2013 as the Year of Mindfulness: Critics and Defenders

Those who have followed ‘mindfulness’ in the Western Buddhist world in recent months have noticed a rising debate between those who find it useful on the one hand and those who question it from a variety of perspectives on the other. This all seems to have blown up with the July 1st article by Ron Purser and David Loy in the Huffington Post titled “Beyond McMindfulness.” There they wrote:

Suddenly mindfulness meditation has become mainstream, making its way into schools, corporations, prisons, and government agencies including the U.S. military. Millions of people are receiving tangible benefits from their mindfulness practice: less stress, better concentration, perhaps a little more empathy. Needless to say, this is an important development to be welcomed — but it has a shadow.

This shadow, they continued, could be found in the facts that:

  1. none of the claims about mindfulness’s system-changing potential (such as making companies kinder or more compassionate) have been empirically tested, and
  2. stripping mindfulness from its (Buddhist) ethical foundations may simply allow it to be used to reinforce greed, aversion, and delusion (the three roots of suffering that Buddhists seek to eliminate).

(I mentioned their piece in a broader discussion of Buddhism in America here, but didn’t get into the arguments themselves)

Christopher Titmus, himself a well known meditation teacher and writer, also wrote a lengthy cautionary article the same month: The Buddha of Mindfulness. A Stress Destruction Programme. While he supported teaching mindfulness for its power to help individuals, he likewise noted that mindfulness, defined as the “paying of attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way” simply “leaves individuals in the company grappling with their stress while ignoring the larger picture of corporate politics as expression of need for change may appear judgemental.” Purser and Loy likened this to past corporate movements that “came to be referred to as ‘cow psychology,’ because contented and docile cows give more milk.”

The implication in both cases seems to be that mindfulness itself is value-neutral, and yet it is being reported (by the media) and sold (by at least some ‘mindfulness’ authors, teachers, coaches, and gurus) as good in itself. Titmus writes:

I shook my head in disbelief when I read that mindfulness “almost subversively intends to create much greater transformation toward wise action, social harmony and compassion.”

To such claims, I would respectfully ask: “Show me the evidence of a political party, a single corporation or army unit that has truly transformed itself in terms of action, workers/families’ rights and compassion due to a mindfulness course in the past 30 years of mindfulness programmes.

That quotation comes from author Elisha Goldstein in “The Now Effect:  How This Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life” which is endorsed by a veritable who’s who of the mindfulness world (Jack Kornfield, Tim Ryan, Tara Brach, Chade-Meng Tan, Sharon Salzberg, [Patheos contributor] Rick Hanson, and others).

Purser and Loy, referring to the Pali Canon, say that a person can be described as having mindfulness, wrong mindfulness but mindfulness nonetheless, even when committing a “premeditated and heinous crime.” Both were interviewed by Ted Meissner for the Secular Buddhist Podcast later that month, where they elaborated on the article and their concerns about mindfulness as a ‘watering down’ of the transmission of the Dharma to the West.

All of this brought out an excellent response from Genju at 108 Zen books: on mindfulness, muggles, & crying wolf. There she wrote:

 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.

There she attempted to mediate the two ‘sides’, and was joined by Seth Segal (of the Existentialist Buddhist) in the comments section as well as Ted Meissner (of the Secular Buddhist Association), David Webster (of Dispirited), and Nathan Thompson (of Dangerous Harvests). I won’t try to summarize their comments, but they are worth reading, particularly as they seem to form a seed for what Seth posted.

This week Seth gave quite possibly the clearest and most concise rebuttal to the growing chorus of mindfulness critics out there with his post, “In Defense of Mindfulness.” Drawing from recently published studies, his article, in brief, argues

  1. Yes, ‘mindfulness’/MBSR reduces stress but doesn’t lead to enlightenment (and that’s okay)
  2. Neo-Marxist concerns about mindfulness making us capitalist zombies are unfounded
  3. mindfulness does tend to be taught in some ethical context

Will this end the criticism? I’m not sure. I think that there will probably always be a portion of the Western Buddhist world who will reject ‘mindfulness’/MBSR as too little, too late. Nathan seemed to express this at Genju’s blog and elsewhere, and Dave (though not a Buddhist) did comment at Genju’s blog with similar sentiments.

Going back almost exactly three years we find one of the earliest critics of ‘McMindfulness’ in an interview of Dr. Miles Neale by Danny Fisher at the Shambhala Sun blog. There, Dr. Neale compared stripped down ‘mindfulness’ practice to the same process that turned eight-limbed (ashtanga) yoga into a mere series of physical stretching and strength exercises (labeled ‘frozen yoga’):

We must remember that it is not within the remit of mindfulness programmes to question the modus operandi of the corporations who employ the services of mindfulness consultants. Buddhists and activists need to be clear on this point.

We cannot expect such consultants to help change a single core belief of a company.

Yes, mindfulness belongs to a path of inquiry, of examination of causation for suffering, of awakening, of compassion which leaves no stone unturned. It is an eight-fold path not a one-fold path (mindfulness).

