A brief history of secular mindfulness meditation in the West
January 19, 2019 11:20 AM   Subscribe

Deconstructing Mindfulness: Embracing a Complex Simplicity. "There’s been a marked increase in studies of mindfulness and meditation in recent years. I’m worried that many of today’s researchers may think they know what they’re doing. ... [I]t makes all the sense in the world that we deconstruct mindfulness, by which I mean that we understand it to have a history, a 'side view.' It’s not a given or an absolute. It comes from somewhere. Mindfulness has been constructed."
I’ve been a student of meditative techniques and contemplative traditions for a while. I have a decades-long personal practice and academic degrees in both religious studies and psychology. And I have mixed feelings about the kind of attention mindfulness is currently receiving and the ways it’s often conceptualized today in the West. On one hand, the fact meditative practices and contemplative experiences are getting increased study I feel is deeply beneficial and long overdue. On another, with only slight exaggeration, I’m worried many of today’s biomedical and psychological researchers think they know what they’re doing.

To explain what I mean in saying that, I’d like to sketch a brief history of the modern West’s construction of mindfulness and note along the way an example of something it leaves out. Mindfulness and meditation techniques have been around for millennia, but socio-political factors have shaped our contemporary understandings of what those practices entail. The word “mindfulness” itself has a somewhat debated history. And after outlining some of the history that’s involved, I’d like to offer some personal reflections on the breadth, and the depth, of the experiential practices that actually underlie meditative and contemplative practices. In the end I wish to underscore how important it is that we stay humble and open-minded about what we think mindfulness is.
Author David Collins on ResearchGate and Twitter.

This article is mentioned in Collins's piece: Beyond McMindfulness
Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context is understandable as an expedient move to make such training a viable product on the open market. But the rush to secularize and commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique may be leading to an unfortunate denaturing of this ancient practice, which was intended for far more than relieving a headache, reducing blood pressure, or helping executives become better focused and more productive.

While a stripped-down, secularized technique — what some critics are now calling “McMindfulness” — may make it more palatable to the corporate world, decontextualizing mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics, amounts to a Faustian bargain. Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.
Relevant piece by Brad Warner: Mindfulness Meditation is Buddhist Meditation
Because it’s easy as pie to teach someone how to meditate. It takes me literally about three minutes to show someone how to do zazen. The follow-up to that, though, takes a lot of skill. After 20 years of working at it I’m finally starting to feel somewhat competent, though I still encounter plenty of incidents where I’m totally out of my depth.

Some people classify Buddhism as a religion. I tend to think of it as a meditation system with 2,500 years of research and development across multiple cultures and eras. Programs like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction have a lot of work to do before they get to that point.
Warner's video follow-up: Research & Development in Buddhism

In the first article, Collins discusses the distinction between vipassana/insight techniques and samatha/calming-and-concentration techniques in Buddhist meditation traditions, and he describes the states of absorption called the jhānas. Here are more articles on the jhānas:

The Jhanas: Perfect States of Concentration
At the heart of the Buddha’s teaching there are doctrines and strategies that dharma students must learn, and internalize, in order to understand his map to liberation. But few strategies are as central to the Buddhist path, and as little known to Westerners, as those called the jhanas. Jhana is the Pali word for mental or meditative absorption, and refers to a set of states of deep and subtle concentration focused on a single object. In the Pali suttas, the Buddha described four jhanas, each a more profound and refined state of consciousness than the preceding one, and each building on the preceding one. The fourth jhana, in turn, can be refined even further into four more states of ever deepening concentration. These latter jhanas are called the nonmaterial jhanas because perception of the material world fades and disappears. In order to enter the first jhana, meditators must establish a base of mental tranquility known as “access concentration” (because the jhanas are accessed from that state).
Jhana: The Spice Your Meditation Has Been Missing. Meditation teacher Jay Michaelson explains how jhana meditation is a transformative and vital part of the eightfold path.
“Meditation” is a vague term.

