It seems right now that there is a new appreciation and understanding in our society for the practice of mindfulness, which involves bringing a kind/tender/non-judgmental awareness to each successive moment for a period of time. This practice is not new. If anything it is a basic human ability and it likely dates back long before our oral and written histories. The practice arrived here in the west, however, through a lineage of teachers that can be traced back to Siddartha Gotama, also known as the Buddha.
This historical context is important, because mindfulness in the Buddhist teachings is a part of, but not the entirety of, an elegant unified paradigm that seems, to me and many others, to have the potential to end of human suffering. As I have come to appreciate the breadth and depth and power of the Buddha’s approach, the question arises sometimes: “Why is mindfulness the only part of this approach that seems to have taken hold in the U.S.”?
When I started studying clinical psychotherapy in grad school, I came to realize that this was not entirely accurate; other aspects of the Buddha’s teachings were in alignment with many of the methods and approaches of Western psychotherapy. Whether they arrived via the Buddha, or whether these individuals came to these same insights on their own is not entirely clear. Yet even with all the areas of overlap, it still seemed that the essential nature of the teachings is missing in western psychotherapy because the practices and insights are scattered across a discipline that has an entirely different way of looking at the world.
The Buddhist and western psychological paradigms differ in several fundamental aspects. In the West, we see the world as a space inhabited by objects, some of which are human beings. We believe that we are looking out at the world through our sense doors and that through rigorous empirical testing with the scientific method we can learn the natural properties of this world. The Buddhist view starts from an understanding that we have a very limited and imperfect understanding of the world, and that what we think of as external, is, in fact, a creation of the human mind, which is a process rather than an object. From this perspective, studying the world of material things with the idea that they are fixed, knowable, distinct objects will always yield inaccurate results (and create suffering), because material things only exist as interpretations of the mind, which is an ongoing and everchanging process. The transition from the Western way of understanding the world to the Buddhist perspective (shared by many other religions and cultures), is difficult because it means undoing the mental foundations that we use to meet our basic needs and to feel a degree of security and control in our lives.
To me, however, it is a task worth taking on, because the potential benefits are tremendous. These teachings and practices have brought a level of peace and contentment to my life that I never imagined possible, and I know from personal testimony that they have done the same for others.
Moreover, the Buddhist approach to accumulating and testing theories of the mind presents an elegant fix to the difficulties that plague Western research institutions. Since the Buddhist perspective starts from an understanding that the material world as we perceive it is a function of a mental process, the instruction is for each practicioner to become the expert in the workings of their own mind (with the help of some useful instructions on how to go about doing this). Once one has learned about their own mind, and decided if it was a worthwhile undertaking, they can then teach others how to do the same. This way of learning, testing and teaching does not require large scale clinical studies, grant funding or IRBs, but the results that it produces over centuries are astounding. Buddhist practices have worked for thousands of people across socio-economic, racial, ethnic, national and gender identities, from the Iron Age to the iPhone Age. In this model, everyone can be a scientist and a subject in a grand experiment to end human suffering.
Moving forward, I think there are still a few roadblocks that those of us who have confidence in these teachings will have to navigate with skill (some of which I totally failed to do in my last posting) First, I think that we will have to address the concerns of those who are ardently opposed to religion in public institutions as well as those who are ardently opposed to non-Christian religions in public institutions. In part, this will require patience and lots of translation. Buddhism can be a religion, but it can also be a set of unified teachings that can be adopted in a way that supports people who hold their own religious beliefs or no religious beliefs at all. Even teachings on karma and rebirth, which seem so out there right now, can be presented in a way that makes sense to ardent Christians and Atheists, without losing the integrity of the original meaning.
There is also a natural inclination for people to want to look for answers from individuals who look like themselves. My graduate psychology courses start with Sigmund Freud rather than the Buddha (or ancient hindu texts) because, I suspect, he was one of the first European white males to attempt to articulate a large-scale theory of the human mind in an academic setting (“academic” as defined by European standards). My hope is that this tendency toward Eurocentrism is fading, and will continue do so if our institutions keep expanding the diversity of perspectives and viewpoints and our country continues to engage with the rest of the world and listen to the wisdom it has to offer.
To work around some of these issues, many individuals who have trained in more explicitly Buddhist contexts adapt their teachings for secular environments, mostly by removing language that identifies the source of the teachings. Though this can make the instruction more palatable, it cuts students off from the source and prevents them from contextualizing what they are learning or exploring the thousands of years of Buddhist study that lies behind any one teacher. It is both disorienting and disempowering. From this perspective, citing the original source is key, even in secular contexts.
So the challenge, as I see it, is for teachers to begin to shift from teaching just mindfulness, to teaching the entire program. We have to acknowledge that this a new way of looking at the world and understanding knowledge and experience, what the Buddha would call “Samma Ditthi” or “right view”. We have to learn how to talk about impermanence, no-self and suffering in a way that people can try out and verify for themselves. For those of you reading this who are new to Buddhist concepts and teachings, the invitation is to start to explore the teachings of the Buddha with an open mind.
There are a few teachers who I have come across who I think are doing a wonderful job of conveying the Buddha’s teachings in a way that is broadly accessible and also transparent. There are probably hundreds of teachers like them, and please feel free to add more in the comments. Here are a few to start In alphabetical order:
Robert Wright (not a teacher per se, but writes very articulately on the subject)