mindfulness buddhism secular ethics Buddhadharma Lion's Roar

Forum: What Does Mindfulness Mean for Buddhism?

Four leading thinkers address Buddhists’ questions about secular mindfulness: Where are the ethics? Does it go deep enough? Will it help or hurt Buddhism?

By Lion’s Roar

Children at an elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland, are introduced to meditation through the Holistic Life Program. Photo by Mark Mahaney.

In my dog-eared 1956 edition of Nyanaponika’s The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, the preface by Graham Howe makes a prescient observation:

Founded in the East, as wisdom usually is, I believe that satipatthana [the establishment of mindfulness] will prove at least equally beneficial to us in the West, especially when it has been digested by us in our experience, and perhaps been a little modified to meet our special tradition and requirements.

The current explosion of interest in mindfulness—including eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy courses, mindfulness programs in schools and organizations, and smartphone meditation apps—would suggest that this prophecy is coming to pass. This key dharma practice has indeed been modified in various ways and is touching the lives of more and more people. One might therefore assume that long-standing practitioners and teachers within Buddhist traditions would be delighted. Yet what we find is a very mixed range of responses—from enthusiasm to ambivalence to outright criticism.

Concerns include the question of whether, in being extracted from its Buddhist roots, mindfulness might lose its ethical stance: Is it still “right” mindfulness, and what is its relationship to the other limbs of the eight-fold path? The Buddha’s teaching is often described as “going against the stream” of greed, ill will, and delusion. What are the implications of this when teaching mindfulness in the modern world, where these are in evidence on a global scale?

Concerns are also expressed in the secular realms of science, education, and health care, including the suspicion that mindfulness instructors are propagating some kind of stealth Buddhism or covert recruitment drive for dharma centers, as well as a caution that the current enthusiasm for mindfulness-based programs outstrips the evidence for their efficacy. For those of us who teach both secular mindfulness programs and Buddhist meditation, it can sometimes feel like we are under attack from both sides.

These issues raise valid questions that need to be expressed and debated. An uncritical convergence of aspects of Buddhism and Western psychology could lead to a superficial understanding of both, greatly reducing any potential benefits. But it is unhelpful for the debate to become polarized or for it to be based on a lack of understanding of what is actually going on or the motivations of those in either field. Entrenched positions do nothing to untangle the views and opinions surrounding mindfulness.

We are still in the very early phase of the establishment of a “Western” Buddhism—if the term even has any meaning in this age of globalization—and it is much too early to see where this is all going and how it may be influenced by the wider applications of mindfulness. The process is likely to be enriched by well-informed and open communication that addresses concerns and enables mutual learning to support the shared aim of relieving suffering and enhancing well-being. The following discussion offers a small step on the journey.

Buddhadharma: Increasingly, mindfulness is talked about not just as a teaching or practice but as a movement. Is that a fair assessment, do you think?

Diana Winston: Mindfulness is being adapted by institutions across the U.S.—in schools, health-care settings, and academia—and in many countries around the world. With this expansion, and with all the research being conducted on the benefits of mindfulness, I would definitely call it a movement.

Trudy Goodman: It was over thirty years ago, in the basement of the UMass Medical Center, that I worked with Jon Kabat-Zinn in the early days of the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program, which is what MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) was called then. We chose the phrase “stress reduction” because we thought that people wouldn’t feel stigmatized by learning mindfulness for stress reduction. Everyone experiences stress. It’s been amazing to watch what’s happened from those early days of getting doctor referrals only for those patients who had reached the end of the medical line. Now, many people who have been through the program for a variety of reasons and benefited are referring their friends and loved ones.

At this point, I would say mindfulness is going viral. That does complicate things for us in a way, because many see mindfulness as a panacea and don’t realize there’s actual work involved in being present and mindful. But it’s very gratifying for those of us who have been working with both Buddhist training and secular paths to see this influx of people from all walks of life.

