I have tended to ignore talk of mindfulness meditation as it has always seemed to me to be watered-down Buddhism. I have known that Kabat-Zinn has always been a leading proponent, and in line with my first sentence it was interesting to read this Guardian article in which Kabat-Zinn said that it was his intention to separate mindfulness meditation from Buddhism. “I bent over backwards to structure it and find ways to speak about it that avoided as much as possible the risk of it being seen as Buddhist, new age, eastern mysticism or just plain flakey.”
This quote gives me quite a sense of irritation but I do understand some of the intention, although to be fair to Kabat-Zinn his talks with Angela Davies LINK clearly shows his own commitment to Buddhism. Because science has artificially cleaved any religion from the world of knowledge, to find acceptance for mindfulness in academia would require a non-religious angle.
To explain my irritation, I first got more than cursorily interested in Buddhism back in the mid-90s, and my main non-educational reason for retiring was to study Buddhism. I had always been spiritual but I found the older I got the greater the distance between what I was really interested in – usually worked on during vacations – and what I had to be going back to school. This was about my state of mind. School vacations had always been about “getting back to my true path” – whatever that means, and the gap between “my true path” and who I was as a teacher just grew and grew and grew.
When I did retire I began reading Buddhism and finding what in Buddhism was for me. I had been on retreats, listened to Buddhist speakers – monks, and there was a huge amount of dogma. By the word dogma I mean a huge amount of works describing what is meant as Buddhism. It was daunting. I had attended retreats at a monastery near Newcastle – Harnham Buddhist Monastery; this monastery had links with the Forest Sangha in Thailand, and they were part of the Theravadin tradition of Thailand so that tradition seemed a good starting point.
Over the 11 years when I have been studying Buddhism amongst other things, I have also looked at Tibetan Buddhism, other Mahayanan Buddhism including Thich Nhat Hanh and Zen, and it all appears to be so vastly different. However at the present moment I have alighted at a Thai monk, Ajaan Buddhadasa. Here is my assessment of him, I hope it is not rude and I am not sure it would be agreed by the Thai Buddhist establishment who have appropriated his approach. Ajaan Buddhadasa spent his life studying the Theravadin suttas and from this he has developed an approach which is not the same as Theravadin mainstream (as exemplified by what I learned from the Forest Sangha). It is interesting to note that Buddhadasa is a westernisation of his Thai monk’s name which is something like Buddha Taat (I am not specific for language translation reasons), slave to the Buddha, and it is this slavery that led to his approach that does not accept some mainstream dogma. However if you read what he has written (he died in 1993), his books appear full of the standard mainstream dogma. In an irreverent way (I am not irreverent towards him) he goes on and on about mainstream dogma often giving the reader a feeling of repetition and then suddenly there is an insight that kicks in and opens up a whole understanding of the dogma – at least that is how I perceive it. To me it is these insights and understandings that are at the core of the Buddha’s teachings – as they are at the core of Buddhadasa’s teachings. And this core is not dogmatic even though it is hidden within texts that appear major league dogma.
I would go so far as to say that these core teachings – interpreted appropriately – could form the basis of a natural education system that would educate towards a wise compassionate human being. In other words these core teachings could, if applied appropriately, be a model for western education. That is if the western education system were not primarily a wage-slave factory.
And this brings me back to Kabat-Zinn, his mindfulness meditation avoids Buddhism. It is why this interests me as Matriellez, and it might well be (inadvertently) what I was waiting for to finish my book. However let be clear I do understand his avoidance of all the Buddhist dogma, as Buddhadasa would have said it is full of sankhara – mental proliferations.
However there is another reason I have avoided all this “western” talk of mindfulness meditation – because it is token and often therapeutic. There is an interesting Zen monk, Brad Warner, who by his approach breaks down barriers created by monasticism. However, somewhere, he has discussed situations in which people have come to his meditation talks and retreats just to resolve psychological problems. He politely suggests they find a psychiatrist rather than a Buddhist teacher. Jon Kabat-Zinn has deliberately stopped his meditation connections at therapy – designing meditations for depression and stress. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, as an educationalist I see the involvement as token. If mindfulness meditation is accepted as a useful educational tool, then perhaps the core source of where that tool came from could have a use in considering the curriculum of which mindfulness meditation is a part. I always remember a rationale I took into education with me – even though I now consider it educational theory to delude idealists like me rather than of any serious practical educational intent. From the latin educare education means leading out. There is nothing more core Buddhist than leading out.
