What can the secular mindfulness movement learn from Buddhism? As well as Mining Buddhism for more teachings and practices, Buddhism offers an expanded view of mindfulness which places it in a coherent vision of human life, while many Buddhists themselves can offer the example of lived based around committed practice
Mindfulness Based Approaches (MBAs) extract mindfulness from the web of ideas and practices that Buddhists call the Dharma, which offers a coherent view of life when the basic teachings are taken together. The strength of secular mindfulness is that people can practice mindfulness on their own terms to meet their own needs. But Buddhists can render an important service by communicating the Dharma’s greatly expanded view of mindfulness.
Firstly, there’s more to mindfulness itself than Jon Kabat Zinn encompasses in his definition of mindfulness as present moment, non-judgmental awareness. In Buddhist teachings, especially the discourses recorded in the Pali Canon, sati is associated with recollection while sampajanna connotes the wider context of action. This suggests that awareness need not focus solely on the present; what’s important is the attitude to experience, whether this is identified with past, present or future. As the Dhammapada says, “Give up what is ‘before’ give up what is ‘after’, give up what is ‘in between’” (v.348).
Similarly, apamada/apramada (heedlessness), which is closely associated with sati, has an ethical connotation that qualifies Kabat-Zinn’s focus on the non-judgmental character of mindfulness. I see Kabat Zinn’s definition as a skillful response to discovering the prevalence of the unconscious, emotionally-laden judgments we often make in response to our experiences: that’s what ‘being judgmental’ means. The alternative, experiencing with mindfulness, is a basis for making the wise judgments that are so important in Buddhist practice.
Kabat-Zinn’s definition emphasises the aspects of mindfulness that are helpful in dealing with stress, while Buddhist mindfulness teachings apply in all situations and at all levels of experience. I find the MBSR emphasis helpful, but it can lead to a somewhat artificial, rarefied view of practice; and Buddhists can remind MBSR people that mindfulness can be integrated into life in a natural, wholehearted way.
Then there are the other teachings that accompany and inform the role of mindfulness. It’s the sixth limb of the eightfold path; the third of the five spiritual faculties and the first of the bojjangas/bodhiyangas (Enlightenment factors). This shows that mindfulness has a central role to play in Buddhist spiritual practice, but other emphases are helpful as well. The eightfold path, for example, expresses a holistic, all-encompassing view of life. It’s a programme for spiritual development that includes a person’s fundamental beliefs and values, their intentions and motivations, their speech and actions seen through an ethical lens, and the process of mental cultivation and insight. That isn’t alien to MBAs, which, in principle, distil an essential element of Buddhist practice that implies much more. But the practical difference is palpable: for me, Buddhist practice simply includes more vitamins and minerals than MBSR. Secular mindfulness doesn’t explicitly ask people to consider, ‘What implications does mindfulness have for my ethical choices, or my beliefs’. Nor does it promise to address the deepest and most intractable issues we face as human beings, or our fullest potential.
The Insight Meditation Movement is the most important influence in bringing a Buddhist perspective to secular mindfulness. IMM teachers tend to approach this by stressing that mindfulness can grow into insight into the nature of reality. However, IMM centres themselves follow a stripped down and semi-secularised approach to Buddhism and my experience in the Triratna Buddhist Community has led me to appreciate that the breadth of Buddhist practice is very important: study, ritual, beauty, imagination and, above all, sangha. With some exceptions, these are not high on the agenda of the secular mindfulness movement, and the IMM is unlikely to introduce them. Other Buddhists can make a contribution here.
More than anything else, Buddhists of all traditions can contribute to the secular mindfulness movement the example of their own lives as committed practitioners. The founders of MBSR and MBCT insist that teachers should also be practitioners, but they can’t enforce that; and there’s a big difference between teaching mindfulness as an aspect of one’s own practice and as an aspect of one’s profession. The secular mindfulness movement needs the influence of people with many years experience of practice, whose whole lives – not just their work – are pervaded by mindfulness as a core value and a lived reality. Many of these people will be Buddhists and the mindfulness movement needs Buddhist teachers, sanghas and retreat centres.
A caveat is important here. Mindfulness trainers like me can now earn a living from teaching meditation: for a few it is a very good living. But doing so mixes one’s practice with drives such as anxiety about money, ambition and the desire for status. Similar issues arise in any vocational pursuit, but we need to be alert to them if our practice is to keep its integrity. My concern about the secular mindfulness movement is not so much that the practice is co-opted and commercialised, as that practitioners are.
The growth of secular mindfulness marks an historic change in the profile of Buddhism in the West. Buddhists need to develop a realistic sense of its strengths and weaknesses, avoiding either a naïve espousal of the movement on its own terms or an overly wary concern about the compromises it involves with mainstream society. Then, I hope, Buddhists will move from surprised observers of the mindfulness boom to participants, making a distinctive contribution as a Buddhist-inspired influence spreads through western societies.