MBSR and similar programmes reduce personal stress. That is the remit of MBSR. Its authority is tied to that. MBSR states honestly what it does. That is to its credit.

Activists, scientists, social critics, educationalists, researchers, journalists, Dharma teachers and numerous others have the responsibility through inquiry and insight to get to the roots of the matter of suffering, as the Buddha advocated, and inquire into any level of corruption of mind. It is unreasonable to expect mindfulness teachers offering a course to a company to have the skilful means to investigate the underworld of big business.

Earlier this month, Danny again posted on the topic, sharing a video by scholar Robert H. Sharf talking on “Mindfulness or Mindlessness:”

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The video is very, very good. On the one hand, Sharf’s research shows that this popularization of mindfulness by stripping it from its ethical/philosophical context is nothing terribly new in Buddhism (going back at least to the 8th century in China). On the other hand, it shows that other Buddhists have criticized this approach for just as long, likening the uncritical ‘presentness’ emphasized then and now to a sort of sickness. It is a sickness in which one loses touch with the web of social relations in which one is embedded. Quoting a Chan master, Sharf states that the correct approach is both sudden and gradual, the gradual portion being where transformation from unenlightened to enlightened person happens.

Where I think Sharf is too brief is where says that “from a more traditional Buddhist perspective, what is missing in the modern mindfulness movement is precisely this transformation, which involves active engagement with the Buddhist teachings. This engagement with Buddhist doctrine is often rejected by modern advocates of mindfulness who believe they can garner the rewards of Buddhist practice without having to adopt a Buddhist worldview.” (21:30-59)

I imagine that critics will wonder why one perspective is “more traditional” than the other and what, precisely, would entail a “Buddhist worldview” here. Western Buddhists today would likely disagree on these points as much as Chan masters did in the 8th century or Indian bhikkhus did in the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE. In any case, both critics and defenders of the mindfulness movement will benefit from watching the whole video (along with the discussion at Danny’s blog).

Genju’s “battle of ownership” description illustrates the debate well, both in the past and today. As a technique, mindfulness is neither necessarily nor specifically Buddhist. However, Buddhism has both preserved and developed mindfulness techniques that both critics and defenders, it seems, agree can be helpful for a wide variety of purposes today. Buddhism also has a cultural cache in much of Western society, making it tempting to at least hint at it in connection with even the most stripped-down, secularized versions of mindfulness teaching. Just how honest teachers are in terms of their own religious commitments and training, as well as their understanding of mindfulness either standing alone or requiring at least some ethical/philosophical context will continue to be valid concerns for students and critics.

And yet the fairness of the label ‘McMindfulness’ is also worth discussing and likely will be in 2014 and beyond. Does it apply only to self-appointed mindfulness gurus (with little or no religious background – or does this matter?) overselling the power of mindfulness? Or does it apply to all mindfulness stripped of its context?

As always, I’d be interested in reading your thoughts in the comments section below.

  • Kaspalita Thompson

    Thanks for this summary – I’ve been teaching something under the banner of ‘mindfulness classes’ since the summer and have some sympathy for both sides of the debate, but tend to (luckily) lean in the pro-mindfulness camp….

    However I’m a Buddhist priest teaching mindfulness practices, so even though I might not explicitly mention any other teachings all the participants do know the context I’m working in. When I think back over the last few months I can see that I am implicitly teaching within an ethical, Buddhist, framework, in terms of my presentation of ‘mindfulness’ and how I answer students questions and so on.

    My observations of students is that they take as much or as little from the practice as they are able to, some inevitably do use the practice to become happy-cows, but I bet the same could be said of some people attending regular Buddhist teachings too… Of course I discourage this and often find myself talking about the shadow of spiritual practices as well as encouraging students to face their own personal shadows, and to look more widely at the context of their lives…

    I was pleased to see Sharf showing us that this kind of conversation has always happened between Buddhists… which hopefully encourages some humility as we entertain these conversations…

    Best

    Kaspa

    • justinwhitaker

      Thank you for your comments, Kaspa. I think “some inevitably do use the practice to become happy-cows, but I bet the same could be said of some people attending regular Buddhist teachings too…” does a lot to dismantle the criticisms described above.

    • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

      Kaspa, since you are actually engaged in teaching under the banner of “mindfulness classes” you seem to be the person to ask directly. Would you kindly articulate why the banner doesn’t say “right mindfulness classes”? Why leave off the “right”? Do you imagine there is never a “wrong” mindfulness practice?

      • Kaspalita Thompson

        Hi Gregory,

        Perhaps your first question is a clue to how you would answer the second question yourself?

        I had actually typed out a longer answer but it seemed to boil down to something I remember reading Achann Chaa had said, if the student strays to the right of the path, direct them to the left, and if the student strays to the left of the path, direct them to the right….

        So we could say a wrong mindfulness practice would lead the student away from compassion and towards conceit.

        In a right mindfulness practice the teacher, practice and students intention work to guide them away from conceit.

        My position is that deep lasting happiness (or something of that ilk) is not to be found at the conceit end of the spectrum so my interest is in guiding students down a path away from that (or at least holding the door open).

