I am mesmerised by the robust evidence for the neurological, biochemical and behavioural benefits of mindfulness. I am working hard to figure out the philosophy behind it, that seems very foreign to me with its “acceptance” and “emptiness”.
For this I interviewed Bob Stahl, PhD. He is a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher with over 25 years of experience. His PhD is in philosophy and religion. How exciting is that?! Bob sheds light on some of the philosophical conundrums of mindfulness that have preoccupied me here. He knows what he’s talking about, having founded 7 mindfulness-based stress reduction programs in medical centres in California and having written a number of books on mindfulness. In addition, Bob runs insight meditation and convergence retreats too. Clearly, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk to him. [If, for whatever reason, you’re wondering, this is not a sponsored post.]
You are an expert at mindfulness-based stress reduction. How has it evolved since its inception by Prof. Jon Kabat-Zinn?
I began teaching in 1991, a bit before the big wave of interest in mindfulness that predominantly sparked by Bill Moyer’s series Healing and the Mindand Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work. The mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme hasn’t really changed much over the years. The core principles remain. The training of the mindfulness teachers has grown and advanced tremendously, however.
MBSR is secular. Do you think this is more of a benefit or a hindrance to most people starting it?
MBSR is sacred rather than secular. The sole purpose of MBSR is to alleviate suffering.
MBSR is not religious, but it is spiritual.
Secular implies a cold kind of separation. Having said that, MBSR can be delivered in a hospital, which is obviously non-sectarian and open to people of different religious traditions and views. It is indeed not associated with any one organised religion, but it has many underpinnings that MBSR. There are the teachings in Buddhism and Buddhist psychology. There are also the underpinnings of the wisdom traditions of non-duality, stress physiology, neuroscience and group experiential education. The underpinnings come from the wisdom found cross-culturally.
MBSR was designed to help with specific issues. What are the most common problems that people come to you with?
There are 3 main interrelated categories: stress, physical pain and illness. This can be related to a chronic or terminal disease, stress at work, or a desire to improve one’s wellbeing.
You teach mindfulness to physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals. What are some of the main challenges and lessons in mindfulness for this group?
First of all, they are not immune to the human condition that includes ageing, illness, death and separation.
Compassion fatigue, processing the pain of those whom they serve, burnout, anxiety, addiction, depression and insomnia are the most specific problem that affect the people belonging to healthcare professions.
There is strong culture of success in our world. We spend our lives striving for accomplishment in a goal-directed manner. It is quite counterintuitive, if not scary, for a person conditioned like this to engage in a practice of non-striving, non-reactivity, non-attachment and non-judgment. “If I stop striving, will I still be able to accomplish?” Could you comment on this apparent contradiction?
Mindfulness often gets confused with non-striving, non-attachment and non-judgment. People think they are not supposed to feel or have those feelings – and this is actually a misnomer that causes confusion.
Mindfulness is about being present and aware of what’s actually happening and acknowledging it. It is best to leave out words like “without attachment or striving” because many people actually discover how filled they are those feelings.
Could this confusion be arising from our interpretation of Buddhism?
I’ve been a student of Buddhism for many years and lived in a Buddhist monastery for over 8 years. The word for mindfulness is sati.
There’s nothing in the definition that talks about being non-judgmental or non-striving. It’s all about being present, being aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment.
Perhaps, we could say though that non-striving and non-attachment are attitudes that can be brought into mindfulness practice that serve to help us to see more clearly where we are stuck with either grasping or aversion. Let us remember that the sole goal of the mindfulness practice is freedom.
What is the most common misconception about MBSR?
I am very excited about the exponential growth of mindfulness. As with all things that are popular, there are some fads. There is some commercialisation of mindfulness.
There’s also confusion between mindfulness and positive thinking: “You’re saying negative things, you’re not being mindful.” We should be mindful of rage, sadness, anger and fear. That’s just part of the practice. Mindfulness does not mean being positive. It means being aware, present and acknowledge it.
There’s also another apparent contradiction.
Mindfulness is both very personal and completely impersonal.
On one level, mindfulness is incredibly personal. We are really getting into our loves, joys, fears, hates, etc.
