Tag Archives: Mindfulness

The Mindfulness Controversy: Work and War

The Buddhist practice of mindfulness is popping up everywhere, from mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs to corporate seminars on employee productivity. New self-improvement applications for mindfulness seem to emerge every week.

This mindfulness movement does have its detractors, however, and some of those detractors are Buddhists. Let’s take a look at some of the issues surrounding mindfulness in the workplace and the military. For a look at the use of mindfulness in psychology, see The Mindfulness Controversy, Part 2: Mindfulness Therapy.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a direct, whole-body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. This awareness is pure awareness; it is not filtered through thoughts or interpretations. This awareness includes awareness of one’s body, of sensations, of one’s mental states, and of, well, everything.

In the context of Buddhism, mindfulness is one of eight “folds” of the Eightfold Path, which is the framework of all of Buddhist practice. For now, the important point is that all parts of the Path support and affect all other parts of the Path. So, for example, our intentions and ethical conduct have an impact on our practice of mindfulness, and vice versa. For that reason, from a Buddhist perspective, when mindfulness is practiced in isolation of the rest of the Path it already becomes something different from Buddhist mindfulness.

It’s also important to understand that as a spiritual practice, stress reduction may be a pleasant side effect of mindfulness practice, but that’s not what it’s for.

However, its not being “Buddhist” is not necessarily a problem. If mindfulness exercises based on Buddhist mindfulness are helpful to people, that’s great. So what are the objections?

Mindfulness in War and Work

Buddhists practice mindfulness on the job all the time. And now businesses, especially large corporations, are being sold on mindfulness as a great productivity tool. Mindful employees are focused employees. And mindful employees are less stressed employees, which leads to happier employees and even fewer sick days. Win/win!

© Phovoir | Dreamstime.com

But some are disturbed when they hear about giant corporations or even the military sending personnel to mindfulness seminars. This is partly because beneficiaries are nearly all upper level executives or valuable production staff, such as software engineers. People assembling products in third-world factories are not invited.

I have also heard objections to mindfulness training in the military. Are we training soldiers to be more focused and effective killers? I have no opinion without knowing more specifically how mindfulness is being used. If mindfulness is being used to help soldiers cope with traumatic stress, or to be more aware of surroundings and more likely to survive and come home, then let us not withhold our compassion from soldiers because we don’t approve of war.

Mindfulness and the Self

There is real concern about making mindfulness into a way to get ahead in the corporate world, which is considerably removed from its roots in Buddhism. In Buddhism, the practice helps us see the ephemeral and evanescent nature of the self. When mindfulness is practiced to improve or enhance the self, however, that really is a very different thing.

This takes us back to separating mindfulness from the rest of the Eightfold Path. Within Buddhist practice there is always a context shaped by the Buddha’s teaching — on ethics, on compassion, on selflessness. Mindfulness practices can have a powerful and unpredictable effect on the psyche. What happens when it is completely removed from those contexts?

It’s hard to say, frankly. Many Buddhist teachers have expressed concern that mindfulness uncoupled from teachings on the release of greed and anger and cultivation of loving kindness for other beings could reinforce negative qualities instead of positive ones.

Stirring the Soup

In an article at Wired.com titled “Enlightenment Engineer,” Noah Shachtman quoted Kenneth Folk, an influential meditation teacher in Silicon Valley: “All the woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde,” Folk said. “This is about training the brain and stirring up the chemical soup inside.”

Teachers of the many Asian meditative disciplines have centuries of experience dealing with the effects of stirring the chemical soup. For most people, spending ten minutes a day doing mindfulness exercises will have only beneficial effects, yes. But it’s also the case that most of us have some nasty stuff in that chemical soup, and for some of us it doesn’t take much stirring to bring it to the surface. One suspects many recently minted mindfulness enthusiasts lack appreciation of this.

It’s also the case that, as with anything valued, lots of people with sketchy credentials are rushing forward to supply the demand. I’ve run into articles and advertisements about meditation instructors who do not appear to know what mindfulness is. For example, mindfulness has been promoted as a way of blocking out intrusive, negative thoughts, but that’s not right at all. Genuine mindfulness requires awareness and acknowledgment of negative thoughts and anything else going on in your head or senses. “Blocking out” is, by definition, just the opposite.