        Hopefully I do that somewhat skilfully…

        However, regardless of how skillful I am, life will continually present the student with the chance to see that happiness lies away from conceit/selfishness…

        You can use mindfulness practices to help you see this, or to help you hide from it, if you really want to…

        What is is that makes the difference between right practice and wrong practice then… perhaps simply the intention of the student. As a teacher I try to encourage right intention, and to create a framework of practice that will allow students to see this all for themselves…

        I guess I think of mindfulness practice implicitly including all of those assumptions and that ethical framework, so there is no need to make the distinction – something without those elements may be ‘concentration’ but I don’t think of it as mindfulness,,.

        I’m not sure if that’s a mistake or not.

        I refer you to my earlier answer as well… any spiritual teaching or practice can be subverted by the Ego…

        • Kaspalita Thompson

          I am left with a question of my own… where do these concerns come from., are there people that you see teaching ‘wrong mindfulness’?

          • justinwhitaker

            Hi Kaspa – That’s a good question. A few of the sources of concern are mentioned here (in Loy and Purser) and in the comments by Glenn Wallis. My guess is that there are indeed people teaching ‘wrong mindfulness’, combining ‘mindfulness with’ statements like “there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get rich” or “killing bad guys is just what we need to do” in corporate and military settings. But I’m not sure. My sense is that these are a minority and rather than point them out as specific problems, critics are arising and questioning the whole ‘mindfulness industry’…

            • Kaspalita Thompson

              Thanks Justin, I guess there’s also a question for some people as to whether practicing a simple form of mindfulness will lead to an ‘ethical awakening’ so to speak, regardless of the context in which it is being taught… I know people who fall down on both sides of the answer to this question. There are studies that show a link between mindfulness and ethics, but I’d have to read more to see if that’s regardless of any other context,,,

              Anyway thanks for the sources above, and the interesting comment thread below the line.

              Happy New Year and so on

              Kaspa

              • justinwhitaker

                I know people on both sides of that line as well, including myself, depending on my mood. It sounds like that’s the area I’d like to see studied next: the link(s) between mindfulness and ethics (which will doubtless be accompanied by ever-more rancorous -in good and bad ways- debate over just what ‘ethics’ means, which is when, I hope, I will be paid the big bucks to settle such disputes…. :)

  • http://www.108zenbooks.com Genju

    Wonderful. Well done. Just a note that the more scholarly article in the the quote from my blog is no longer on Scribd as it is under review for possible publication.

    One question that’s been simmering is how sila is conveyed in Buddhist teachings. Taking the precepts for the duration of a retreat would be the closest equivalent to what might be minimally acceptable by Buddhist scholars of an MBI. However, it runs afoul of the same issue; does it have traction? And, of the answer is that it is implicit in the teachings, the corollary question would be how that is different from an MBI.

    BTW Andrew Olendzki and Alan Wallace have also made significant contributions to this debate starting in about 2008. Worth reading.

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks, Lynette! I found an article by Wallace that was very helpful (linked above). I’ll see what I can find from Olendzki as well.

  • 無門 Mumon7

    Lotta words there Justin…where’s your position?

    • justinwhitaker

      Glad ya asked, Mumon. I’ll try to get something together tomorrow or Monday. To be honest I don’t know a lot about the ‘mindfulness movement’ that seems to be the object of a lot of criticism/attacks. But I’ll do my best to have a look.

      • justinwhitaker

        On second thought, I won’t have time for a whole post on it, so here’s my position, in brief:

        1. mindfulness teachings/practice are one way Buddhism is coming into the West. Like other transitions in Buddhism, it’s not the same as what came before or exists elsewhere. It might not even have the same name (so calling it Buddhist, Buddhism-lite, not Buddhist will continue).

        2. As with elsewhere in the world, there will be those who misunderstand and misuse it, knowingly or not.

        3. Historical awareness and a grasp of some Asian Buddhist languages is hugely beneficial. (Hence my appreciation of Sharf’s lecture. Alan Wallace’s piece in Tricycle in 2008 is also very helpful for this: http://www.alanwallace.org/spr08wallace_comp.pdf)

        • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

          Whether we call it “right mindfulness” or “aligned recollection” as I prefer, we in the West are making a big mistake by forgetting that the word in front of “mindfulness” is “smrti” (right, correct, aligned, in the same direction, etc.) We know we have lost the context when we talk about “mindfulness” without the context of “right mindfulness” to distinguish it from wrong mindfulness or misaligned recollection.

  • mufi

    One person’s “watered-down drink” is another’s “fire water.”

    OK, the metaphor obviously has its limits, so on a different note:

    Even if it were true that the MBI’s were value-neutral (whereas they seem pretty value-laden to me), surely the critics (e.g. Purser and Loy) don’t mean to suggest that non-Buddhist practitioners necessarily lack an ethical foundation. Perhaps some do, but Westerners are situated in a culture with a rich and diverse tradition of ethics (e.g. Greek-based philosophy and Hebrew-based religion).

