RM Yoga

By Ruth McNeil 2020.

There is much scholarly and scientific debate on the influence of Buddhist traditions on the modern mindfulness movement. For some, modern mindfulness embodies “the heart of Buddhist meditation” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994:4) representing “the original teachings of the Buddha” (Cullen, 2011:7). For others, mindfulness is not uniquely Buddhist in its origin (Trousselard, 2012: 474) or, if it is, then it has been uncoupled from its original ethical and religious contexts (Purser and Loy, 2013). Modern mindfulness encompasses a range of influences, understandings and applications, which, I will argue, are not necessarily wholly congruent, yet do not entirely oppose each other in a convenient dialectic as suggested by some (King, 2016:43, Purser, 2019). In this essay I will look at the origins and development of the modern mindfulness movement in relation to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) contextualised by Thich Nhat Hanh’s Engaged Buddhism and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)[1].

What does the term mindfulness mean? Does the original meaning maintain continuity with its contemporary usage? Mindfulness is given prominence within the canonical teachings of the Buddha, as sammā sati,or right mindfulness, is the seventh constituent of the noble eightfold path. The noble eightfold path is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths which encapsulate the Buddha’s essential teaching: that there is suffering, that there is an origin of suffering, that there can be cessation of suffering and that there is a path to end suffering. Sammā sati is established within canonical Buddhist teachings, the Nikāyas, where it is defined as: “contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed covetousness and displeasure in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings…contemplating mind in mind…contemplating phenomena in phenomena…This is called right mindfulness”. (DN 22.21, MN 141.30, SN 45:8). The noble eightfold path transmits a clear ethical imperative: one must distinguish between right (sammā) andwrong (micchā) with each of the eight constituentsto be able to progress along the path (MN 117).

Mindfulness as a meditative practice is so important within the Nikāyas that both the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta and the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta are devoted to describing its practice and techniques. The four foundations of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhānas): contemplation of the body (kāya), feelings (vedanā), states of mind (citta) and phenomena (dhammā) give rise to the faculty of mindfulness (SN 48:11). One who possesses the faculty of mindfulness is described as “one who remembers, who recollects what was done and said long before.” (SN 5:197). The Monier-Williams dictionary defines smṛti, Sanskrit for the Pāli sati,as “remembrance…calling to mind…memory”. Sharf points out that the use of sati maintains a “religious significance” as it references the importance of memorisation with regard to the teachings of the Vedas within the dominant Brahminical milieu of the historical Buddha (2014:473). Yet this translation is described as “most inadequate and misleading” by T. W. Rhys Davids, who was the first to translate the term sati as mindfulness into English. To Rhys Davids, the term mindfulness instantiates the calling-to-mind of a specific context-based understanding of satithat is left unexplained by the term memory. Mindfulness, then, is the awareness of the impermanence of all phenomena and “the repeated application of this awareness, to each experience of life, from the ethical point of view” (1910). Sati, as a concept that is distinct from memory, is manifest as the satipaṭṭhānasare the ground that gives rise to the seven factors of enlightenment (satta bojjhaṇga); thus, sati leads directly to liberation (SN 54:13). Similarly, the practice of mindfulness of the body (kāyagatā sati) is enough in itself to attain enlightenment (AN 1:43). Moreover,assatiis clearly a central tenet of the Buddhist meditative system, the term itself can no longer solely mean memory: this meditative context has assigned a new meaning to sati.This repurposing gives rise to a specific use of sati within the canonical Buddhist texts;sati,asthe connection between the concept of memory and its new usage, translated as “lucid awareness of present happenings” (Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2011:25). Lucid awareness, according to Bhikkhu Bodhi, bestows the ability to make distinctions about one’s subjective experience to illuminate it from “the twilight zone of unawareness into the light of clear cognition” (ibid:25). As clear cognition and comprehension are key factors of mindfulness, it seems evident that the practice requires evaluation and judgement, whereby distinctions are made between right (sammā) andwrong (micchā) so that wholesome mental qualities and deeds are promoted over unwholesome ones.

It is argued that the contemporary understanding of mindfulness diverges from this definition because mindfulness is now taken to mean “awareness without judgment” (Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2011:26), or “bare attention” (Sharf, 2014:474), and in the process been stripped of the original differentiative and ethical frameworks (Purser, 2019:8). Indeed, MBSR’s founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has defined mindfulness as “paying attention…in the present moment and nonjudgmentally” (1994:4). Furthermore, the original distinctions between sammā sati andmicchāsati in the canonical teachings are disregarded. Kabat-Zinn states that “mindfulness is spoken of and described in the texts as a wholesome mental factor” (2015). This highlights three important issues. Firstly, the original understanding of mindfulness has evolved to into a concept that is markedly different from its earlier usage. Secondly, it is indisputable that there is a Buddhist influence since Kabat-Zinn references the original teachings. Thirdly, however, by neglecting to contextualise mindfulness in relation to micchāsati these teachings are re-appropriated to fulfil a specific requirement.  This is a reflection of Kabat-Zinn’s specific therapeutic ideology: a repackaging of the original teachings to suit the needs of a contemporary Western audience, to mitigate the stresses and suffering caused by late twentieth century life.

