From Both Sides: Secular Buddhism and the “McMindfulness” Question

freeimage-8660856-webThe debate over the relationship between Buddhism and the mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) has heated up recently to a red hot glow. On July 1, Ron Purser and David Loy published an attack on the mindfulness movement in the Huffington Post under the title, “Beyond McMindfulness.” As I write this, a Google search on “McMindfulness” generates over 7,700 hits, many of them praising the original article and joining in to bewail the “decontextualization” and watering-down of the sacred Buddhist traditions.

Unfortunately, as I have noted elsewhere, this “McMindfulness” meme often appears to be driven largely by fears instead of facts, as defenders of traditional Buddhist lineages fret over “what is being lost” as mindfulness enters the Western mainstream. From my perspective, as one who came to Buddhism through the MBIs, this is a terrible shame. We may have an irretrievable opportunity at this moment to enrich the cultural conversation between Buddhist ideas and values and those of the West, and the mindfulness movement clearly is at the crux of that conversation. It is my heartfelt wish that we do not waste this opportunity in a reactive backlash against this latest moment in the evolution of the dharma.

My interest in Secular Buddhism stems chiefly from my feeling that this approach to the dharma has a unique and powerful role to play in that conversation. To that end, I hope it will be valuable to examine what the Secular Buddhist movement can bring to the table, both to ground and enrich the practice of those who are coming to the dharma through the MBIs, and to address the concerns of traditional Buddhists that , as David Loy has suggested, the “Trojan horse” of mindfulness may corrupt Buddhist principles with Western predilections.

The Reality of Decontextualization

As has been richly documented *, the MBIs are in themselves outgrowths of Buddhism. Pioneers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Segal, Jack Kornfield and others took what they learned practicing traditional Buddhism and adapted it for use in medicine and psychology. In order to make these practices susceptible to research and acceptable to secular health care institutions – and perhaps most of all to make them easier for the average patient to absorb and accept – the traditional doctrine was simplified and demystified, replaced with plain-English explanations of the practice and how it worked.

In turn, acceptance by research and health care institutions had an inevitable impact on how mindfulness is taught, learned and practiced. The emphasis on such positive health care outcomes as stress reduction, alleviation of depression, and the treatment of chronic pain encouraged the application of the MBIs in a standard clinical regimen. Students were “patients” who had received specific diagnoses and were prescribed an 8-week mindfulness course to address the specific symptoms of their diseases. It is not surprising, then, that first the health care community, and increasingly, the wider public, has come to see the MBIs as merely another item in the doctor’s bag of medical interventions. To this extent, the critics of mindfulness are correct in their assertion that the MBIs have been “decontextualized.”

As I have tried to demonstrate elsewhere, however, the prevailing institutional (and now cultural) absorption with specific outcomes misrepresents what the MBIs are and how they are practiced. I will only summarize here my sense that the MBIs have demonstrated their effectiveness in so many contexts precisely because they do not focus on outcomes, and in fact teach students that the possibility of change grows from one’s capacity to accept and embrace one’s lived experience just the way it is in this moment. What has been termed the “deautomatization” process that characterizes mindfulness – the ability to mentally stand back from and examine one’s experience such that one develops the capacity to free one’s self from habitual reactivity and respond with wiser choices — naturally finds applications in every aspect of life, applications that are often specifically addressed to interpersonal and social roles and relationships in the course of MBI training.

But the fact that the MBIs are much richer and more holistic than their critics will admit does not mean that there are not problems that arise from the application of mindfulness training in an institutional setting. Chief among them, from my perspective, is the fact that one must typically engage with a health care institution in order to learn the practice. While the institutions I’ve encountered endeavor to make the training accessible, many people will not find it affordable without a health plan to pay for it; this in turn will require a diagnosis to determine medical necessity, and a physician’s referral. Some plans treat mindfulness training sessions as group therapy sessions, and limit the number they will pay for in a given year. Beyond that, it appears that in most such institutional settings, mindfulness training stops after the typical eight weeks of an MBI class. While students can typically retake the class, ongoing teaching and community development that would address the needs of a growing and deepening mindfulness practice are usually lacking.

Given the real impact of decontextualization on mindfulness practice and practitioners, what can Secular Buddhism bring to the mindfulness movement?

A Naturalist Perspective
Because Secular Buddhism, like the MBIs, does not concern itself with the religious dogmas and forms of traditional Buddhism, and because it too focuses on the benefits of living a mindful life in this world, it offers both institutions and individuals an opportunity to explore the deep roots of Buddhist philosophy and psychology in a secular setting. It does not make assertions that are extra-natural and therefore unsusceptible to scientific research. It does not ascribe the value of mindfulness to a supernatural realm, nor does it require allegiance to traditional doctrine. Because there is no creed to adopt, one does not “convert” to Secular Buddhism. It presents such core concepts as dependent arising, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Three Marks of Existence, not as faith-based metaphysical claims but as a framework in which to explore one’s own present-moment experience in the world.

As we have seen, for a variety of reasons, the MBIs have found it advantageous to avoid too apparent a connection to religious Buddhism. The fact that Secular Buddhism is pointedly not a religion may, at least in some contexts, permit mindfulness teachers and practitioners a safe space from which to acknowledge and explore the fertile soil of Buddhism in which the roots of mindfulness are so firmly planted.

Re-connection to Tradition
For, regardless of who may be embarrassed by the fact, the MBIs are already a form of secular Buddhism. This involves far more than just the meditation techniques they share. As I have argued elsewhere, the defining tasks of mindfulness – the embracing of lived experience, the recognition that one need not be compelled by one’s habitual reactivity, the development of equanimity and the ability to make wise choices as a result – are the same actions that are prescribed by the Four Noble Truths. The insight into the ephemeral and impermanent nature of the ego that is a hallmark of the MBIs is an expression of the Buddhist concepts of Impermanence and Not-Self. While shorn of much of traditional Buddhism’s Pali/Sanskrit terminology, doctrinal concepts and cultural trappings, the MBI’s owe their effectiveness, I believe, to the wisdom of the dharma that Gotama taught more than two millennia ago, a wisdom grounded, then as now, in universal characteristics of embodied human awareness.

