In Defence of Mindfulness

On both sides of the Atlantic the “mindfulness” movement grows apace – not only in the health services but also in education, the professions and business. Although recognising  its limitations vis a vis the Dharma, I believe that we should welcome and encourage it...But it is especially important in some fields to insist on an ethical component – whether in the boardroom of a transnational corporation or in the US military.

In the first place, for many it can serve as a bridge from  the therapeutic realm to the existential realm of the Dharma and other inner path spiritualities.

Many Buddhists are now engaged in mindfulness work without illusions but drawn by its effectiveness in relieving much mental and physical pain. Reading leading proponents like Jon Kabat-Zin can leave us in no doubt as to their Dharmic authenticity. But they point out that an overt Buddhist context could alienate both beneficiaries, professional colleagues, and management. Don’t frighten the horses!

The movement initiated by Kabat-Zinn and others was Meditation Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).  But this, certainly in the  NHS, is now accompanied by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This is probably due to the few experienced meditators available, and the relative ease with which CBT facilitators can be trained. This doubtless accounts for the enthusiasm of HM government for what is a relatively mechanistic therapy quite far removed, I believe, from MBSR.

In recent years there has been an outpouring of books on “everyday Buddhism”, based on making a potentially transformative use of the discomfitures and pains of life through physically-based emotional awareness practice. The authors of these books are all well established Dharma teachers. Their relevance here is that they do in fact offer something of a continuum from mindfulness therapeutic practices through to the Dharma.

Just as hatha yoga and the like are now widely recognised as valuable lifestyle practices, I would hope to see in the future similar acceptance of a spectrum of awareness practices ranging from explicit Dharma and other inner path practices to mindfulness as an essential ingredient at work, and as a personal lifestyle therapeutic practice. Only through such a “Radical Culture of Awakenings” can sufficient inner work be sustained as to support the outer work of ecological and social change required by the planetary crisis.