Barry Boyce: Four years ago, the Shambhala Sun Foundation started a website, mindful.org, and shortly thereafter the Foundation for a Mindful Society was founded to take over the website and launch Mindful magazine in response to all the interest we were seeing in what some people call “secular mindfulness.” That interest continues unabated; in fact, it’s exploding, particularly in the workplace—and by “workplace” I mean not just schools and hospitals but even, controversially, the military and police. There’s a great deal of stress, confusion, and difficulty in the world, and the benefits of mindfulness in helping alleviate these problems is being widely discussed across mainstream media, so people want to know more. It’s become quite a phenomenon.

Buddhadharma: Mindfulness can mean different things to different people. How is the word “mindfulness” understood in a non-Buddhist context as compared to a Buddhist one?

Melissa Myozen Blacker: I worked with Jon as well, perhaps ten years later than Trudy, in that same basement, and I remember him creating a beautiful working definition of mindfulness, which was about paying attention on purpose and without judgment in the present moment. Ellen Langer had written a book on mindfulness at about that same time, and there were differences between his definition and hers, but both were aimed at relieving suffering for people out in the world. There are, of course, also many different Buddhist definitions of mindfulness. We all use the same word, but I’m not always sure we’re talking about the same thing.

Trudy Goodman: Ellen Langer’s definition of mindfulness is about the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mind-sets, then acting on the new observations. From the point of view of her research, that’s fantastic, but for those of us who are teachers of mindfulness, with backgrounds in Buddhist philosophy, psychology, and deep practice, we know there’s so much more to it than cultivating bare attention. If we look at the Pali canon and the Abhidharma definitions of mindfulness, there are eighteen elements or factors of mind that support mindfulness. Mindfulness is starting to be used as a catchall term for all of them.

Barry Boyce: “Mindfulness” is a term that’s been used in so many different ways and carries many different meanings; you have to pay attention to the context. Within Buddhism, several different words are translated as “mindfulness,” and the definitions vary by tradition. The way Tibetan teachers talk about mindfulness is different from the way it’s talked about in the Theravada or Zen traditions. If you’re studying the dharma, it’s helpful to figure out which term is being translated and how it’s being used.

More broadly, the term is used as a label for the entire movement. Within that context, I would say Jon’s definition of mindfulness best describes it. But Jon also considers it important to not get stuck in one canonical definition. He says that MBSR teachers, for example, ought to be able to put mindfulness in their own words if they need to.

Unfortunately, the word mindfulness is used to refer to both a basic human capability and the practices that cultivate that basic quality. So if somebody says, “I’m into mindfulness,” what does that mean? Are they talking about that way of being, or are they talking about the actual practices?

Diana Winston: The word “mindful” is now being used as a catchall term to describe a lot more than just paying attention to present-moment experience. There’s mindfulness as an application of attention, but then there’s mindfulness almost as a translation for the word “dharma,” in this sense meaning the array of teachings arising from and connected to being mindful. When we talk about the mindfulness movement, we’re not just talking about people paying attention. We’re talking about the cultivation of many qualities, which we can think of as “outcome qualities,” such as compassion, patience, and equanimity.

Buddhadharma: In the early days of this movement, many teachers had some kind of Buddhist training. How does that compare to what’s happening today? What kind of training is necessary to become a mindfulness teacher?

Melissa Myozen Blacker: In our teacher training programs at the Center for Mindfulness, we used to get two cohorts of people who wanted to be MBSR teachers, and it was interesting to see what needed to be cultivated in each cohort. Those who had come through dharma traditions sometimes needed a grounding in Western psychology and medicine, as well as an understanding of how to communicate with a group, since MBSR was always taught in a group setting. There was another cohort of people who were missing the Buddhist element entirely and needed almost remedial Buddhist help. For example, the MBSR course was partly based on the teachings of the four foundations of mindfulness found in the Satipattana Sutta and the classical teachings on mindfulness of the breath, and we included this and other traditional Buddhist teachings in our teacher training. And we emphasized the importance of attending silent, teacher-led silent retreats. I do know that the folks at the Center for Mindfulness are now working on offering secular mindfulness retreats, which I think will be important for the future of the movement.