    What’s more, some of these folks were already at least as critical of corporate capitalism and militarism as these critics, and well before they took up mindfulness practice. How much of that influence has been overlooked and attributed entirely to Buddhism, instead (a tradition that’s not exactly known for its views on politics)?

    • justinwhitaker

      I agree, Mufi. I’m thinking that critics such as Purser and Loy are more ‘cautionary’ than descriptive. They are stating legitimate worries, but from what I’ve seen ‘on the ground’, mindfulness is indeed taught in at least some ethical context. If it isn’t, then that needs to be addressed specifically.

      • mufi

        Justin: I’ll put a finer point on that: While I agree that a claim of “system-changing potential” begs for empirical support, so too does a charge of ethical waywardness – otherwise, it’s little more than a straw man argument.

        • justinwhitaker

          You’ve put it perfectly.

        • http://www.108zenbooks.com Genju

          Precisely.

  • http://www.howtobesick.com Toni Bernhard

    You covered the issues well, Justin. I’d like to add my own article at Shambhala SunSpace into the mix. It talks about mindfulness as it appears on the Eightfold Path. The piece is called “Is Mindfulness Ethically Neutral?”

    http://shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=35631

    • justinwhitaker

      Many thanks, Toni. I agree that the samma/samyak (right) needs to be understood and emphasized; and that this points to a connection with the other factors on the path. Just how much contemporary mindfulness teachers do this is, I suppose, the question.

      • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

        In translating, I generally prefer the meaning that points to the concrete image over the meaning that points to the moralistic ideal. So I prefer translating “samyak/samyag” (samyaJc) as “aligned,” because the word has the actual concrete meanings of “going along with or together, turned together or in one direction, combined, united, lying in one direction, forming one line,” which is how, for the eightfold path, it gets the derived value meanings of “correct,” “proper,” or “right,” as when the eight orientations to life are brought into alignment and then judged to be correct or right. So to avoid the judgmental flavor (stain) of “correct” or “right,” I prefer the term alignment. When our car’s tires are unbalanced (after all, the etymology of “dukkha” is the unbalanced wheel or uncentered hub) we could but don’t usually say “I’m going to get my front wheel’s corrected.” Instead we say, “I’m going to get my front wheels aligned.” The Eightfold Path is the diagnostic work order to get our life aligned in these eight ways to remove the dukkha of the eight kinds of misalignment causing the bumpy ride.

  • Peter Cook
    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks for that, Peter, and for addressing the mental health issue.

  • awakenedmind

    If you practice mindfulness even on a completely practical level, it will start to trigger an awakening. It doesn’t matter if it is Buddhist or not, the effects are the same. It amuses me when I see mindfulness being brought into schools, corperations and the military because regular practice will ultimately destroy these institutions. Mindfulness allows you to over ride your conditioning and to function according to your conscience. It awakens the soul and you will be derive authority from within. It will destroy external power. Because you willnot give it your authority. Mindfulness is anti authority, anti corperation and the last thing that the military want is a soldier with a conscience.

    • justinwhitaker

      That certainly sums up well one of the dominant Western understandings of mindfulness. If that can be fleshed out in historical context and/or with empirical data and case studies, I think the worries of the critics would be assuaged.

      • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

        I would say it’s one of the Western misunderstandings of mindfulness. “Right Mindfulness” is one of the eight folds of the path along with “Right View” and “Right Speech.” would anyone really say that just bringing speech or views into the school or military will change the institutions? Same with mindfulness. There is wrong mindfulness like wrong speech and wrong view. The idea that all mindfulness is the same is nothing short of magical or wishful thinking.

        • justinwhitaker

          Yes. hear hear.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    I’ve been kind of unsure how to continue this conversation because it seems like it goes nowhere fast when disagreements arise. I appreciate the post you’ve offered here Justin, and the video is a great reminder that in some ways, this is a really old debate. I think what I find most difficult to swallow is the commonplace resistance to examine the economic contexts these practices are being employed in, and also the sometimes pie in the sky claims mindfulness folks make about the practices. Seth’s reduction of the former as basically the rantings of “Marxists” is insulting and intellectually lazy in my opinion. As far as the latter issue goes, Genju has said more than once in discussions like this one that we won’t know the larger impact of these practices in places like corporate settings for a generation or two, if not longer. Which is fair. And yet, also feels like a dodge. I readily agree with mufi that folks learning/practicing mindfulness have ethical backgrounds. That they aren’t clean slates per se. At the same time, the main reason the issue of ethics is being brought up by critics is that at least some in the mindfulness world are saying things like “These programs will help make more ethical CEOs,” and/or “more mindfulness in corporations or schools will reduce injustice, corruption, etc.” Google’s “Seach Inside Yourself” program, for example, has been highly touted all over the place. Their own website claims that over 1000 Google employees have gone through their programs, plus high level leaders from other Fortune 100 companies. And yet, Google’s corporate ethics have become more and more questionable. In addition, the word “ethics” appears nowhere in the description of what they offer. http://www.siyli.org/business-services/ Now, in their defense, the training organization is only a few years old. However, I’ve read articles about and by Chade Meng Tan for years, including in Buddhist publications, and I can’t recall much about corporate ethics or even personal ethics being on the table. It seems kind of assumed that such issues will take care of themselves as folks develop more emotional intelligence, awareness, and other things. Something I find questionable. And I say this as someone who initially found Meng Tan’s enthusiasm and vigor really refreshing, and also sincere. But I think his, and the Search Inside Yourself institute are worth examining more in depth because they have a lot of funding, backing (from corporate and spiritual leaders including the Dalai Lama it seems), and represent a mixed approach (secularlized, but with core leadership that have significant Buddhist training http://www.siyli.org/the-real-story/staff-board/ ) As a final point, I’m not really coming from a place of “traditional” is good, and “the new” like modern mindfulness programs is bad. Many of the criticisms made about mindfulness can readily be applied to other areas of modern Buddhism. A lot of practice seems to be mostly, or primarily, about reducing stress and coping with day to day life. Which is totally fine. Even beneficial to some degree.

