Your Practice is Not All about You

Your Practice is Not All about You July 8, 2013

I’ve found myself thinking quite an awful lot lately about two articles that appeared recently and have been discussed elsewhere in the Buddhist blogosphere of late: “Beyond McMindfulness” by Ron Purser and the great David Loy for The Huffington Post, and “The Morality of Meditation” by David DeSteno for the New York Times.

Purser and Loy’s piece speaks prophetically to something that has proven to bring as many problems with it as possibilities: the commodification of Buddhist mindfulness. They write:

Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context is understandable as an expedient move to make such training a viable product on the open market. But the rush to secularize and commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique may be leading to an unfortunate denaturing of this ancient practice, which was intended for far more than relieving a headache, reducing blood pressure, or helping executives become better focused and more productive.

While a stripped-down, secularized technique — what some critics are now calling “McMindfulness” — may make it more palatable to the corporate world, decontextualizing mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics, amounts to a Faustian bargain. Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.

DeSteno (a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he also directs the Social Emotions Group), meanwhile, reports on the findings he made with neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes and Willa Miller (Buddhist lama and co-editor of The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work, Wisdom Publications’ recent book for which I contributed a chapter), and which will soon be published in the journal Psychological Science: that meditation seems to dramatically increase our likelihood of responding compassionately to others.

I’ll have more to say about DeSteno’s piece and his findings shortly. First, though, I’d like to spend some time with the ideas in Loy and Purser’s piece. It’s hard for me to describe how grateful I was for what they had to say: their piece is the incredibly insightful, perfectly articulated assessment of where we are with the “mindfulness” movement that I’ve long  been waiting for. I think they’re right on, and that we all in the Buddhist world could learn a lot from them. It’s the kind of wake-up call we’ve needed for a while now.

As regular readers know, I’m an enormous admirer of Sulak Sivaraksa, Thailand’s preeminent social activist and one of the titans of the modern engaged Buddhist movement. Sulak once said something that has stayed with me since I first encountered it:

Buddhism is not concerned just with private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings… Any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is fundamentally a mistake. Until Western Buddhists understand this, their embrace of Buddhism will not help very much in the efforts to bring about meaningful and positive social change, or even in their struggle to transform their ego.

More and more each day, I feel the essentiality and urgency of this lesson as a student and teacher of Buddhism in America. For all the things we get right and contribute as practitioners, I believe, like Sulak (and like Loy and Purser), that there is a general tendency among many to understand Buddhist practice apart from its social dimension. Or maybe we do remember this in our hearts, but for whatever reason this recognition is not as fully realized as it could be. Or maybe, as DeSteno’s work seems to indicate, we come to understand some of this incidentally. At the very least, it seems to me that we are not especially good at demonstrating a clear understanding of Sivaraksa’s lesson in our discussions about Buddhist practice here in the U.S.

Take, for example, our approach to conversations about Buddhism and technology. Technology is a big theme in the mainstream Buddhist magazines this month. For Shambhala Sun’s July edition, Sumi Loundon Kim discusses concerns that led her to leave Facebook (“I realized…I had been living my life through ‘Facebook status possibilities,’ rather than just being in and enjoying the moment”). In addition, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review’s Summer 2013 issue features an entire section dedicated to “Buddhism and Technology” that includes a couple of pieces which similarly give us food for thought about the myriad possibilities for (as well as obstacles to) practice in the world of gadgets and social media.

In other forums, the subject of Buddhism and technology gets yet more attention. Noah Schatman’s feature “Enlightenment Engineers” in the latest issue of Wired, for example, looks at the various meditation teachers who have become influential fixtures in Silicon Valley. The Huffington Post’s Religion section also recently posted a piece of Shambhala Buddhist lineage holder Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s new book The Shambhala Principle, in which he speaks about “the karma of smartphones” and how “we can use technology to awaken our discipline and dignity, instead of letting it take over our lives.”

But aside from a few fleeting references in the always on-target R.J. Eskow’s piece “My Technology, My Self” for Tricycle, nowhere in these articles will you find any engagement whatsoever with the weighty and important questions of morality and social responsibility that come with our fancy devices and corporate online communities. How are our laptops and phones produced? What’s in them, and how are those materials acquired? Who puts them together, and how are they treated? What are the manufacturers of our devices and the CEOs of social media companies doing with the vast fortunes we have given them? Is our money being used to do things that harm or benefit others? In light of these other questions, what are our responsibilities as Buddhist practitioners and consumers?

If the discussion in popular media is any indication, our interest in Buddhism and technology extends only as far as our personal practice and whether or not our oh-so-delicate meditative equipoise is disturbed or enhanced by all things digital. What’s out there on the subject deals almost exclusively with how technology relates to our own private, quite privileged destinies; how our use of technology affects the destinies of so many others is rarely (if ever) treated. Sure, we might talk about others in terms of our relationships to those around us — how our mis/use of technology affects our loved ones and/or sangha — but, again, it’s really all about us and our “mindful” use of particular devices, platforms, and apps. Forget any conversation about Buddhist ethics and our responsibilities as consumers in light of the working conditions for Chinese laborers at the FoxConn factories that make our iPhones (and lots and lots of other popular gizmos); the simultaneous rise in the proliferation of mobile devices and horrifically bloody war in the Democratic Republic of Congo — the place where we get minerals necessary to make these devices; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s group and its support for the Keystone XL pipeline project, which is being opposed by climate scientists, Corporate Ethics International, the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club,, the National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Rainforest Action Network (among many, many others); or a host of similarly serious issues around technology that affect the lives of so many others. “My Technology, My Self,” indeed!