Trudy Goodman: To my knowledge, there doesn’t yet exist a secular mindfulness retreat center where intensive mindfulness practice is offered free from outer distractions. I think that until there are mindfulness retreat centers, we need people who have at least some intensive Buddhist retreat training. It’s important to have a grounding in the four noble truths in order to have some understanding of how suffering arises and how it can end. It’s so clearly laid out in the Buddhist tradition; at InsightLA, when we teach mindfulness, we put the essential teachings into secular terms.

Diana Winston: The most important requirement is that teachers must have an experiential, lived understanding of practice. A requirement for my mindfulness facilitator training program at UCLA (Mindfulness Awareness Research Center) is that participants have to have sat retreats, because of how valuable we know them to be. It’s important to have both a daily practice and some retreat practice, as well as training in how to facilitate groups and apply the teachings with others. Developing a peer-based learning community is also a significant aspect of the training.

Our program also involves a lot of practical teacher training, such as how to embody what you’re teaching, how to teach from a place of presence as opposed to teaching from your head, as well as teachings on ethics and the language and science of mindfulness. Over a hundred people have now gone through this program, many of whom are not Buddhists. By now, there are people who have grown up in the mindfulness world and have never identified as being Buddhist at all.

Barry Boyce: This is a vital topic. If, for example, in Congressman Tim Ryan’s efforts to bring mindfulness into schools and hospitals, someone can present evidence that mindfulness is nothing other than Buddhism, then his programs are going to get kicked out of those institutions. All of the buddhadharma is discoveries made by practitioners stretching back to the Buddha. Those are incredible discoveries, and the traditions of buddhadharma inspire them, but people have found, and will continue to find, things in new ways beyond those traditions. Certainly, the first teachers of mindfulness came out of Buddhist training, and many continue to do so. But as the mindfulness movement develops, it is increasingly possible for people to have real secular training in which they make their own discoveries and come up with fresh ways of talking about these discoveries.

Trudy Goodman: Right now there really isn’t an alternative to Buddhist centers for deep mindfulness training. The beauty of the Buddha’s teachings is that people don’t have to become Buddhists; they can practice their home path or religion and integrate the Buddhist framework for understanding suffering, how it ends, and how to cultivate the conditions for insight to arise. We have a dream of creating a secular retreat center in LA where we can begin to provide powerful training and retreats in a non-Buddhist context.

Often people who tell me they’ve been on retreat before haven’t been on a silent retreat. Insights are possible in all kinds of contexts, but I do think there is something powerful and perhaps irreplaceable about getting to know oneself in the protection of silence.

Barry Boyce: If silence is not a major component of a retreat, then it’s not a retreat in my definition. As new frameworks develop outside a Buddhist context, they need to have rigor; they need to be real and effective.

Melissa Myozen Blacker: In the twenty years I worked at the Center for Mindfulness, we were very careful to say that the practice was not just Buddhism—in fact, for the longest time, we didn’t say it was Buddhism at all. There was never any reference to Buddhism in the standard eight-week MBSR class; only in teacher training did we require retreats and learning about Buddhist psychology. We never led with Buddhism but rather with science, research, and psychology, so mindfulness training became acceptable in all kinds of institutions. That’s the key to its mainstream success.

Buddhadharma: Are the current requirements to become certified as a mindfulness teacher enough, or is there a need for more rigorous standards and training?

Diana Winston: Among people presenting themselves as mindfulness teachers, there’s an enormous range. Someone just sent me information about an online training program to become certified in three months, no personal practice required. Some people take a weekend workshop and call themselves mindfulness teachers. This is the Wild West of mindfulness. There are also highly qualified people teaching, so there’s a huge range, which to me has always spoken to the need for standards. I’m currently involved with creating a national accreditation board for certifying programs and individuals, which I hope will also involve continuing education units and an ethics board.

Of course, just because you have a certificate in mindfulness training doesn’t mean you’re good at it, but I think it’s a step in the right direction. Ten or twenty years ago, when the mindfulness movement was so much smaller, the need for accreditation wasn’t as great. But now that it’s become so big and popularized, I think there has to be some quality control and standardization, some professionalization of the field. Rebecca Crane from Bangor University has been working with the Center for Mindfulness on a set of criteria to implement in teaching training standards for research, so there is much work in progress.

