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:
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.
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