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.”

hits & myths on this wonky path

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There’s been yet another opportunistic article floating around the social media on the misuse of mindfulness, this time by the august New York Times (complete with skinny, white female in meditative pose). The Mindfulness Backlash starts out well with a gesture to the work of researcher Willoughby Britton who is becoming the point person for discussions on the negative effects of meditation. Britton has some interesting points to make about what she calls the “Dark Night of the Soul” phenomenon in which meditators experience long-lasting and negative psychological effects from meditation practices. And then, the article takes a wonky turn into the a rehash of the misuse of mindfulness in corporations, military and the like. I’ve come to refer to this as the Bogey Man bait-and-switch. Not only is it an attempt to sustain mistrust in anything outside the purview of “Buddhism” it also often comes as a ploy in distracting from Buddhist practices that suffer the same pitfalls. And made all the more ironic given the topic itself. I stopped reading after the author began quoting Michael Stone, who simply rehashed the mangled arguments against teaching mindfulness to the military. (Seriously. There’s a strong, clear argument to be made in these cases but  I may be dead and gone before it is.)

A bit later in the week, Dharma Spring on Facebook posted the article and damn if I didn’t get involved. Yes, yes. Ego reigns supreme still. And ego being what it is, here’s how the conversation went:

  • Lynette Monteiro It’s now the rehash that is a mushy backlash and distracting from the dialogue that should have happened.
    • Dharma Spring How would you describe “the dialogue that should have happenned (sic)?”
    • Lynette Monteiro When “mindfulness” entered the clinical world, it became something very different. Secularizing it stripped away the traditional supports of what constitutes mindfulness in Buddhist terms. Buddhist practitioners had little to say about this until recently when the secular application expanded to areas that overtly transgressed the principles of sila. The dialogue between Buddhist and Secular mindfulness teachers needs to be a clarification about the complexities of Buddhisms and their individual definitions of mindfulness and also address the reality that both Buddhism & clinical applications venture into hell realms. A community that is mutually supportive and not divisive is required especially in the face of a growing competitive and rancorous secular/clinical (and even Buddhist) industry that is functioning without wisdom or compassion.

My only defence for the staccato response  is that it’s hard to squeeze in the impact of Buddhist Modernism, secular adaptations, clinical applications and the 12-steps of dependent origination into a small space. My close friends refer to me as going all Sheldon Cooper explaining physics to Penny when someone asks what is mindfulness. In my version, I would expound, “Well, it all started with the European Enlightenment, Romanticism and the need for colonialism to succeed.”

I try for a leanness of expression but the misconceptions on all fronts of this bizarre battle are hard to take and serious decisions about practice and its intent get mucked up in the process. The bottom line in these “discourses” is that the arguments proffered by both Buddhists and secular mindfulness practitioners are held at the extremes of what are Buddhism and secular mindfulness and therefore destined to fail at many levels.  So kudos to Tricycle for scoring a hit by covering 10 Myths of Buddhism with Buswell & Lopez, authors of the awe-inspiring The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Of note is Myth #2:

The primary form of Buddhist meditation is mindfulness.
In fact, there are hundreds of forms of Buddhist meditation, some for developing deep states of concentration and mental bliss, some for analyzing the constituents of mind and body to find that there is no self, some for meeting the Buddha face-to-face. The practice of mindfulness as it is taught in America today began in Burma in the early 20th century.

Another hit for clearing up the view is from David McMahan’s generous rendition of the development of Buddhisms in the West, The Making of Buddhist Modernism¹. He brings together a historical progression that took Buddhism out of its native context and, in McMahan’s terms, “detraditionalized, demythologized, and psychologized” it so as to be more palatable to the Western mind and its desires. Part of that detraditionalization was to move wisdom as externally granted to an inner authority. Part of demythologization was to align with a scientific model that offered a halo-effect of reliability to Buddhist thought and philosophy. Part of the psychologization was to shift the path of liberation away from a means of transforming “becoming” to a psychological state of “being” (my term & emphasis). McMahan points out that the process of psychologization runs hand in hand with the other two processes. In unison, they become a mudra of significant enough power to transform indigenous Buddhism to something created by and in the image of the Western mind.