Wilson states that any discourse regarding modern mindfulness will be predicated by the “markers of value employed strategically by agents in ways that reveal further patterns of value and preference” (2014:9). That is, rather than stating a fact, the author is making an argument, one which will inevitably reflect their positionality. As noted by Husgafvel, to comprehensively understand the Buddhist influences on modern mindfulness it serves to analyse the historical transmission of ideas, thus “preventing the argumentation from turning into unempirical rhetoric” (2019:2). However, I contend that it is equally important to interrogate the factors which have led to certain Buddhist ideas flourishing while others have fallen away within contemporary mindfulness’s dissemination throughout the global North over the last half decade.

It is pertinent to recognise that the Western neologism “Buddhism” is itself misleading as it implies a cohesion of beliefs and practices which is unable to adequately reflect a diverse multivocality or to meaningfully acknowledge the wide range of traditions and cultures incorporated by this categorisation (cf. Dunne 2001:71, Lopez 2005). Wright suggests that “Western Buddhism” is an adapted form of Buddhist practice; where some of the supernatural elements and belief in re-incarnation have been disconnected to make it palatable for post-industrial and increasingly secular societies searching for spiritual succour (2017:2). Conversely, mindfulness has been elevated to a prime component within this “distinctly Western, twenty-first century version of Buddhism” (ibid:13). Does this repurposing sever Western Buddhism from the wider and more extensive lineage, making it no longer one of many Buddhist traditions? Arguably it does not: Western Buddhism represents a single strand of a living tradition which has seen its dissemination from its ancient Indian origins throughout East Asia and beyond, giving rise to forms of localised Buddhist practice; Chan, Zen etc. Therefore, Žižek’s view that Western Buddhism is a creation of “New Age “Asiatic” thought, which, he believes, has been established as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism,can be challenged. Žižek’ states that “the “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity” (2001). Hepresumes, incorrectly, that Buddhism is a monolithic entity, when, in fact, it is highly diverse, with many of the key proponents of Western Buddhism vehemently critiquing the capitalist dynamics that Žižekaffirms they support (cf. Bachelor and Peacock 2011, Bhikkhu Bodhi 2013, Loy 2016). It is safe to assume that Žižekspeaks of mindfulness with the singular “meditative stance” he refers to. Indeed, mindfulness as a tool of neoliberalism is a key tenet of the argument against modern mindfulness, exemplified by Ronald Purser in his book McMindfulness(2019). However, contrary to Žižek, Purser does not claim Western Buddhism is accountable. Instead, he argues that it is the use of mindfulness as a secularised therapy that supportsthe neoliberal agenda: divorced from its Buddhist origins, in the guise of a self-help technique designed to de-stress, improve productivity and reinforce an individualistic mindset (ibid:76).

Purser splits modern mindfulness into two factions. On one side he locates Kabat-Zinn, whom he criticises for ripping mindfulness from its Buddhist moorings to market it as a therapeutic tool under the guise of MBSR; yet reconnecting it back to its Buddhist origins when authenticity is needed (ibid:70). To Purser, the practice of mindfulness, as proposed by Kabat-Zinn, has been reduced “to something banal that keeps people focussed on themselves” (ibid:9). On the other, Purser situates Buddhist monks Bhikkhu Bodhi and Thich Nhat Hanh as advocates for “conscientious compassion” and “interbeing” respectively, representing a “revolutionary mindfulness…that embraces the past and future in conscious pursuit of social change” (ibid:260).

Similarly, King describes “two ends of the spectrum” within modern mindfulness. At one extreme, he describes the mindfulness promoted by Kabat-Zinn, implemented in secular and commercial sectors for therapeutic reasons, teaching a “largely pacified ‘witness consciousness’ devoid of judgement or disturbance by an inquiring or analytic mindset”. King states that this approach evolved from the early twentieth century revivalist vipassana movement in Burma, as a development of the Theravāda tradition. At the other end of the spectrum, King places Thich Nhat Hanh, whose practice of socially concerned Engaged Buddhism, places an emphasis on the importance of “ethical reflection and mental cognition”; whose approach to mindfulness “denotes an awareness of our radical interbeing” originating from “the point of view of Mahāyāna- based Zen notions of emptiness (śūnyatā) and a non-dualistic worldview”. (2016:41-43).

