Twenty-five years ago, when I first started meditating, I would never have anticipated the explosion in mindfulness this last decade would bring—Time cover issues, meditating NBC news correspondents, Cosmo mindfulness “tips” and Congressman Tim Ryan.
After years of my own retreat practice, I trained as a vipassana teacher through Spirit Rock Meditation Center. As much as I loved retreat teaching, by 2004 I became convinced that these teachings could have a wider impact if brought out into the world in a nonreligious way. I was not the first person to have this insight, as Jon Kabat-Zinn and others had been doing it since 1979.
Since then, I’ve had the privilege to participate in and help shape the mindfulness movement (and I think that it is a movement) through my work at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC). And I’m always thinking about the implications of this mindfulness explosion.
Mindfulness teachings have gone mainstream—into the health and medical world, into all levels of education, the psychology field, corporate, small business and nonprofit workplaces, and professional sports. Someone has even published a book called Mindfulness Based Angry Birds. I kid you not. And in the last decade an array of research studies back up the link between mindfulness practice and the reduction of pain symptoms, the boosting of the immune system, the lessening of depression/anxiety, positive shifts in emotional reactivity, improvement in attention and even measurable changes in the structure of the brain.
I first taught mindfulness outside of a Buddhist setting as part of a research study in 2004 bringing mindfulness to adolescents and adults with ADHD. Within a class or two (and in thousands of mindfulness classes ever since) it was clear to me I was not teaching merely a stress-reducing, attention-focusing technique. I was teaching how to reduce suffering. I was teaching how to open the heart, how to cultivate compassion, nonreactivity, patience and kindness. I was translating the Buddhist teachings into everyday common language that would not put up barriers. No one could be excluded.
Many of the people who attend nonsectarian mindfulness classes would never have crossed the door of a Buddhist center. They come in through nonreligious, usually medical or mental health doors, looking for help for being alive in the twenty-first century. There’s Steve, a retired social worker, whose doctor prescribed mindfulness to address his high blood pressure. Four years later his blood pressure is “inexplicably” low. Meanwhile he’s attended many mindfulness daylongs, classes and retreats and calls himself a convert. There’s Alisa, who used it to address her chronic fibromyalgia and accompanying anxiety and doesn’t let a day go by without meditating. There’s Danita, the mother with ADHD who says now her husband doesn’t recognize her, she’s so calm.
Perhaps Buddhadharma teachings are organically evolving into mindfulness teachings—turning into a secularized version for public consumption and a vast impact.
After all, isn’t that how it’s always been done through Buddhist history? We could view the mindfulness movement as a contemporary adaptation of Dharma, just as when the Dharma went to Tibet and incorporated Bon and Tantra, or to China and integrated Confucianism and Taoism. The Buddha instructed his followers to “teach in the idiom of the people.” The mindfulness movement may be just that, the latest iteration of those profound instructions to make the Dharma radically accessible, easy to understand, so no one will be left out.
Why can’t people just practice Buddhism? Why do we even need mindfulness? Why not sit back and watch Buddhism grow organically, spreading in its own scale and timetable? Well, the short answer is: Buddhism on a mass scale throughout the U.S. is never going to fly. Most people don’t want an Eastern religion. They want practical tools for living.
Some may make the mistake of thinking that the mindfulness movement is merely Buddhism without Buddha; that it is a current evolution of Buddhism, just called something different. But I actually don’t think we would want this. Cultural and canonical baggage—such as outdated, unscientific cosmology—permeates traditional Buddhism. And there is every reason not to import the paternalistic, hierarchical heritage and teachings or the historical inequality for women and people of different classes, races, sexualities and backgrounds. As we remake, we can ensure that traditional Buddhism will be supplemented and even revised with modern science, reason, egalitarianism and social consciousness.
We have an unprecedented and unique opportunity to translate Buddhism without its blind spots and cultural trappings, making it relevant to modern people in the twenty-first century. This is what is already happening.
Those of us who are teaching mindfulness are currently bringing tremendous creativity to adapting the teachings without teaching Buddhism. The earliest adaptations of mindfulness, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), taught people to meditate. And this is still the primary way mindfulness is being taught. But even in introductory classes, meditation techniques are supplemented with tools and practices for how to address difficult mind states, deal with obstacles, cultivate mindfulness in daily life and bring it into relationships. At UCLA, in our Mindful Awareness Practices (MAPs) intermediate-level classes, we draw out and develop these themes. And at all levels, we weave in the latest research, Western psychology, common sense and of course the Dharma teachings, but in radically accessible, nonreligious language.
At MARC, all of the heart-based practices—compassion, kindness, appreciative joy, equanimity, gratitude—are easily taught without Buddhism per se. And the encouragement to live a wise and ethical life is woven into our mindfulness practice and even supported by scientific research, such as a 2013 study showing “meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering” (meditators were more likely to give up their chairs to people in need). [Psychological Science, August 2013]
All of it is possible without reference to the Buddha, although I will tell my students my training is in Buddhism, and so of course I draw on Buddhist teachings; I’m not hiding my sources. All the same, I know from experience it can be taught in a nonreligious way.
For instance, I teach ethics as a natural outgrowth of our meditation practice, not dependent upon religious worldview. As we practice and cultivate more compassion, we begin to want to lead a more ethical life. Students also see for themselves how meditation makes them more self-aware, and when they live ethically, their minds are clearer, less anxious, less filled with remorse and regret. This allows their meditation practice to deepen. It’s a beautiful cycle.
