I reviewed this 'Handbook' earlier in 2016 and thought it worth editing my review a little and posting here. It is quite a long review, but this is a fascinating subject.
Handbook of Mindfulness - Theory, Research, and Practice. Edited by K.W.Brown, J.D Creswell and R.M.Ryan. Pub. The Guilford Press. pp 466
Mindfulness has been newsworthy for several years. There are some 500 new mindfulness related papers published each year, representing a lot of work from research establishments around the world especially during the past 10 years. Amongst many significant recent achievements, the ‘Mindful Nation’ report was launched in Westminster to an audience of parliamentarians and guests in October 2015.
Contemporary interest in mindfulness is driven by a growing body of evidence that taught and practised properly and regularly, mindfulness is effective for maintaining mental health and emotional resilience. And set against greatly rising levels of mental illness, mindfulness is an effective way to restore well-being - especially reducing depressive relapse and anxiety.
The Handbook of Mindfulness is an important addition to the growing library of works devoted to contemporary mindfulness training (MT). The term ‘Handbook’ is something of a misnomer as this is a substantial collection of twenty three papers from a wide range of cognitive and clinical psychologists, educationalists and researchers.
The introduction states: "The common goal that Buddhism, medicine and psychology each have in reducing suffering has helped to pave the way for the entry of mindfulness and MT exercises into Western medicine and psychotherapeutic programs." (p63)
In the first section of the book Rupert Gethin examines the Buddhist concept of mindfulness - Sati. Sati is often found in conjunction with other factors or linked with ‘memory’– a connection that can seem puzzling since the contemporary practice of mindfulness does not include memory exercises and is commonly defined as ‘present moment non-judgemental awareness’. The puzzle can be resolved by regarding Sati as relying on working memory or recollection of immediate context, rather than the deliberate bringing forth of past memories. So mindfulness involves a clear recall or ‘keeping in mind’ of ‘what we are about’.
Even in bare awareness there is a need for memory as recollection - just the instruction that one is following, for example - 'for the next 20 minutes I am going to notice sensations of breathing'. This instruction – established in mind - is what sets the context for what we are practicing and such a specific intention is always there with mindfulness training, on a continuum from very minimalist to very elaborate. So mindfulness practice requires a recall of intention and there is not a 'deliberate bare attention' that does not include a recollection of intent (the intention to practice deliberate bare attention).
This is at the core of mindfulness training (MT) – establishing a clear intention - to be aware - in working memory and then noticing when our minds lose the connection with our intention, and re-establishing the intention repeatedly with a kind and patient attitude. What this training does is to free us from automatic immersion in mind-habits – in ‘auto-pilot’– so that we can rest in present moment awareness and make fresh and creative choices if needed.
Rupert Gethin describes innatist and constructivist ideas of awakening. Innatist refers to what can be revealed when our analytical mind quietens down; constructivist refers to the behavioural frameworks that we can be trained in and that are felt to be appropriate for an awakened person to exhibit and that can also help induce or maintain awakening.
The later understanding of mindfulness in China, Tibet and Burma is variously described as ‘maintaining or guarding consciousness’; ‘maintaining the mind’ and ‘maintaining …undiscriminating awareness of the absolute mind or Buddha Nature within oneself’. These move into Dzogchen (and Chan) practices where the mind is seen as naturally pure but overlaid by habitual and routine conceptualisation, and to the simple ‘noting’ practices of Mahasi that create space around what is perceived or felt and avoid cognitive elaboration of these sensory impressions.
In concluding, Rupert Gethin discusses three areas of tension; one in regard to memory – which the use of ‘working memory’ goes some way to resolve, secondly, in the relationship of mindfulness to conceptual thinking where it can sound – especially to those from a Zen or Dzogchen background - that a self-consciousness is being encouraged in mindfulness practice rather than a fully aware identity with what one is doing.
The third tension is that mindfulness is always regarded as exclusively wholesome in Theravāda whereas in Sarvāstivada and Yogācarā understanding, mindfulness can be a quality of the unwholesome mind.
Depending on how we understand mindfulness – in a minimalist way as little more than being fully with what one is doing – or as a constellation of factors including, presence, kindness, patience, curiosity – will depend on whether we consider the ‘mindful assassin’ to be a possibility or an oxymoron.
These tensions appear to be at least partly resolvable either through the illumination given by careful comparison of Buddhist terms with contemporary psychological models – as in the consideration of working memory above – or in realising that although the descriptions in different Buddhist traditions may appear to be in tension, the basic meditation practices are the same.
The remaining chapters of the book are grouped within 4 further sections – ‘mindfulness in contemporary psychological theory’, ‘the science of mindfulness’, ‘mindfulness interventions for healthy populations’ and’ mindfulness interventions for clinical populations’.
The overall quality of the contributions is very high. The authors have no qualms about quoting Pali and Sanskrit scriptures, in examining Buddhist descriptions of psychological functions and in exploring debates from Buddhist tradition. There is a sympathetic and respectful quality throughout to the extent that Buddhist teachings often provide a model for what is being investigated.
