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Meditation Only?

“Therefore, Ananda, you should live with one’s self as an island, one’s self as a refuge . . . . And how does a monk live like this? Here Ananda, a monk abides contemplating the body as body, earnestly, clearly aware, mindful . . . and likewise with regard to feelings, mind and dhamma.  And those who now in my time or afterwards live this, they will become the highest, if they are desirous of learning.” [D. 16, ii 101]

One of the most commonly repeated criticisms of the evolution of the dharma in the West is that it is often “only meditation,”  “only seen as a stress reduction therapy,” as if this marks modernist dharma practice as shallow and divorced from an underlying structure of meaning and ethics.  The criticism is often lodged by proponents of traditional Buddhist lineages; the implication is that this shallowness results from taking mindfulness practices out of their Asian religious contexts.  Unfortunately, defenders of non-traditional dharma practice often take up the charge themselves, in an attempt to make it clear that their practice isn’t of the shallow “only meditation” school either.

As I have commented in the past, when I read these discussions I am often left to wonder what practice is being derided.  Certainly, there are individuals who grasp at spiritual practices in a consumerist way, hoping that they will provide a satisfying buzz without much investment of time or energy.  But this is true for all kinds of traditional spirituality; if Western capitalism has invented many ways to commodify Buddhism, it had many years of practice commodifying Christianity first.

But I don’t think this is the principal source of the anxiety over “meditation only” Buddhism in the West.  It can’t be, because no Buddhist teacher I am aware of actually teaches that one needs only to engage in sitting meditation in order to experience the benefits of dharma practice. Instead, admonitions about the need to transform life “off the cushion” are ubiquitous.  When I hear these “meditation only” criticisms, I get the  impression that they are aimed at the application of mindfulness practices in therapeutic, distinctly non-Buddhist settings.  In fact, the unfortunately-named Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Therapy (MBSR) is often singled out as representative of the offensive trend.  The image raised is one of meditation used as a kind of pharmaceutical, a palliative for emotional distress, steeped in the stereotypical narcissism of the psychotherapy session.  The rapid spread of such therapeutic mindfulness could well appear threatening, a pervasive cheapening of a great religious tradition and the transcendent enlightenment it offers.

This is all a long-winded introduction to telling you about what we did at my mindfulness group last Friday evening.  I’ve written about this group before; it is offered by the integrative medicine department of UW Health, which in turn is associated with the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, home of Richie Davidson’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.  I always find these twice-monthly sessions tremendously rewarding, and last Friday’s exercise was a great example of how mindfulness is actually applied in clinical settings.

After a brief sit, our group leader, one of the MBSR teachers with UW Health, gave a talk about the way much of our suffering is relational, imbedded in difficulties with loved ones, relatives, co-workers and even strangers.  Mindfulness is the key to avoiding being trapped in reactive cycles of thought and emotion when we relate to others.  With that, we were invited to find a partner for an exercise in mindful listening.

We were supposed to select one of us to be the speaker, and one of us to be the listener.  The speaker was supposed to talk about our experience of getting ready for the holidays.  What we said didn’t matter; we were just supposed to keep talking while the listener engaged in a series of mindfulness exercises for about two minutes each.

First, the listener was instructed to listen to the speaker while also silently counting backward from 100 by threes (!).  Next, the listener was asked to observe the speaker’s body language.  The next focus was the sound of the speaker’s voice; then the informational content of what the person was saying; finally, the listener was supposed to be mindful of the sensations in their own body while the speaker spoke.  After all five exercises were complete, it was the listener’s turn to speak and tell the speaker what they experienced while they were listening.   Then the speaker and listener switched roles and repeated the exercises.  Finally, we gathered as a group to discuss our experiences.

This simple-sounding activity turned out to be very hard work.  The effect of the counting exercise was to reinforce the observation that it’s nearly impossible to hear what someone else is saying when we are preoccupied with our own mental activity, a situation one group member described as feeling “disturbingly familiar.”  The next four exercises forced us to focus on discrete elements of what we typically experience as a seamless whole.  When we listen unmindfully, we experience a person’s words, gestures, tone of voice, and our own emotional reactions to them as an undifferentiated flow of experience.  But on closer examination, each of these elements can be communicating very different, even contradictory, messages.

