Going Beyond Mindfulness

TIME coverIn case you missed it, TIME magazine recently ran their cover story about the many benefits of mindfulness. TIME has been criticized in some quarters by choosing to lead in this story with yet another image of an attractive young blond woman model with her eyes blissfully closed. The Huffington Post and others have attempted to give a bit more well rounded presentation of the topic, but generally the mass media, and many of the health care professionals and scientists who have begun to have an interest in meditation, have a pretty limited view of what meditation is, in large part due to the success of a single program.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist of the University of Massachusetts, studied meditation with the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn, who was very influential in bringing Zen teachings to the West. Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) using some of the techniques he learned from his Zen training. MBSR has been proven very effective at reducing stress in numerous clinical trials and has become a credible treatment method in the eyes of many health care professionals, and there are clinicians trained in MBSR in many settings. Due to its broad success and rigorous clinical testing, MBSR and the type of mindfulness it teaches has become synonymous with meditation in the mass media, such as TIME’s coverage. However Jon Kabat-Zinn defines the goal of MBSR is to develop “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness.” While this is certainly a worthy goal, I believe that all spiritual traditions in which meditation plays a significant role would consider this to be only an early stepping-stone on the long, rich path that is meditation.

It is also interesting to note that in most of the scientific studies of the benefits of meditation, the type and form of meditation is ignored, and forms of meditation are lumped together, as if they all have the same benefits. Typically scientific studies have ignored the cultural context in which meditation takes place, and simply count the minutes and hours one spends in this general activity, without considering why or how or when one meditates. At a recent conference, I heard a clinical psychologist make the broad statement that meditation seemed to be “dose dependent”, meaning more is better. While it is wonderful news that the medical and scientific communities are beginning to seriously examine the benefits of meditation, there needs to be much more discrimination in what they are studying in order for the results to be very meaningful. It is time to go beyond Functional MRI studies looking at what parts of the brain are activated, and look at how meditation actually transforms peoples’ lives in the cultural context of their lives.

An amazing variety of forms of meditation have evolved over at least 5,000 years in many cultures around the world. Each has its unique form, beauty, cultural meanings and outcomes. A Mayan priest meditating on his power animal, a Catholic nun meditating in prayer focused on the Madonna, a Zen master resting in emptiness, and a Tibetan tantric nagpa meditating upon a mandala really share little in common beyond focused awareness on an object that is beyond thought. Even within a single tradition there can be a rich diversity of meditational forms. In the Tibetan Bön tradition it is said that there are 84,000 methods for the 84,000 thoughts, with the meditational forms being grouped into four major categories, each with its own distinct views, methods and goals.

While there are clear limitations in the current definitions and awareness of meditation, it is wonderful to see that meditation is entering into the Western mainstream consciousness. Only 30 – 40 years ago meditation was only a curiosity of orientalists and the social fringe, and it was difficult to find well written books on the topic, much less a qualified teacher. Now there are entire sections on meditation in any bookstore, every major urban area has many opportunities to study with teachers from a variety of meditative traditions, and there are growing opportunities in learning meditation online. There are and will continue to be many who commercialize meditation for their own gain and distort it to their own purposes, for all spiritual traditions suffer from popularity in this way. But I am hopeful that as awareness grows, there will also grow discrimination. And with further meditative insight, discrimination grows into wisdom.

The Mindful Revolution, Finding peace in a stressed-out, digitally dependent culture may just be a matter of thinking differently, Kate Pickert, TIME, Feb. 3, 2014.

Let’s be Mindful about Mindfulness, Philip Goldberg, Huffington Post, Feb. 9, 2014

4 thoughts on “Going Beyond Mindfulness

  1. Thanks for the post John.

    I was looking for some clarification on the different types of meditation, and did not realise that medical studies of meditation lumped them all together.

    Very informative, thank you.

  2. Jade,
    While not all studies have lumped forms of meditation together, it is a common problem. There are some current promising trends though. Neuroscientist Tania Singer is current running a study that shows a lot of discrimination, probably because she practices meditation herself. She has also found that there are differences in the way the brain works when experiencing empathy vs. compassion, and is seeking to develop a way to methodically train people to be compassionate, with the goal of positively changing society. Science published an article about her study current in progress, which is an amazing achievement in itself. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6152/1336.summary

  3. Indeed it is. But our object of concentration determines the outcome. For example, if I concentrate on the compassion of Christ I will have a significantly different result and insight than if I concentrate on the truth of impermanence. The ability to concentrate single pointedly is a fundamental tool in all paths of meditation, but traditions then take that ability in many different directions for different reasons, and from that arises a variety of insights.

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