Melissa Myozen Blacker: I’m happy to hear that Diana’s program will include an ethics board. I’ve heard from other Buddhist teachers that there are ethical ramifications to teaching people how to look deeply into their own nature that are not addressed in the Wild West of the mindfulness movement. In the past thirty-five years, I’ve seen ethical considerations arising naturally out of sincere mindfulness practice, but I’ve also heard of abuses, not just in the mindfulness movement but everywhere the dharma is taught.

Buddhadharma: What are some other questions that Buddhists have raised with regard to the mindfulness movement and the way it’s evolving? What concerns do you think the Buddhist community should have?

Diana Winston: Perhaps the top concern I hear is that mindfulness is watered-down Buddhism for the masses, that it’s separated from its liberating potential. There’s also a popular notion, again usually coming from Buddhists, that mindfulness is divorced from ethics—that, for example, it’s used in the military to create better killers, in schools to anaesthetize children, and in corporations to increase productivity and further the bottom line. That’s a fairly common critique, but not what I have witnessed in the people doing it on the ground level. The third critique is that it’s narcissistic and about self-improvement, that it’s teaching people to acquire, that people’s responses to toxic workplaces are being subdued and they’re just learning how to be better producers. The last critique is coming more from the socially engaged Buddhist world. The concern is that mindfulness is teaching people to ignore the larger cultural and economic forces that produce so much suffering. I don’t see any of these as reflective of the actual movement.

Trudy Goodman: I think these critiques come from more fundamentalist Buddhists. I mean, if you want to see watered-down Buddhism, travel to the beautiful Zen temples of Korea, a country where Buddhism is still alive and well, and you’ll see all the ladies in the temples working their malas, chatting about their kids, sometimes shucking peas; the temples are very much village and urban gathering places. How many people are deeply practicing? I don’t know, but I think in any center, it’s always the minority who are doing what dyed-in-the-wool Buddhists would recognize as pure practice.

There has always been a range of benefits for people. The early Zen texts refer to “bonpu Zen,” Zen that’s just supposed to make one’s health better and is considered a lesser vehicle. And there has always been a range of reasons why people come to practice. That’s why the dharma is called the wish-fulfilling jewel. Whatever wish you come with—reducing stress at work, high blood pressure, migraines—you can generally find some relief.

I don’t take the charges seriously. I heard the same charges leveled against psychotherapy decades ago—that it helps people adjust to a bad situation, that instead of questioning the social order and capitalism, it’s basically palliative care. So I’m not so concerned, especially about watering down the dharma. I don’t think the dharma can be watered down, actually. If it really is our true nature to be clear, calm, sane, and good, and if we practice, then we’re going to realize it eventually.

Barry Boyce: Before I met Jon Kabat-Zinn, I was a critic—not a vocal or rabid one, but I’m a natural skeptic. I think what is lacking in most of the criticisms of the mindfulness movement is an investigation of the people who are teaching and the context in which they’re teaching it. Certainly, we’re ready to criticize people who are cheapening mindfulness, for example by calling themselves a mindfulness teacher after a short online course; that’s watered down by definition. To my mind, it really does come down to the person doing the teaching, because mindfulness training isn’t just a case of passing on information. It’s something that needs to be embodied.

Melissa Myozen Blacker: If you’ve seen Jon Kabat-Zinn teach, he’s a fully embodied, clear teacher. There are a number of people like that, for whom a felt sense of authentic embodiment shines through, no matter what their training has been. I even know someone who started teaching mindfulness after reading Jon’s book—that was the only training he had, and he was a marvelous teacher! He was very popular and really got the deepest message across. So it’s a big question for me, how these people come to be.

One issue that does concern me in Diana’s list is the self-improvement angle. I think that emphasis may be a product of a teacher not quite getting the nondual aspect of mindfulness; this is a presentation of something that isn’t just for making everything better but of something that will eventually wake everybody up to their true nature, to what it means to be a human. So this goes back to the training question: if teachers are just presenting information, then people go on with their lives after the eight-week course and nothing has happened. But I was always amazed at how much really did happen after eight weeks; people in these classes were really touched, even transformed. They were getting glimpses into the same thing that people encounter when they’re on retreat or studying with a dharma teacher.