This division reflects a critical narrative around the traditions of modern mindfulness, that is, Kabat-Zinn is a populariser of the “mindfulness only” approach, which amounts to a watered-down “spirituality of the self” and therefore is easily discredited for its inauthenticity. He is disparaged for holding only a loose affiliation to Theravāda Buddhism, which he turns on and off to suit and which is flaunted for “commercial convenience” yet ultimately “purges the dharma of its foreignness, not its exoticness, which sells” (Purser 2019:88).  Indeed, when Kabat-Zinn states that “mindfulness has nothing to do with Buddhism. It has to do with freedom” (2010), he lays himself open to be misconstrued by his detractors who use this ambiguous attitude towards the origins of the mindfulness as a means to discredit him (Purser 2019:81). However, a closer examination of the MBSR programme and texts by Kabat-Zinn provide a different view.

Kabat-Zinn’s personal meditation practice was established at the Insight Meditation Centre (IMS) founded in 1975 in Massachusetts where vipassana meditation, a derivation of Theravāda Buddhism, was taught. MBSR, created by Kabat-Zinn in 1979 for use a in a clinical setting, takes the form of an eight-week therapeutic programme to help those suffering from the ill effects of stress. The programme maintains a clear connection to Theravāda-based teachings in its applications. These are evident in the practices taught: primarily seated meditations described as the “heart of formal meditation practice” (MBSR Handbook, 2016:11). These have clear origins within the satipaṭṭhāna sutta, teachings that were developed by Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma, whose innovations of the vipassana meditation practice influenced their implementation in MBSR in the application of mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness of the body, and mindfulness of thoughts and feelings (Kabat-Zinn 2005). The body scan, a core component of the lying down segment of the MBSR method, can be traced back to the Burmese Theravāda teacher U Ba Khin, and was utilised at the IMS (Husgafvel 2019:9). Within MSBR, seven attitudes are cultivated:non-judging, patience, a beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go. Functioning in parallel to the noble eightfold path, these attitudes provide a foundational base for the practitioner.

However, Kabat-Zinn’s work draws on a wide range of Buddhist practices which extend beyond the Theravāda lineage, including those from Mahāyana and Vajrayāna traditions, Zen, and Tibetan Dzogchen, which have been overlooked until recently (cf. Dunne 2011, Husgafvel 2019, Watt 2017). The influences of the non-dual teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism are visible in the overarching philosophy of MBSR: a transformation of view “to see things as they are” (Kabat-Zinn 2005:196). This view encapsulates the importance placed in MBSR on non-striving, non-doing and “spacious awareness”. Similarity between the approaches of Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh are evident with the emphasis placed by both on interconnectedness and meaningful engagement with the world. Thich Nhat Hanh defines Engaged Buddhism as being aware of the problems of the world and “to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness” (1991). Kabat-Zinn advocates similar action by encouraging the practice to not act an escape from the world (1994:198). Both stress the importance of seeing the interconnection between all things, Kabat Zinn describing “interconnectedness as a fundamental principle of nature, nothing is isolated. Each event connects with others” (ibid:206). Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the essence of Mahāyāna teachings is recognising that liberation arises from the awareness of impermanence and interdependence: “in this reality nothing can oppress you anymore” (1975:49).

Kabat-Zinn describes the practice of mindfulness as “enlightening and liberating work” (1994:8): the goal of MBSR is to free the practitioner so that they can see more clearly. Kabat-Zinn makes it clear that the practice of mindfulness prepares the ground for the deepening of wisdom in the context of both MBSR and the mindfulness-based practices he advocates (ibid:5:54:74). Thus, mindfulness is the starting point for awareness and attention rather than the goal in itself (cf. Purser 2019:246). This signifies that there is a liberative focus to Kabat-Zinn’s approach and a continuity with pan-Buddhist traditions is maintained, attesting that his ethos is not decontextualized from the original essence of Buddhist teachings, rather than merely providing “palliative care for the neoliberal nightmare” (ibid:245).

Yet, Kabat-Zinn acknowledges the need to distance himself from the religious and spiritual connotations of “Buddhism” so as not to alienate the Western medical community from MBSR and to avoid being seen as “just plain flaky” (2011:282). Yet, the act of distancing from the religious and mystical elements of Buddhism reflect a process of modernisation and secularisation which is not unique to Kabat-Zinn. Earlier Vipassana modernisers, Ledi and Mahasi Sayadaw, and S.N. Goenka in Burma similarly down played elements of Buddhist doctrine and simplified the practice to appeal to a more Western scientific and rational outlook (Braun 2014). This approach is particularly crucial for Kabat-Zinn and the popularisation of his method.  It is his belief that mindfulness maintains a universal essence (1990:12) and therefore can be practised by anyone, from any background, “it will not conflict with any beliefs…religious or for that matter scientific – nor is it trying to sell you anything, especially not a belief system or ideology” (1994:76).

