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.”

for the love of honesty – Martin Aylward wins the debate

radiatorPerhaps the deepest teaching in Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese is the line:

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile every thing we hold dear, think is important, see as a life-and-death issue, a catastrophe, a boring inconvenience, an opportunity for self-righteous blathering remains ineffectual in the face of the world going on.

In the beginning of January, I left for a series of retreats over a three-week period at the Insight Meditation Center and Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. The teachers at IMS were Christina Feldman and Chris Cullen with two rather amazing up-and-coming teachers. The next week Winnie Nazarko lead the bhavana retreat at at BCBS, which I followed up with a personal retreat, scouring the books in the BCBS library. The days were spent in meditation, reading texts I wouldn’t find anywhere else, and filling my notebook with codes of sutras that I hope I’ll be able to decode four months later.

Through all the talks and conversations, the thread of contemporary mindfulness’ impact on Buddhist practice was very evident. Feldman and Cullen slid past it but what was left unspoken or re-framed spoke loudly to the ambivalence towards the topic. Participants in their retreat (which was advertised as a prerequisite to training as a mindfulness-based instructor/teacher/facilitator) shared that they realized they didn’t have to be a Buddhist teacher to be a (secular?) mindfulness teacher. I can see how they came to that conclusion, encouraged by Feldman’s continuous insistence that she is neither Buddhist nor does she teach Buddhism – fact that caused me some consternation given the theme of her books and the content of her talks, not to mention the very venue in which she was teaching. But let’s leave that to someone else’s article on 10 Mysterious Things in the Buddhist Universe You Will Never Believe! Click here!

I get confused these days. I get confused a lot these in my mind moments. Sometimes it feels like just when I can tell the players with my scorecard, they change the game. So I gave up. In those three weeks of sitting-walking-eating-reading-talking-thinking, I gave up. I decided that the protectors of Buddhist mindfulness and those of secular (where we can now include the new field of “critical mindfulness” propagated by Ed Ng & Ron Purser) live in vastly different worlds with no bridge possible between them.

In a leave-taking conversation with Mu Soeng at the end of my retreats, I shared my grapplings with the sutta on generosity (SN 3.24). The Buddha responds to King Pasenadi Kosala’s question about giving, saying that one should give “where the mind feels confidence” and that is different from giving “where it bears great fruit.” Where what is given can bear great fruit, the Buddha goes on to say, is in the hands of one who has abandoned the five hindrances and is endowed with the five virtues. So I asked, “How can we determine such a person? How can we do that without getting into the judgemental mind state or the preferential mind state, given we are ourselves so clouded?” The answer was simple: We give; and we know the virtuous by the fruit of their actions.

When I bring this advice to bear on the current debates, arguments, sniping, and otherwise skillful and unskillful exchanges, I have to say I see little of good fruit. In some pockets of discussion, there is much to learn and it is supportive. But it’s not enough and the resistance and defensiveness on both sides (are there only two sides to this?) is overwhelming.

But then, this is why we have practiced. And it is for these moments of despair that we practiced deeply. Mary Oliver again in Wild Geese:

Tell me about despair, yours
And I will tell you mine.

There’s despair on both sides, I imagine. And yes, “meanwhile the world goes on.” Meanwhile, Buddhist teachers teach, mindfulness instructors/facilitators/therapists instruct/facilitate/therap. And meanwhile on both sides of the divide they do good, commit atrocities, create loving communities, and foster elite cults.

So the question from a Buddhist perspective might be what can we salvage from this? The answer is that salvaging is not what is called for because nothing has been destroyed. The Dharma is not so vulnerable and thus far has withstood 2600 years of assault. The question from a secular/clinical perspective might be what can derive from all this? The answer is that we need to find our own roots. Ruth Baer has written a wonderful article that points to what we’re missing in the debate.