For example, I was struck by my partner’s body language as she told me some fairly intimate details about difficulties in her family relationships.  While her tone of voice was uninhibited and relaxed, she sat with her body bent at an odd angle at the waist, and folded her arms and legs in on themselves, as if she were holding herself protectively.  I recognized that her revelations were not easy for her, and I felt the sensation of metta arising in my chest.

Maybe the most amazing thing about the activity was the sense of emotional connection I felt to this person who had been an absolute stranger a half hour earlier; other group members reported the same experience.  There was a visceral awareness of our shared experience as human beings that arose out of the simple act of mindful listening. Our leader said, “This is a kind of meditation you can do any time you’re listening to someone.”

And that’s been the message of every experience I’ve ever had with MBSR: the point of mindfulness practice is not simply to calm your mind or combat stress, but to learn skills that bring you into a new relationship with your lived experience.  The real work is not on the cushion, but in the crucible of everyday life.   That work is, as Gotama advised, to be mindfully aware of the body, feelings, the mind and its actions in every moment of life.  This particular activity struck me as being very similar to being mindful of “the aggregates affected by clinging,” breaking one’s normally undifferentiated experience down through careful observation so one can experience how sensory contact leads to feelings, moods, perceptions and thoughts.

I present this as evidence that MBSR and other mindfulness-based therapies are not some superficial denuding of Buddhism.  They are certainly not “meditation only.” On the contrary, they pursue the very aims that Gotama directed us to, albeit without the doctrinal language in which Buddhist teachings are couched.   That this practice is also free of the metaphysical beliefs and hierarchical structures of Asian Buddhism demonstrates that secular dharma practice is not only viable but is already transforming hundreds of thousands of lives today.

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  1. Ted Meissner on December 6, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    This is very helpful, Mark, because I’m openly naive about MBSR and don’t have the experience you do. This provides a good example of how what we use, perhaps in ignorance, to make our case about watered down Buddhism may be more comprehensive than we thought.

    • Mark Knickelbine on December 7, 2011 at 8:17 am

      Thanks, Ted. I think the development of MBSR and other mindfulness-based therapies is one of the most interesting developments in the secularization of dharma practice in the West. Kornfield, Kabat-Zinn and the others were consciously trying to adapt the methods they learned in Buddhist practice to address human suffering in modern societies. To do so, they had to come up with a way to teach these ideas that would be free of foreign doctrine and lingo so that it would be accepted both by the medical community and by people who would not want to adopt an Asian religion in order to treat their depression, anxiety or whatever. They succeeded, and in doing so they demonstrated that the basic teachings of Gotama do not need an explicitly Buddhist context in order to transform peoples lives. This I think is the principal piece of evidence that secularization will not destroy the dharma, as so many seem to fear.

  2. stoky on December 7, 2011 at 5:54 am

    Thanks for this post, Mark. I think this is an interesting issue.

    I agree with the last part of the post. Most teachers emphasize that meditation and mindfulness practice has to be connected with (ethical) behavior in daily live.

    However I don’t agree on the claim that the criticism isn’t justified. I think it is useful. It was this criticism that made me more interested the ethical aspects of Buddhism.

    It also taught me that we don’t just wait until ethical behavior follows naturally from our meditation/mindfulness practice, but we can start right now and that acting compassionate also naturally supports our meditation/mindfulness practice.

    Again, I don’t object your claims about the ethical implications of mindfulness, quite the opposite I strongly agree there.
    I just think that sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded that we don’t need to wait until our mindfulness is fully developed, but we can start being more compassionate right now.

    Btw, I don’t see a reason why secular Buddhism should be Buddhism without ethics, even if some opponents of secular Buddhism like to think so.

    • Mark Knickelbine on December 7, 2011 at 8:23 am

      Thanks for your comments, Stoky. You might want to check out my article, “The Ethics of Impermanence” for my thoughts on the connection between mindfulness and ethics. In my view, the precepts, for instance, are not like a Buddhist Ten Commandments, but an invitation to explore how our intentions and behaviors affect ourselves and those around us. Ideally, the precepts themselves are a kind of mindfulness practice. Secular Buddhism is a practice in which we base our ethics in mindful awareness instead of merely following rules because the Buddha told us to.