    I like Kaspa’s point that people tend to take what they do, depending upon where they are at. So, even if mindfulness programs in corporations, for example, start being really rigorous on examining corporate ethics, economic systems, and the like, it still might not be enough for some sort of radical change to occur. It just seems to me that if the most common aims of mindfulness programs are to reduce stress, increase basic emotional intelligence, and productivity, then those employing them should either be willing to work with other groups doing the “social justice” or systems change work, or simply be willing to respond to calls for such work by saying “that’s not our area of focus.” More honesty, collaboration, and clarity seem in order all around.

    • justinwhitaker

      Thank you for joining in, Nathan. I agree that a lot of discussions seem to get stuck, either with people just talking past each other or refusing to budge on positions.

      Regarding economics, I think we need to bring it into the conversation without using it (or appearing to use it) to change the topic completely to economics. It is often similar to when people say that the whole problem is Buddhism, or the whole problem is religion. Once you try to argue against this broad generalization, you are painted as part of the problem. I see this coming from the Speculative NB folks a lot, usually combined with an accusation that so-and-so is blind to his own ideology, which tends to shut down conversation pretty fast.

      You, on the other hand, have pointed out one specific case, which I think is very helpful. If Seth or Genju or Chade want to challenge your understanding of the facts or your interpretation, they can. Perhaps ‘wait and see’ is a bit of a dodge, but without specific data about problems, it might really be fair, too. After all, the biggest problem in the world, or even the US, is not a guy or group teaching mindfulness to corporate employees. The guy who killed a couple people in a sweat-lodge a couple years ago: worth raising a stink about; Michael Roach, creating his own brand of Buddhism in the desert (also leading to one death), worth publicizing as a problem in the Buddhist world.

      On the other hand, as you’ve pointed out, there are some bold and unproven claims being made by folks in the ‘mindfulness’ business. This is the sort of problem that I think we can collectively work to eradicate: you, me, Seth, Genju, and others all have a stake in challenging bogus claims in the name of ‘mindfulness’, I would think. Again, the key to me is specificity: who is making the claims and where? With that info we can assert clear pressure and take it down.

      Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but I haven’t seen too many of these bogus claims or people, but, again, if they’re out there, we can/should work to spot-light and get rid of them, rather than targeting mindfulness teachers in general, which tends to snare too many people who are well aware of ethics and are doing good work (like Seth and Genju). Analogously, I would hate to see all Zen teachers lumped in with those who have been caught up in recent scandals.

      I hope that can be a kind of common starting point for everyone seriously concerned about this: that we need to deal in specifics.

      Regarding connections with social justice, I agree with you: mindfulness teachers need to tone down claims about the inherent goodness of their programs and create distinct guidelines for their students to work with active organizations or learn/enact social justice inside the mindfulness program itself.

    • Seth Zuiho Segall

      Nathan — I used the term “neo-Marxist” as what I thought was an accurate and helpful descriptor of a point on the politico-economic spectrum. It wasn’t intended as a pejorative, but it was intended to point out that the critique in question is essentially a politico-economic one and not a Buddhist one. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, while Buddhism is against grasping and greed, it doesn’t have an implicit or explicit social theory as such. We may all rue social inequality and oppression, but Buddhism doesn’t provide us with a road map for how to best address these questions, and good Buddhists may disagree on points of economic and social analysis and remedy. In any case, it’s not Buddhism’s role to reduce injustice or corruption — those are social and political questions. It’s our role as citizens who happen to be Buddhists to help solve these questions because were interested as Buddhists in reducing suffering in the world, but the solutions to these problems will never be Buddhist ones per se — although we may use Buddhist insights to guide the manner in which we interact with others as we work together with them to help find solutions – mindfully, open-mindedly, and compassionately. The distinction here is subtle, and I’m not sure how clearly I’ve expressed it, but I think it is important.

      • Nathan G. Thompson

        I’m not offended by being called a Marxist per se. What I find troubling is the reduction of all anti-capitalist positions into a Marxist framework. Although I take some cues from Marxist writings sometimes, it’s not accurate to describe m views as “Marxist” or even “neo-Marixst.” And I’m not alone. The capitalist-communist binary is a 20th century framework, one that doesn’t accurately capture what’s happening today.

