Comments from a Buddhist about mindfulness as a therapeutic practice

buddha-saysRecently a very insightful comment was left on my November 2016 PLOS Blog Mind the Brain post, Unintended consequences of universal mindfulness training for schoolchildren?. Comments often don’t get the attention they deserve, especially  a comment left on a blog that is months since it was posted. 

I have taken the liberty of elevating his comment to a post here where it might get the attention it deserves.I welcome further comment from other Buddhists, knowing well that Buddhism represents a variety of perspectives and certainly is not an orthodoxy.

Without further ado, here is Nick Leggert:

Hello Everybody,
Thank you for this blog, James.

I have background both in therapeutic work with emotionally upset adolescents and their families, and in Dzogchen Buddhism, which latter, itself, is a distinctive and unusual member of the Buddhist family. From out of this background, I have long been concerned that mindfulness was being misunderstood, both psychotherapeutically, and by some Buddhists.

When we teach and practise meditation within Dzogchen, we place it within what are called ‘The Three Jewels.’ These are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Simplifying necessarily but simplifying none the less, ‘Buddha’ could be called ‘meditation,’ ‘Dharma’ could be called ‘teaching,’ and ‘Sangha’ could be called ‘a community of practitioners.’’

We would not teach meditation as an instrumental technique, and we would not advise it outside of Dharma and Sangha. The Three Jewels are mutually interdependent – if you like, they are also, at the same time, all aspects/facets of one Jewel. Our teachings are largely meaningless, if they are not accompanied by the practice of meditation. Meditation is actually dangerous, without the teachings. And meditators must have the ‘peer-support’ of a community of meditators, called the sangha. The community of meditators, translated into a modern sociological construct, engage in ‘Situated Learning,’ which is a form of social learning by apprenticeship; and they then pass on their learning to newcomers.

So, from our point of view, five or ten sessions of mindfulness training really don’t cut the mustard, and could be harmful. There have been hundreds of years of experiential learning amongst Buddhist meditators, so there is a vast literature of experience about the pitfalls of unguided practice and the things that can go wrong, even and especially for the most advanced meditators.

More than all this, properly understood, meditation is not primarily psychological, though it may have psychological spin-offs (‘bad’ and ‘good’). Psychology itself is a modern category, and it is a misleading categorization, in some ways, when discussing Buddhism. Meditation is closer to what a modernist would understand as experiential ontology: that is, it is a practice which makes the claim that it yields – or can yield for some – empirical insight into the nature of being – your being, my being, and the being of all things. This is deep ontology, with a phenomenological edge – and there doesn’t appear to be an obvious pot of gold to find at the end of its rainbow (because its rainbow doesn’t end). The most advanced meditators say that vistas expand into infinity, and mysteries deepen, as their practice proceeds. So to imagine meditation as like a train ride with a destination, a terminus, is actually to sabotage meditation by making it purposeful and ambitious. Meditation is a bit like cleaning your teeth, or doing the dusting: you just do it, for ever. Or it’s like learning to play a musical instrument – you must never stop practising, and it becomes a way of living. Meditation is actually quite close to breathing, in the Buddhist understanding: it is understood to be almost that necessary to any kind of fulfilled – and then socially useful – life. You don’t often stop to think about your breathing – it’s almost as if your body breathes you. Just so with meditation. After a while, meditation so infuses you that it meditates you, as you meditate. You aren’t practising any more, you are part of a practice. And very advanced meditators will be meditating, effortlessly, without thought or planning, as they act – meditation ceases to be a separate activity, on a cushion or chair. It changes the whole way you see the world and the whole way the world sees you. Externally, nothing looks different, except to the very experienced, but you’ve turned inside out, and you’re not really ‘there’ any more, in the way you were. This paragraph is too long, but it’s still inadequate, because words can’t fully explain. You have to do it to understand.

If it works, don’t mend it. I expect you know somebody who says they were helped by mindfulness, and that’s fine. But it’s not a good idea to confuse placebo, which is known to be mildly effective, with hard-edged psychotherapeutic efficacy. The mindfulness fad, like the CBT fad, like the frontal lobotomy fad, will come and go. Mindfulness has its place in a battery of possible approaches (which might include political change at one end of the spectrum, and joining a hiking club at the other) but it is not a panacea, and it not the beginning of a return to Buddhism in the West.

Well, that’s what I think – and I’m generally deluded….

Warm wishes,

Nick

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