We’re in the middle of the Mindfulness Boom as Buddhist-derived meditation practices enter the cultural mainstream. But is this the Dharma touching and transforming western society, or is Buddhism being turned into a self-help technique and a consumer product? Its time for Buddhists to start reflecting seriously on the mindfulness movement and to learn its lessons.

In a recent piece for the Guardian I commented that mindfulness is where Buddhism and the west meet. I want to explain why I think this development is so significant and why I’ve become I’ve become an MBSR/MBCT trainer, offering courses through Mindfulness in Action.

People in many countries are learning Buddhist-derived meditation practices on eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) courses. I regret not having figures for the number of people learning these or other Mindfulness Based Approaches (MBAs), but it’s clearly substantial and rising dramatically. There’s  a growing body of scientific research and the media is buzzing with coverage of mindfulness. When bodies as diverse as the US Marine Corps and the UK Health Service employ mindfulness training, something really interesting is happening: Buddhist-derived practices are entering the mainstream of western societies

Engagement in mindfulness practice does not, in itself, indicate engagement with Buddhist values or teachings. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan’s new book is called A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. That raises  the question of whether the American spirit and the ‘core American values’ mentioned in the blurb are really compatible with the Buddhist spirit and Dharmic values. (I’m curious to read the book).

The encounter between Buddhism and the West has many dimensions, some of which have far more depth than MBAs, but this still seems to me the most substantial development in the encounter between Buddhism and the West for many years. Buddhists are naturally concerned that the mindfulness movement is not spreading the Dharma but co-opting it: turning a profound vision of the human condition into a self-help technique. That’s a real danger, but I think this concern misses important aspects of what’s happening. Yes, MBA’s are secularised, professionalised and strip mindfulness and meditation from their Buddhist context; yes, what you can achieve in eight weeks is limited; yes, the understanding of mindfulness is partial. But that’s not all.

The Dharma has always been concerned with dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness), its causes and its cessation. As Buddhism arrives in new cultures, and as those cultures change, the forms it takes are inevitably shaped by the distinctive character of dukkha in those societies. ‘Stress’, in its many forms is the predominant expression of dukkha in modern, western societies, so Jon Kabat Zinn’s Buddhist-derived Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course addresses a core issue as the Dharma comes to the West. That’s why MBSR and its derivatives have had so much more traction than any other Buddhist-influenced project in western countries.

It turns out that the Buddha’s account of the causes of dukkha has much in common with the account of mental suffering developed by cognitive psychology and MBAs have become a meeting-point between Buddhism and modern psychology. Craving and aversion are psychological processes that CBT has recognised from its own perspective. I am very impressed by the meeting of these two fields in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which was developed by leading British and Canadian psychologists to address relapse into depression. (Actually MBCT and MBSR are very similar and we can largely discuss them together).

This has brought a further encounter: between Buddhist meditation practice and western scientific research in general. That’s an historic shift as Buddhism has long been associated with philosophers and poets in western countries rather than scientists. Research into MBAs, along with research into the brain activity of advanced meditators, is developing rapidly. The claims made for it are often overblown, but it is lending mainstream credibility to practices that have often been dismissed as navel gazing. Meanwhile, Buddhist-influenced scientists such as  Francesco Varela have rethought scientific methodology to accommodate data deriving from introspection a well as experimental observation. These developments have allied Buddhism with developments such as the growing understanding of the brain’s neuro-plasticity – its capacity to develop new connections in response to mental activity – as well as to positive psychology and the happiness movement.

For all these synergies, MBSR’s stance remains counter-cultural, at least in the approach of Jon Kabat Zinn. It challenges the culture-wide emphasis on what he designates ‘the doing mode’, advocating the spacious, appreciative ‘being mode’ instead. Identifying a compulsive problem-solving ethos that shapes our responses to difficulties, Kabat-Zinn advocates a seemingly un-American open, mindful exploration of difficulties. This is also rather different from the British reliance on our stiff upper lips.

Most writing on the mindfulness movement is concerned with conveying the benefits of mindfulness to the general public. As a Buddhist and a mindfulness trainer I think we can go further and reflect much more fully on both its strengths and limitations. As I’ll discuss in future posts, I believe that the mindfulness movement has much to learn from Buddhism and  Buddhists have much to learn from the mindfulness movement.

See next post in this series