstein; read this one with the intention of savouring every word!

Critical concerns when Buddhist teachers talk about critical concerns

As with most writings that attempt to resolve the phenomenon of secular mindfulness, authors become mired in the lack of clarity regarding whom they are referring to. Inevitably they fall into the pit of offering broad brush criticisms of secular mindfulness and I  think by that term they now mean the “wellness” focused programs. It would help if they were clear about the cachement of their critiques: secular meaning wellness, clinical applications, or some amalgam of a variety of spiritually-based programs that fuse mindfulness into their own teachings. It makes a difference because then the concerns about integrity of the programs, respect for training, and comprehension of what is being taught can be addressed with greater precision. And perhaps such a careful discernment may allow for honouring the use of secular mindfulness in the trenches of mental illness, not the least of which is the urgent need for care of our military, veterans, and first responders with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. In these cases, symptom relief is synonymous with hope for a future. To deride it as a superficial intention is to further stigmatize mental health challenges and to insist that those struggling with depression, anxiety and life-changing mental illness just work harder to get better.

The concerns expressed by the authors on this first section in the book also shuttled between heartfelt criticisms and adulation of the original mindfulness-based application. Over the last couple of years, the attitude has shifted from global undifferentiated censure of mindfulness programs to sounding like a detente has been reached between Buddhist teachings and at least one form of mindfulness, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Here, the authors have elevated MBSR to “excellent” status  – despite the tendency of Kabat-Zinn and most MBSR teachers to evade the issue of including or speaking to ethics in the curriculum. While it is accepted in the general secular community that MBSR offers good training and has a caché of effectiveness, it does clang to see this sudden and high regard for a program whose philosophy has been a lightning rod for consistent criticism from the Buddhist community.

The inconsistency of the critical process is most apparent in references to Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness which in one part is offered seemingly as supported by Dogen (p 34 – though I can’t tell if it’s actually in counterpoint to Dogen) and in another chapter strongly criticized (p 74, Senauke). Sadly, Senauke attributes the definition to Elizabeth Stanley and Amisha Jha in the course of expressing concerns about their military mental fitness program. That may seem trivial however if we are to take seriously any deconstruction of what mindfulness is / is not / has become, it does not bode well for our arguments to praise the developer and his program, including his definition and then to take it apart (albeit through misattribution). The optics of this latter clouds whether the Senauke is challenging the definition (which I think is appropriate) or the people who published it in their independent article, people whose intentions Senauke feels is antithetical to the (Buddhist) intent of mindfulness.

What is not added and needs to be

The greatest concern to me in reading this book is that the elevation of MBSR as the program to follow (with the subtext of “well if you must and if Zen is too difficult for you”) disregards several programs which have developed in the last 30-some years that are grounded in ethics and values. Mindfulness-integrated Cognitive Therapy (MiCBT), developed by Dr. Bruno Cayoun who is a vipassana practitioner and student of Goenka, is notable for its inclusion of the five precepts. Our own program, Mindfulness-based Symptom Management includes the Five Mindfulness Trainings as values clarification practices. Programs for persons who are incarcerated (Fleet Maull’s Prison Mindfulness), military and first responders with PTSD who struggle with moral injuries, personnel in troubled organizations have all benefitted from examining the incongruence between their ethics and what they are called to do. And, in doing so they have found a way to navigate the unpredictable waters of their lives. Furthermore, while it isn’t in the purview of this book, the growth in compassion based teachings speaks to a world moving beyond the alleviation of individual to global suffering.

As I wrote above, read Frondsal’s chapter. It’s excellent. And let’s hope that, as Shireson writes of her teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman roshi, as we continue to try to have a respectful, co-facilitated conversation on this critical application of Buddhist concepts already loosed on the world, “I’ll turn you and you turn me.”

8 thoughts on “Book review: What’s wrong with mindfulness [or] Reflections on an open barn door

  1. You write, “In these cases, symptom relief is synonymous with hope for a future. To deride it as a superficial intention is to further stigmatize mental health challenges . . .” I agree. Here in the West, most people who try meditation are initially looking for symptom relief. Symptom relief is often very complicated, too. I’ve found that a great many women with mental illness were abused sexually or in other ways as children, and PTSD may be a fundamental problem.

    • Hi Jeanne, the Buddha’s teachings were clear: meet people where they are. It frustrates me that the people who seek help are presented in these discussions as uninformed, blank slates without character, values or strengths. As you’re pointing out, they come into the room having made tough moral choices and are far from being blobs to be influenced or shaped.

