Buddhists are often wary of secular mindfulness training. But Mindfulness Based Approaches are a meeting ground between meditation and modern psychology and we can learn about the psychological issues people face. (1 of two posts)

In my last post I said why I think the mindfulness boom is the most significant development in Buddhism’s encounter with the West for many years. However, the secular mindfulness movement isn’t Buddhism; it’s the discovery within healthcare, psychology and the broader culture that certain Buddhist practices and attitudes can help them achieve their goals: good physical and mental health and general wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, Buddhists are both excited by and wary of the growing interest in mindfulness. I’ll be writing about the limits and dangers of secular mindfulness training, but I want to start by saying what I have learned from it and what  I think other Buddhists could profitably learn

Over the years, I’ve been involved in many experiments in re-expressing Buddhism within western culture  – with its own art, myths,  philosophy and economic structures. I believe we must apply Buddhist teachings to the true concerns of the modern world, adapting its expressions without compromising their essential message. That means engaging with the psychological and emotional issues confronting people in our culture. Buddhist teachings typically describe universal psychological traits; but some issues are particular to certain individuals and some vary between cultures.

But what is the distinctive psychology of our society? One source of insight  is clinical psychology. It has no monopoly of authority and it brings certain biases and assumptions, but adds elements to which Buddhist teachers have no other access, such as empirical research and specialist understanding of psychological problems. In my my training in MBAs I’ve encountered the following observations and findings.

Some Observations

i. Acute mental suffering and mental distress are very common – more than we may realise

According to Mark Williams, one in ten British people will experience depression in the next year, and there’s a 50 percent chance of recurrence; the average level of anxiety in children and young people would have been considered clinical in the 1950s. And in the US, 75 – 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress related problems. We could add that 15-20 percent of the population also experience some degree of chronic pain, and this mental suffering and coping mechanisms that are comparable to those involved in the various forms of psychological distress.

These statistics tell us much about the people who attend Buddhist centres; in fact, it one would expect more suffering than average among people who are seeking relief from it.  In return, Buddhists offer meditation, Dharma insights and hopefully friendship and community. But we aren’t trained to address people’s psychological problems directly or guide them in using meditation practices to address very difficult states of mind.

ii. We’re compulsively focused on activity and stimulation

Jon Kabat Zinn identifies ‘the doing mode’ as the characteristic feature of modern living, contrasting it with the mindful ‘being mode’. That’s a bit vague and open to misunderstanding, but it’s still a helpful encapsulation of many of our society’s dysfunctional features. Doing mode could be equated with what Buddhism calls the mental hindrances of desire for sense experience and restlessness and anxiety. I would add that we have objectified these mental tendencies in consumer culture, sexualisation, the entertainment industry and the demands on our attention of advertising, news, social networking and so on. MBAs have helped me understand how this compulsive activity leads to mental distress and how mindfulness can help.

iii. Many people are often awfully hard on themselves

MBSR and MBCT are based on the finding that persistent, harsh, emotionally driven self-criticism is common and lies behind many psychological difficulties. Our interpretations of our experience are affected by this self criticism and anything at all can feed a tendency towards self-hatred, including meditation. If your aim in meditating is to fix the weakness and unworthiness you see in yourself, as if your very being was a kind of a problem, you may make progress in some areas but that underlying aversion will remain.

iv. Resisting and avoiding difficulties is the source of many psychological problems

Buddhist teaching knows all about aversion: the tendency to avoid what is happening through hatred or distraction. What (some) psychologists add is that this avoidance lies behind many psychological problems. The mental processes we employ to eradicate suffering in fact produce ingrained traits, creating states such as depression, stress, acute anxiety and the behaviour associated with OCD. For example, the founders of MBCT argue that depression develops when a person responds to a difficulty by ruminating – turning it over in the mind in a way that reinforces low mood and encourages harsh self-views.

In the next post I will describe some of the remedies that MBAs offer, especially focusing on what is distinctive about them.