Frozen Yoga and McMindfulness: Miles Neale on the mainstreaming of contemplative religious practices

Danny Fisher in conversation with Buddhist psychotherapist and meditation teacher Miles Neale about the mainstreaming of mindfulness.

Danny Fisher
15 December 2010

Rarely a day goes by when there isn’t some exciting news about the applications and possibilities of mindfulness, as taught in Buddhism, for our physical and psychological wellbeing. Of course, there is a shadow side to mining the world’s wisdom traditions for useful practices: also recently, The New York Times ran a story about this issue in yoga as it continues to grow into a giant industry independent from its religious roots.

Miles Neale, PsyD, LMHC, is a Buddhist psychotherapist, meditation teacher and expert on the clinical applications of contemplative arts and sciences. A fixture of Tibet House US and Interdependence Project programming, the NYC-based Miles is also Assistant Director of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science, where he collaborates on state-of-the-art clinical research of meditation, and teaches public courses on the Indo-Tibetan tradition. I spoke to him a little bit about trouble spots as mindfulness goes mainstream…

Miles, you’ve got a lot of interesting things to say about secular meditation programs. By way of getting us started, let me ask you: Cambridge University researchers recently discovered that mindfulness training can dramatically improve self-esteem and wellbeing among teen boys in particular. One of the results of their study is that many public and private schools will be putting into place mindfulness curricula. Your thoughts?

Well, Danny, by “interesting things to say,” I hope you don’t politely mean “controversial!” Let me be frank: the more mindfulness practiced by anyone, anywhere, the better off we all are. The recent findings at Cambridge University are really just further confirmation of a large body of research on the efficacy of mindfulness that has spanned nearly four decades. At this point, it’s a no-brainer: mindfulness works to reduce negative symptoms and increase wellbeing, period.

What did we think was going to happen if human beings, particularly the younger generation in the West—who are ordinarily hyper-aroused, over-stimulated, prey to a whole slew of addictions from caffeine and sugar to alcohol and pornography, whose main form of socialization is technology based, who often feel angry, depressed, marginalized and alienated, and who, as a result, act out with violence to themselves and others—were invited to take a 30 minute time-out, each and every day, from the whole ridiculous rat race we call urban life, and asked to gently turn their attention inwards, to follow their breath, to relax their bodies, to connect with their feelings, to enter into a caring relationship with themselves, to dis-identify with their obsessive thought streams and compulsive habits, and instead identify with a loving embrace with all living beings?

Of course a child’s self esteem is improved when they are more in touch with and in control of their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. And of course there is greater wellbeing when we begin to access our own nervous system’s natural brilliance by consciously flipping the switch from the reptilian fight-flight stress-reactive mode to the mammalian love-growth connect response. I’m ecstatic that we are finally encouraging our youth to practice the art of mindfulness; they need and deserve it so desperately. In fact, I think we all need to cultivate a radically peaceful internal environment in order to counter act the pervasive forces of consumerist greed, competitive aggression, and divisive self-centeredness.

The recent Cambridge University recommendations to include mindfulness meditation in our school curricula may represent a shift in consciousness. Perhaps we have overcome our suspicion of religion? Or, more likely, we are just now beginning to view meditation as a mental training, rather than as religious activity like prayer. And just as we encourage people to do regular physical exercise and eat a nutritious diet, we can likewise now openly encourage them to settle and discipline their minds without being identified with any particular religious worldview. That makes the power of meditation open and accessible to many more people, who, under different circumstances, would be discouraged and turned off.

Yet, in my view, there is a flip side to this argument that I think is worth raising, even if it is contentious: with all the positive attention meditation receives, and for all the wonderful psychological benefits it offers, it is still only one component of the overall Buddhist therapeutic approach known as the Three Educations (trishiksha) and refers to only half of the Eight Limbs of Yoga (ashtanga).

The questions I’m interested in these days include, “Are we ready to embrace the other components that constitute the rich psychological matrix designed for our optimal evolution and happiness?” “Are we ready to study and practice wisdom and ethics along with meditation?” “What is lost if we keep meditation separated from wisdom and ethics?” “If we overcame our suspicion of meditation, by seeing it as a mental training, grounded in science, could we do the same with the other components of the three educations?”

Speaking from that flip side, can you say a little bit about what we might be missing if we don’t adequately address the questions you are asking here?

Danny, think about the last time you went to yoga class. You sat down, chanted “om” three times, did eighty-seven minutes of intensive calisthenics—huffing and puffing, stretching and bending, contorting your body into a pretzel—and then, in the last 3 minutes of class, you may have been asked to settle all that revved up energy and focus on your breath in a meditation, all the while with no real philosophical basis for what you’re doing. That’s a typical picture of yoga in the America as it has been mainstreamed over the past four decades. This is what I call “Frozen Yoga”—with granola and chopped fruit on top! Looks nice, taste great, good for you…but it’s not a whole meal.