We cannot psychologically or spiritually bypass our personality.
Our personality is what we need to work with to grow. We need to understand where it is that we get caught and cannot see clearly, what stories do we tell ourselves, etc. It is incredibly personal. On the other hand, mindfulness is incredibly impersonal. The body is doing its thing, it doesn’t ask us. Mind states come and go out. Whose mind is it anyway?
In Buddhist psychology, there are 6 sense organs: the mind is the sixth.
What does it do? It experiences thoughts and emotions. Just like the nose experiences smells and the ears experience sounds, the mind experiences thoughts and feelings.
In your experience, are there any therapies that MBSR is most synergistic with?
Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy was developed out of MBSR. It has been shown to be very effective, especially in treating relapses of depression. Furthermore, a variety of programmes, such as mindfulness-based childbirth and parenting, were developed based on mindfulness.
What stops most people from practicing mindfulness every day, given that it can time as little as a few minutes a day?
This is something that comes up a lot. We encourage people to sit with the resistance: what’s there? It could be a number of things. We have such a longing to feel good, but doing preventative things requires a deep commitment.
If you’re really committed to knowing the truth about where you’re stuck, practice becomes a way of life.
Your whole orientation turns towards freedom. It helps people to get inspired.
Sitting and meditating isn’t as important as whether you’re aware of what’s going on inside you, is it coming from some old conditioning, etc.
Could you explain what is involved in a mindfulness retreat?
Retreats are very important.
How can we be with others if we haven’t been with ourselves?
A silent retreat is the time to dive deep into our own life, our own story, where we’re holding on and where we’re pushing away. Retreats can be in the insight meditation tradition, Zen tradition or Tibetan tradition. In the insight tradition, we teach the four foundations of mindfulness, the three marks of existence, the four noble truths.
MBSR stemmed from a retreat. Jon Kabat-Zinn got the idea while on an insight meditation retreat. He left the meditation centre, applied to start a programme – and the rest is history.
I do a lot of retreats on how Dharma informs mindfulness-based approaches. Many people entering into mindfulness don’t have a lot of experience with meditation. We help people to have the experience of the practice and to understand what informs mindfulness approaches.
You sit for 45 minutes, walk for 45 minutes, sit for 45 minutes, walk for 45 minutes… It starts at 6 in the morning and stops at 9 at night. Instruction is given once a day to clarify the teaching. There’s usually a talk in the evening to help guide the meditations. It’s a progression through the four foundation of mindfulness. We also offer group and individual practice discussions to check in with the students.
Bob suggested that I go on a retreat. I am very tempted. He travels all over the world, though he is usually found in sunny California. You can find out more about his centre here.
From a useful superstition with medical benefits to a deeply spiritual practice, mindfulness has seen a variety of labels. Together with Nguyên Giác, we put together a list of common misplaced attitudes towards mindfulness, so that you don’t sabotage your practice. [Watch video instead]
Mindfulness has become quite popular and seems to be gaining further momentum. It is set to soon be mainstream.
As is often the case with explosive popularity, there are some misconception and misinterpretations about mindfulness making the rounds among bloggers and on social media.
1. Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept
It’s not uniquely Buddhist. Mindfulness has roots going back to Christianity. More that that: wherever humans have existed, they have discovered mindfulness. Many traditions poke around the mindfulness bush, some more directly than others. Why? Because mindfulness is healthy. It makes sense, evolutionarily. A mindful population will thrive. A population lacking mindfulness will have a hard time propagating the memes (Richard Dawkin’s meme, not the funny picture, meme.. although they are related) and genes that define its character.
Christianity has elements of mindfulness practice present in ritual and scriptural form (both within and outside of the canon).
There are a number of passages that obviously point to the practice of mindfulness, and there are many others that, when understood in context, point to mindfulness practice.
Whenever you have people that are practicing awareness of what they are doing in that moment, you have mindful people. When people know they are washing dishes, they are mindful dishwashers. Christians who are mindfully carrying candles, passing out bread and wine, and consciously delighting in each other’s company are Buddhist Christians – they are increasing awakeness in the world.