But more than all that, the question is whether we can or should continue to have (to paraphrase David Whyte from Crossing the Unknown Sea) “a disciplined daily conversation” with each other and ourselves around the value of Buddhist psychology to Western psychology and vice versa. I know the answer for myself. However, I worry that the leading teachers in Buddhism have yet to be less than alarmists and the teachers in contemporary mindfulness shy away from the discussion all together.

So, I’m thrilled when I sit down (with trepidation) to listen to Martin Aylward and hear his very strong, direct, and honest appraisal of what we really should be giving to each other. The gift in this debate – as rancorous and belligerent and self-focused as it gets – is that it calls for us to investigate how we “hang that (doctrinal) purity on Buddhism” and to use these moments to see that when we lock into a “contemptuous” stance to the shift in mindfulness practice towards the secular, it is also our own contempt towards our own practice.

Watch Martin’s amazing talk “For the Love of Mindfulness” and please donate generously to Worldwide Insight that offers such terrific teachings.

on mindfulness, muggles, & crying wolf

I try. Really, I do.

This month has been bubbling with various posts on Eastern scholars decrying Western Mindfulness. It began with Ron Purser and David Loy’s HuffPo article, Beyond McMindfulness which is likely the first time anyone from the Buddhist scholarship community has overtly taken on the therapeutic, coaching Mindfulness machine. In brief, Purser & Loy expressed concerns that the current movement of Mindfulness is not only denaturing the dharma but also lending power to corporations so that already-beleaguered employees can be lulled into a somnolent state through practices like “nonjudgmental awareness.”

The results of the Purser & Loy article were not what I would have expected: linguistic mudslinging. Protests from what may be called the “secular” mindfulness groups were no less than defensive and somewhat histrionic.  Sadly, there were worthy points in the protests but mostly lost in the defensiveness and the mutually admiring comments that followed. (There’s a difference between acknowledging a good point and hopping on the bandwagon.)

Heavy hitters like Elisha Goldstein and Jeremy Hunter responded on blogs and websites. They make some good points but the overall tone is dismissive and there’s a lot of “they just don’t understand” commentary. I can’t blame the secular/therapeutic folks for the reactionary stance although I do have to ask: if you’re teaching mindfulness, how the heck do you end up being reactionary?

Ted Meissner of Secular Buddhist conducted an interview with Purser & Loy which I’d recommend – if only to hear how it should be done.  Announced in the podcast, Ted’s new venture Present Moment: Mindfulness practice and science is a nice out-growth of his interest in making Buddhist teachings more accessible. I like that Ted points out in the Purser-Loy interview that the issue of watering down the dharma may be confounded on both sides (he was referring to the religious-secular Buddhist issues he encounters) because “we’re not even doing the same thing.”

These are important and difficult issues to address. A long tradition of doing it one way has morphed into what seems on the surface as a travesty, a commodification of something sacred. As a Buddhist and a therapist who finds tremendous value in the Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs), I find myself constantly caught in the middle of the battle for ownership of this precious resource. However, having come to terms with my own personal and professional dilemma around the use and potential abuse of the practice of mindfulness, I have to say this particular round of arguments has been maddening. So I wrote an article that summarizes the concerns of the Mindfulness Muggles and Wizards with no expectations that either will embrace the other.

Ted Meissner’s comment resonated with me on many levels. Perhaps this is not quite what he intended but I wondered: Are we not doing the same thing? The intention of Buddhist practice is the alleviation of suffering. So yes, regardless of whether you are part of the traditional school of mindfulness training or the pragmatic school, we are trying to lift the veil of suffering. I think the more piercing question is whether we are doing it the same way.

Are we doing it the same way? No. Traditional approaches to mindfulness are embedded in a religious/spiritual process that is not always relevant or necessary in a pragmatic sense. Moreover, the application of MBIs occurs in arenas where religious overtones can prevent them from being used or where a specific religion’s approach would be disrespectful to the indigenous religion. And no, we cannot argue that Buddhism is so adaptive that it can fold into any religious milieu. That’s like having your rice cake and communion host too.