Buddhadharma: But is it fair to say that people first approaching a mindfulness class may still be drawn in by the notion that it’s going to be a self-help class? Isn’t that how it’s largely marketed in the mainstream?

Barry Boyce: There’s such a range of what self-help means. You could say I started Buddhism because of self-help—I was a mess and I wanted some help. The concern, I think, is people expecting easy, instant results. The good programs, of which there are many—like at InsightLA and MARC and the Center for Mindfulness—do not market mindfulness as facile self-help and instant gratification, like Instant Breakfast. It’s presented as real help.

Certainly, in all my Buddhist training, I was discouraged from trying to go after immediate benefits in working with my mind, because the more you try to grasp after a benefit, the more it eludes you. The benefits generally come as by-products. But I would say that as a result of my forty years of meditation practice—as a pretty lousy practitioner—I’ve become better at some things. So I think it’s honest to present mindfulness to athletes as something that offers an increase in performance. They may find out after a while that there’s a lot more going on.

Trudy Goodman: I think most of us come to practice for self-help. Our own suffering is actually the most authentic reason to begin practice. The problem is when claims are made—enhanced performance, lower blood pressure, and so on—that occlude the clarity of the beginner’s mind, which is really what we’re trying to teach people. If you approach something with a very narrow goal, you may not be open to the wider possibilities that exist. In George Mumford’s book The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance, coming out in May, he talks about sports, but the “pure” element is about being purely present, about what happens when we try to keep a clear, open mind and heart.

In dharma practice, we were taught not to have gaining ideas, but of course we all did. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have trained so hard, and our teacher knew that. He used to hold it in front of us like a carrot and say, “Don’t you want to be enlightened? Just practice hard and soon you’ll get everything.” We believed him; it took me years to realize what he meant by “everything.” We thought we would get everything good. In fact, we just got everything; we learned how to be with everything.

Melissa Myozen Blacker: After Full Catastrophe Living came out and Jon was on the Bill Moyers show, we had people come to orientation for the MBSR class with very high expectations. We would say to them, yes, you’re going to have side effects, your blood pressure might go down, but what you’re really going to learn is how to have a different relationship with your suffering. So we would emphasize that, and as time went on, people discovered what that meant, just as they do in Buddhist practice. We all come in with those fantasies.

Diana Winston: Thousands of people come through our classes, and they’re all coming in for different reasons. Most come because of suffering and physical or mental health reasons. Some people want to perform better or want to become more productive. Some people do one class and never come back, and others stay and go deeper. Sometimes we hear from people years later who say, “No, I don’t meditate anymore, but I’m still aware during the day. I still practice.” So I let go of the results and trust that people are going to get what they need.

Buddhadharma: In what ways might the mindfulness movement be affecting our understanding or practice of Buddhism in the West? Are there any significant effects or trends in that direction?

Trudy Goodman: I see several of the large dharma centers that used to question the completeness of mindfulness teachings now jumping on the bandwagon with their own mindfulness trainings and courses. They see that this is a big part of the future and that being closed to it marginalizes them. Some genuinely want to be part of the larger movement. I see the mindfulness movement as having encouraged centers to open their doors, minds, and hearts to the full range of people who want to learn and who don’t necessarily want to be Buddhists.

Melissa Myozen Blacker: I was a Zen student before I met Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli and some of the other wonderful teachers at the Center for Mindfulness; now that I’m a Zen teacher, I’ve brought a lot of what I learned at the Center into my teaching. A primary approach is presenting the dharma so it’s not exclusive; I don’t generally use Buddhist buzzwords. Jon was so creative in coming up with vernacular alternatives to some of the esoteric language from my Zen training. I also adopted an open presence to anyone coming in the door. We have a Buddhist center, so people who come here know they’re going to encounter Buddhists. But they don’t feel any pressure to change who they are.