As Thich Nhat Hanh says,
“‘Buddhism is a practice. Like Yoga’. It is not a ‘religion’ in the way that Christianity is a religion. There are no gods. No required beliefs.. Nothing to take ‘on faith’.”
It is an open-handed teaching, hiding nothing, encouraging actual practice, letting you realise things without forcing it. The labels of “Buddhist” and “Christian” can be hindrances. It is nice to respect our spiritual ancestors, but it is foolish to isolate ourselves within the confines of some set of teachings. Old “maps” may not accurately represent the present territory.
Some people make the claim that there is an actual historical link between Jesus and Buddha. Indeed, there were Mahayana Monks in Egypt during Jesus’ lifetime. But, with or without the causal connection, Buddha/Gnosis is one – the message is the same. People can happen across the same spiritual truths in totally separate cultural contexts. The historical connection would be interesting and exciting, but it is not necessary.
So, in conclusion, there are some big chasms to cross as one journeys between world views, but if we look within we will find one human experience– we are unique, but we share common ground. It is beautiful. If we can learn to gently share our ideas with respect and give credit where credit is due, this era of history can be an amazing one.
Naturally, mindfulness occurs in religions other than Christianity and Buddhism, we shall try to address that another time.
2. Mindfulness is about detachment and emptiness
Buddhist terminology also presents some problems for the Western Mind.
The translators of yore did not have the proper conceptual tools to work with the subtle ideas generated by Buddhist genius. And, still, people are hung up on ideas of “nonself”, “emptiness”, “detachment”, etc.
The Christian West has to do some serious psychic judo to make sense of these things without experiencing intense fear and trembling.
There are many potential points of conflict, but, let’s focus on non-self. Anatman. Anatta. No atman. This seems to have been one of the Buddha’s big ideas. There is no independently existing ego, or self-sustaining identity, anywhere in existence. All is dependent on all. Every square inch, square centimetre, every atom is as significant as the largest star. Look at “Indra’s Net”. It’s a nice way to visualise emptiness, or non-self: emptiness and non-self are the same idea. Interdependence is a better word. So when you read, “non-self”, “emptiness”, “voidness”, etc… just remember interdependence.
In the West, largely populated with traditional Christians, many have trouble with all this. There is this idea of “something out of nothing” that the Christian must accept in order to fall in line with dogma. It is totally illogical. Therefore, the Christian declares that faith is necessary. The question, “what was before the beginning?” will never be answered. Those who try to convince you that they have answered that question are liars or fools. Asserting that “God did it” is dangerous, the priests who make such assertions are “like dogs in the cattle manger, they can’t eat and they won’t let the cattle eat”. And, this is what Jesus is implying in the Gospel of Thomas when he encourages us to ignore those who claim to know “the way to heaven”.
On a more comforting note, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas also recognises this truth of non-self, which is very closely related to the truth of impermanence, another central Buddhist idea.
He also declares that all things that come together will fall apart. Everything will change.
Gospel of Thomas, 11:
Yeshua said / This heaven will pass away / and the one above it will pass away. / The dead are not alive / and the living will not die. / During the days when you ate what is dead / you made it alive. / When you are in the light, what will you do? / On the day when you were one / you became two. / But when you become two, what will you do?
Some people want to hide in their meditation halls, with their tibetan loving-kindness mantras – that’s fine… However, the Bodhisattva (the being tending toward awakening) engages the world and meets people where they are at. By helping others in real life, the Bodhisattva also develops her own Buddha Nature.
3. Mindfulness is part of the positive thinking / law of attraction world view
Many have come to view mindfulness as a close cousin of positive thinking. This is a misconception.
Mindfulness cultivates non-judgement – which the exact polar opposite of insisting on only ever dignifying positive thoughts with our attention.
A concept seemingly resonant with positive thinking/ law of attraction appears in the Dhammapada, one of the primary collections of teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama:
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.”
However, mindfulness emphasises the value of accepting things as they come.
Yes, we “create our own reality”, but we certainly don’t do it alone.