More than twenty million people are now practicing this way, in the so-called yoga boom—a multi-billion dollar industry. That’s a lot of folks, and a whole lot of investment. Some of the motivations drawing people to yoga these days include wanting to look great; develop nice abs; and earn the ever-elusive, yet incredibly spectacular “yoga body,” so that we can mimic some beauty posing in full lotus posture on the cover of a yoga magazine. All the while, however, we are continuing with an “ordinary lifestyle” outside the yoga studio, filled with anger, envy, pride, self-centeredness and greed, and ending, predictably, in more unhappiness. Maybe there are a few others who seek out yoga to increase flexibility, stamina, energy, and to find relaxation—all worthwhile pursuits—but none of these motivations speaks to real yoga—complete yoga. I’m sorry to burst the bubble.

What’s in danger of getting lost is the philosophical underpinning of yoga, the true purpose of yoga. Yoga is about harnessing life force (prana), opening the heart and freeing the mind of identifications to limited self-views. Yoga is designed for liberation—moksha, getting out of suffering completely, becoming a radically transformed human being, becoming more conscious, becoming fundamentally happy and loving. Yoga is the fulfillment of a meaningful life and the peak of a human beings evolutionary development—homo empathicus—if I may steal from Jeremy Rifkin. Most people practicing yoga don’t know what they’re dealing with in downward dog. They aren’t necessarily aware of the power-tools they’re playing with.

Sadly I see the same thing happening with meditation these days. Meditation is undergoing a similar surge of interest, albeit twenty years younger then the yoga boom. Everyone seems to want to learn and practice mindfulness. There are mindfulness workshops everywhere, mindfulness techniques for this condition and mindfulness for that condition, every other book is on mindfulness, and every third therapist wants to study mindfulness and use it with their patients. And like I’ve already said, that’s great—the more mindfulness the better—I stand by it and want to encourage it.

But I also see a kind of compartmentalized, secularized, watered-down version of mindfulness being offered, which I call “McMindfulness” in a forthcoming article of mine. Meditation for the masses, drive-through style, stripped of its essential ingredients, prepackaged and neatly stocked on the shelves of the commercial self-help supermarkets. From my perspective, McMindfulness lacks the integrity of the tradition and lineage from which it originates. My fear is that in wanting to procure meditation from Buddhism and the postures (asana) from yoga, we may be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

You see the Buddha didn’t just teach mindfulness, and Patanjali didn’t just teach postures. These great, enlightened sages taught the power tools within a psychological context, sandwiched neatly like the cream of an Oreo between ethics and wisdom. You can just have the cream—it’s lovely—but its more delicious as a cookie. People teaching and studying mindfulness these days typically focus exclusively on awareness training—you know, calming down, focusing on the breath, relating to thoughts and emotions with impartiality. This is incredible, and, as the research indicates, it does help to reduce symptoms and offer relief. But what happens when the high of the yoga class ends and the calm of the meditation session is over? You have to go back to the ordinary suffering of your life. Its like leaving your house a mess when you leave for a vacation—sitting on the beach for seven days is great, you feel rejuvenated, but you have to come home to the mess.

Buddhism and yoga are inner sciences (adyatmavidya) that aim for a radical revolution of lifestyle, attitude and outlook; they are about reshaping your life off the yoga mat and the meditation cushion. If you haven’t heard of the yamas and niyamas, then you’re simply not practicing real yoga. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the mother text of all yoga, everything we’ve ever wanted — peace, prosperity, vitality, success, and happiness — all come from keeping an ethically sound lifestyle. It turns out that the so-called “good life” of having everything you’ve ever dreamed, comes from leading a “good life” in relation to others, treating others as we would want to be treated. The wisdom traditions recommend that the ground upon which meditation and yoga are practiced be a morally sound life. By separating out the methods from the psychologies, I feel like we may be selling ourselves short of the deep, lasting change, transformation, and eventual freedom—that these ancient traditions have preserved over the millennia for all of humanity.

Let me get to the point, Danny: yoga and meditation without ethics and wisdom are merely techniques for exercise and stress-reduction. In my mind, exercise and stress reduction are wonderful, healthy activities, capable of helping us change for the better. We need more people to be healthier and relaxed—don’t get me wrong. And if people come to real yoga and complete meditation through the doorway—or the golden arches—of Frozen Yoga and McMindfulness—and realize, in their own time, there is much more that awaits them in the depths of their heart and minds, then I’m happy. My concern is in raising an awareness that the health and relaxation that folks are experiencing is just the beginning, just psychological platforms, prerequisites, and a prelude for a much greater learning process. Yoga and meditation are capable of taking us to the moon. But if we stay at the level of Frozen Yoga and McMindfulness, it is like we are using a rocket launcher to light a candle.

In my opinion, after forty some years America is ready to embrace “the full monty”—yoga and meditation as they were intended—as radical psychology. Not Hindu or Buddhist per se, but science of mind directed towards the ultimate goal: happiness and liberation. We need to build upon what twenty-million people are doing while they are in headstand, by alerting them to the fact that meditation is but one of the Three Educations (trishiksha) of Buddhism and that yoga postures are just one of the Eight-Limbs (ashtanga) of Yoga. That’s our mission at the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science: to provide a comprehensive education in the complete paths of Buddhism and Yoga, offered through the contemporary lens and language of Western psychology, medicine and cognitive science. We want to relate to the modern western mindset, but we also want to provide a full meal, or at least a taste of the real deal.