        “In any case, it’s not Buddhism’s role to reduce injustice or corruption — those are social and political questions.” This view represents one wing of Buddhism, both now and historically. More often than not, it’s the view of those from the privileged classes. A really awful example of this is Burma, where the two main dictators during military rule there, General Than Shwe and General Ne Win, were practicing Buddhists who essentially ruled in a secular fashion. But that’s an extreme, and it’s more common that folks with means simply view Buddhism is an inner practice. There’s also the wandering monk, mountain monk traditions, but these have always been the realm of the few.

        The historical Buddha could have stuck with his first thoughts following enlightenment and just kept to himself or worked with a select few. However, he ended up being engaged with folks from all over the spectrum. He gave social teachings, attempted to intervene in tribal conflicts, and faced significant threats from folks in power because of his open door policy towards the lower classes.

        So, I see the other side of the coin is a more interwoven understanding. Which takes many forms, but doesn’t separate politics, social issues, and the like from “practice” and the “dharma.” Now, I’m not interested in supporting a Buddhist theocracy anywhere, and tend to think that state religions of any form aren’t the way to go. As such, perhaps we are on the same page in some sense. However, it’s more than just being about people who “happen to be Buddhists” acting in the social/political world to me. And I think that there are plenty of well known Buddhists out there today, including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, who have taken significant action in the world, inspired by the dharma and their practice. They act as Buddhists, while not letting that label get in the way, seeking to work with anyone, regardless of spiritual or religious background. There are also plenty of unknown Buddhists, monastics and laypeople, who focus large chunks of their lives on supporting the hungry, sick, and in need somehow. And others who are who are engaged in justice and social change work in some form or another.

        While I think there are ways to argue for either side of the coin, I also believe that a lot of us “Western” converts” get caught by labels and identity issues. Some get too hooked on being called or seen as a Buddhist, and over emphasize the teachings in their daily interactions, not too unlike some Christians do. While others seek to compartmentalize their practice. Acting as if it has little or no significant impact on the decisions they make in the world. What I find so interesting about discussions about the mindfulness movement is that both of these are common shadows lurking beneath the surface.

        • Seth Zuiho Segall

          Nathan — we’re in agreement that Buddhist practice isn’t just inner practice and that we’re moved as Buddhists to engage the suffering of the world. My issue isn’t about quietism vs. engagement. It’s about whether there are specific remedies for socioeconomic problems that are Buddhist ones, per se. My position is that we’re called on to engage the world through right speech, non-clinging, non-harming, compassion, deep listening, etc., but that our understanding of macro- and micro-economics and political science doesn’t derive from Buddhist thought any more than our understanding of astrophysics or microbiology does. Buddhism doesn’t address every problem, nor should it be expected to.

      • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

        I thought the “Marxist” comment was alluding to Philosopher Slavoj Žižek whose comments on Buddha Dharma are nearly delusional as he subjects it to his Marxist economic analysis.

    • http://www.108zenbooks.com Genju

      Nathan, how is my statement a “dodge.?” If the research on the parameters of change aren’t yet available, they are not available. When they are, we will be in a better position to address corporate change of values through mindfulness. This is evidence and in other areas (which address issues of changes in corporate values through various interventions) change is reported. Just not yet in mindfulness-based interventions.

      I don’t object to any discussion, however difficult it may be. What I find pointless is debating an assumption of my intentions using facts not in evidence.

      And btw, while I fully agree that it is of concern that the secular/clinical use of mindfulness lacks the component of an “explicit” ethics in their programming, it remains an independent issue from the presence or absence of ethics as an explicit component of Buddhist teachings. To claim that Buddhists have it right because they possess a more sacred view is just plain sanctimonious. Similarly to claim that the worldly application of mindfulness is justified in not addressing ethics explicitly because it’s emptying the ocean by the thimbleful is insufficient. What is sorely lacking in the random set of claims pro and con mindfulness is a clarity of arguments that could easily dismantle the objections on both sides.

      But as long as there is fingerpointing, ridiculing and histrionic claims of moral degradation, it’s not going to happen.

  • Michael Roe

    I have had the opportunity to discuss Justin’s excellent article with other practitioners, as well as sharing the Prof. Sharf video. I was very appreciative of the Sharf video in many ways (some with whom I discussed were quite critical of Sharf’s comments on the Mahasi tradition), most of which Justin captured well in his article. I also welcome Dr. Segall’s article as it provided some balance to the discussion, and his suggestion that “half a loaf” of mindfulness training in the west is far better than none at all. I’m still skeptical that the west will make an effort to discover sati, or even samma sati, and have a sense that corporations will integrate mindfulness training without its necessary ethical and compassion based requirements. As Justin inferred, it might be necessary to monitor events like corporate trainings and Wisdom 2.0 to see if mindfulness is being explored for sound and ethical reasons, or to provide a Buddhist “sweetener” to new tech platforms, products, and/or corporate productivity training. Some months ago, frosted a bit by some published developments in the west re “mindfulness,” I started a barebones blog at http://www.mcmindfulness.com , to perhaps note along the way the uses and misuses of sati in the west. This term was thankfully coined by others but I thought perhaps cheekily to start a blog to incorporate criticisms as comments from the blogosphere about sati in the west.