Reality is seen from a fundamentally different viewpoint in the philosophy underpinning mindfulness. The Bodhisattva does not proclaim that things are either positive, negative or neutral– Buddha abides “beyond good an evil” – beyond positive and negative and neutral.
In many Buddhist schools, there is this idea of the Five Skandhas. The Five Heaps. The Five Collections or Aggregates. Instead of a self-sustaining ego, Buddha spoke of these components – the Five Skandhas – that make up a personality.
The sensory experience, contact with sense objects through one of the sense doors (light / eye, sound / ear, chemical / taste and smell, pressure and heat / touch, thought / mind), is either positive, negative or neutral.
There is an event, and there is a knee-jerk reaction to it that is either good, bad, or not good or bad.
“The Five Skandhas are empty”. They are interdependent. Sensation is just one of these heaps. Sensation depends on form, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. And – positive, negative and neutral are also empty!
There is no positive without negative or neutral, and the same is true for negative and neutral.
Our strength is not found in forcing reality to remain “positive”. We are considered accomplished because of the strength we have to endure the snaky shifting of Samsara. We endure the ups and downs, we remain in this mind system with these sentient beings, unperturbed by the positives and negatives and neutrals. We are beacons of peace and stability in this chaotic ocean.
4. Mindfulness is a natural remedy for anxiety
People want to talk about mindfulness like it’s some miracle pill. Despite what we so often hear, this practice of mindfulness is not always roses and cotton-candy. The practice of mindfulness may reveal things one has been been avoiding. This can be painful. This is the real work though! Learning to see clearly requires deep compassion for oneself and for all sentient beings. Gentleness can smooth over those scratchy rough spots.
Mindfulness meditation is work, but it is healthy, soothing work.
New things will be noticed. New things can cause fear. If new things aren’t being noticed, if fear isn’t arising, it is probably a good idea to refocus the practice. But how?
The goal is not to be rid of negative emotions.
Mindfulness meditation teaches us to put harsh feelings into context and not become totally overwhelmed by their presence. The goal is not to become a tranquil yuppy – it is to become present, aware and in touch with actual bold faced reality.
Yes, there are benefits. Mental and physical health benefits.
Breathing meditation can bring calm. “Negative” feelings can also arise – they are as real as “positive” feelings.
During practice, all of these arising positive and negative thoughts are gently touched – and like the fragile bubbles they are, they pop. It is not difficult. There is no strain. However, it is work. Perfectly paradoxical.
There is a lot of cultural appropriation going on around here. Doctors are not far off taking credit for practices that have already been employed for thousands of years. On the surface, this is all fine and dandy, but looking deeper we can see that it’s part of a larger pattern. We Westerners have not been so kind to our friends around the world. We take and take and take. The practice of mindfulness cannot be “owned”, but it seems to me that we should be giving more credit to it’s Eastern roots. Indeed, those roots extend beyond the Buddhist tradition. There are things to be learned from the cultures that have grown up with these practices.
Instead, it looks to me like as Westerners, we are trying to distill the “useful” practices from what we consider to be “superstition”.
Our sciences are constantly revealing a stranger and stranger reality. We would do well to hold our verdicts on what is and is not superstition.
It seems that the focus of many bloggers and mindfulness advocates is to promote mindfulness as yet another miracle fix on the way to flat abs and a yacht. Mindfulness isn’t a shortcut to effortless positive thinking.
The fact that the 440×220 pixel Twitter platitudes with a stock sunset background and a quote from a Buddhist have become so popular reflects the growing misunderstanding surrounding mindfulness.
While mindfulness does help with depression, anxiety and other difficult mental states, achieving a certain mental state – or indeed happiness – isn’t the purpose of mindfulness. While it isn’t necessary to buy into the philosophy behind mindfulness to practice it, it’s important to understand what it is one’s getting themselves into.There’s nothing at all wrong with “secular” mindfulness, the kind pedalled by corporations, promoted to children, etc. Indeed, I am in no way a Buddhist. However, I believe that hiding from this philosophy and still expecting to get experience mindfulness to the full is futile. The philosophy states that…
At the root of all suffering is attachment.