All of that said, what prescriptions do you have for yoga and meditation teachers in terms of better presenting Buddhism and yoga?

Turn down the music in your yoga class! How the heck are people supposed to meditate in poses with all that noise?

OK, more seriously, the traditional recommendations for an ethical life in the Yoga Sutras concern the restraints (yamas) and the observances (niyamas)—put simply, the behaviors yogis should abandon and which they should adopt in order to flourish. We should begin to consider the other fifteen hours of our waking day off the mat and cushion as spiritual practice. Remember the main principal of karma is that every action of body, speech and mind produces our own future experience—either pleasant or unpleasant. So we are in a constant dance of shaping ourselves and becoming anew. We have the potential to effectively develop our highest potential through conscious and benevolent activity. The idea is to regulate the habitual impulses of desire, aggression and misperception (the root causes of suffering) through practicing honorable behaviors and actions. But we have to start from the most gross, external level first, then move into more subtle levels of mind. The yamas and niyamas are essential for spiritual development, but are largely ignored in Frozen Yoga and McMindfulness.

The five restraints are: (1) not harming, (2) not lying, (3) not stealing, (4) not expending sexual energy indiscriminately, and (5) not acquiring unnecessarily. The five observances are purity in what we consume through body and mind; they are practicing contentment with whatever we experience in the present moment, transforming adversities and challenges into spiritual practice, committing to daily spiritual study and surrendering our limited ego to a higher potential. Something I have found helpful in trying to maintain the yogic lifestyle is having a method of accountability. Some teachers suggest keeping the “six times a day” book, in which you check-in and note in a journal every few hours how well you’re keeping your vows and commitments to the ethical path. By doing this, one practices mindfulness in everyday life, restraining negative impulses and cultivating positive virtues. It is truly a wonderful practice that I highly recommend.

In terms of developing wisdom, in addition to the many traditional prescriptions, I also recommend contemplative psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is a real-time meditation between two people for the purpose of identifying intra-psychic blocks and limits, and the consequences of psychic trauma on interpersonal dynamics. One of the main contributions psychotherapy offers Buddhism and yoga is the consistency, accountability and unconditional support of another human being involved in our own psychological exploration and process. I think there is an unfortunate tendency for yoga practitioners and teachers to pooh-pooh psychotherapy and think we are taking the higher road of solo, John Wayne-style spiritual practice. There is the potential danger to engage in what’s called “spiritual bypassing,” where we neglect or deny unresolved psychological baggage in favor of the deep states of practice. That can become a way of finding psychic hiding places, false senses of security or superiority.

I work predominantly with yogis and meditators in my private practice, and see a contemplative therapist myself. Often times our psychological issues don’t just disappear like we expect, and in some cases our issues may actually get reinforced in spiritual context. We are all aware of the manifest result of spiritual bypassing: teachers sleeping with their students, students acting co-dependently with their teachers, passive aggression because no one knows how to effectively deal with their anger, group-think, escapism, self-neglect, or excessive guilt and shame because we didn’t achieve some ideal fantasy or aspiration. We can adopt a spiritual persona or mask to show the world, but then distance ourselves from our own humanity—the wounds, limits or frailties we are meant to accept and work with. Here our spiritual practice may just be perpetuating narcissism and the subtle, harsh, inner critique or sense of inadequacy that narcissism is designed to defend against.

In psychotherapy, the interpersonal exchange—intimacy, mirroring, emotional attunement, and empathy—are effective in resolving past traumas, blocks and neurosis precisely because these traumas were originally formed by interpersonal failures with significant others. The rehabilitation and growth comes from a new, more conscious, relationship in which we recognize and let go of old habits. Therapy offers a unique opportunity to experiment with and adopt new ways of being and relating. Divergence to solo practices like meditation—or, in therapy, self-reflection, self-acceptance and self-correction—occur in the context of a safe interpersonal field. Why should we exclusively work alone? I think this is arguably absent in the dharma and yoga centers, where the teacher is often traveling, preoccupied with a vast number of students, or unprepared to deal with a student’s personal baggage of past trauma, depression, relationship, sex and intimacy issues.

I’m not suggesting everyone needs a therapist, but I am recommending that teachers get honest in their self-assessment, and consider working closely with others. As role models, we should strive for high standards of integrity in our teaching in the classroom, but, more importantly, in our daily life behind closed doors. True yoga teachers are happy people, teaching others to be happy. That requires living a good moral life, along side an honest awareness and radical acceptance of our shortcomings, limits and shadows. For all our striving for perfection, we also need to make room for our imperfections as well. This is, I think, the essence of wisdom training and how it dovetails nicely with psychotherapy. Our goal is to clearly see the nature of reality—accepting ourselves as we are, here and now, rather than grasping to who we want to be, then and there.

Danny Fisher

Danny Fisher

Rev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), is a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West in Rosemead, CA. He was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008. In addition, he is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. A member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains, he serves on the advisory council for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program.