And there is a final reason – western appropriation. There are 2600 years of Buddhist tradition and understanding of mind, mindfulness and meditation, why doesn’t academia go there and ask? But they are willing to appropriate mindfulness meditation in a non-Buddhist context using religion as an excuse not to accept the empirical understanding (discussed in more detail below).
Here is a neuroscience article that connects a modular mind to the Buddhist understanding of anatta – not having selves – that we have selves that we try to let go and move beyond. “Over 1000 years ago Buddhism — where mindfulness techniques come from — said that there is no singular “you.” The “self” does not exist. Sound like crazy nonsense? I’m with you. (All 27 of you, actually.)” [I am not sure where his “over 1000 years” comes from as the Buddha was “born” 2560 years ago.] The author is saying anatta is crazy – his loss, his article does not fit in with anatta but discusses within the arena. In my view the article is moving academia in the right direction, and there is much that could be discussed in terms of Buddhism but that could go on and on and on.
There is an interesting aspect of Buddhism that might be considered in the field of neuroscience and mind in general. Some might consider it somewhat perplexing in that within all the academic studies that have gone on there is not an agreement of what mind is. Buddhists do not have that problem. Even across the multiple Buddhisms there is general agreement of what mind is, for me there is something in that. Whilst “modular mind” might be fashionable in the current academic proliferations, such research might well choose to investigate what research has been done on mind within the Buddhist arena – and I do not necessarily mean academic research in Buddhist departments within academia.
It is also worth investigating the word religion here as this neuroscientist tended to dismiss Buddhism because it is a religion. I do not consider Buddhism a religion as there is nothing I have faith in. Whilst people who claim they are Buddhists might follow it as a religion with a basis of creed they believe in and services they attend, Buddhists such as myself examine a bank of knowledge through meditation practice and study and empirically verify through personal experience whether what is said is true. Whilst this is a scientific methodology, it is not a science that is generally accepted by academia – one of the many weaknesses of academia. When considering the empirical study of mind, it is academically unsound to dismiss Buddhism as a religion. There is also a famous sutta that is discussed by many – the Kalama sutta, in which the Buddha said not to take his word for anything but to determine for yourself whether it is true. If you don’t see truth in it do not accept it – my paraphrasing. For less discerning minds within the Buddhist arena there is much of the tradition that has ignored this aspect of what the Buddha said.
Before examining Jon Kabat-Zinn I want to look at the words Ancient Wisdom and Tradition, in truth this particular consideration comes out of some of his disparaging remarks concerning people from the East with shaven heads and orange robes. Western education as a whole develops egotism, academia abounds with egos, in daily life our egos confront each other, and in Trump we have a dangerous ego that borders on insanity according to some in the field. Aware of my own egotistic tendencies I immersed myself in a tradition once I began earnest studies in my 50s. This tradition had history, many great people had contributed to the bank of understanding and knowledge that makes up the tradition. Whilst Buddhism as a tradition is based on an Ancient Wisdom of one special man, the Buddha, that tradition continually evolves with many people questioning and contributing. In investigating my own understanding and experience through the eyes of that tradition, there is an attempt to avoid the ego that can exist with studies in isolation especially in the West. Whilst never having undergone any formal Buddhist training, I do know that much effort is made to control ego especially amongst those who have been miseducated in the West. I further note that Kabat-Zinn through eschewing the tradition has established himself in an academic niche in which he is a leader. Would he be such a leader if his understanding and knowledge were merged, matched against or integrated within the understanding of mindfulness that so many in the Buddhist tradition have?
When I listen to his mindfulness introduction in Oslo I hear disparaging of the East, Ancient Wisdom and monks. The first two concepts he puts forward:-
Wisdom is inherent in the heart.
These understandings might well be pre-requisites for a Buddhism 101 course; this is an exaggeration but it makes the point. I think it is a valid stance to try to avoid the connection between mindfulness meditation for the west and the dogma of Buddhist proliferations. But I question the wisdom of someone discussing mindfulness meditation without having examined and understood the Buddhist wisdom. In the Guardian article it describes a man of my times who found himself on the lines of activism confronting the system. People of that hippy era would not have taken kindly to being advised that they should refer to ancient traditions – I would not 40 years ago when he started. Having said that it will be an interesting challenge to examine what little I understand of Buddhism and present it in a way that has limited dogma, Kabat-Zinn and the neuroscience blog maybe can show that way.