Note also that in Buddhism “mindfulness” and “concentration” are not the same thing. Indeed, Right Concentration is another section of the Eightfold Path. Focusing all your attention on a dot on your monitor, as one mindfulness expert advocates, is a concentration exercise, not mindfulness. Concentration exercises can be beneficial also, but one does wonder if these so-called experts have any idea what they are talking about.

That said, if you are not a Buddhist practitioner and your employer is making mindfulness training available, I wouldn’t hesitate to check it out and give it a try. Chances are you will get some good out of it.

[This article, written by me, was originally published on About.com’s Buddhism site, but since it was removed from their servers all rights revert to me, and I am posting it here.]

Buddhas and Ancestors

I want to say a little more about Master Dogen’s Vow. And I’m going to skip over the second paragraph for right now and go to the third one, because the third paragraph helps me understand the second one. The third paragraph goes —

Buddhas and Ancestors of old were as we.
In the future, we shall be Buddhas and Ancestors.
Revering Buddhas and Ancestors, we are one Buddha and one Ancestor.
Awakening Bodhi-mind, we are one Bodhi-mind.
As they extend their compassion freely to us,
we are able to realize Buddhahood and let go of the realization.

If you are at all familiar with Dogen, you may be familiar with what he wrote about time. In “Uji,” he wrote that time isn’t something that just passes from past to future:

“Know that in this way there are myriads of forms and hundreds of grasses throughout the entire earth, and yet each grass and each form itself is the entire earth. The study of this is the beginning of practice. When you are at this place, there is just one grass, there is just one form; there is understanding of form and no-understanding of form; there is understanding of grass and no-understanding of grass. Since there is nothing but just this moment, the time-being is all the time there is. Grass-being, form-being are both time.

“Each moment is all being, is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment.”

In other words, all of time is present in every moment. All beings and all worlds are present in every moment. The Buddhas and Ancestors of old are in this moment. We as Buddhas and Ancestors of the future are in this moment. Future Buddhas and Ancestors are in this moment. We are one Buddha and one Ancestor.

In Zen, often we’re told to focus on the present moment. “Present moment” can get to be a real fetish. But even as we focus on the present moment we may still be clinging to an idea of “present moment” that leaves things out. Can you focus but not cling?

Understanding “present moment” in this way illustrates, among other things, why it’s a mistake for westerners to be in a big rush to sever ties with the Asian traditions. If you’re shoving the Asian ancestors out of your western “present moment,” you’re  missing the present moment.

Reflecting on the Buddhas and Ancestors can be useful if you are feeling discouraged. You might meditate with the words of Master Dogen’s Vow. Feel the strength and compassion of Buddhas and Ancestors within you, within the present moment, and let it radiate out to all beings who are struggling and discouraged.

Read more about the spiritual quest in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[A version of this post was published on About.com Buddhism September 16, 2013.]

Killing the Spiritual but Not Religious Buddha

Sam Harris is coming out with a new book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, as if the world needs another “spiritual but not religious” book. I did a search in Amazon books for “spiritual but not religious” and easily got more than 2000 results.

As I complained awhile back (“My Heresy on Spiritual but Not Religious“) —

“Spiritual but not religious” has become a new orthodoxy. In some circles one cannot say anything positive about “religion,” even in a generic way, without being informed one is behind the times.  Religion = bad. Spiritual = good.  Religion is divisive and dogmatic and corrupt. It is riddled with sexual predators and scam artists. It is interested only in its own power. Spirituality, on the other hand, is all about free thinking, self-affirmation and happy folks tripping down the path of love and light.

Yeah, whatever. I’m spiritual and religious. Sue me.

Brilliant as ever, in the New York Times, Frank Bruni congratulates Harris for recognizing a growing trend —

Harris’s book, which will be published by Simon and Schuster in early September, caught my eye because it’s so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans who are willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that makes sense to them, in organized religion.

Next up: Bruni discovers Crocs!

I devote most of a chapter in Rethinking Religion to why I think the trend of separating religion and spirituality, while understandable, is a bad idea. Of course, spirituality is ever a vaguely defined thing, and often what is really meant is closer to one definition of mysticism. From Rethinking Religion:

…a mystical experience in this sense is one that is neither sensory nor conceptual. It is not dependent on seeing visions or hearing voices. It is not generated by reason or intellect. Through this experience, one may feel an intimate connection of existence beyond self, or realize something about the nature of reality not perceived before.

