mindfulness, ethics & the baffling debate

buddha-rain(c) Mindfulness. Ethics. Buddhism. Therapy. It’s an ongoing and oft-times baffling debate. Over the last few years (since 2011 if I track the academic publications correctly), Buddhists have stepped up to express concerns about the frighteningly rapid secular applications of mindfulness that seem to dilute and disregard its core teachings and intention. Secular practitioners which include a very large clinical population of mental health professionals have either dismissed the call for a deeper understanding or been baffled by it.

[Edited to clear confusion in sentence reference] Related to this latter group, a quick scan of LinkedIn special groups on mindfulness is quite off-putting though the comments are instructive. They are mainly tinged with a deep fear of the religious – not the ethical – nature of being required regularly to attend silent retreats, imposing (insert “religious”) ethics in the curriculum, and otherwise bring an unfamiliar and foreign languaging into what is now taken as a neutral, clinical program.

The bafflement also arises from the unquestioned acceptance of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s repeated pronouncement that ethics in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (the original program) is implicit; nothing needs adding because it’s already there. In fact, my own notes from my MBSR training state, “ethics not necessary to mention…arises from insight to suffering.”

Now that’s more or less true when we have years to practice and watch the mind twist and turn trying to justify all matter of unskillfulness. Ethical speech and action can and does arise as we clarify, clarify, clarify our propensity to ignorance, greed, and attachments. Ethical livelihood can arise (economics and mastering our own greed notwithstanding). But not, in my experience, reliably so in 8-weeks sitting together trying to get past the delusional nature of our suffering, layered over by our “terrible personality” that is borne forth from a multitude of biopsychosocial causes and conditions.

Recently, my colleagues Jane Compson, Frank Musten, and I published an article in Mindfulness on the difficulties of trying to reconcile, assess, and dig deeper into the issues of secular/clinical concepts of mindfulness. You can read it here and I’d encourage reading the commentaries to our article (in the previous link) because scholarly practitioners such as Ajahn Amaro and Mark Greenberg/Joy Mitra have made excellent offerings on the topic.

Along with many others, I too have a deep concern about the way mindfulness is taught and proliferating in secular and clinical domains, how it is reduced to a pabulum of trite sayings and a mash-up of mindfulness memes. But waging war against this level of misunderstanding is exhausting and actually fruitless. The fear clinicians have of incorporating ethics/values into their work stems from an over-applied historic meme itself – that our presence is but a mirror, reflecting nothing of ourselves and everything of the other. It is based in a psychological Cartesian principle of separateness, not just of mind and body but also of you and me. In fact, to bring anything of myself into the room is often harshly dealt with in internships and trainings.

Now here’s the irony, mindfulness was a hope of many of us that this delusion of separateness would finally dissolve and we would be able to enter into an authentic – a more fully authentic – relationship with each other whether it is in the marketplace or the therapy room. Doubly ironic, the fields of moral psychology and counselling and spirituality have explored issues of the fallacy of values-neutral interactions in therapy. The findings are fascinating; in brief, clients over time take on the values of their therapists. But these examinations haven’t attained much traction in the huge momentum of cognitive-based treatments.

The underlying and frequently by-passed point is that there is no time when ethics is absent from our relationships. Be it in the therapy room, at the dining table, and even most especially in the all-purpose family room with the TV flashing its programs, it can no more be excised from the practice than heat from a chilli pepper. And it is never absent in the gathering place of mindfulness programs. So, if our fear is that ethics of the Dharma as it moves into secular domains are an imposition on our program participants, then that fear is misplaced. The fear should be more that we have been lulled into believing that we can be value-neutral participants at this intimate level as we connect with those who suffer deeply from this self-same disconnect from their lives. This is where the danger lies: that we are taking this arrogant stance and blindly leading others into the very vortex of ignorance that is the source of their suffering. And more, there is the equally arrogant and disrespectful assumption that the participants are tabula rasa to their own ethics and morality.

These assumptions are also embedded in Buddhist debates about sila and mindfulness where the fear is that the Dharma is being stripped of its moral foundations. Here too the confusion is based in assumptions of pre-existing personal ethics, religious influences and the nature of ethical living. Justin Whitaker on his blog American Buddhist Perspective published two posts that reflect the difficulties of finding some middle ground in the concerns and confusion. The first post addresses Tricycle’s recent blogpost by Richard Payne on the cultural assumptions that morality/ethics are connected to religious frameworks. The second post summarizes a discussion between Bhikkhu Bodhi and angel Kyodo williams on the issues of ethics and Buddhism. Again and with all due respect to Bhikkhu Bodhi and williams, we encounter the meme of secular mindfulness creating automatons in the workplace and military. (To be fair, Bhikkhu Bodhi has written in various publications that he sees the secularization of mindfulness a positive thing if it alleviates suffering AND if it honours its origins as a sacred practice.)