Continuing to listen to Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness introduction in Oslo, I started to feel a sense of frustration. What is this? This guy is just talking Buddhism so I began to get confused because I was wondering how I was going to find where Kabat-Zinn had arbitrarily accepted the parts of Buddhism he wanted.
I detached myself and went to the beach. I sat there and realised he is of course talking Buddhism. Way back when I was staying at Harnham, there was a dhamma talk and Ajaan Munindo said that mindfulness was judgement-free awareness. Kabat-Zinn said this LINK, what he is saying is the same.
Within Buddhism mindfulness meditation is a tool to help people develop Buddhist understanding so this is consistent. So what has Kabat-Zinn done? What has he said he is doing? He has taken mindfulness meditation and used it to do a small fraction of what it is capable of doing – my view, in his case Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. This is not in any way revealing, Kabat-Zinn has said that he is doing mindfulness meditation without the Buddhism and he is doing that with stress reduction.
So the question becomes “in what context is mindfulness meditation being used?” Throughout his talk he referred to science, he was limiting mindfulness meditation to science. And it was clear to me what I could do, I could limit mindfulness meditation to education. There were no inconsistencies with the way in which mindfulness meditation was being used in academia, the mindfulness meditation was as it is used in Buddhism but limited to science. So in a similar vein what I know as mindfulness meditation could be used in education and I could cite the way academia has accepted Kabat-Zinn and his ilk. This is clear.
I could finish here. I could say here, Anapanasati, Mindfulness of Breathing, is how Ajaan Buddhadasa explains how mindfulness meditation is used to get Buddhist understanding. That is it – the end, put the book on the curriculum. What would happen? Nothing. The education system would say religious bias, and would kick it out. BUT mindfulness meditation is now part of academia and can be accepted on the curriculum as a tool for education so the question is how can it be used for education?
Towards the end of my career I was meditating but I never tried to properly integrate it into my education practice. I had a lively group of year 7’s, this is a polite way of saying they came into the classroom and were not behaving well; they were not disruptive kids. So I tried meditation. They came in, I made them sit down, no lotus, just straight back on their chairs, and made them sit in silence. I started by saying to calm down, concentrate on calming down, gradually they calmed down, and then I said to focus on learning. And this produced a better attitude in many. I know many did not do it but they had to be silent – or punished, those that didn’t do the meditation accepted silence so that was OK. It was at the end of my career and I didn’t follow this up.
There was a situation I missed out on. In my year 11 exam group there were a couple of devout Christians, the school was in Nigeria and the kids were devout – Muslim or Christian. But these two girls did something special at a start of a test, they prayed. When I was giving the papers out and the class was preparing for the test these girls were praying. The test of course was done in silence, and on occasions I noticed these girls hadn’t finished their prayer and were willing to devote test time to praying. I missed the boat and should have taken my lead from these girls. Once I had given the papers out, I should have got the class silent, and done a meditation of the form – calm down, calm your mind, clear the mind ready to focus on the test. I suspect in that class more would have taken the opportunity to pray but maybe not all – I had no desire to make the praying girls meditate, but there is no inconsistency between praying, calming the mind, and clearing the mind ready to focus on the test.
Helping the students get self-discipline through calming the mind is not inconsistent with Kabat-Zinn’s stress reduction. But there is so much more in terms of education objectives that mindfulness meditation could help with.
And the word I am going to look at is conditioning. And this fits in with the modular mind described in the referred-to neuroscience article. It also fits in with sense awareness as Kabat-Zinn describes here LINK. Let us examine the relationship between conditioning and the modular mind because conditioning is how the modular mind is built up. As we sense an experience we react to it emotionally – liking it etc. If we like it then we desire such an experience so we maybe try to sense the experience again. If we like the experience so much and repeatedly desire it, then we want to cling to it to make it part of who we are. Once clung to it is part of the modular mind.
The process is the same with memories. We remember something fondly or react to the memory angrily, that anger becomes so strong that we cling to it and it becomes part of our modular mind. The same is true of perceptions, we perceive something, we think the perception is valid, we think it important and we cling to the perception as part of the modular mind.
And for education we have thoughts and ideas. We like the idea, we think it is important and cling to it and it becomes part of the modular mind. Our minds become an accumulation of things that we have clung to.
Over the years from birth sense experiences, behaviour, memories, perceptions thoughts and ideas have been desired and clung to accumulating to the modular mind that is who we are. Some would argue we are more than this modular mind, for education purposes that is not an issue – perhaps that could be discussed in RE.