    I agree with Dr. Elisha Goldstein’s: “I appreciate the cautionary notes in Beyond McMindfulness since we need to be aware when someone is just using the term as a buzz word without ties to a deeper moral purpose. But I want to make sure it’s balanced out with the reality of how a secularization of mindfulness, while not
    explicitly tied to Buddhist principles, is a vital movement for individuals, businesses, medicine, mental health and education,” and will be interested to see if the west treats sati with respect, or reduces it to a brand of mayonnaise.

  • Y. A. Warren

    We must all understand that The Buddha was brought up in great privilege, and that he left his family to the care of “underlings” to pursue his voyage of uninterrupted “mindfulness.”

    I absolutely caution against this opening of self and desertion of ego in the presence of anyone with whom one is not most intimate, as this is the opportunity for your spirit to be taken over by the huge egos of gurus.

    When mindfulness includes awareness that a spouse is screaming, while an infant is feeding, and a toddler has a diaper full of the products of what was fed to the child, perhaps it will become more mainstream in the world of family. Mindfulness in the world of competition is the best way to find ways to manipulate others, and to become manipulated.

    Spiritual practice should never prostitute itself to business or politics (redundant, yes?), but this is how all philosophies enrich the creators’ disciples. Such hypocrisy!

  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

    Justin, you put out a great blog. Good review of current discussions on mindfulness. My view is that “mindfulness” itself is a misnomer and a mistranslation of the Sanskrit “smrti” which is the practice of recollection. There is “aligned recollection” (a.k.a. “right mindfulness”) which is the “samyaksmrti” of the Eightfold Path. So obviously there is a misaligned recollection (wrong mindfulness). The practitioners of mindfulness outside of the context of the Buddha Dharma seem oblivious to this basic point that recollection practice can be done either correctly or incorrectly and the determining factor is the question of what is the standard being used for the alignment? If the Western mindfulness movement for application to corporations, the military, and the therapist’s office does not discuss how the practice of recollection is to be oriented, that is, measured by what standard, then they will certainly be using the practice to either no results or detrimental results.
    What is aligned recollection practice (smrti, mindfulness) any how? It is the practice of coming out of distraction by aligning our recollection to the Buddha Dharma. Usually our attention in cognitive consciousness is distracted by recollections (mindfulness) of all kinds of ignorant things having to do with greed, hate and delusion. We call this the “monkey minded” thinking and thoughts. This type of recollection (or mindfulness) is the problem, not the solution, the disease, not the medicine. The seventh fold of the Eightfold Path is about aligning our normal recollection (mindfulness) to the Buddha Dharma.
    The recollection of the present sensations (i.e., “now”) is a practice to bring us out of the distractions of thinking, but then there is no guarantee of what that practice will do for any particular person. We have to be guided by the life of the Buddha and be very aware that sometimes the most scary or disturbing events of consciousness will be called up in the way that Mara attacked the Buddha. The practice of “mindfulness of the now” is not simply a neutral or “rainbows and unicorns” practice guaranteed to give us joy and a stress free life. It is guaranteed to bring us face to face with our demons that are the guardians at the boundaries of life and death. If it doesn’t then it is not really Buddhist practice, not the aligned recollection or right mindfulness of the Buddha Dharma.

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks Gregory. I agree regarding remembering the ‘right’ aspect of right mindfulness (and Toni Bernard’s piece touches on this too: http://shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=35631 as well).

      I guess the question that keeps coming back is ethics (as you mention being guided by the life of the Buddha). Do mindfulness programs ensure some degree of ethical grounding to promote the ‘right’ in right mindfulness? Should they? Part of my reason for writing this piece was to encourage people to cut through the broad claims mentioned above suggesting that either ‘mindfulness will cure the world’s ills’ or ‘mindfulness is just feeding a bad system’ etc.

  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

    Ideology is not a bad word in the way that view is not a bad word. We all have a point of view or “some sort of ideology.” The 8-fold Path says we need to have an aligned view or aligned ideology, not a fixated or dogmatic view or ideology. You couldn’t write a piece on “the ideology of mindfulness” because there are plural ideologies of all the people who use the term “mindfulness,” each within the frame of reference of their own ideology.

    • Glenn Wallis

      Gregory Wonderwheel. The point of the exercise would be to determine whether the differences claimed by the various varieties of “mindfulness” are, in fact, real differences. A difference does not always make a difference. Sometimes a variation simple marks institutional territory, cultural/historical origins, or intra-community power dynamics, for instance. My own study of x-buddhism has me thinking that, when it really comes down to it, there is no significant difference between religious forms of Buddhism and secular ones. There are differences in rhetoric, in self-presentation. But those differences, which, on the face of it, appear to be “plural ideologies,” turn out to mask a deep-seated alliance, a common identity..

