I was recently involved in a panel discussion with three other Buddhists - Caroline Brazier, Christopher Titmus, and Advayasidhi, (chaired by Amaranatho) - at Buddhafield Festival. The discussion explored how the explosion of interest in mindfulness was going to impact society, economy, and identity. Much of the discussion revolved around questions of ethics and, having set up a company -The Mindfulness Exchange - to provide mindfulness training to business, they were directed at me.
Do I have any ethical boundaries about teaching mindfulness in business? I don’t believe it is mindful to make judgments about another’s ethics; I believe ethics are a matter of personal judgment. If there was a shipwreck and all the passengers were on lifeboats would you ask them what they did for a living before you gave them, or in my case sold them, a set of oars?
Formal mindfulness exercises involve "concentration practices". Insight is then gained through experiencing our capacity to direct attention and monitor its movements.
From a psychological perspective, developing the capacity to direct attention at the sensations of breath, for example, gives a person an experience of interrupting and disengaging thinking processes. This experience leads to the insight that we don’t necessarily need to buy into worries about the future or endlessly go over past events, wishing things had been different. We learn we have the power to give ourselves a break.
Concentration practices enable us to disengage the feedback of planning, daydreaming and worrying with our emotions and this is an extremely valuable tool. However, it is the capacity to befriend uncomfortable feelings that has the power to transform negative emotions and free us from reactive patterns. Whatever the object of concentration practice, insight comes from the capacity of awareness to monitor experience from moment to moment non-judgmentally. As we develop our ability not to judge what comes into our awareness, we are subtly building a habit of mind that is infused with curiosity and kindness towards our experience. In time, mindfulness releases us from reactive behaviour by understanding those parts of ourselves that we don’t like.
The, often unstated, assumption behind mindfulness practice is that by allowing things to be as they are, our natural capacity for wholeness can express itself. This natural capacity for wholeness is the reason why there can be no danger in teaching mindfulness if the teacher is only teaching the capacity to direct and monitor the movements of attention in the field of awareness with an attitude of non-judgment, self-acceptance and curiosity.
The more a mindfulness teacher recognises that this is ALL they are doing, the better a teacher they will be because they will be just teaching a person the tools to manage their own mind; to get to know their own mind and gain wisdom from doing these things, to guide them to act in ways that they see are the best for themselves in any situation. If a mindfulness teacher JUST teaches these things they will be modelling “non-judgment” as well as trust, giving people confidence that they have the power to listen to their own heart and that that will be their moral compass in any situation they come across.
Mindfulness teaching interferes with the capacity to develop non-judgmental awareness, acceptance, kindness and curiosity, if a mindfulness teacher confuses teaching mindfulness with ethical considerations. If a mindfulness teacher lacks faith in the Buddha nature of the student perhaps it is because they lack faith in their own Buddha nature and fear their own “dark side” because they are not mindful of it.
- Mark Leonard
One of the key elements in Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy is the correct conception of what is called emptiness. However, what is meant by this word is very subtle and can’t really be contained in one word. Often, a fuller phrase will be given such as “empty of intrinsic existence”.
I have found that in trying to discuss emptiness as a philosophical concept, I come across a great deal of resistance, misunderstanding and sometimes outright hostility to the term. Comments such as “Oh, are the pages blank?” given in response to my reading Guy Newland’s excellent book “Introduction to Emptiness” are very common.
And yet, when the insight behind the teachings on emptiness is grasped and allowed to restructure perception and experience, the liberating potential is enormous.
I feel that the word “emptiness” is a somewhat lazy and inappropriate phrase to use within a western context. After the modernity of the last century, in particular after existentialism and absurdism, “emptiness” usually conjures an emotionally negative response in the imagination – voidness, lack of meaning, lack of connection. If we are interested in sharing the freedom, which comes from a philosophical understanding of emptiness, then we need to take great care in ensuring that the central meaning of emptiness is not derailed by using language with a large amount of cultural baggage.
One of the ways to do this is to always be very clear about what is meant by “emptiness”. It can’t be used as a shortcut with an assumption that the listener will know that what is being referred to is, in fact, the absence of the intrinsic existence of an object that we tend to project onto it. Another way is to actually use a series of words that bring out the nuances of the word “emptiness”. For myself, they might include: vastness, interconnectedness, or mutually implicated. Of course, we also have the teachings on dependent origination which complement the teachings on the emptiness of inherent existence. Although this might get quite wordy I feel we owe it to the thinkers who generated this extraordinary philosophy to ensure it is transmitted as clearly as possible.
We’ve all got some idea of what mindfulness is but do we all mean the same thing? Some of us have practiced meditation taught by Buddhist teachers: maybe from this tradition or that tradition. Some of us have read self-help books and for some of us, mindfulness isn’t even about meditation at all. Sometimes it’s a psychological technique to prevent depression and sometimes it’s the means to gain enlightenment.
Who can teach mindfulness? If you teach mindfulness in the UK you need to comply with the UK Mindfulness Trainers’ Network best practice guidelines. You need to train on a supervised pathway over a year or more and attend a week-long silent retreat once a year. This all sounds very sensible but what about Buddhists? What about therapists teaching Dialectical Behaviour Therapy? What about a friend offering advice?
To be fair, it’s sensible to be a bit more specific here: to teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or Mindfulness Based approaches to Pain and Illness, which are all closely related eight week courses you need to follow the best practice guidelines.