The spiritual-but-not-religious crowd calls these spiritual experiences, but it’s the same thing. Prominent atheist Sam Harris (author, neuroscientist, co-founder of Project Reason) has written quite a bit about spiritual experience, such as —

There is no question that people have “spiritual” experiences (I use words like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, because they come to us trailing a long tail of metaphysical debris). Every culture has produced people who have gone off into caves for months or years and discovered that certain deliberate uses of attention—introspection, meditation, prayer—can radically transform a person’s moment to moment perception of the world.

— although Harris is determined to not connect these experiences to religion in any way, because of the “metaphysical debris.” People might erroneously think they’re having an experience of God or Brahman or some such, which is atheistically incorrect. Of course, God or Brahman can be understood in many different ways, to be discussed in the next chapter.

There is no question that religious doctrines provide a context in which people make sense of mystical experience. A few days ago I wrote a post about disturbing meditation experiences, which often seem to happen when people have intense mystical (as I’m defining it) experiences with no context or guidance.

Available at Amazon!

It may be that once practice-realization has ripened all the contexts drop away, like dropping the raft once on the other shore. But that has to happen in its own time. If you’re still living in a fog of concepts and projections you need some context.

In some religious traditions mystical experiences are interpreted to support and confirm doctrine. In others, however, doctrine plays a supporting or guiding role for mystical experience.  Sometimes doctrines are not to be “believed in” but are understood to be provisional explanations of the great ineffable thing one may realize directly through mystical experience. And sometimes gods, angels, dharmapalas and bodhisattvas are understood to be metaphors or archetypes rather than sky fairies.

Sam Harris will have none of that metaphysical debris, however. Frank Bruni asked him about this.

“You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week.

In short, Sam Harris demands of the cosmos that it not bother him with anything that rocks his chosen worldview, and that’s his doctrinal context.

Some years ago Harris wrote an essay called “Killing the Buddha” in which he wrote,

The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.

One suspects old Lin Chi (Linji Yixuan, d. 866) would have given Harris several smacks in the head for this. In Zen, “killing the Buddha” means to let go of all concepts and preconceived ideas about Buddha — including the idea that Buddha is a separate thing that could be “met” — because such expectations get in the way of realizing Buddha. Harris is not killing the Buddha; he is merely replacing a version of Buddha he doesn’t like with one he does.

I’m sure many would argue that Harris’s self-imposed doctrinal parameters are at least rational, as opposed to belief in imaginary spirits. But in the context of mysticism they are both fabricated interfaces imposed on a reality beyond the limits of concepts and intellect, impediments to the grace of not knowing, and I don’t know that one is any more or less opaque than the other.

Dark Nights and Dukkha Nanas

Westerners have been playing with eastern mysticism, and now some of them have had “bad trips” being called “dark nights of the soul.” There’s an article on The Atlantic website by Tomas Rocha, titled “The Dark Knight of the Soul,” about a psychology professor investigating the dark side of meditation. The professor, Dr. Willoughby Britton, is working to “document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices,” the article says.

Available at Amazon!

However, there’s nothing discussed in the article that would be particularly surprising to any long-time practitioner of Zen, Vipassana or other traditional Buddhist meditation practice. It’s pretty much a catalog of the stuff teachers warn us about, actually. And it’s all been documented and analyzed in commentaries going back more than a couple of millennia now, albeit in language a western psychologist might not understand.

Here’s the trajectory, as I see it: First, people don’t take bhavana seriously. And then they say, hey, there’s something to this; and they rip it out of its religious context and turn it into a self-improvement project. And then it gets popular, which means somebody can make money from it, so people with only a half-assed idea what they are doing set themselves up as experts and instructors and open spiritual retreat centers. And then when people who are not being properly guided start to wash up on the crazy shore, some other westerner assumes nobody has noticed this before and investigates it. Brilliant.

Off the top of my head I can think of a couple of Zen dharma heirs with Ph.D.s in psychology and one, Barry Magid, who has an  M.D. in psychiatry, all of whom speak English and even live in the U.S. So it’s not like people with deep understanding of both the practice tradition and psychology can’t be consulted on this. Oh, well.

Most of the negative experiences seem to be related to people doing intensive meditation retreats being led by people not grounded in a Buddhist tradition, or in which participants receive little or no individual guidance and are being pushed into satori before they are ready.