The ongoing debate among Buddhist, between Buddhists and secular/clinical practitioners, and all other permutations and combinations involved in the issue of placing ethics in mindfulness programs/teachings needs to turn back onto itself and examine its own assumptions about the nature of ethics and morality as well as how we acquire and embody them. As Ajahn Amaro points out in his commentary to our article, we need to examine the “subtle influences” of our own religious (even if disavowed) and cultural baggage that lead us to believe having ethics in a curriculum will create better people or that not having it will create monsters.

It’s time that we see the fear-inducing memes about religious infringement and mindful evil-doers as click bait, distracting both Buddhists and secular individuals committed to the teachings of mindfulness from the real issue of how to cultivate an embodied ethic.

an unknowable purpose

There is this chaotic moment in renovations where the content of rooms begin to infiltrate each others space.  That’s what happens when we instigate change: barriers drop and boundaries blur.  As a masked introvert (that’s someone who is an introvert but can play the role of an extrovert), I shy away from large gatherings, especially ones that can trigger my insecurities as a professional.  Yes, I still hold a membership in the Group for Impostors and Miscellaneous Posers (GIMPs).  So this mindfulness conference was a challenge at many levels and my only recourse was to find a sofa somewhere out of the scrum and curl up with sufficient determination to drive away all the other introverts.

The problem however is that deciding to go to a conference (after avoiding it successfully for 8 years) AND agreeing to present at it effectively precludes all the introvert’s strategies I’ve cultivated over the years.  More than that, having cultivated a practice of being aware of the never-ceasing flow of sensations meant I couldn’t even lie to myself.  Saying yes to engaging in the marketplace is by definition opting for change, being open to change, and being vulnerable to what havoc that change can wreak on the fragile self-system.

At the same time and thankfully, it opens us to confirming what is important and necessary to continue to be who we are.  Who we truly are, not the clinging fearful self who emerges when threatened with loss.

This was the space I eventually entered as the myths and misperceptions of who I am as this or that flowed around me.  These projections were the real impostors and posers yet it was disconcerting to see the constructed imaginings that had grown in the minds of others during my absence from the gatherings.  And of course, despite recognizing them as delusions, I caught myself hopping into the minds of others trying to find that rewind and erase button.  I know you’re not surprised that I was an abject failure at re-directing even one misaligned neuron.

This is the uncomfortable and crucial truth about engaging in the marketplace.  Only you will know who you are.  All else is constructed to serve an unknowable purpose.

taking off the filters

Which do you follow: the teacher or the teachings?  We all have a quick answer and I’m sure one popped up for you as you read the question.  I’m beginning to understand that the question is premature rendering as misdirected any answer we give.  Long before we consider the question in its either/or form, we need to ask ourselves if there is anything standing between our heart and our vision.  Years of longing and striving can do that, dust gathers on the window panes and obscures the real question.  And sometimes, there is nothing for it but to take out the whole structure and insert one that better serves the purpose.

In the field of teaching/facilitating mindfulness-based courses debates rage on (yes, rage on) about many issues.  Is it secularized Buddhism?  Is it a misappropriation of religious concepts, a convenient excision of techniques from the heart of spiritual practice?  Is it simply a fancy name for what your grandmother told you but you forgot in the swirl of scrambling to adulthood?  I don’t tend to agitate over these questions because, in my experience, the truth, like the dharma, will out.  In other words, it doesn’t much matter what you call it; just practice.  (There is a caveat to this I will get to later this week.  Or not.)

Last week we spent time at the mecca of mindfulness, what Saki Santorelli once called the Mother Ship, the Center for Mindfulness.  It was the 10th Annual conference.  I wasn’t looking forward to it, being averse to the typical strutting and bellowing that signals territorial marking in close spaces.  But I figured this being a gathering of mindfulness teachers and practitioners (scientific and practical), surely… well surely…

Besides, I had a sweet deal in being part of a superhero trio presenting a pre-conference all-day workshop on Holding the Heart of MBSR.  Now that was a delight!  And a practice.  In its essence, it was a foray into seeing clearly, opening to what motivates us as teachers of MBSR to shift away from prescribed form and content, being transparent about our intentions and the likely impact on the integrity of what we claim to practice.  In a nutshell, how do we honour the teachings and not let the teacher or her unexamined intentions become an obstacle?  Fascinating questions, the answers to which will likely unfold over the years.