There is a curious disparity here. Whilst Kabat-Zinn’s work heavily draws on Buddhist sources which he concedes are both important and influential, he simultaneously distances himself from their origins by frequently marginalising religion and spirituality (1994:264-270). To secure mindfulness, removing it from “spooky metaphysics and unjustified claims within Buddhism” (Harris 2014), Kabat-Zinn actively detaches from what could be considered a “weird, cryptic activity” (1994:xiv). He colludes with a stereotype of meditation as an unscientific, outmoded pursuit “the very word meditation tended to evoke raised eyebrows and thoughts about mysticism and hocus-pocus in many people” (1990:21). In his account of the process of writing his first book, Full Catastrophe Living(1990), which outlines the principles of MBSR, he notes that he “tried to make it accessible, so it would not feel Buddhist or mystical, so much as sensible” (1994:xv), as if these terms are mutually exclusive.

Kabat-Zinn’s professional background in science and his aspiration to uncouple mindfulness from Buddhist origins which could be perceived as religious or spiritual, has undoubtedly lent mindfulness legitimacy, garnering support from international medical and psychotherapeutic communities (Farias and Winkholm 2016). The mindfulness practices of MBSR, used in conjunction with cognitive behavioural therapy techniques led to the creation of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). MBCT is an approach to psychotherapy, created in the 1990s as a relapse-prevention treatment for those suffering with major depressive disorders by academics and clinical psychologistsZindel Segal, John Teasdal and Mark Williams.

Like MBSR, MBCT exemplifies a new stage in the evolution of mindfulness meditation that has been sanctioned by modern science. A noticeable difference between Kabat-Zinn’s approach and MBCT is that reference to Buddhist origins and Buddhism are eradicated entirely in MBCT and related practices. In William’s best-selling bookMindfulness (2011), this next stage of the evolution of mindfulness is made evident. It is only Kabat-Zinn who, in the book’s foreword, connects mindfulness to Buddhism, describing it as “the heart of Buddhist meditation” though immediately qualifying that its essence of “attention and awareness is universal” (in Williams 2011:x). Buddhism is not mentioned again in the entire text, which delivers a “practical” eight-week mindfulness programme, synthesising techniques of both MBSR and MBCT, including mindfulness of breathing and the body scan. The ethos here is that meditation “is simply a method of mental training’ (ibid:6) and a path “countless philosophers…have trodden in the past – a path that the latest scientific advances show really does dissipate anxiety, stress, unhappiness and feelings of exhaustion” (ibid:56). Notably, all inspiring quotes within the book are provided by post-enlightenment European males: Einstein, Proust, Goethe, Douglas Adams, Roger Keys and WH Murray (the only exception being Rumi). All Buddhist origins are removed: mindfulness is identified as a manifestation of philosophy and science rather than maintaining any historical connection to Buddhist tradition, with its religious or spiritual connotations considered too alienating for even cursory lip-service.

I conclude that within modern mindfulness there are three identifiable strands that are neither wholly unified nor wholly disparate from each other. First is the approach to mindfulness, rooted in the origins of Buddhist practice, as exemplified by monastic Thich Nhat Hanh who directly references pan-Buddhist teachings as the ground for his transmission of mindfulness (1975:7:15:41:46:51:52:57:62:64:96). Second is the mindfulness offered by Kabat-Zinn and the practice of MBSR which is similarly rooted in Buddhist practice (cf. Dunne 2011, Husgafvel 2019, Watt 2017) but belies a discomfort with elements of the tradition and religious origins and only intermittently credits its origins. Third is MBCT and related practices, which employ some elements of Buddhist practice but do not reference them. Indeed, the MBCT website defines mindfulness as: “compassionate and lucid awareness, a sense of knowing what is happening in the external and internal world as it is happening” (www.mbct.co.uk), strongly resembling Bhikkhu Bodhi’s definition (2011:25) and by extension reflecting a strong connection to Buddhist origins, though choosing not to cite them. Nevertheless, these three approaches to mindfulness have unifying elements in their emphasis of practical applications of Buddhist meditation techniques and pan-Buddhist influences, whether they are acknowledged or not. Crucially, all three share the same overarching goal, reflecting that of the Buddha: to reduce suffering.

[1]This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many other notable teachers within the modern mindfulness movement: Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach and Ram Dass but not the scope to look into them further here.



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