For example, one of the people interviewed in the Atlantic article appears to have had a strong experience of self falling away on his first retreat — and it doesn’t say what sort of retreat this was — but he was unable to integrate the experience with his day-to-day life, and it tore him apart. This sort of integration is a lot of what traditional monastic life, with its quietness and many forms and rituals, is about. To experience something that intensive and then be dumped back into “normal world” with no follow-up guidance is asking for disaster, yes. This is not news.

This guy did more meditation retreats but apparently did not seek out a dharma teacher for personal, one-on-one guidance about what he was going through, at least for several years. And it’s not clear to me that the people he finally did consult were dharma teachers, either, but whatever. In a monastic setting, his issues would have been recognized and a teacher who knew him personally would have guided him through it.

This is exactly the reason Brad Warner has called out Dennis Merzel on his “big mind” retreats, btw. And I acknowledge it doesn’t help when someone like Merzel, who really was given dharma transmission awhile back, ditches the tradition and sells easy enlightenment to the masses for his own profit. Merzel is making a good living marketing satori-palooza blow-your-mind enlightenment but gives no individual guidance, except maybe to those willing to fork out enough money for it. One poor guy who wrote to Warner about Merzel had been pushed into talking about his spiritual and sexual issues in front of the entire assembly of 250 or so retreat participants instead of privately in dokusan, which is not how it’s supposed to be done.

Another person interviewed in the Atlantic article had hallucinations. This is common, especially on long retreats. Usually this doesn’t mean anything; it’s just your nervous system mis-firing. In a Zen setting if a student begins to hallucinate during meditation and tells the teacher about it, the teacher will most likely show the student how to adjust his practice so that the hallucinations stop. But the guy in the article got no help and just freaked out.

The traditional Buddhist meditation practices are not to be messed around with by amateurs. They are powerful means intended to, among other things, deconstruct the way we are conditioned to perceive and understand ourselves and reality. They are not primarily intended to help one de-stress or relax; releasing stress is more of a side effect. In a traditional setting, a student works with a teacher who knows him personally, and the teacher will prescribe to the student what he is to do in his meditation, based on that student’s individual development. Even within the same monastery or dharma center, students in different stages of their spiritual development usually will not all be meditating in the same way, although of course you wouldn’t know that by looking at them.

Yes, meditation can occasionally be blissful, and it can occasionally be disturbing, but one is not “good” and the other “bad.” They are what they are; it’s what you do (or don’t do) with those experiences that matters, and that’s where working personally with a skilled teacher is essential.

The traditional meditation practices have a way of reaching into your psyche to find ugly and deeply buried stuff you didn’t know were there. This is a feature, not a bug; dealing with your personal negative baggage is part of the “process,” so to speak. I mention “dukkha nanas” in the title of the post. “Dukkha nana” roughly means “insight into what makes you miserable.” In advanced Vipassana, I am told, a student looks deeply into his own misery in order to gain insight, and this is not for the faint of heart. But a student would not do this without first building a strong foundation of practice and spiritual maturity.

Just taking something like mindfulness out of its context as part of the Eightfold Path is a bit problematic. I don’t doubt mindfulness by itself has therapeutic value, and I’m happy if mindfulness therapy helps people. But mindfulness without context, or with a self-centered context, could just as easily reinforce negative qualities as positive ones. It should be applied with some caution, and it isn’t always.

See also “Buddhist Meditation and the Dark Night” at About.com Buddhism.

Don’t Settle for Explanations

I’ve written before about emptying your cup. This is harder than you might realize. By the time we reach adulthood we are so full of, um, stuff that we don’t even notice it’s there. We might consider ourselves to be open minded, but in fact everything we learn is filtered through many assumptions and then classified to fit into the knowledge we already possess.

Read More

The Buddha taught that conceptual thinking is a function of the Third Skandha. This skandha is called Samjna in Sanskrit, which means “knowledge that links together.” Unconsciously, we “learn” something new by first linking it to something we already know. Most of the time, this is useful; it helps us navigate through the phenomenal world.

But sometimes this system fails. What if the new thing is utterly unrelated to anything you already know? What usually happens is misunderstanding. We see this when westerners, including scholars, try to understand Buddhism by stuffing it into some western conceptual box. That creates a lot of conceptual distortion; people end up with a version of Buddhism in their heads that is unrecognizable to most Buddhists. And the whole is Buddhism philosophy or religion? argument is being perpetrated by people who can’t think outside the box.

