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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Opening to insight: Mindfulness

The movement towards mindfulness meditation as a therapy has been most deeply influenced by Jon Kabat-Zinn who originated the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.  His definition of mindfulness, which has been largely adopted by the therapeutic community, is as follows:  “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (1994, p. 4).

In a previous post (What is mindfulness?, March 12, 2012), I discussed this definition in some detail.  I will review some points I made earlier, accentuate some of the differences between the traditional Buddhist definition of mindfulness and Kabat-Zinn’s definition and suggest there is value to incorporating into therapy a definition more consistent with the Buddhist definition.

Mindfulness is an English translation of sati, a word in the Pali language in which the Buddhist scriptures were written.  The word’s original meaning had to do with memory or recollection, which is puzzling, because mindfulness is usually associated with being present-focused.  The meaning of sati has to do with the Buddhist concept of consciousness as being a discontinuous process of extremely brief moments that arise and pass away.  When we are mindful, it is not of something co-occurring but of something that has already past; the happening of which we are mindful may be experienced as present but only because of the close proximity in time of our mindfulness of it.  Mindfulness as sati has to do with keeping an object in mind, of not letting the object just slip away, of not forgetting it.  In fact, because mindfulness “holds” the immediately preceding object in attention, it facilitates later recollection of it (Veliz, 2011; Dreyfus, 2010).
Another dimension to mindfulness as sati is its evaluative aspect.  Mindfulness is not neutral as the Kabat-Zinn definition implies.  Accompanying sati is sampajañña or clear comprehension, another important Buddhist concept; it is clear comprehension that recognizes the quality of any given instance of consciousness as either wholesome or unwholesome, destructive or beneficial.  Right mindfulness, one of the eight components of the Buddhist path, integrates sati with sampajañña.

Various commentators (Wallace & Bodhi, 2006) trace the origin of the idea of non-judgmental mindfulness back to a description of mindfulness by a German-born, Sri Lankan monk, Nyanaponika Thera.  Nyanaponika Thera described mindfulness in terms of “bare attention,” a non-conceptual and non-evaluative form of attention in which we observe what is occurring without interference or judgment; it is a “a bare registering of the facts observed, without reacting to them by deed, speech or by mental comment which may be one of self-reference (like, dislike, etc.), judgment or reflection” (Nyanaponika, 1996, p. 30).  However, when later confronted with how his definition had been interpreted in the West, Nyanapokia Thera expressed consternation and clarified that bare attention is only an initial phase in mindfulness (Wallace & Bodhi, 2006).  The practice of bare attention is useful in breaking free from the attitudes that we tend to adopt to what appears before our mind – evaluation in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant.  Its value is that it lessens the reactivity (i.e., clinging and aversion) that goes with those attitudes.  However, bare attention is not all there is to mindfulness and should be accompanied by clear comprehension.

The cognitive and evaluative dimensions of mindfulness have been largely ignored in the Western therapeutic application of the concept of mindfulness (Dreyfus, 2010; Veliz, 2011).  Given the emphasis on mindfulness being present focused and non-judgmental, bringing in these dimensions may seem to muddle what otherwise seems to be a fairly straight-forward therapeutic approach to dealing with mental suffering.  On the other hand, the added sophistication of the Buddhist concepts may substantially improve the way we understand mental suffering and approach it therapeutically.  A few points about this may be suggestive.

It may be useful to work with the evaluative dimension in therapy, for instance, and explore how conventional attitudes dictate our reactions to our experiences.  We will likely find that, at the most basic level, our simple likes and dislikes, our largely non-reflective preferences, our habitual patterns govern our reactions.  What then are we to do?  This may be an interesting exercise, but we need a new framework for understanding how we are to break free of our reactivity.  We need a framework that helps us to understand what is truly good for us and what is not, so that we can respond skilfully rather than simply react.  Value-neutrality is of little help in this regard; we need a framework of values.  Identifying a set of values and working with them therefore becomes a new therapeutic focus.  Those values may be Buddhist values, they may come from some other religious or secular traditions or they may be discovered through inquiry and reflection.  Wherever they come from, they are critical for determining direction and giving purpose in life.  

To understand the larger context of mindfulness, in posts that follow the theme of "opening to insight," I will cover what I consider to be the most basic relevant to meditation.

Dreyfus, G. (2010). Is Mindfulness Present-Centered and Nonjudgmental? A Discussion of the Cognitive Implications of Mindfulness. (Unpublished).

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994).  Wherever you go, there you are:  Mindfulness meditations in everyday life. New York:  Hyperion

Nyanaponika Thera.  (1996).  The Heart of Buddhist Meditation.  York Beach, Maine:  Samuel Weiser, p. 30.

Veliz, Carissa.  (2011).  Equivocalities of the Definition and Practice of Mindfulness:  Comparing the Modern and Traditional Notions of the Term.  (Unpublished).

Wallace, A. & Bodhi, Bhikkhu. (2006)  The Nature of Mindfulness and its Role in Buddhist Meditation. A Correspondance between B. Alan Wallace & Bhikkhu Bodhii. (Unpublished).

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