What McMahan and others like  Robert Sharf argue is the knowledge that a multiplicity of Buddhisms have evolved over time and through cultures has been lost in migration. Although the fundamental aim of practice in the Buddhist framework is self-understanding, self-regulation and self-liberation (I think Michael Apollo of the University of Toronto said this to me), the design of the path from desire to nirvana depends on whose Buddhism one chooses. Ironically then, instead of actually moving away from a core tenet of Buddhism, the indeterminacy of life, we seem to have entrenched ourselves in a new monolithic system of Western Buddhism.

Having penetrated Western mental models, it’s no surprise that psychoanalytic psychology fell head over heels in love with the vipassana aspect of Buddhist practice. And interestingly, current applications – despite the claim of being insight-based – find samatha useful in dealing with a variety psychological ills. Of course, that also leaves psychological applications open to somewhat naive criticisms of being solely for symptom-management. And this brings me to the part about dialogue.

There are so many misconceptions about the intent of both secular and clinical applications of mindfulness practices, not to mention of the Buddhisms themselves. True, the biggest elephant in the zendo is the absence of explicitly-taught ethical principles that underpin current applications of mindfulness. For a Buddhist practitioner, (one assumes) mindfulness IS ethics and mindfulness only makes sense AS an ethic. However, to claim that only Buddhists understand this and therefore hold the “right” of Right Mindfulness is propagating a myth. I only need to draw attention to the long days and months of profoundly painful and divisive arguments over the sexual exploitations of Shimano, Merzel, Sasaski, Baker and so many more to hammer home the truth that mindfulness and sila are sometimes not one and often are two.

On the side of the secularists and psychologically-minded, to insist that we are only seeking a transdiagnostic intervention that is denuded of its religious trappings, while understandable, misses the point that we as mental health practitioners need to understand the origins and intentions of the practice. This is “best practice” not because there is an authority to whom we abject ourselves but because it allows for wise diligence and therefore wise action. The Rhys-Davidses and Jung psychologized Buddhism about a century ago and likely most of what we know as psychological interventions is imbued with Buddhist philosophy. To turn a blind eye to that is as naive as the assumption that meditation alone will win wars. Perhaps the  most articulate and useful distinction of Buddhism and psychotherapeutic intervention has been made by Mu Soeng. He points out that in the transformation of the longing-clinging-becoming cycle psychological model of mental health requires cessation of longing and clinging. A Buddhist model of mental health goes further into the cessation of the process of becoming².

This is the field in which the dialogue to refine and ferment a deeper understanding of mindfulness should be happening.

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¹I’ve avoided reviewing McMahan’s book although it was very helpful in setting the framework for my thoughts. For reviews of McMahan’s book please read Justin Whitaker’s excellent posts here for an impressive list of other reviews and here for an additional take on Buddhist Modernism and its vicissitudes.  And a podcast on the Secular Buddhist here.

Thank you to John Murphy for pointing me to his comprehensive review of McMahan’s book in The Journal of Buddhist Ethics.

²Soeng, Mu. (2006). Zen koan and mental health: The art of not deceiving yourself. In Buddhist Thought and Applied Psychological Research: Transcending the Boundaries, eds. D. K. Nauriyal and Michael S. Drummond. London: Routledge. p. 305

what am i doing? lessons from the edge

L&F-BCBS

Hardly the next power couple in the dharmic world but we are perhaps a good example of karmic consequences of not steering clear of muddy waters.  Frank & I lead a retreat on the Buddhist roots and ethics that underlie mindfulness programs at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. This was an opportunity gifted through the immense generosity of Chris Germer, Kristy Arbon, Mu Soeng, and BCBS Executive Director Laurie Phillips, all of whom galvanized the work we’ve been doing on making explicit the root teachings that inform the psychological aspects of contemporary mindfulness.  Although the retreat was not intended to be a journey into personal practice, it had that effect and spoke to the need for these foundational teachings. It keeps what tends to be superficial attempts at attention and awareness grounded in the original intentions of practice.