Done with the workshop, I was free to wander the rest of the week, connecting with old friends and greeting new ones.  And in various encounters, the rumble of territorial markings became audible.  Well surely I couldn’t have filtered out the human tendency to want, to crave, to feel unsafe and therefore to bare fangs, set boundaries, and draw lines.  Apparently, I did.  I do.  This is where the practice of simply noting is a good one; it helps negotiate through the conversations that circle the marketing of the self and poorly masked rhetorical questions.  I mean noting that in myself as well because certainly there were many, many times when I caught myself falling into being the product rather than the person.

And that brings us back to the question: The teacher or the teachings?  My practice in the moment is to choose neither because they are inseparable.  Teachings manifest through the teacher and the true teacher is an emergent property of the teachings.  But like the windows in my house, before any of that is put in motion, we have to take down the desire-caked, delusion-riddled old panes and stand exposed to the elements which we have kept at bay.

(Kate Crisp, of the Prison Mindfulness Institute, posted this great article on dealing with conferences.)

chaplaincy – part deux

The tempo is ramping up.  On Saturday I leave for Upaya again.  Chaplaincy, Part Deux: ordinations and milestone check-ins.  First, I get to bear witness to the ordination of the next flight of Chaplains and another dharma friend’s aspiration manifesting. Heart-filling stuff and I’m packing extra tissues!  Then, there will be the various milestone check-ins. How this all serves to illustrate Right Concentration may not be immediately (or ever) apparent.

I’ve been poring over my Chaplaincy handbook which is meticulously organized with dividers keeping general information, forms, and records in their little intellectual ghettos.  Do you ever wonder how we can be so particular about separating some things from others but not really care if others mash together?  Intellectual property, for me, demands an intricate system of organization but vegetables do not.  A glop of turnips, carrots, sweet and red potatoes served with gallons of vegetarian gravy can transport me to the fourth jhana.  Put a piece of paper in the wrong end of my folder and it’s blaspheming the Dewey Decimal System.

I have attended with diligence (effort) to Chaplaincy which looms, however, as a mash of readings, writings, project development, and hands-on work.  My attention is fragmented and my concentration is firm.  This distinction is often lost when we talk about the wandering mind.  I describe it as allowing the background programs to do their work without interfering with them while I get the foreground work done without (too much) intrusion.  On the cushion, it takes the form of establishing steadiness of presence.  Off the cushion, it is a dance with the Five Hindrances – restlessness when things aren’t congealing in my brain, sloth & torpor (my favourite twins!) when I think I’ve got it wired but really am just avoiding the deeper work,  and desire for more and more (books).

These entanglements wove through 7 reflection papers, 4 field trips, 4 book reports and an Individual Learning Plan.  I had a hard time with doing a book report  – on one book.  Who reads just one book?  How do you comment on its impact and relevance if you take a book off the shelf and treat it like a unique organism with no history or family?  So I developed an approach of  “Consolidated Books Reported Upon.”  It required a lot more work but it was more fun to do; and, it was a practice of allowing attention to roam while concentration stood its ground.

The Individual Learning Plan was an example of fixed attention and concentration rampant.  Did we get a little hyper-focused on consuming all things Buddhist?  On the other hand, it was well-intended.  Goal 4 was to “develop a regular writing program” and included daily 108ZB blog entries that explored Buddhist teachings, developing the Ox-Herding pictures as a framework for therapy, and completing the Mindfulness Clinic Guidebook.  I think I’ve managed the blog piece and the Ox-Herding-as-treatment-framework has been lots of fun.  It’s on stand-by as a potential project along with the Clinic Guidebook.  Or maybe I can integrate the two and then I can…  Oops…  Breathing in…

Goal 2 was an aspiration to work with a dukkha magnet organization, offering in-house training both as part of an internship and in assessing the impact of increased mindfulness in preventing burn out.  After a year of negotiations, it was clear that we had mis-matched concepts of well-being.  This was less a loss of relationship than a letting go of my assumptions of being mutually invested: I tend to think everyone has the same view and thinking when it comes to wanting what’s best for each other.  Lesson learned, and learned well.  The nice thing is that the Burn Out Resiliency course is taxiing onto the runway for a May take-off in the clinic and there is a never-ending line-up of organizations where the impact of dukkha exposure can be met and assessed.  I kept a teacher’s log here on the course we delivered at the hospital where I’m doing my internship.  This clinic blogging evolved into an awesome exchange with the folks down at UCSD who had put up a similar teacher’s log of their course.  Actually, Steven Hickman had inspired the idea in the first place so all credit goes to him.  In conversations with each other, we explored our growth edge and a potential of mutually nourishing each other in our practice.  When you meet the Buddha on the road to Upaya, know it.

Thank you for practising,