Episode 273 :: Beth Mulligan :: The Dharma of MBSR: Discovering the Buddhist Teachings at the Heart of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

| May 21, 2017 | 7 Comments

Beth Mulligan

Beth Mulligan joins us to speak about how dharma informs Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

In the past several years, there has been an astounding amount of press and research around mindfulness. And this has rustled some Buddhist feathers; honestly, it ruffled mine. I had a good understanding of sati having sit several satipatthana retreats with one of my dearest teachers, Bhante Gunaratana or “Bhante G.”, at Bhavana Society, and had continued my study and practice under the guidance of Bhante Seewalie of Minnesota Buddhist Vihara. What was this upstart Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction thing, how can an eight week program possibly match mindfulness?! Fortunately I realized at least one of my many mistakes, that of ignorance. I may have had a grounding in one way of engaging with mindfulness, but knew nothing about what that program was doing and was judging it without understanding it. My ossified idea about mindfulness had led me into unskillful discursive thought, feeding my sense of privilege and ownership about this practice. I’ve since learned that the tradition can inform contemporary programs and still be doing something distinctly different, and nonetheless of value to others in engaging with life.

Beth Mulligan, PA-C, graduated magna cum laude from the Duke University School of Medicine Physician Assistant program in 1982 and has practiced primary care medicine with diverse populations for the past thirty years. She is a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) teacher and international teacher trainer for the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness, as well as a certified mindful self-compassion (MSC) teacher and international teacher trainer. Beth has been a presenter at the International Scientific Conference on Mindfulness. She teaches MBSR, MSC, and mindful eating at the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine and at InsightLA. The Guiding Dharma teacher at Insight Community of the Desert, and a longtime senior student at Yokoji Zen Mountain Center, she leads meditation retreats across the country.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice lemon mint tea.

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Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez

The music heard in the middle of this podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. You can visit his website to hear more of his music, get the full discography, and view his upcoming tour dates.

Category: The Secular Buddhist Podcast

Ted Meissner

About the Author ()

Ted Meissner is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science. He has been a meditator since the early 90’s, has been interviewed for Books and Ideas, Mindful Lives, and The Whole Leader podcasts, spoken about mindfulness with various groups including Harvard Humanist Hub, and has written for Elephant Journal and The International Journal of Whole Person Care. He is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist, and is on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. Ted’s background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions, and is interested in examining the evolution of contemplative practice in contemporary culture. Ted teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care & Society, where he is the Manager of Online Programming and Community Development.

Comments (7)

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  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Argh! I was so excited listening to this on my way home from work — it’s the book I’ve been waiting for. “No mindfulness without the Four Immeasurables” — just so! And I’ve been arguing since 2011 that MBSR was, in effect, a secular form of Buddhism — it’s great to see that finally becoming an accepted realization: http://secularbuddhism.org/2011/07/20/buddhism-without-buddha/

    At any rate, I raced to order Beth’s book, only to find it’s not going to be published until January. I know I shouldn’t be craving it, but I still am!

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Hi, Mark. Was just having a conversation about this elsewhere! I would suggest that MBSR is informed by many traditions, but wouldn’t call it a secular Buddhism, even though there is tremendous overlap. Not sure yet what the distinguishing characteristics might be, haven’t done a deep dive on that yet, but there’s some buzzing in me that says there are differences.

      • Bill Gayner says:

        Hi Ted,

        I appreciate MBSR and secular Buddhism, and wonder if your buzzing has to do with the nondualist resonance MBSR finds between the heart of the dharma and American Transcendentalism, Sufi poetry, yoga, and Advaita Vedantic influences, a dance between anatman and atman that borders on a perennialist theism with metaphysical overtones not exactly secular Buddhist.

        Or does it have more to do with what Ron Purser has called MBSR’s chameleon-like stance, in many contexts presenting itself as not Buddhist and down-playing its deep Buddhist roots, while in others, emphasizing how the dharma does not belong to Buddhists, and claiming to transmit the heart of the dharma. It is difficult to call something secular Buddhist, if it is shy about calling itself Buddhist. Notwithstanding MBSR’s strong recommendations for MBSR clients and teachers to find Buddhist teachers and go on Buddhist retreats.