Stepping into that liminal space between Buddhist philosophy and psychological models of suffering is not difficult. But it does require a willingness to let go of one’s tribal mentality and concede that wisdom only arises as a result of contact and community. It was uplifting to be with so many practitioners who willingly entered into the intention of the retreat and shared their personal and professional wisdom with us.

Happily, our article, Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness: Finding the Middle Path in the Tangle of Concerns, was published in Mindfulness the day before the retreat. The email response so far is mostly positive and supportive with one rather wild foray into psychology-bashing & mindfulness as the Ultimate realm where everything is One. This, along with a few comments from surprising sources, makes me wonder if we’ve forgotten that the Buddha recommended teaching to one’s audience. I tried to make the point that most people don’t show up on my doorstep and say, “I’m struggling with the evanescent nature of experience.” They tend to come with a felt though poorly articulated sense that something is amiss. As teachers of any ilk, we are meant to meet those who suffer where they are on the path, not where our elevated egos think they should be.

Not just “know your audience” but also “what am I doing?” This is the edge we found ourselves walking moment by moment as we opened up the texts and poetry that inform contemporary mindfulness. Of course, “what am I doing” occasionally took on the feeling tone of “why the hell did I think I could do this!?” But that’s a post for another day.

I’ve thanked Justin Whitaker in the article but it is worth repeating it here: Thank you for keeping this discussion going at so may levels.

what choice do you have?

It’s easy to make more of something than it is.  It’s easy to put a negative face on a person or situation to justify our anger, frustration, helplessness, and ultimately, our reactive actions.  

A couple of weeks ago, I made a phone call to an agency that, over the last 15 years, has referred people for psychological treatment.  I needed some paperwork sent for a particular client so they could take part in one of our programs.  The colleague I spoke with was embarrassed; she hedged around her answer and then blurted out, “You’re no longer on our provider list.”  She was upset about it, working on re-instating our clinic, but until then her hands were tied.  As the story wound out, it seems someone from my ignoble past has slid into my professional life with an agenda.  From what we could tell, this has been cooking for about four years and has ripened into action.

I spent a few days embellishing various fantasy scenarios of retaliation.  To give myself credit only one or two involved violation of the precepts.  Mostly, hunger strikes on the steps of the agency, opening a free clinic, and holding protest marches tended to be the flavour of my hit-backs.  Now before you go all Awwwww on me, let me point out that the ego is still quite rampant in the latter scenes despite the great Gandhi-like camouflage.  And then there were days of practicing one of the Shadow Fourth Noble Truths: Noble Outrage; I envisioned miles of needy patients snaking down hallways, winding out into the parking lots, and drifting in wounded aimlessness down the street.  I rarely worry about the closure of DVD rental places; there are ample life has uploaded into my mind. 

And then, in sangha, a friend asked what we were going to do to protect ourselves.  I responded, “Nothing yet.  It’s only been four years.”  True, there is potential in this situation for injustice, inconvenience, and the up-ending of projects waiting to be activated.  All of which to say, there is great potential for high drama and the tilting at windmills.  Yet once I strip away all the drama, faux-calls-to-social-engagement, and I call into play that powerful practice of patience, I’m left with a very different set of choices.

Reading The Misleading Mind by Karuna Cayton, it was good to see I’m not too far off base.  In the book, Cayton describes four steps to vanquishing the delusional mind.  Step One: You have a Choice!  I do absolutely have a choice.  There is a choice in viewing something as just what it is.  No more, no less.  As I sat with the not-doing, this was an additional realization: to narrow* our focus on the individual or the situation as it is now is the delusional process.  And no choice of skillful actions can arise out of that perspective.

Cayton sets up a four-step process of training the mind.  I don’t quite follow the set up of the book to see how the four steps match up with the chapters.  But maybe that is just my hobgoblin mind wanting a clear map.

Regardless, it doesn’t take away from the practice he describes and which I’ll explore this week.

* Edited 2012 May 21 @ 0941