Even in English it has two opposing meanings: thinking and not-thinking. But unsurprisingly, since the word meditation is derived from Latin, the term can be even more confusing when it comes to Buddhist meditation and its recent offshoot, secular mindfulness.

In the Pali canon, there’s no single word for meditation. Mindfulness (sati) is part of vipassana bhavana, or the cultivation of insight. It’s also part of the eightfold path—though the Pali word “sati” may or may not correspond to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s helpful definition of nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment noticing.

But sati is only one of the meditative elements of the eightfold path—the other major one is samadhi, or concentration. And here’s where things get interesting. In most of the Pali canon’s discussion of samadhi, it’s described not simply as one-pointed concentration in general, but as the ability to enter the four jhanas—distinct, concentrated mind states—in particular.

Eventually, dhyana, the Sanskrit for jhana, became chan in Chinese, and later zen in Japanese. These words became roughly synonymous with meditation itself and later identified with various specific meditation practices such as zazen.

But a funny thing happened to the jhanas within Theravadan traditions, particularly in the “dry insight” Burmese lineages that evolved into Western insight meditation and from there into secular mindfulness: jhana practically disappeared.
A Mind Pure, Concentrated, and Bright: An interview with meditation teacher Leigh Brasington
Do you find yourself at odds with the Vipassana tradition?

Not at all. I find that what’s being taught at {places such as Insight Meditation Society and at Spirit Rock, in Woodacre, California} is very helpful, very profound—yet could be turbocharged by adding jhana practice as a preliminary. It’s not that I feel at odds with Vipassana teachers; it’s just that I feel jhana practice could be a useful addition—especially for students who are stumbling into these states.

I hear people talking about hitting a ceiling in their Vipassana practice. Do you think the jhanas could figure in there?

They are certainly one way to cut through the ceiling. I have had a number of people come on retreat and tell me they felt their practice has stagnated. And suddenly here was something that opened it up. Part of what they’re experiencing is some rapture and joy that makes their dry practice a lot more lively, but even if it’s just more lively and they’re more into it, that’s going to be of benefit. In the long run, the ability to concentrate at increasingly deeper levels skillfully enhances the mind for Vipassana practice. The understood experience has the potential to become much more profound.
Related thread: “If you meditate, you're less of an asshole.”
posted by homunculus (26 comments total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thanks for the post, especially the initial link to the article, which is worth a read and which is indeed primarily about the Buddhist (and TM) roots of "mindfulness" as generally talked about. My sister has been a Tibetan Buddhist for many years and I have watched her evolution with interest; but my Episcopal tradition has its own forms of contemplation; the school where I taught for decades was one of the early adopters of "mindfulness" professional development programs; and a recovery organization I have belonged to for 45 years to has as one of its suggested steps regular prayer and meditation, with the type of meditation only generally specified in the guiding literature. There are meditative practices everywhere, I guess is what I'm saying, and some of them are less deeply rooted in Buddhism than the article assumes.
posted by Peach at 11:41 AM on January 19 [3 favorites]


Thanks for this excellent post. I will add that if anyone wants to look into secular/agnostic Buddhism (not McMindfulness, but Buddhism from the scriptures for nonbelievers and skeptics), Stephen Batchelor is your guy. He trained as a monk for several years , knows the Pali canon as well as the Tibetan tradition, and is not out to make a mint on his work.

Some comtemporaries say Batchelor's work, like McMindfulness, alienates/deracinates Buddhist teachings from their Asian cultural roots. I'm not sure they're wrong. However, for those of us who are not likely to get near the first jhana any time soon (we are legion), Batchelor's approach is welcome.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 11:44 AM on January 19 [11 favorites]


There are meditative practices everywhere, I guess is what I'm saying, and some of them are less deeply rooted in Buddhism than the article assumes.

