The Dharma of Modern Mindfulness: A Review

One of the most common misunderstandings about MBSR and the other mindfulness-based interventions is that they consist of meditation techniques that have somehow been extracted or divorced from their original context in traditional Buddhism. From this standpoint, critics have referred to mindfulness as “Buddhism lite,” as a simple gimmick to reduce stress and, therefore, a terrible denuding of Buddhism’s moral, ethical and existential grounding. Typically, the next step is to note the manifestation of contemporary mindfulness within the market capitalism of American and European culture, so to condemn it as a contamination of Buddhism by Western materialism.

Others, however, notably Jeff Wilson in Mindful America, have pointed to the rise of secular mindfulness practice as yet another way Buddhism has evolved as it encountered the societies into which it was introduced, melding with the cultural and economic ethos of each. A historical understanding of Buddhism’s spread around the world will reveal not the catholicism with which it clung to a set of doctrines and practices, but the way its core ideas have found a home amid such startlingly different cultural manifestations.

What accounts for this cultural mutability? I would argue that it is due to the fact that the core ideas of Buddhism are not metaphysical constructs, as are the doctrines of most world religions, but instead consist of a finely and accurately observed description of human phenomenology. Our tendency to perceive ourselves as isolated, alienated creatures who crave constantly for the world to be different than it is, our propensity to create suffering for ourselves and one another on account of that delusion, and our ability to use simple (but challenging!) techniques to see our lives as they are and thus let go of craving, are all the default settings of the human animal. Buddhism has thrived in so many settings, including its current incarnation as the MBIs, because its truths are grounded not in any set of teachings or metaphysical understandings, but in these universal characteristics of human beings.

A remarkable testament to this is Beth Ann Mulligan’s new book, The Dharma of Modern Mindfulness. A physician assistant who became an MBSR teacher after years as a Zen practitioner, Mulligan uses anecdotes from the course of an 8-week mindfulness class to illustrate the core concepts of Buddhism. That she is able to do so in such a comprehensive manner, despite the fact that Buddhist doctrines and diction are never explicitly discussed in an MBSR class, is powerful evidence that the truths of the Three Marks of Existence, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Four Immeasurables, are not dogmas to which we must conform ourselves but potentials that reveal themselves spontaneously when we learn to pay attention to our lives.

As Mulligan puts it:

For Siddhartha, taking his seat under that tree was a radical act, one that reverberates throughout time. He committed to look within, to thoroughly examine his own experience and to see what truth and freedom could be realized through this investigation. In the same way, when people come to MBSR, they are in fact taking this radical act of taking their seat, a front row seat on their own lives. They are breaking free from the tendency to look outside for answers, for ways to escape the human condition – an even stronger pull now, perhaps, than in the Buddha’s time. In MBSR we turn inward, honoring and rediscovering the wholeness already present in all of us.

As she takes us through each of the eight sessions and the daylong retreat that make up the MBSR curriculum, she uses anecdotes from each, supported by the teachings of her Zen master Tenshin Roshi and other Buddhist teachers, to illustrate each of the core concepts of Buddhism. Here, for example, she shows how the Four Noble Truths manifest in one of her MBSR students:

Take Brian, for instance. He has indeed a very tough situation. His hip replacement failed. But his suffering is in part because he is having difficulty accepting that. He is caught in repetitive, if understandable, thoughts about how “it shouldn’t have gone that way, it wasn’t supposed to go that way, the usual recovery time is five weeks, and I should be back to work by now.” He is caught in his thoughts—his aversion toward the way things are and his craving for things to be different, which in turn create powerful emotions. When he put the thoughts down even for a few minutes and simply felt his body in the moment, his suffering was greatly reduced.

Or the concept of impermanence:

When Jean practiced the body scan for the first time, she became aware that sensations are not constant, that they do indeed “rise and pass away,” quite differently than the original description of her pain, which was, “My body hurts all the time.” This realization alone reduced some of her suffering . . . . When we become more aware of, and comfortable with, the changing nature of reality, we suffer less. We’ll continue to explore the important Buddhist teaching on impermanence as we go forward.

In this way she illustrates all the core Buddhist teachings, including those on loving kindness, compassion, and selfless joy, the roots of Buddhist ethics which many critics claim that MBSR ignores. As a result, Mulligan’s book is both a great introduction to the MBSR curriculum as well as to Buddhism 101; and, after reading it, it is difficult to come away with any other conclusion than that they are essentially the same thing.

Throughout the book, Mulligan stresses that she doesn’t teach Buddhist concepts to her MBSR students, which brought up the question for me, “Well, why not?” As I have discussed elsewhere, both the MBIs and traditional Buddhist lineages have been famously averse to acknowledging their relationship to one another. For example, a working title for Mulligan’s book apparently was “The Dharma of MBSR,” which a number of individuals, including Jon Kabat Zinn, worked to talk her out of. Although the initial MBSR curriculum was based almost entirely on practices Zinn learned on vipassana retreats, the notion that the program was essentially Buddhism would have made it impossible for him to develop and integrate it in a secular health care setting, and would have caused many potential learners to reject it as an exotic religion. Similarly, the notion that the dharma could play its transformative role in a setting in which the Buddha is almost never discussed seems to threaten many followers of traditional Buddhist lineages, to whom it appears to undermine the wisdom tradition they have received from generations of practitioners and to which they are deeply devoted.

Mulligan’s book is the first to bring these sides decisively together, and to demonstrate that they are not really separate at all, but expressions of the same human wisdom. As her example, and others she cites in the book demonstrate, MBSR practitioners who learn about the rich training frameworks presented by Buddhism, and Buddhists who discover the dharma unfolding in a mindfulness course, can find their practices enriched in invaluable ways. I hope that The Dharma of Modern Mindfulness helps heal that rift and allows all who seek the dharma to benefit from the wisdom and support of the whole sangha, religious and secular alike.

You can hear Ted’s interview with Beth Ann Mulligan on the Secular Buddhist podcast here.