To one extent or another most of us go about demanding that reality conform to our ideas, rather than the other way around. Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to stop doing that, or at least learn to recognize that’s what we’re doing, which is a start.

But then there are ideologues and dogmatists. I’ve come to see ideology of any sort as a kind of interface to reality that provides a pre-formed explanation for why things are as they are. People with faith in ideology may find these explanations very satisfying, and sometimes they might even be relatively true. Unfortunately, a true ideologue rarely recognizes a situation in which his beloved assumptions to not apply, which can lead him into colossal blunders.

But there is no cup so full as that of the religious dogmatist. I read this at Brad Warner’s place, about a woman friend to interviewed a young Hare Krishna devotee.

“Turns out her Hare Krishna friend told her that women are naturally submissive and their position on earth is to serve men. When Darrah tried to counter this assertion by citing her own real-life experience, her buddy literally went “Blah-blah-blah” and proceeded to talk over her. When Darrah finally managed to ask how he knew all this, the Hare Krishna pointed to a bookshelf and said, ‘I have five thousand years of yogic literature that proves it’s true.'”

This young man is now dead to reality, or reality about women, at least.

And the moral is, don’t settle for explanations. This is not to say that all explanations are wrong, but until the explanation has been tested by experience, then accept it only provisionally.

[An earlier version of this post was published at About.com Buddhism  on August 13, 2012.]

The Misuse of Mindfulness

button-nowBack in the Jurassic Age when I was a college student, a boyfriend decided he was going to live a completely spontaneous life. He would make no plans but simply do what he felt like doing at the moment, he said.

And overnight he went from being a fun, if sometimes aggravating, boyfriend to being an utter pain in the ass.

Instead of calling ahead to make dates, for example, he would inform me where he was about to go and that he would drop by my dorm — in five minutes — to take me along if I wanted to go, too. If I was in the middle of doing laundry and couldn’t leave, that was too bad. The final straw came when he remarked that at least his dog was always happy to go anywhere and didn’t need time to get ready.

And yes, he was being a self-centered jerk even by college-age standards. But after all these many years I still think of him — not fondly — whenever I hear someone talk of “living for the moment.”

At the New Statesman, Steven Poole writes that somebody who actually lives a completely spontaneous life would have to be some kind of sociopath. “Truly living in the moment and embracing utter spontaneity would render you, for instance, unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others,” Poole writes.

It also makes it impossible to be in any but the most impersonal and casual relationships. You would always just be that guy who shows up sometimes. You’d never be part of anything beyond yourself.

Poole writes that “living for the moment” has become something of a cult, and spontaneity the highest virtue du jour.  And behind this, he says, is the trendy fad of mindfulness.

 Breath-centred mindfulness meditation is no doubt beneficial for many individuals, sharing as it does certain aspects with similar practices such as yoga and qigong. But it is tempting to suspect that official attempts to impose it on employees or schoolchildren have as one unspoken motivation the desire to create a more pliant individual. The more able you become to concentrate blissfully in the moment, the less troubled you will be by intrusive negative thoughts about your employer or government policy. And so mindfulness can become a counsel of passivity, as well as a mental medication to distract our attention from underlying problems. An institutional population may be offered the anti-stress benefits of mindfulness rather than the removal of the stressors that have made it stressed in the first place.

However, the Buddhist practice of  mindfulness meditation has nothing to do with blocking out intrusive negative thoughts. Just the opposite, actually. Mindfulness is being mindful of everything, including pain, stress, and negative thoughts. Blocking anything out, ignoring what’s actually going on in your body, emotions, and thoughts is the opposite of mindfulness.

Buy My Book at Amazon

Mindfulness often is described as a whole body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. Sometimes people ask how they can be mindful and also make plans and schedules. But one can make plans and schedules mindfully.

Consider that Buddhist monastic life tends to be rigidly scheduled. All day long bells and drums signal when it’s time to get up, to assemble for meditation, to cook the next meal or begin alms rounds. But within that container of scheduling one can remain fully mindful, fully embodying the moment and the activity.

On the other hand, you can be as spontaneous as a leaf in the wind and still be oblivious to yourself and everything else. Living for the moment is not the same thing as living in the moment.

See also “The Four Foundations of Mindfuless.”