Buddhist mindfulness practices are being used in settings from healthcare to corporate stress management and military training. This is the secular Mindfulness Movement. But can what else can mainstream society learn from Buddhism, and what does a Buddhist context add to the view of mindfulness itself? (1 of 2 posts)

A few months ago I wrote several posts exploring whether Buddhism and the secular mindfulness movement are Friends or Foes; and What Buddhists Can Learn From the Mindfulness Movement. My main point was that Buddhists should celebrate and embrace the use of mindfulness in secular settings, but I am also keenly aware that much is lost in the transition. I want to explore this further not by focusing on the demerits of secular mindfulness but by asking what else Buddhism has to offer.

It is striking how little this question is asked in the rush to mindfulness. The Buddhist roots of mindfulness are acknowledged, but Buddhism itself is placed in the category ‘religion’ and therefore considered alien to secular settings. I think that’s a false dichotomy, and the mindfulness movement itself shows how a Buddhist teaching can be applied outside a Buddhist context because the insight underpinning it is universal.

Some other aspects of Buddhism are being explored, especially under the influence of Buddhists who are also psychologists or mindfulness trainers. The most prominent example is the development of compassion and loving kindness in mindfulness courses, prompted especially by academics Paul Gilbert and Kristin Neff. Like mindfulness, the benefits of compassion are also being explored by neuroscientists, often working alongside Buddhists, notably at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Vidyamala’s Breathworks course and Paramabandhu’s Kindness Based Therapy (KBT) are both mindfulness courses developed by members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, drawing on their experience of practising mettabhavana (loving kindness practice).

The ‘secular compassion movement’ is younger and much smaller than the mindfulness movement – and, unlike mindfulness, the practice of developing compassion has prominent non-Buddhist antecedents. But it demonstrates a principle that I think can be taken much further: many aspects of Buddhist practice can be mined by secular society, just as mindfulness is being.

Most straightforwardly, some practitioners of  mindfulness meditation are likely to want to explore other approaches to meditation including concentrative (dhyana/jhana) and insight-based practice as well as compassion practices. Indeed, the Insight Meditation Movement (IMM) – the network of centres including The Insight Meditation Society, Spirit Rock and Gaia House – is already the hub of largely secular Buddhist meditation movement. The IMM strips Buddhist practice down to what it considers key elements that are practiced intensively but largely outside the broader Buddhist context. These start with mindfulness –  and it was a relatively small step for Jon Kabat Zinn to go from his IMM-style mindfulness practice to the development of MBSR. Beyond mere mindfulness lie insight practices as  the Gaia House website explains:

‘In common with mindfulness training, insight meditation retreats teach skills that help us respond more effectively to difficult emotions and painful feelings.  But such retreats go further. … This path seeks not simply to equip us with better skills to cope with suffering but, more radically, to develop the understanding that will uproot the basic misperceptions which underlie all our sense of discontent, and disconnection from others.’

What other elements of Buddhist practice might be taken up in this way? Buddhist psychology is already being taught at Bangor University’s Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice; and one can imagine Buddhist ethics attracting attention as a way of making explicit what is involved in the wise choices that MBSR and MBCT already explore.

I understand why some other Buddhists have reservations about these developments, but I am happy to see Buddhism being mined in this way: this is how its insights and values can effect society on the widest scale. However, the price of entering the mainstream is that these aspects of Buddhism are inevitably soaked in mainstream values: muted, co-opted, commercialised and in that sense distorted. I think Buddhists should accept that this will happen and not mind too much, but we can also have an influence. For me, the most important contribution Buddhists can make us in adhering to and actually practising a much more expansive and far-reaching vision of  mindfulness, meditation an life itself.

See the next post in this series