Non-attachment is a key tenet of the Buddhism. Attachment is our attempt to deny the fact that everything is impermanent, hence is causes a dissonance between reality and perception ultimately resulting in suffering. The concept seems at odds with out common view of happiness that involves the strife to get through a checklist of experiences and things – and walk of into the sunset in permanent bliss. However, the concept of non-attachment is echoed in the philosophy of Stoicism, the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche and modern talking therapies such as CBT and REBT. Indeed, I struggle with the concept again and again. It seem that Buddhism advocates that we live our lives a bit like plants: accept everything that comes our way and adapt.
Using mindfulness as some kind of trick to accomplish certain goals just doesn’t make sense.
Born at Google and based on brain science, SIY uses the practices of mindfulness to train Emotional Intelligence skills, leading to resilience, positive mindset, and centred leadership. In the midst of complexity, it’s about finding the inner capacity to create, to thrive, to lead. And it’s surprisingly fun. Backed by some of the world’s leading experts in neuroscience and mindfulness, SIY is changing thousands of lives in over a dozen countries.
Here’s a book they propose. I haven’t seen the inside, but if I may judge by its cover, I find it wanting.
Indirectly, insights into how to achieve goals may be precisely the result of the practice. However, a realisation of the irrelevance of those goals may also be the outcome. Being in the moment involves not knowing how it will all turn out. Barry Magid is an American psychiatrist who went against the current. He argued against using meditation as yet another vehicle en route to the conventional happiness prescription, i.e. maximum pleasant feelings and thoughts, minimum unpleasant feelings and thoughts.
Magid’s understanding of mindfulness is that it is a way to stop trying to “fix” ones’ experience of things.
His argument is somewhat routed in mythology: struggling to escape one’s demons is what gives them their power.
The fight for a vision of happiness is the cause of the problem, not the solution to it.
Freud’s seemingly basic idea of our psychology was that we seek pleasure and avoid pain (and we avoid pain much more than we seek pleasure). He argued that our subconscious was a big long list of everything we avoid. The Buddha confronted suffering, he didn’t move away – he moved into the pain – and that is how he became free.
As a doctor, I know that it’s very worrying when a patient doesn’t flinch away from a painful stimulus. I am starting to come around to the idea that for our higher cognition, the non-reflex, non-fight-or-flight, it is better to not flinch away from mental pain.
That’s how I understand mindfulness. It’s not sitting there thoughtless. In fact, trying hard to fix the busy mind is yet another trap. The way I understand it is that it is necessary to observe it without clinging or fleeing. Like I discussed with Bela,
For me the experience of mindfulness is a bit like being on a tight rope: the abyss of clinging to the left and of fleeing to the right. Sometimes of the past to the left and of the future to the right. Just like it takes a lot of awareness to remain on the tight rope, flexing the right muscles, adjusting to the wind, it takes the same kind of awareness to stay in the moment.
Seneca, Freud, the Buddha – and our new friend the living psychiatrist Magid all seem to think that flinching away from suffering is what makes it worse.
The Abhidhamma, a central text for Buddhism, teaches that the mind is a bit like a sense organ. Thoughts and feelings come in just like smells, sounds and tastes. Recently, I observed a thought that seemed completely extraneous to me: having relaxed after non-stop worrying about a sick animals, I found it strange how someone else would get so upset about a pet in hospital. Not every thought and emotion belongs to us. Why do certain songs cling to our minds? In what way are they ours?
We could consider the inescapable nature of the smell of cigarettes – or the taste of toothpaste every morning as a way to understand the presence of certain thoughts and feelings.
It gets a little bit “meta” – as we are more abstractly thinking (one may say observing non-judgementally) of regular thinking (to do list, he said, she said, itchy, hungry, Never mind I’ll find someone like you, and other assorted circular randomness) – and saying that regular thinking is just like an organ of perception. What does that say about abstract thinking? Is that the “real” thinking? Somewhat over-simplistically, I suspect that this abstract thinking is a process of the prefrontal cortex, while the regular thinking is carried out by more basic circuitry we share with many animals.
In this vein, not being able to get the motivation to do something because one’s sad doesn’t make sense. One needn’t feel pumped to do work. If thoughts and feelings are like smells and sounds, one can still muster the agency to do what needs to be done. The Stoics would argue like this also.