      • stoky on December 7, 2011 at 9:18 am

        Thanks for your reply, I’ll make sure to check out your post, sounds quite interesting.

        “Secular Buddhism is a practice in which we base our ethics in mindful awareness instead of merely following rules because the Buddha told us to.”

        Well, what if I follow the rules of the Buddha (e.g. the precepts in the way you nicely described), because I thought about them carefully and critically, tested them in practice and found them to be helpful? Is this still secular Buddhism? In my opinion yes.

        • Mark Knickelbine on December 7, 2011 at 10:25 am

          I would agree with you. However, how would you “test them in practice?” How do you determine what false and malicious speech is in any given situation, or abuse of sexuality, or taking what is not given? You either have to boil these down to simple and literal injunctions (for instance, never tell a lie, maintain abstenence, don’t steal) in which case you are narrowing the precepts to such an extent that they will be meaningless in most ethical decisions and extremely rigid in the few instances where they do apply. Or you could attempt to see how they apply to the whole of your life. Is “taking what is not given” just stealing? Or could it also apply to taking unfair advantage of someone? And how do you really know when you’ve crossed that line? This would be using the precepts as an invitation to ethical inquiry, and I think mindfulness (along with thoughtfulness) is central to that practice.

          • stoky on December 7, 2011 at 11:33 am

            I wouldn’t apply them strictly, more – like you described the precepts – as “guidelines”.

            For example, one could see (e.g. “test”) whether recitating the precepts every morning has a positive impact or not.

            And yes, one definitely needs mindfulness for that. (Buddhism is very consistent, every aspect is needed for all other aspects.)
            It just changes the order. One time, I try to be mindful and ethical behavior is a consequence of that. Another time I try to follow a certain ethic and mindfulness is the consequence.



      • stoky on December 9, 2011 at 11:15 am

        I just read your article on “The Ethics of Impermanence” and really liked it!

        When I read “Meditation only” I was afraid that you only see ethics as part of your mindfulness practice.

        In your other post however, it seems that you see it also as a consequence. That, through mindfulness, you realize the benefits of following a certain kind of ethics.

        In that way I can strongly relate to it and the contradictions between your perspective and mine (mostly) vanished.

        Thanks for that!

        • Mark Knickelbine on December 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm

          Thanks, Stoky. I think mindfulness is essential to developing the “right view” that makes wise and compassionate decision-making possible. Practices like following the precepts can help us develop that mindfulness but the goal is to make ethical decisions from a transformed awareness of our connection with others.

  3. Dana Nourie on December 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Mark, thank you so much for this article, and wow, timely too for me!

    Not only do I feel that Buddhist tools and skills can be taught outside of Buddhism itself, I feel it’s essential!

    This morning I spent quite a few hours watching a Facebook seminar on Compassion. Yes, Facebook! Apparently there has been some very active research and programs going on in schools to teach children compassion. It was an excellent seminar. And of course a big element to teaching children compassion is teaching them to be mindful of all their emotions, how to be with those emotions, and how to effectively express emotions. Because if you have a hard time experiencing or expressing your own emotions, compassion is going to be difficult.

    Additionally, I am seeing mindfulness program emerge all over the place from corporations to schools, to groups like Mark is speaking of.

    Mindfulness, meditation, compassion, forgiveness, and ethics have been sequestered within the walls of religion for too long. The best gift we each give the world are the skills, practices, and compassion we learn in secular Buddhism, and Buddha need not ever be mentioned. In fact, I think we’ve reached a critical time in the US where it’s become essential that we encourage these skills without it being couched in religion, even Buddhism.

    I’m not suggesting anyone dump Buddhism. But it’s become apparent to me that the world would be a much better place if we are all more mindful, compassionate, and ethical. Buddhism is a great path to learn these skills, but certainly Buddhism itself is not necessary. In fact, these skills need to be taught in the home, in schools, and in businesses. For those areas these teachings must be secular, completely free of the mention of Buddha.