Let me be clear: I say all this not to pick on any particular article, author, or publication; the pieces I’ve mentioned are hardly the first (or last) such pieces to deal with technology in this way, and are all worthy of consideration on their own merits. What’s more, I see them as a reflection of where most of us are right now in terms of thinking about Buddhism and technology. (There’s also a strong case to be made that it’s where many non-Buddhists are with technology too: a recent opinion piece for the New York Times by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who, as far as I know, is not a Buddhist, sounds a lot of the very same notes.) I also don’t mean to ignore or marginalize all the good work of socially-engaged Buddhists, who tend to get a lot less “air time” than other kinds of teachers. Nor am I suggesting that there isn’t room to discuss the mindful use of technology; on the contrary, I sure think there is. What troubles me is that this is all that we’re seeing; how our consumption of technology affects others, and what our responsibilities might be as consumers informed by Buddhist wisdom and values, almost never comes up. If, as Rinpoche suggests, “Generally, the best approach with technology is to consider our dignity and concern for others,” then why aren’t we talking about those things?

My intention here is to point out the apparently very narrow scope of our collective interest in Buddhism and technology, and what that might say about Buddhism in America. I’m struck that this conversation and others like it never seem to move us past the exact kind of “individualistic” and “consumer-oriented” understanding of Buddhist meditation that Loy and Purser are rightly concerned about. We have to do better than this.

You might not agree with Loy and Purser, but I think you would have to agree that it’s certainly pretty easy to see how they might arrive at their conclusions. Or why, say, Owen Flanagan would provocatively refer to many American Buddhists as “Bourgeois Buddhists”. Or why Joshua Eaton might find Buddhists mostly “absent” from participating in service efforts following Hurricane Katrina or during Occupy Wall Street, or even hosting outside community groups at temples and centers. Or why Bhikkhu Bodhi worries that “the ultimate liberative goal of the Buddha’s teaching, and the active compassionate application of the Dharma to the alleviation of socially caused suffering, are at risk of being pushed to the sidelines in favor of a ‘feel good about yourself’ version of Buddhism, or a Buddhism that functions as a mere existential psychotherapy.”

If you are inclined to agree with Loy and Purser, DeSteno’s New York Times article should offer at least a glimmer of hope, though, right? In a way, it does. He writes:

Although we don’t yet know why meditation has [the effect of boosting compassion], one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected. The psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I have found that any marker of affiliation between two people, even something as subtle as tapping their hands together in synchrony, causes them to feel more compassion for each other when distressed. The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us.

So, on the one hand, it sure is great if even a stripped-down mindfulness meditation tinged with individualism and consumerism will nonetheless adventitiously, inevitably lead us to increased regard for others and compassionate action just so long as we’re practicing; on the other hand, though, imagine what the result might be if we taught “Buddhist-inspired” meditation techniques that included explicit attention to the social dimension of the Buddha’s teachings.

Indeed, a focus on what Bhikkhu Bodhi terms “the ultimate liberative goal of the Buddha’s teaching, and the active compassionate application of the Dharma to the alleviation of socially caused suffering” might even produce greater happiness, peace, calm, and whatever else those practicing a minimalist form of mindfulness meditation for its benefits are after. At the moment, though, those hungry for the fruits of meditation are, as Loy and Purser suggest, seeming to move in almost the complete opposite direction. The Wired piece, for example, introduces us to a tech community that wants “return on its investment in meditation” in the form of a scientifically-validated path to less stress and greater productivity, and dismisses things that would likely fall into the realms of Buddhist philosophy and ethics as “hippie bullshit.” Well, it’s not just Sulak who might say that jettisoning the things they regard as “hippie bullshit” won’t help that return. And it’s not just Loy and Purser who might question the wisdom of their resistance to “social and organizational transformation,” or the practice of mindfulness solely for the purposes of “self-preservation and self-advancement.” In fact, scientists are beginning to show us how our acquisitive, self-interested tendencies actually work against us, and how there might just be something to that “hippie bullshit” after all. Consider this, for instance:

Across multiple studies, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have found that being in the upper-class predisposes individuals to acting unethically.

Studies conducted by psychology professor Paul Piff found those who drive luxury cars were less likely to stop for pedestrians, those with more money were more likely take candy from children, and the wealthiest among us were more likely to cheat in a game with a $50 cash prize. Researchers at UC Berkeley have also found lower-class individuals are more physiologically attuned to the suffering of others than their middle- and upper-class counterparts.

In light of this, if the path is, as the Buddha himself said, fundamentally all about understanding and alleviating suffering, then Loy and Purser are quite right to express misgivings about mindfulness becoming a tool for the purposes of “subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and…keeping attention focused on institutional goals.” Instead, it would be ideal — both for the betterment of all humanity as well as our individual growth and development — to consider the kind of “social and organizational transformation” to which Loy and Purser allude as we approach practice.

I’ve said a lot, but ultimately I have one point to make, I think: however it makes sense for us, we need to each metaphorically look into the mirror and say, “My practice is not all about me.” At the very least, we also need to make sure we’re explicitly thinking and talking about others in our practice and in our teaching (because we’re sure not doing a great job of the latter right now). And, better still, we should try to do things to benefit others. I’ve never much cared for the unofficial American Buddhist slogan, “Don’t just do something…sit there.” It is important to do our contemplative practice, yes, but there are also so very many beings who could benefit from our efforts off the cushion as well; looking at the state of the world, it’s clear that she’s calling out for all hands on deck. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”

Earlier in the post I said that it’s a happy accident indeed if we do become more compassionate as practitioners of even a very individualized, privatized, stripped-down form of meditation…but imagine if we aimed higher. Imagine if we really and truly sat down on the cushion with the attitude, “My practice is concerned not just with my own private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings.” Then, I think, we’ll see a Great Turning of the Wheel of Dharma…

Browse Our Archives