  • justinwhitaker

    Glenn — Thanks for dropping by. I concede that SN Buddhists may be intending to “show the contours….” of ideology, but it does often read as less nuanced and charitable than that.

    Interpreting Sharf’s lecture as “nothing ever changes” seems quite extravagant as well. Certain debates and fine points may be well-argued from two sides and interpreters will continue to argue both of those, but in (generally) ever more sophisticated ways and with new evidence. Similar ‘eternal’ or longstanding debates exist in Western philosophy.

    But like Western philosophy, there will always be folks who try to step outside the whole conversation. And sometimes this can be very useful (a new radical perspective can shed light on situations that we otherwise could not see).

    And yes, I agree that ideology isn’t a bad word (though I prefer to think in terms of Weltanschauung) and I think we’d both agree that a vast majority of humans on the planet have been and remain ‘blind to’ their own ideology. I’m hesitant to even think about writing an ‘ideology of mindfulness’ article because so many such undertakings that I see tend to be projections by the author or rather egoic speculations about ‘what those people must be thinking…’ based, rather ironically, on the author’s own ideology. And I agree with Gregory that when you look closely you see a variety of ‘ideologies’ of mindfulness (especially if you take a historical view).

    • Glenn Wallis

      Justin. It is mainly to those who want x-buddhisms to prevail in the end that the non-buddhist critique appears “less nuanced and charitable” than it should be. My point is that if you stop trying to protect Buddhism, you’ll see abiding similarities in the very differences claimed by this and that x. Again, Sharf’s argument unintentionally reiterates just how conservative Buddhism has remained over the centuries. From a historical perspective, saying “Buddhism never changes” is not extravagant at all–taking, again, my “identity-over-difference” approach.

      It’s a shame. Buddhism/mindfulness has some good, potent shit going on. So, why is it so milquetoasty in the hands of the people you highlight?

      In 2014, I’d love to see you bring your knowledge of Kant to bear on your treatments of Buddhism.

      • justinwhitaker

        Are you saying there’s a difference between the ‘potent shit’ in mindfulness and the milquetoasty side represented here? If so, pray tell, what is it?

        • Glenn Wallis

          Of course that’s what I’m saying, Justin! Getting at what obstructs the potency is what the non-buddhism project is all about. Clue: the obstruction begins with the treatment of x-buddhist/mindfulness materials in the hands of the kinds of well-behaved, pious figures in charge today. But it goes much deeper than that.

          • justinwhitaker

            Well good! Then I think we’re on the same page in some ways. May this be the year of unlocking potency (although that might sound a bit odd)…

  • unfoldingkarma

    I work at one of the most popular and one of the first Insight Meditation retreat centers in the U.S. In 1979 Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program after sitting a meditation retreat at Insight Meditation Society. He says he came up with the idea of MBSR at IMS. He is careful to not throw out or disregard the important roots of where it all came from. Buddhist teachings in mindfulness need to be rooted in ethics if they are to flourish and really be of benefit. Wisdom and compassion are necessary for true understanding and growth. There are many analogies I can give but one that is clear is that of a musician. Someone who only studies technique but has no heart or passion or rhythm will not be successful nor satisfied. A thief breaking into a place is very mindful to be quiet. Mindfulness without understanding the importance of ethics and morality can create harm. Anyone teaching mindfulness should be cautious and at least give a nod to the roots of the teachings. It can be done in a secular way, like MBSR, without being religious.

    The eldest and most respected meditation teachers (Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Larry Rosenberg, Ruth Denison) in the West have been saying for years that just learning the technique of meditation for selfish gain can be dangerous. The CEO or board member who has mastered mindfulness and concentration has an advantage over everyone else. These teachings must be offered with discernment and care.

  • http://www.angieyoga.it/ Angelina Brazzale

    It seems that intellectualizing sometimes leans towards Conspiracy Theory. I practice and teach yoga every day. Does that make me a yogi? I don’t know. I recite Buddhist prayers and practice Zazen every day. Does that make me a Buddhist? I don’t know. I hope to open people’s awareness to their bodies and to their breath cycle and to whatever they are feeling in the present moment. Does this make me a Mindfulness teacher? Really, I don’t know.
    But what I do know is this: the people who are coming along to my classes and who are learning, often for the first time, how to feel, are finishing the courses as a human being positively transformed, Not enlightened. Just, a little bit, transformed. The transformation happens not from reading sutras or from ethical discussions. It happens through non-judgemental acceptance of the self.
    What I also know is that the people who are coming to my Meditation classes are not the same people who are naturally attracted to a Buddhist Sesshin. And I imagine this is the same across the Western world. The corporates who are hiring Mindfulness coaches are probably not ready to step foot inside a dojo. And that’s ok. Just get them breathing. The rest will follow. Patience.
    Saying that, I understand the jealous attachment to a belief system or a school. I also lament the fact that the Ashtanga 8-fold path of Patanjali has become, to many, simply a sequence of postures. To many, not to all. To some, it continues to be a very deep spiritual path.
    There’s room for everyone, and for all levels of consciousness.
    Just teach people to breathe, and don’t get bogged down in who they are learning from, and what title they hold.


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