    Mark gives a great example of how well this can work, and that it’s not diluted in anyway, but concentrated with great benefit.

    While we know taking on the Buddhist path in it’s entirety is very beneficial, practicing any single one of these skills would make the world a better place.

    * If all you learn is to be more mindful in your day, you make the world a better place
    * If all you learn is to be more compassionate with yourself and others, you make the world a better place
    * If all you do is improve your ethics, you make the world a better place

  4. Mark Knickelbine on December 7, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Thanks, Dana. I also feel that the only way this invaluable approach to life can gain rapid and widespread acceptance is if it is presented in a non-religious context. At the same time, I think that Gotama as he is represented in the Pali texts presented this life strategy in its most complete and thought-through form. What I hope our community can do is create a bridge that helps bring those who encounter mindfulness in a therapy session, in school, in yoga class, or even in the military, to appreciate and benefit from the rich wisdom that is at the heart of the Buddhist tradition.

  5. Secular Buddhist Association on December 11, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    […] Mindfulness and meditation, too, is now often in the news, either under scientific study, or being recommended by health and women’s magazines, various sites, etc. I hear rumblings of Buddhists over this, as though meditation is exclusive to Buddhism or somehow sacred. But what an awesome tool mindfulness is to get into the hands of mental health therapists, who can now teach their clients how to empower themselves with a direct understanding of their own minds and experiences. Mark Knicklebine talks about how he has benefited from mindfulness in a group environment outside of Buddhism in Meditation Only? […]

  6. Ron Stillman on December 16, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    Mark, you mentioned that the exercise you did within the mindfulness group was an example of how mindfulness is applied in clinical settings. Do you think the exercise would be useful more often in the group as a way to make an authentic connection with others through being vulnerable?
    Of course, not everyone is comfortable with vulnerability. However, it might be helpful for those who have difficulty with vulnerability to see how they might move from fear and scarcity to love, belonging and worthiness.

  7. Mark Knickelbine on December 19, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Ron, many of the exercises in our group have a similar MO: evoking emotional reactions and learning to observe them mindfully. Small and large group discussion is always a feature of these exercises, what I (at least) am always powerfully struck by is that others, strangers, are feeling and expressing the same emotions I am. So I come to these meetings now expecting that kind of environment, and I think others do as well. In that kind of setting you realize we are all vulnerable, but we can all be skillful too, with ourselves and one another, so we are free to explore difficult feelings with less fear and defensiveness. It is a great example of how the mental stability of mindfulness gives one the ability to fully know dukkha, one’s own and everybody elses’.

  8. […] Meditation Only? […]

  9. JustDave on August 22, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Anyone who has read “Full Catastrophe Living”, THE book on MBSR, would see the Dharma all over the place.

    And the nice thing about it that it is presented in a form that many Westerners can relate to and it doesn’t put a bunch of Pali or Sanskrit words in there and it doesn’t mention reincarnation, past lives, or gods.

    MBSR was a stepping stone for people like me into Buddhism – to be subsequently disappointed – until seeing that there is a Secular Buddhist movement happening.

  10. Ted Meissner on August 22, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    Glad you’re here, JD, and happy to have your voice in these discussions.

    Have you also read Teaching Mindfulness? A little pricey, but also based on MBSR, also has dharma throughout, but in a non-religious context.

  11. Mark Knickelbine on August 23, 2012 at 7:19 am

    Dave —

    Thanks for your comments! I’d really like to hear more about your trip from MBSR to Buddhism.

    As Ted says, “Teaching Mindfulness” is a real eye-opener. It explicitly maps the MBSR curriculum onto the Four Noble Truths; it includes a brief history of the development of Buddhism in the West; and it advises mindfulness teachers to learn about Buddhism and study with Buddhist teachers. The authors describe what they present as an “empty curriculum,” one informed by teaching “intentions” rather than a set of information to be transmitted. The book makes it clear that Buddhist principals and values informed the development of mindfulness-based approaches and puts those principals and values into play in training mindfulness educators. While it’s certainly not the only secular approach to Buddhism, after reading “Teaching Mindfulness” it’s pretty clear that MBSR and the other mindfulness-based approaches are secular Buddhism.

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