You might have missed this paragraph.
And it almost goes without saying, and yet very much needs to be said, “mindfulness” is by no means exclusively Buddhist. I referred earlier to TM and Vedanta Hinduism. And there are, and always have been, Western forms of meditation and contemplative practice, too. Notwithstanding the significant ties between Buddhist teachings and, for instance, MBSR, it’s a mistake for present discussions of mindfulness to place the focus so exclusively on Buddhism.
posted by zamboni at 11:52 AM on January 19


Yep, missed it. Thanks.
posted by Peach at 1:01 PM on January 19


"Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context is understandable as an expedient move to make such training a viable product on the open market." what an unfortunate leap to make, the epic shade of it. It is your mind, there are no permissions implicit. Mindful of where you step.
posted by Oyéah at 1:43 PM on January 19 [3 favorites]


One interesting wrinkle on this has been the push to bring mindfulness practices (sometimes meditation) into public school classrooms. There are plenty of consulting firms just ready to take a few dollars in exchange for training teachers in this.
posted by thegears at 3:49 PM on January 19 [3 favorites]


To go farther back in history, here's an interesting article on "How colonialism sparked the global Vipassana movement".
Though now a global movement, insight practice had its start in a moment of interaction between a Western empire and an Eastern dynasty. Indeed, one could go so far as to pinpoint its origins to a particular day: November 28, 1885, when the British Imperial Army conquered the Buddhist kingdom of Burma.
posted by PhineasGage at 6:02 PM on January 19 [4 favorites]


Haven't read the whole of Collins' article yet (sent the text to my Kindle to read at my convenience later). A few thoughts occur to me:

1. Re: Contemporary Western Mindfulness evolving from not just Burmese Theravadin roots, but also having strands of TM and Vedanta in it.

Of course it has strands of those. TM, as Collins himself writes "TM organization is effectively a modernized and streamlined form of Vedanta Hinduism", and Vedanta arose as a response in Hinduism to the popularity of Sramanic heterodoxies such as Buddhism and Jainism. The popular proponents of Vedanta (Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, etc.) were circa 800-1100 CE. The Brahma Sutras and Bhagavad Gita both borrowed things that were popular in Buddhism (e.g., the possibility of Enlightenment through individual effort) and also added a Hindu veneer on it. I suspect the strands Collins is seeing is the strands of Buddhism that were incorporated into Vedanta in the first place.

2. A (IMO) better history of Western Meditation streams is Gil Fronsdal's Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

3. Re: Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context

This assumes there was a pure, Ur Buddhism. There isn't such as thing as homogenous Buddhism or the Original Buddhism. The Theravadins claim to be the oldest Buddhist sect, but, as Collins' notes, modern Theravadin traditions trace their origins to Ledi Sayadaw who created these practices and teachings as a reaction to British colonization of Burma. A whole lot of Mahayana thoughts and practices (e.g., Shunyatta) is far removed from the early texts. And as for Vajrayana, it is a remix of Buddhism and Tantric Hinduism with generous pinches of Bon thrown in (and can only be historically traced back to circa 8th century CE).

Buddhism, as practices in the East, is diverse. A Pure Land Buddhist is pretty different from a Sri Lankan Theravadin, from a Tibetan Buddhist, from a Vietnamese one.

Why can't Western Mindfulness be just the newest strand to emerge out of Buddhism?
posted by thaths at 6:25 PM on January 19 [8 favorites]


Why can't Western Mindfulness be just the newest strand to emerge out of Buddhism?

I've heard a saying in 12 step programs about how sobriety decoupled from a spiritual or introspective practice can make one, essentially, better at being a bank robber. Clarity of thought, for predators, is a weapon, unless they can begin to see their own actions as having bad consequences. Most 12 step veterans have met these people and we run away/warn others.