It’s largely because of the increasing awareness of these courses that people are becoming more familiar with mindfulness but people seem to be using the word “mindfulness” synonymously with these training courses. And like most resources, ownership rights end up being part of a sense of identity and Mindfulness Based Intervention colonists sometimes seem to be ignoring the rights of the indigenous people of the mindfulness territories.
What is really being regulated here are standards to teach specific approaches to teaching mindfulness, not mindfulness itself. But sometimes this isn’t quite as clear as it might be. So this doesn’t include Buddhists teaching mindfulness in a traditional setting, therapists teaching Dialectical Behaviour Therapy or yoga teachers teaching mindfulness in a yoga class for example or, for that matter, anyone else teaching mindfulness in any other context.
So what is mindfulness if it’s not a mind training approach? What are the common skills being taught in these different contexts? Perhaps we could say they are a set of skills to manage your mind. Things like: paying attention to sensations and feelings; directing attention intentionally; registering what comes into one’s awareness nonjudgmentally; being aware of the tendency for the mind to elaborate or to evaluate aspects of experience and not necessarily buying into this process; being curious about what is happening in experience; and developing a sense of gentleness towards internal events.
So these are a set of mental behaviours we can learn and there are different contexts in which they can be taught. We can also understand the psychological benefits of learning these mental behaviours. We can even assess these behaviours by psychometric tests.
But what is mindfulness? It seems that being mindful is related to being more aware of what’s going on and acting a little more wisely to whatever comes along in life. So there isn’t much point in trying to explain what mindfulness is if we don’t have some idea of “being aware of what’s going on” means. What does it really mean to be aware of what’s going on? In fact, what is awareness in the first place? What’s going on?
I can’t tell you the answer to these questions but I am sure that no-one owns mindfulness any more than anyone can tell you what it is. And strangely enough I think that’s not a co-incidence at all.
The adventure into insight needs to be grounded in friendliness and the taste of practice needs to be a nurturing experience, which brings us back again for more. Finding we're not what we think we are is a life affirming experience; it shouldn't be an opportunity to confirm our self-loathing.
Buddhists talk a lot about "no self." What does this really mean? When we find no self in all the processes which give rise to the experience of "me," some say these processes are the causal ground of the illusion of being “me.” Then, maybe, we believe these processes are really there and we are just a ghostly apparition in a process machine.
I don't feel comfortable with that! It seems that this can be just a way of making my life invalid by displacing "self" with the parts that come together to make up my experience of me. But when we turn the same eye of investigation towards the parts that come together to make up "my experience of me," we also find “nothing there” as well. These processes are just made up of further processes and all the way down there are just sub-processes of sub-processes. Eventually, we are told, there is a quantum world where strangely named events take place; which means something in the minds of sub-atomic physicists. Wherever we look to find what is at the bottom of things we find nothing. So the "me" is no more a ghostly apparition than anything else!
It's helpful to look at the way Indian languages employ negative forms. Ahimsa means non-violence. "Negating" violence towards the body in yoga invites gentleness and openness. It’s the space left by the negation that’s important; a creative space for experience.
The “I” emerges in experience. It is a conceptual formation of a survival instinct; how we experience striving for something we want and feeling a sense of lack in some way. The habit of lack becomes the habit of "I." This may become all that we think we are but it doesn't feel good and we continually try to fill the empty space in our lives.
There is no “I” when we are in the company of friends; there is just a sense of spaciousness where we experience friendliness. This feels good; cultivating compassion, loving-kindness and the joyful celebration of good fortune erodes the habit of “me, mine and I.”
So there is no "I" in the processes of friendliness and neither is there anything to be found in the process, but there IS awareness, freedom and spaciousness in the selfless experience of friendliness.
Perhaps "I AM spaciousness?”
Early Buddhist texts give accounts of mindfulness practices. Recently, cognitive psychology has developed theoretical frameworks to understand how these practices impact on wellbeing. Much interest in the benefits of Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBIs) has followed.
MBIs stress the importance of paying attention to moment-by-moment body-based experience. This has a number of benefits:
- Increased awareness of body develops appreciation of bodily needs and encourages nurturing behaviour.
- Greater awareness of the body also functions to disengage attention from thinking which is useful when thinking has a maladaptive impact.
- Increased insight into the relationship of patterns of thinking, emotional and physiological states helps manage thinking, emotion and behaviour more effectively.
In the Buddhist Tradition, mindfulness is considered to be mutually dependent on positive regard for self and others. Traditional approaches also employ methods to cultivate the desire for wellbeing of self and others alongside mindfulness practice. Cognitive science is also beginning to understand the importance of these functions in developing a capacity for mindfulness.
However, the Buddhist Tradition also employs other practices, which may support mindfulness or as further developments to practice: These include ritual, transmission from a teacher, and philosophical investigation. Very little, if any, scientific work has explored the links between these approaches, mindfulness and positive regard for self and others.
The work of Francisco Varela points at a future where science might expand its vision to embrace the many facets of mind, experience and practice found in traditional teaching.
"This book begins and ends with the conviction that the new sciences of mind need to enlarge their horizon to encompass both lived human experience and the possibilities for transformation inherent in human experience. Ordinary, everyday experience, on the other hand, must enlarge its horizon to benefit from the insights and analyses that are distinctly wrought by the science of mind. It is this possibility for circulation between the sciences of mind (cognitive science) and human experience that we explore in this book."
- from the introduction to The Embodied Mind. Varela, Thompson and Rosch (1991, The MIT Press).