I'm getting ready to present on a panel on "mindfulness" tomorrow at the APA conference now happening in San Francisco. (If you happen to be there 8-10 am tomorrow swing on by!) By the way, have you ever meditated like this? Me neither!
Other presenters will be talking about the clinical applications of mindfulness in our work as psychologists. I was asked to talk about "mindfulness" from the point of view of the Zen tradition. I have lots of thoughts, and will share a few.
First, I think it a really good thing that many people are benefiting from learning mindfulness meditation. It has become an outpost of presence and sanity in our otherwise insane world.
However, it is crucial to be aware that mindfulness is not the same as meditation, and certainly not Buddhist meditation. The contemporary practice of mindfulness has a number of radical differences from the practice of Zen.
First of all, Zen practice includes meditation in the context of a system of ethics, and in the presence of an old spiritual and religious practice. Mindfulness, along with concentration and inquiry, are the traditional foundations of meditation practice in Zen. These practices are taken up in a community, with a teacher, and in the context of study of spiritual teachings. Practitioners go through training on the Buddhist ethical system, the precepts and the paramitas, in conjunction with meditation practice.
Zen practice is not taken up for personal self-improvement, though that may be a welcome side effect. Rather it is taken up so we may wake up to the radical truth of interdependence. When we truly witness and live into our place in the family of things, the only thing to do is to take up the bodhisattva way, at the heart of our tradition. We vow to be a part of the awakening of all beings (including but not limited to ourselves), as best as we are able.
Mindfulness as a psychological technique is torn out of the cultural, spiritual, and religious context of Buddhism. And, along the way, it inverts the spirit of practice, toward a commodity that can be used for personal healing or self-improvement. It becomes a goal in itself, something to do well or poorly, an offering at the buffet of self-improvement goods. It is something that is measured, calculated for benefit, optimized, and commodified. It is offered in expensive retreats, corporate training, and as a remedy for depression, stress, and other ailments.
My other concern about the mindfulness movement is that it privileges the conscious mind and our control of it. It's no wonder mindfulness has been so utilized in cognitive-behavioral approaches. Mindfulness as often taught emphasized becoming more aware of the conscious mind and what happens in it. All good stuff! However in Zen we also take up the aspects of the mind that are not in our awareness, the unknown, embryonic states, weird and tilty places, intimations of the vastness. In this way I see Zen practice as a great complement to psychoanalytic psychotherapy!
As a Zen teacher, I worry that Westerners will come to think that mindfulness is what meditation practice is. While mindfulness practices can be really helpful, they are just one strand of a deep and rich tradition, with many other practices, teachings, and ancestral wisdom.
Given the dominance of the mindfulness and vipassana practices these days, what does it mean to practice Zen? How is it different? And how does it impact one differently as a therapist or practitioner? If you have thoughts, please comment!
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..