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.