Students can also see how practicing with daily life ethics can become a mindfulness practice on its own—noticing where we get caught, where we make unethical choices, bringing awareness to it, forgiving ourselves for messing up, and consciously attempting to do it differently. I borrow heavily from Thich Nhat Hanh’s formulation of the precepts. I remove anything that smacks of karma or religious prescription, and put the onus of change on the individual to discover for herself the impact of living an ethical life. I even link this to social and cultural change, exploring how ethical individuals create ethical institutions and societies.
All of this flies in the face of the mindfulness critics who worry about how the Buddhadharma is being watered down, turning into pap for the masses and separating it from its liberating potential. Some say that popular mindfulness is divorced from ethics, utilized in the military to “create better killers” or in schools to “anesthetize children” or in corporations to “increase productivity and further the bottom line” or to “subdue employees’ healthy responses to toxic workplaces while promoting an acceptance of the status quo.” Mindfulness is sometimes described as focusing on narcissistic self-improvement and ignoring the larger cultural and economic forces that produce so much suffering in the world.
As I see it, we must scrupulously consider these critiques as mindfulness grows. The mindfulness movement can blossom with an emphasis on ethics, deep teachings and thorough teacher professionalization to make sure this all is put into place.
It all comes down to teachers. In my experience many mindfulness teachers, particularly those with serious Dharma backgrounds, are appropriately trained, teach from their own understanding, live with personal ethics, and convey this and embody it with their students.
However, it is currently the Wild, Wild West of mindfulness: anything goes. There are dilettantes who will take a weekend workshop and suddenly present as mindfulness experts. Anyone can be a “teacher.” It is now crucial to develop rigorous mindfulness teacher-training programs so the mindfulness movement is populated with qualified, well-trained teachers who do not reinforce the status quo, water the Dharma down, remove ethics or promote narcissism and acquisition.
Training, collegiality, mentoring and supervision for people of different races, classes, genders, ages and sexualities is necessary so that mindfulness teachers are not individuals teaching mindfulness to their isolated communities but are part of a larger social movement with like-minded colleagues and significant resources to draw upon.
But teacher-training programs are not all it will take. National standards are the next step; this has the support of many leaders in the field. I am currently spearheading the formation of a National Mindfulness Accreditation Board. We are exploring how to create standards for teacher-training programs, individual student certifications, continuing education units and an ethics board to address grievances and uphold these standards.
Now, can liberation possibly fit in? Well, likely it won’t in popularized mindfulness. But doesn’t this follow what’s happened throughout historical Buddhism in Asia—the larger culture practiced everyday rituals, and deep meditation was reserved for the monks and nuns?
However, a practical liberation—freedom from our small-self suffering on a moment-to-moment basis—can be taught and practiced. It is squarely in the lineage of Ajahns Buddhadasa and Chah. They taught an everyday moment-to-moment liberation from identification with self. In the mindfulness world, students are unabashedly taught to see where their minds are hooked, where they are caught in suffering, and that at any moment they have the capacity to disentangle and not-identify. In our MAPs class, we teach the concept of non-identification in the fourth week of a beginning-level class. In the fifth week we teach students to not believe everything they think. These basic skills are a foundation that students take with them for life—learning how to access a momentary awakening from the drama of self.
These teachings are reinforced and deepened in our advanced-level classes, daylongs and retreats, where we might talk about “not self” by discussing “counteracting self-centeredness.” We talk about our attachment to roles, views, identities, and how we can have momentary release through mindfulness of any of these. Disidentification, as I typically define it, means not being so caught in something, having space around it, having something shift from “my” emotion to “the” emotion. In one advanced class we spent months on letting go. For weeks we explored our relationship to transitions, change, aging, loss. Using our daily life mindfulness and meditation practices we worked with cultivating acceptance and a softening of the sense that “it shouldn’t be this way.” We then explored the moment-to-moment letting go, freedom from the way in which our minds create suffering, using mindfulness to untangle from any type of identified mind.
As for liberation practice as taught on retreats through deep insight, well, nonreligious mindfulness and more traditional Buddhist practice can and do coexist beautifully; it’s not an either/or situation but a both/and. For those who love Buddhism (and I count myself one of them) there are thousands of places to go to get that. Funneling people into deeper Dharma practice in traditional Buddhist centers will likely be a natural, needed outcome of the mindfulness movement. Once people get the bug, a percentage of them want to go deeper. Buddhist retreat centers will become even more important.
Meanwhile, nonsectarian mindfulness retreats, although not the norm, are out there. I have taught a number of these retreats and know many others who do so. On these retreats we don’t take the refuges, although we commit in our hearts to the seriousness of what we are doing. We do take the precepts. But no Buddhist chanting, no Dharma talks on rebirth—they’re not even called Dharma talks of course. Surprise, surprise: the student’s insights remain similar even without the Buddhist trappings.
Truly, this is a unique moment in history. Buddhism is at a crossroads, organically evolving into mindfulness while also unfolding in its own unique way. With compassionate, thoughtful, collaborative shepherding, a lot of creativity and rigorous ethical holding, mindfulness may walk hand in hand with Buddhism to help us all become free.
Special thanks to Marvin Belzer for insightful dialogue and edits on this essay and twenty years of collaboration.—DW