In a sense, this still means that mindfulness is a route to happiness, only I changed the goal posts of what happiness is. In a sense, mindfulness is a fight to stay on the tightrope of the present moment – and thus a fight for happiness. This is all difficult to state in words, but I think you all know what I mean.
Mindfulness doesn’t have a purpose, except perhaps to reconcile perception and reality – which is so obvious, it is a bit embarrassing to state as a purpose.
Breakfast of Champions was completely different to my first encounter with Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-five.Breakfast is vehemently anti-American – in a way that is could be anti-any nation and is disturbingly relevant today. Vonnegut has a way of stripping away the sugar coating. He speaks of the slave-trade as buying and selling agricultural machines. This comparison is brought back every time he mentions the social problems of those whose ancestors were slaves: he compares them to actual metal machines and explains that the latter are cheaper leaving the former jobless. Plain, cynical and sobering.
The book is largely centred around the concept of free will. As a medic, I recall learning about free will in physiology. Back in the 1980s, Libet et al did a clever experiment showing that the brain initiates a movement before we are aware of wanting to carry out the movement. Subjects were asked to sit in front of a clock. They were told to move at will – and note the time when they decided they were going to move . An EEG was recorded. Essentially, the EEG showed that the impulse to move occurred around a second before subjects became aware that we’re going to move. Libet and colleagues said:
“cerebral initiation of a spontaneous, freely voluntary act can begin unconsciously, that is, before there is any (at least recallable) subjective awareness that a ‘decision’ to act has already been initiated cerebrally.”
This is a good review of the subject free will in physiology. In short, awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. Whether volition is causal to movement – nobody knows. Our story-telling machine brains do like to think that it is causal of course.
As a person fascinated by mindfulness, I was curious about Vonnegut’s reference to transcendental meditation. Bunny, one of the characters, used TM. Vonnegut described the procedure in Breakfast. Vonnegut doesn’t hide his scepticism.
I appreciate that absolutely everything that involves a financial transaction can be called a scam. Some people think it is insane that the seemingly skill-less abstract art is sold for millions. Some people trust in banks, corporations, governments – and others are swayed by the evidence that these institutions cannot be trusted. Appreciating this subjectivity, my impression of transcendental meditation is that there is a big scam element to it. There are also some elements of religion in it. While I am interested in learning about the ancient tradition of this particular kind of meditation, the TM organisation and its specific take on the technique smacks of danger to me. I would certainly stay well away.
Kurt Vonnegut’s wife and daughter were practitioners of TM. He said: “Nothing pisses them off anymore. They glow like bass drums with lights inside.” So far, so good. He later said about TM:
“a very good religion for people who, in troubled times, don’t want any trouble.”
This really resonates with me.
Much like positive thinking, transcendental meditation promises the world via some very simple thing that you have to do compulsively – and preferably attend expensive seminars. It’s very important to never doubt the high priests of these respective philosophies – otherwise, it won’t work. I mean, come on.
It also makes sense that TM and positive thinking has worked for some trustworthy high-profile people. It’s because what they call TM and what they call positive thinking is different to what the seminar-selling folk mean. They take a common sense approach – not a “I will take everything literally and follow all instructions” approach that the gullible people these things attract take.
Escaping the cr*p never really works. Transcending into an imaginary ocean of perpetual calm is a form of cheap escapism that only works for seconds. On that note, I recall having a really bad stomach pain. Without any set purpose, my mind wandered and I imagined getting a shot of morphine. I immediately felt much better. However, I still had to go to hospital to make sure it was nothing serious. One simply has to acknowledge their pain and deal with it. Thinking magically won’t resolve it.
The proper, non-commercial, non-popularised practice of TM is a form of mindfulness -and I have every faith that it works well. It’s not my weapon of choice, but I recommend that people try it. Om is a always a good mantra to start with. I don’t see the value in getting mystical with “personalised” mantras. The point remains: if it walks and talks like a scam, it probably is. The other point is that Breakfast of Champions is another worthwhile book.