Mindfulness has become mainstream. Hospitals and prisons offer “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction,” public schools teach students to put their “MindUP,” and Google trains employees to “Search Inside Yourself.”
Right mindfulness is the seventh aspect of the eightfold path of Buddhist awakening. Implicit in “secularized” mindfulness is the assumption that meditating on one’s breath or present-moment bodily sensations, while cultivating non-judgmental awareness of passing thoughts and emotions, trains the mind to perceive experiences — and even the notion of a “self” — as transient. This alleviates suffering by detaching the mind from pursuing desires or avoiding displeasures. Recognizing that every apparently unique “self” is really part of the same universal process of becoming develops moral and ethical virtues such as compassion and generosity. Ultimately, this process leads to freedom from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth, and entrance into a transcendent state of enlightenment or nirvana.
Promoters of “secular” mindfulness avoid using the loaded words “Buddhism” or “religion,” and may even steer clear of mentioning “spirituality” or “meditation.” But the practice is essentially similar to that taught in many Buddhist basics classes. And the hope, expressed by certain key leaders in the secular mindfulness movement, is that introductory classes alleviate suffering for all practitioners, while providing at least some of them with a doorway into deeper, explicitly Buddhist meditation.
The most influential advocate for mindfulness in America is Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine who learned mindfulness from Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. While on a spiritual retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in 1979, Kabat-Zinn had a flash of insight to “take the heart of something as meaningful, as sacred if you will, as Buddha-dharma and bring it into the world in a way that doesn’t dilute, profane or distort it, but at the same time is not locked into a culturally and tradition-bound framework that would make it absolutely impenetrable to the vast majority of people.” During a 1990 meeting, the Dalai Lama himself approved Kabat-Zinn’s strategy of modifying vocabulary in order to make mindfulness acceptable to non-Buddhists.
Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, classes, at his Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Kabat-Zinn’s goal, as described in his 1990 book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, was to make the “path of mindfulness accessible to mainstream Americans so that it would not feel Buddhist or mystical so much as sensible.” Insisting that “you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice” mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn nevertheless urges MBSR graduates to find an ongoing meditation group such as an Insight Meditation Society, an organization that Kabat-Zinn describes as having “a slightly Buddhist orientation.” Continue reading >>