Western mindfulness, tied as it is to individualism and capitalism, leads exactly there. Bachelor's project, for one, aims at helping people become better, more ethically disciplined (less deluded by cultural concepts of success, for starters) versions of themselves.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 7:39 PM on January 19 [11 favorites]


Though now a global movement, insight practice had its start in a moment of interaction between a Western empire and an Eastern dynasty. Indeed, one could go so far as to pinpoint its origins to a particular day: November 28, 1885, when the British Imperial Army conquered the Buddhist kingdom of Burma

World War 2 is another huge cause of interest in Buddhism in America, I think. Did you ever wonder why, in the 1950s, there was suddenly this boom of interest in Zen Buddhism and other elements of Japanese culture? Because many young Americans had been exposed to that culture while serving in an occupation army.
posted by thelonius at 7:40 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]


what has always made me feel ok about advocating a mindfulness practice in secular contexts is the conviction that done aright it will tend naturally to lead toward something approximating the behavior buddhism seeks to foster, though i claim no authority to espouse such a view.

i think it was daniel ingraham in mastering core teachings of the buddha (it, or an edition of more recent vintage, maybe can also be got at that vendor named after that river which was named after those mythical women), who described the "noting" practice as having been developed by a meditator struggling with chronic migraines, and curing them thereby. (i have neither so cured my own migraines nor developed much capacity so practice so). discussion of jhanas can be found at pp 139-150 and 217-228.

um. ymmv with ingraham: i tend to regard with suspicion the assertions of a person who self-identifies as an "arhat" maybe a bit more frequently than necessary, but found the book thorough and practical.

seconding batchelor. i also hear favorable things about ben connelly. not directly familiar with his work, but know his sibling, who offers the observation that mr. connelly (a zen priest of some credible lineage) teaches secular mindfulness meditation classes to spread compassion by encouraging broader cultivation of mindful awareness.
posted by 20 year lurk at 7:49 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]


Western mindfulness, tied as it is to individualism and capitalism, leads exactly there. Bachelor's project, for one, aims at helping people become better, more ethically disciplined (less deluded by cultural concepts of success, for starters) versions of themselves.

You and I are probably referring to somewhat different things when we use the term 'Western mindfulness'. My definition includes Bachelor.
posted by thaths at 7:54 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]


The Other Side Of Paradise: How I Left A Buddhist Retreat In Handcuffs. Michael Holden went to a Buddhist retreat to find himself. Now he's off his meditation

Brad Warner: Buddhists on the Funny Farm
The current craze for mindfulness has encouraged a lot of people to get into the meditation game without any real qualifications. I keep saying this same thing. But I think it’s important. Meditation is not a trivial matter. Sure. The initial stages of practice generally produce feelings of well-being and calm mixed with crushing boredom. But if you go into it more deeply, you’re going to start discovering stuff that will challenge your core beliefs and understandings about who you are, what the world you’re living in is, and what you ought to do about that.

If you don’t have the proper grounding when that stuff starts coming up, you might end up going a little koo-koo. Or even going seriously koo-koo. And if the person teaching you meditation hasn’t gone through that experience themselves, they’re not going to have any idea how to handle it. In fact, I have gone through those stages myself and I can tell you that handling someone else who is going through that stuff is not easy even for me. I’ve never had to call the guys with the white coats and butterfly nets — yet. But I can see how that could become necessary.
posted by homunculus at 11:33 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]


A little discussed problem that affects both insider and outsider perspectives on contemplative practices is that any Western secular conversation around such topics must, perforce, employ terms that try to describe experience, consciousness, mind, or what have you, and such terms are not simply available in neutral form, but are, themselves, cooked in a specific cultural cauldron. Specifically, the use of the terms perception, attention, and memory, those founding concepts of scientific cognitive psychology, are all saturated in a view of mind as individual, private, and at the root of a freely acting agent. Yet these are difficult to do without. In discussing techniques of meditation, "attention" is obviously both indispensable, but also in need of some kind of cautious treatment. The top article notes the confusion around that deeply problematic term "memory and the technical term "smrti" in Sanskrit. Perception is similarly problematic, as its use in any Western conversation is steeped in Kantian/Cartesian notions that are foreign to the use of "pratyaksha," and related terms, in technical discussions within Indian schools.
posted by stonepharisee at 3:15 AM on January 20 [3 favorites]


And if the person teaching you meditation hasn’t gone through that experience themselves, they’re not going to have any idea how to handle it.