        It’s been years since we hung out at that mindfulness conference outside of Boston, Ted. i enjoyed our long conversation and getting to know you.

        Warm regards,
        Bill

  2. Jason Malfatto says:

    Speaking as an alumnus of an MBSR program, I can recall that the Buddhist roots of MBSR were made clear to me by my instructors, less so in their words than in their decorative choices (e.g. the traditional Buddhist iconography that dressed the walls and other surfaces of their office and home).

    On the other hand, it was also clear to me that MBSR is a somewhat eclectic mix of traditional influences, judging from the time we dedicated to hatha yoga and to poetry reading of non-Buddhist authors, like Rumi.

    Then of course there are the modern influences on MBSR, like the references to clinical research. Even the Seven Pillars of Mindfulness Practice, while clearly influenced by Buddhist tradition, make choices re: verbiage and emphasis that surely not all self-described Buddhists accept – including secular ones (e.g. non-judging seems at odds with the distinction between skillful and unskillful mental states).

    So, based on this experience, I think we can give credit where its due – in this case to the Buddha’s Dharma – while also acknowledging that MBSR is in fact also a product of non-Buddhist influences and that many, if not most, regular practitioners of its brand of mindfulness (like myself) do not identify as Buddhists.

    • Bill Gayner says:

      Hi Jason,

      You are right that MBSR has an eclectic blend of traditional influences including Korean Zen, Japanese Rinzai and Soto Zen, the American vipassana movement, Advaita Vedanta, yoga and American Transcendalism. Many vipassana practitioners criticize its non-judging as not Buddhist, without understanding that it is deeply grounded in Kabat-Zinn’s nondual Korean Zen practice (check out his 2011 article on this downloadable on the Global Buddhism journal’s site). You will find this nondualism in Chan, Zen and Dzogchen Tibetan Buddhist practice. It’s confusing because institutionally MBSR seems most closely associated with the American vipassana movement, which tends towards a more classic abhidharma orientation in practice that emphasizes developing wholesome/skillful states and the non-arising of unwholesome/unskillful states.

      The Buddhist scholar, Robert Sharf, argues that this tension between the classic abhidharma perspective and nondualism has been present throughout Buddhist history and is part of its richness. He writes that nondual practice comes to the fore when practices are opened to the laity, because they don’t require the dense learning that made traditional abhidharma-oriented practice the purview of monastic virtuoso elite meditators. In Sharf’s view, all of the forms of Buddhism prevalent in North America tend towards nondualism including American vipassana, but I think the vipassana movement contains a range from more classic abhidharma styles to more nondual styles such as Ajahn Cha’s lineage, who was one of Jack Kornfield’s teachers. Sharf also argues that nondualism tends towards perennialism that views all religions as sharing a common truth or source (which does seem to be a tendency in MBSR) and risks washing out important differences in practice, such as the difference between nondual and abhidharma-oriented practice.

      Warm regards,
      Bill

  3. ScottPen ScottPen says:

    I just started reading “Full Catastrophe Living,” and the very first thing I thought when reading the “7 attitudes” is just how much like the 4 Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path MBSR really is.

    Although I appreciate the deep philosophical concepts that the dhamma and teachings thereon expound upon, my goals really seem to be the very same that MBSR is designed to help people reach. I gotta say, it’s a relief.

  4. Bill Gayner says:

    I love the authenticity and integrity of how Beth decided to write her book as herself, without overcompensating and trying to be some kind of other expert, drawing on her own grounded wisdom and lived experience, focusing on lived truths emerging from her own students lives and practice.

    I love Beth’s emphasis on the heart and ethics. When I first learned to facilitate MBSR groups back in 2001 or so, it was crystal clear to me that Kabat-Zinn had cooked a lot of implicit loving-kindness and compassion into MBSR. It was what made it so trust-worthy.

    I also love the way Beth treats the theme of not-self, how she recognizes how it unfolds for her students. Wonderful.

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