So we have what might be called an accumulation of entities that make up this modular mind where an entity is an event (sense experiences, behaviour, memories, perceptions, thoughts and ideas) that has been desired and clung to forming part of the modular mind.
We have as yet not looked at the nature of these events, at this point we might be described as being neutral towards these events. Event upon event upon event happens, we cling to them and they accumulate in the modular mind. The neutrality of this would indicate an uneducated approach.
So far there has not been anything religious – events becoming entities accumulating in a modular mind. Although we might not have described it in this way it is not an unreasonable unscientific way of how things could build up in our minds.
As so far described all events and entities accumulate in our minds indiscriminately, so how can we educate this approach? Mindfulness meditation. With mindfulness meditation we can help clear the modular mind of entities that have accumulated – detachment. And with mindfulness meditation we can stop entities forming in the modular mind – non-attachment.
Let us try to be a little more practical – realistic. So-called slut-shaming. At a party a girl gets drunk and is taken advantage of to whatever extent, and a photo is sent via the internet with all kinds of consequences. There are many events here.
“a girl gets drunk” The girl drinks, she likes the drink, she wants more drinks, she clings to the drink becoming addicted to the taste, and she is drunk.
“She is taken advantage of”. The boy is attracted to the girl, he desires her, this attraction becomes more and more powerful as he focuses on the desire, clinging to it to such an extent it gets beyond his control and he takes advantage of her.
“A photo gets circulated” Young people enjoy sending photos, this can be an innocent event. A person sees the incident happen. S/he likes the idea of sending a photo as s/he desires popularity. S/he sees the opportunity for a photo, desires to take the photo because of the popularity, this desire becomes so strong – clinging – that all the disadvantages that could occur become lost, the picture is sent and all hell breaks loose.
At the moment parents hope that children have good upbringing and common sense to avoid the above scenario, but with mindfulness meditation there are additional protections.
Before we use mindfulness meditation for the above scenario, let us examine how mindfulness meditation fits in with the description of events becoming entities that accumulate in the modular mind.
Here is a bog standard description of mindfulness meditation as described in the neuroscience blog:-
Now in this process you are beginning to train the mind by bringing it back to the breath – watching the breath.
Now what happens if you examine how events unfold as described above – now mindfulness meditation is asking you to watch events unfolding. Here are the stages simplified:-
Let’s consider an event that is not wanted to be accumulated for whatever reason. Let’s work back. Between clinging and accumulating there is little control, by that stage your mind is hooked in so it is hard to do anything about it. Between desire and clinging there is more chance of control but it is still hard to switch off desire. Maybe some of us are cool enough that we can have an emotion and let it go but if we are not cool we enjoy the emotion and we desire more of same. So the best time to knock this on the head is between the time the event happens and the emotion arises.
Here is a classroom situation. Students are getting noisy, you join in. The teacher sees you, tells you off, you get angry, snap at the teacher and get a detention.
OK, best not to join in, but you can join in in a mindful way being aware that there is potential for a problem. Then the event happens the teacher tells you off. Mindfulness meditation. You are mindful of problems, the teacher tells you off, you are cool and do not react. You shut up – end of problem.
Or the teacher tells you off. You complain and say they were first, they were behaving badly you only just joined in. There is now more trouble in the class because you are argueing about the unfairness. The teacher needs to punish to control the class, and you have a detention. In the first case your mindfulness clicks in because you are watchful and you are cool not reacting to the unfairness and – No Problem.
What is important to understand about mindfulness meditation is that although it is done by sitting, that meditation has an impact throughout the day. And the more mindfulness meditation you do the greater the impact during the day. Similarly if you use your mindfulness meditation to develop a watchfulness as events unfold then it is possible that you can remain cool as described in the classroom situation. That watchfulness producing coolness is a faculty that comes with developing the practice of mindfulness meditation. By living in the present moment (mindfulness is often described this way – Kabat-Zinn uses this description), we can hopefully develop this watchfulness – mindfulness and react accordingly catching the emotion that leads to desire, clinging and accumulation.
Can we now see how this can help in the situation I described as “so-called slut-shaming”? We are looking for the stages that being watchful could produce a coolness that could prevent problems. The girl enjoys the drink but is cool about the second one. The boy desires the girl but is cool about that desire until he is sure she desires him and when she is not drunk. S/he desires popularity with the photo but is cool because the event can produce consequences. This is all watchful mindfulness.