When I first started attending a Buddhist temple seriously, one of our friends said he was interested in doing an upcoming weekend retreat with me. He was going through a rough divorce and was just in general not in great mental health. But he was an adult so I couldn't really stop him and thought maybe it'd been good for him to get out of his apartment for a couple days (his soon to be ex wife was still living there).

It was not good. He literally got up from his cushion and ran screaming out the door at one point. Fortunately, the temple had an experienced head priest who was able to talk him down. He didn't finish the retreat, but I don't think any permanent damage was done.

My teacher would note that in her experience, people often come to Zen practice because the only other option they see is self-harm. It's not an easy practice and if you could do literally anything else, most people would. It is the great matter of life and death. If you're leading people through that, I'd hope that you're prepared. When I used to attend short retreats several times a year, I'd come back and people would be like, "oooh, how was it, relaxing?" Lol no. Zazen is a lot of things, but I have rarely found it to be relaxing.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:20 AM on January 20 [8 favorites]


"Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context is understandable as an expedient move to make such training a viable product on the open market."
See, for example, the Headspace app, which gives you badges for completing "streaks" of meditation days, keeps track of the number of hours total you've meditated, and allows you to add buddies on a friends list so you can keep track of their "progress" as well. All of this seems quite beside the point of meditating to me.
posted by sockermom at 8:32 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]


See, for example, the Headspace app

Relevant article: Meditation in the Time of Disruption: Mindfulness and meditation have become big business for tech-savvy entrepreneurs. But can you really unplug and reset while tied to an app on your phone? Companies like Headspace and Insight Timer say yes. But longtime practitioners, philosophers, and scientists aren’t so sure.

This paragraph from that piece really struck me:
That meditation and mindfulness have entered the repertoire of global capitalism isn’t surprising: In the face of stagnant wages and an ever-deteriorating boundary between work and whatever we do outside it, why not shift the responsibility of finding peace to the individual? Put another way: Next time work makes you feel less than human, should you gently speak truth to power, or should you use mindfulness to self-regulate and maintain function in an oppressive system? And should you choose to self-regulate, are you tacitly thanking the oppressive system for giving you the tools of self-regulation to begin with? Furthermore, how much of this experience—this process of spelunking into my mind—should be comfortable and brightly colored? How much should feel good?
posted by homunculus at 9:25 AM on January 20 [16 favorites]


It's useful to ask "compared to what" when thinking about these new, 'secular' approaches to what has its roots in Buddhist meditation. Even accepting all the critiques of Headspace, MBSR, etc., if a small percentage of people who get their start with these modern approaches go on to deeper study of Buddhism, I am pretty certain that's a net gain (i.e. many fewer of those folks would have started investigating Buddhism otherwise)
posted by PhineasGage at 3:02 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


See, for example, the Headspace app, which gives you badges for completing "streaks" of meditation days, keeps track of the number of hours total you've meditated, and allows you to add buddies on a friends list so you can keep track of their "progress" as well.
“I am the serenest!” Bikram shouted to the estimated crowd of 20,000 yoga fans, vigorously pumping his fists. “No one is serener than Sri Dhananjai Bikram—I am the greatest monk of all time!”
posted by zamboni at 3:25 PM on January 20 [7 favorites]


Sickest Buddhist
posted by CheapB at 3:40 PM on January 21 [3 favorites]


“I am the serenest!”

Classic. But there may be a new group of players in the enlightenment olympics: Competitive Psychedelic Users Are Chasing 'Ego Death' and Losing Their Sense of Self

Maybe they can set up a crossover competition between meditators vs. psychonauts.
posted by homunculus at 8:35 PM on January 21






Since I recently joined Twitter I've started mirroring my MeFi posts as Twitter threads to see how that works over there.

Thread: Deconstructing Mindfulness

Thread: How Meditation Changes Your Brain
posted by homunculus at 1:26 AM on January 24






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