Are we talking about the same thing? Perhaps. Christopher Titmuss wrote a terrific post that effectively said, Stop crying wolf!  A generally good rejoinder to the worries of creating corporate sheep or super-soldiers, Titmuss points out that there really is no evidence of this happening. However, I was struck by the way he (and others in the Buddhist writing world) zoned in on the language. Specifically, Titmuss and others have jumped on terminology like “nonjudgmental awareness,” “bare awareness,” etc. to argue that therein lay the magical seed of corruption. In other articles, the key words picked on to evoke the wolf are “not having emotions drive behavior,” “psychologically armour-up.” Let’s face it, if we want to spin an argument, we will spin it to our advantage no matter what side we’re on. An honest reading of all these terms may be helpful. Perhaps “nonjudgmental awareness” means attending to things without getting caught in the interpretative process. Perhaps there is a difference between “being judgmental” and “being discerning.” Perhaps “not having emotions drive behavior” refers to not acting impulsively or without consideration of the relational aspects of the situation.  Perhaps if we apply mindful listening, we would hear each side’s meaning and transcend the hot button words.

In fact, the biggest problem is from the language used on the Buddhist side. Everyone (and I find myself guilty as charged) zooms into the problem as not teaching “Right Mindfulness.” Search any post or interview and it will be the bête noire of pragmatic mindfulness that is raised to prove it is being done wrong.  I was especially disappointed in a recent interview with Alan Senauke on Tricycle in which he too commented that Mindfulness-Based Interventions are not Right Mindfulness. I admire Senauke and wonder how the interviewer managed to troll and hook him into this specious argument. Right Mindfulness is not the issue because if we take Bhikkhu Bodhi’s definition of Right Mindfulness, MBIs contain all the elements of his definition. What is at issue is mindfulness as a mental factor wherein it becomes the means to discern wholesome from unwholesome mental states. So the question really is whether we are assessing pragmatic mindfulness appropriately. Is it Right Mindfulness? Yes. Is it cultivating the mental factor of mindfulness? That may be arguable because it doesn’t hold the practice of sila in the foreground.

Let’s get back to that wolf at the temple door. Titmuss is correct in pointing out that there is no evidence of mindfulness being used for evil ends. Having worked in this field for 10 years, I have yet to be asked to turn corporate citizens into sheep or had participants in our military program turn into Terminators. Then again, we weave into the program practices that reflect the sila aspect of mindfulness.  However, it is important to examine these concerns. A Google search of “use of mindfulness in the military” turns up a number of hits.  None are related to making better “baby-killers.” As someone who works with the military, I find it astonishing that typically clear thinkers forget something fundamental. Given the exponential increase in mental illness from overseas deployments, we might argue that even intense military training can’t make super-soldiers who go out, do heinous things, and return unaffected. [Edit: This article on mindfulness in the military was just posted and is excellent.]

As for the corporate wolf, that’s an important one. My concerns are more about the sellers in the temple than in the product being supposedly commodified. It is true that anyone with a semblance of marketing skills can package mindfulness and flog it. Do we have control over this? None whatsoever. Particularly because there are no constraints on what most professionals can do and even less so in the unregulated professions. But here’s a more important question: Can mindfulness can be commodified? It always was, has been and will be. The exchange of goods for services has been part of every culture no matter whether we dress it up in robes or three-piece suits. Are we reacting to this because of the spiritual aspect of mindfulness? Most likely.

And that’s the final question: Why are there sides? I suppose it’s human. We all love our gurus and ideological stances. If the comments on posts around the blogosphere and speciality groups like LinkedIn are any indication, there are enough of these to love. What worries me most is just that; we are so caught on supporting our favourite personalities and celebrities that our forebrain has gone well offline. These are important questions being raised by both sides and the answers will not be easily surrendered from the clouds of greed, anger, and ignorance. What I wish I saw was more critical thinking from all sides and perhaps we will discover that there are no Muggles or Wizards, just magic.