  2. wonderful review!
    if a term associated with
    fundamental Buddhist teachings
    is used out of context
    seems inevitable to create problems.
    i’ve suggested simply using the word
    “awareness” for those, at school or worksites,
    finding difficulty with the other
    elements of the 8 fold path. 🙂

    • Thank you, smilecalm! Gil Fronsdal says exactly this in his chapter (p 99). He prefers to use “awareness” for “sati” and “mindfulness for “sampajanna”. We have typically used “mindfulness for sati, which is really not accurate.

  3. Thank you for this honest review Lynette. The Buddha’s teaching is indiscriminately for all, as the experience of suffering (“dissatisfactoriness”) is universal. When it is well understood, it is perceived as a universal path for a universal condition: unawareness as phenomena take place, as they are maintained and as they pass away. Buddhist or not, a person who learns to see things more accurately is bound to benefit. Calling ourselves Buddhist doesn’t increase the accuracy of the teaching we propose, nor does it make it more efficacious. We often forget the essential, the “middle way”. In my view, our clear understanding, clear description and accurate application of what we use from Buddhist teachings matter most. Provided what we teach is clear in our mind and in that of others, and is not assumed to be the entire buddhadhamma, the teaching is preserved and benefits are gained.

    For example, it is heartwarming to hear about the wonderful use of mindfulness features for school children; how they respond and how it affects adults around them. I recently saw on Australian TV a retired soldier full of remorse and resentment following the suffering that his team inflicted on some villagers in the Middle East. He decided to go public and accepted the likelihood of a jail sentence for him and his team. If more military personnel become more aware of their actions through increased mindfulness, it could help prevent suffering for many, including the potential for good reforms.

    However, it is common to encounter some forms of elitism in various lay Buddhist communities, even though it is one of the traps of conceit and is diametrically opposite to the essential teaching of the Buddha: egolessness (anatta). Unlike a focused attention training, “Right Mindfulness” (free from reactivity and identification with the object of awareness) can only be used for the intended purpose—letting go of attachment to who we think we are, the illusory “self”. There is no place for conceit or attachment to views, however “right” they may be. In psychological contexts, “my way or the highway” is the rigid attitude of someone with a possible obsessive-compulsive trait, and is immediately spotted as such in the mental health community. This is not to point the finger at anyone. It is simply a reminder that no matter what and how much we learn from Buddhism and apply it in our lives, our lack of compassion and ethics (e.g., divisive speech) is testimony that there is much more to learn if we want to call ourselves a “Zen teacher”, let alone a “Buddhist practitioner”. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating!

    Bruno Cayoun,
    MiCBT Institute

    • Hi Bruno, thanks for the very helpful comment! You’ve hit on the essence of this practice which is “clear seeing”. Certainly in my experience, as practitioners begin to understand how their perceptions become obstacles and experience the full range of their actions from intention to consequences, they do develop the ability to engage more skillfully. While meditation helps, it’s the inquiry into the impact of our lives on ourselves, others, and the world that shapes the arc of our practice.

      Your story about the soldier is important to read. I’m truly perplexed by the over-generalization and catastrophizing over mindfulness and military or police members. We ask so much from these people to keep us safe and yet we demand that they be saintly in that work. No question there are corrupt people in these professions, not to mention the run of sociopaths and the like. But for the most part these are humans who are faced with challenging moral dilemmas on a scale few of us will ever see. Giving them the opportunity to mitigate harm to themselves as well as others is important.

      I’m happy to say I do love that pudding – even if it has raisins in it!


  4. It is a shame that Marsha Linehan’s adoption of mindfulness as a foundational set of skills in her Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) for Borderline Personality Disorder is so often overlooked in favour of MBSR and MBSR-derived interventions among Buddhist discussions of secular mindfulness – especially in a book such as this one, since Linehan comes from the Zen tradition. It seems likely that in the history of Satipatthana, never have so many lives been saved in such a short period of time as there have been over the last 20 years or so as a result of DBT. If traditionally trained meditators had any idea how profoundly powerful secular applications of mindfulness can be in relieving truly agonizing emotions, even in the absence of a meditation practice, they would be ready for more cross-pollination.

    • Hi Ian!

      Linehan was the ground-breaker for clinical applications of mindfulness IMO. It is a mystery why the benefits of mindfulness and meditation can’t be accepted or worse are relegated to “seeking symptom relief” – which is a way of stigmatizing people with mental health struggles by labelling them as shallow, quick-fix-craving weaklings.

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