More broadly, I think the mindfulness movement has normalized Buddhism in our culture; it’s not some mystical, magical thing but rather something that allows you to sit down and be still for a while and discover things about yourself. We get people from all walks of life coming into the temple who, even ten years ago, wouldn’t have come to a Zen temple. The mindfulness movement has also offered a way of engaging the sangha in dialogue that’s more group-oriented than teacher-centric. It’s a way of communicating that I hadn’t experienced in practice before I encountered mindfulness.

Barry Boyce: In my experience, the so-called secular mindfulness world has an incredible amount of depth to it. One natural outgrowth of the mindfulness movement is that there are more candidates who might want to get involved with more rigorous training in the various Buddhist traditions. I’m as interested in seeing those traditions be healthy and continue as I am in seeing the greater mindfulness movement flourish.

Buddhadharma: Do you feel that Buddhists have a special responsibility to help guide the mindfulness movement?

Diana Winston: Well, if you think of the mindfulness movement as emerging from Buddhism, which is how I see it, then the answer is yes. At Spirit Rock, there’s been a lot of conversation about how we relate to the wider mindfulness world. Many practitioners feel that Spirit Rock has an incredible wealth of practices, teachers, and teachings, and it would be a disservice not to provide them to the mindfulness movement as source material for deeper understanding.

Melissa Myozen Blacker: I think there’s a parallel growth as Buddhism continues to Westernize. I see mindfulness and Buddhism as almost intertwining. I don’t know if Buddhists have a particular responsibility other than to maintain an openness to the mindfulness movement and an appreciation of it, recognizing that it’s establishing its own growth. I see us as equals in this new culture that we’ve transplanted Buddhism into.

Barry Boyce: If we talk about the mindfulness movement as an outgrowth of Buddhism, or even just mindfulness as an outgrowth of Buddhism, I think that’s a narrow and self-serving framing, because the fundamental mindfulness that we all have, which includes awareness and joy and caring and all sorts of other qualities, is obviously not an invention of Buddhism. The best training to cultivate those qualities arguably still comes from the Buddhist tradition, and the people who first gave shape to secular mindfulness came out of that kind of training, but I don’t know if Buddhists have a special responsibility. I think every teacher who’s involved has a responsibility to teach authentically, whether they’re using a Buddhist framework or not.

Diana Winston: Mindfulness is still young. MBSR has done an incredible job teaching its eight-week program for the past twenty years, but there’s so much more to develop. I think the Buddhist world will likely play a role in the development of more advanced teachings, of retreat models in the secular world, and of adapting more in-depth teachings for mindfulness practice.

Melissa Myozen Blacker: As I teach secular mindfulness retreats around the world, I do see a growing hunger for authentic guidance from those who want to be teachers. Maybe that’s a place where Buddhism, the slightly older sister of the young mindfulness movement, can be helpful. We’ve got the technology down—we know how to run retreats, for example, and people can benefit from that experience.

Trudy Goodman: Yes, Buddhist teachers have profound gifts to help the new generation of mindfulness teachers preserve what’s possible in deep practice, then offer this in sensitive and attuned forms to the different communities of people coming to learn.

Barry Boyce: Another area would be in how we plant intention. The Buddhist traditions are very good at that. For example, in the morning I say things like, “May I have no desire for honor and gain; may all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.” The way the dharma traditions plant intention is very powerful.

Buddhadharma: How should Buddhists view the mindfulness movement going forward?

Diana Winston: I’ve been thinking about what makes mindfulness different from Buddhism. I used to wonder if mindfulness is just the dharma repackaged for a different audience, but now I realize that we have the possibility of repackaging it in a way that is not going to replicate some of the negative aspects of Buddhism, such as the paternalism, hierarchy, and sexism that comes certainly through Theravada Buddhism. There’s an incredible opportunity to consciously shepherd the growth of mindfulness so it’s not done haphazardly, which is why I’m interested in standards and certification. I’d like us to take the best from Buddhism, incorporate other influences like science and Western psychology, and see what evolves.

Melissa Myozen Blacker: I hadn’t thought of the chance to modernize some things in our Buddhist heritage. Sexism strikes me as an important thing to change, although sexism is everywhere in Western culture too, including in the mindfulness movement. I think it’s unavoidable, but we can be awake to it and perhaps shape certain influences more b

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Lion’s Roar

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