The roots of mindfulness are planted in the soil of Buddhism; although many practitioners may be aware of this, however, most are not currently enabled to draw nutrition for their practice from these roots. They are cut off from the teaching and conversation that Buddhist practitioners have shared over the course of centuries and across many cultures. This is deeply regrettable. It has been my experience that, when one approaches this Buddhist heritage from the perspective of deepening and enriching one’s mindfulness practice, there are profound treasures to be found there.

Among those treasures are the traditional frameworks for exploring the moral and ethical dimensions of mindfulness practice. The various precepts and training rules developed by traditional Buddhism over the centuries provide us with complexly nuanced tools with which to focus our awareness on the impact of our thoughts, words and actions. One of the common complaints about “McMindfulness” is that these frameworks are absent from mindfulness practice. If that is the case – and the limitations of an eight-week program certainly prohibit in-depth examination of more than core principles – the compassionate response is not to condemn mindfulness for its lack of traditional ethics training, but to make that training tradition accessible to MBI practitioners.

Tradition has always been an important element of Buddhist practice. The awareness that we are the beneficiaries of millennia of practitioners who refined and preserved these ideas and practices, and our recognition of our own responsibility to share them with future generations, nurture our understanding that we are not isolated practitioners but momentary expressions of the human birthright of awareness and compassion. Mindfulness practitioners are also heirs to the birthright of this tradition, and Secular Buddhism is well positioned to help them claim it. Because it embraces science and history as well as dharma concepts, Secular Buddhism can help MBI students encounter the aspects of this heritage that can deepen and sustain their mindfulness practice, and accept the supernatural elements of religious Buddhism as mythological expressions of humanity’s search for wisdom.

As we have seen, one of the consequences of the medical delivery model for the MBIs is the lack of ongoing group learning and practice opportunities. The Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of sangha, the community of like-minded friends who share and reinforce one another’s dharma practice. This same insight is borne out in modern research into the importance of social reinforcement of values and behaviors. Research into MBIs has shown that the beneficial outcomes of the training can fade over time. For all these reasons, the absence of practice communities for mindfulness practitioners is a problem that demands attention.

My experience with the mindfulness practice community I am part of has shown me that community is about more than just support. Within the container of the practice community, one has the opportunity to experience the intersubjective resonance of a group of people dedicated to being mindful of themselves and each other. This experience is a powerful and visceral manifestation of not-self, and one that promotes the recognition of shared humanity from which compassion can grow. The group practice environment is ideal for exploring such concepts as kindness, compassion and non-harming, and learning what it’s like to put them into mindful action. And the awareness that the community has a tangible, ongoing existence, even if one may not immediately be able to participate in it, permits one to feel connected to it and supported by it, regardless of one’s distance from it.

While still in its infancy, Secular Buddhism holds the potential to help meet this need. Its driving force has been the gravitation of people who are looking for a supportive community in which to discuss and share Buddhist thought and practice in an environment that does not demand submission to traditional doctrines and hierarchies. The growth of SBA-related local meet-up groups and the development of online community structures such as the web site (and similar sites worldwide), as well as the Practice Circle and Social Circle video conferencing groups demonstrate that community building is a significant motivating factor behind the Secular Buddhism project. I have had the privilege to participate in these efforts; it was my own search for community that led me to Secular Buddhism, and I know many others have the same need. If Secular Buddhism continues its commitment to community building, it is in a position to play a positive role in meeting the need of mindfulness practitioners for sangha.

A Plea for Real Dialogue
The evolution of the dharma in the world of Western-style modernity is a fact. The presence in the West of traditional Buddhist institutions, hybridized groups, and the MBIs, demonstrates the diversity and vigor of this evolution. Unfortunately, the course of this progress has resulted in obstacles to understanding and dialogue between people involved in the dharma’s numerous manifestations. As we have seen, in the professional communities that research and teach the MBIs, close identification with their Buddhist heritage has been perceived as a limiting factor. On the other hand, conservative reactions to the MBIs on the part of some traditional Buddhist leaders have led to a campaign to discredit mindfulness as another artifact of self-absorbed Western consumerism.

As Secular Buddhists, we get it from both sides. Skeptics demand to know why we are concerned about teaching and preserving an esoteric, mythology-drenched religion; traditionalists make many of the same charges of “throwing the baby out with the bath water” against Secular Buddhism that they make against “McMindfulness.” If there is an advantage to this position, perhaps it may be our ability to understand and share the perspectives of both sides in this conversation, and to present and model a middle way between them.

It has seemed to me that Secular Buddhism exists precisely to help negotiate this dialectical impasse. If it can play a role in helping the MBIs move past their reaction against their Buddhist heritage, while at the same time helping traditionalists have true confidence in the dharma and understand that mindfulness practitioners are their dharma sisters and brothers who have a right to our understanding, acceptance and compassion, it will have served a vital function in the ongoing evolution of the dharma. I hope we will embrace that opportunity.

* It is worth noting that the major text for training mindfulness instructors, McCown, Reibel & Micozzi’s Teaching Mindfulness: A Practical Guide for Clinicians and Educators (Springer, 2010) devotes an entire section to the development of Buddhism in the West and its influence on the MBIs. Another section presents basic Buddhist teachings in a fair amount of detail to clarify how they are manifested in the MBIs, going so far as to map the “teaching intentions” of MBSR onto the Four Noble Truths.