James Carmody in chapter 4 presents a reconceptualising of mindfulness that honours its Buddhist roots whilst presenting it within evolutionary theory, and linking to ‘the processes of attending and [other] familiar psychological principles’ (p74). We can see how scientific narratives are being used to give contemporary meaning to mindfulness practice – narratives that are not based upon Buddhist metaphysics, but upon knowledge gleaned over centuries of research in biology, psychology and neuroscience and which are increasingly regarded as more reliable and accessible than traditional religious sources. Why is ease not a default condition of the mind? (p66): Presumably because the highly sophisticated cognitive abilities of humans have evolved to aid survival and are triggered in micro-seconds when a threat is sensed. If most of us are conditioned to see the world as threatening to us, or believe that thinking is always appropriate as a way to relate to experience, then the ‘cognitive discriminatory complex’ (self-view) will often be on alert and hence will inhibit or overlay a natural sense of ease.
Section two, on mindfulness in the context of contemporary psychological theory, includes work that is both technical and challenging, but which illustrate the creative and rich research on mindfulness and attention that is being undertaken now in several universities and medical establishments. ‘Being Aware and Functioning Fully’ - includes descriptions of several contemporary frameworks that ‘embed MT within or alongside other values and characteristics deemed linked with human flourishing’. These resemble new versions – or reworked variants - of the four noble truths and noble eightfold path.
Is this a problem?
Given the propensity in the Pali Suttas for the Buddha and his disciples to creatively enumerate lists of useful factors that aid awakening, perhaps we can see this tendency within the mindfulness movement (to enumerate lists and frameworks) as following a Buddhist precedent.
Contemporary frameworks include Self Determination Therapy (SDT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). These all aim ‘to encourage and train a greater psychological openness to unwanted thoughts, feelings, memories and sensations and of the present moment including physical surroundings, the perspectives of others, and enhanced clarity and drive towards valued end goals’.
ACT aims to improve psychological flexibility through a range of practices that ‘include mindfulness through acceptance of the given moment - embracing experience with openness, kindness and curiosity and in noticing how stories about self can alter our perspectives towards the contents of awareness’. Several of these qualities - openness, curiosity, and kindness occur repeatedly within the literature on MT and appear as important co-factors for the cultivation of mindfulness.
DBT is linked most closely with the Zen tradition, rather than the early Pali sources commonly used in MT, and appears to inherit the same tensions that exist between Zen and Theravāda views on mindfulness: ‘the practice of mindfulness in DBT subtly differs from that of other approaches…in that the ultimate goal is not to achieve an objective distance from one’s experience but rather to enter into, participate in, and become one with experience’ p.343
Is MT really trying to achieve ‘objective distance from one’s experience’? MT is intended to cultivate a lucid presence in which all sensory experience – including thoughts and emotions – are known in awareness in a fluid and flexible way – without ‘stickiness’. So there is a unity in awareness, but that awareness allows thoughts, perceptions, and sensory experience to coexist. Often, we get caught up in our thought stream to the exclusion of the other senses, but thought is not to be eradicated, and neither are we to automatically lose ourselves in activity – although through mindfulness practice we do develop the ability to let go of thought and be present both with quotidian duties and skilled physical activity such as dance or badminton.
‘The Science of Presence’ asks how mindfulness as a solitary practice can lead to interpersonal benefits? And the answer is that it improves 'presence' - a state of receptive spaciousness …”to whatever arises as it arises" p 226.
Presence may be the opposite of mind wandering - the unintentional process of the mind drifting away from the current task. “Presence facilitates attunement - rather than being preoccupied with habitual thoughts and rumination, we are open to the cascade effect of mirror neurons reflecting another’s emotional condition - perhaps happiness - your happiness is in my body”. p 235.
I wonder whether greater use of the word ‘presence’ in MT might be helpful, partly to qualify what is meant by mindfulness, but also as a pointer to the quality of mind (and heart) being cultivated. Richard Ryan and C. Rigby discuss ‘Did the Buddha have a self’ in chapter 14. An example of the way that traditional scriptural descriptions and current Buddhist practices are compared and understood from a Western scientific and philosophical perspective. These are researchers who are very comfortable in exploring Buddhist psychology – both Theravāda and Mahāyāna – and in drawing parallels with contemporary Western ideological frameworks. They explore both various Buddhist concepts of self, no[t]-self and non-dual awareness, and Western conceptions from Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and other Western phenomenologists. The fourth section - on mindfulness interventions for healthy populations – explores MT for healthy adults, for children and adolescents, and MT to improve positive functioning. As Kirk Brown states: ‘The Buddha’s teaching did not stop with suffering reduction; it also emphasised …other forms of contemplative training for the development of wisdom, compassion …carrying both personal and interpersonal benefits’.
This is the area of "positive psychology" and is another current spin off from Buddhism and MT. Present moment awareness adds clarity and vividness to experience and opens us to the pleasure inherent in such quotidian activities as eating, walking to the shops, showering, and washing dishes - taking pleasure in simple things.
The final section on mindfulness interventions for clinical populations provides a growing body of evidence showing that MBI are moderately effective at reducing depressive relapse and for helping with a range of other mental health problems. I was particularly interested in a discussion of the way that mindfulness based interventions for over-controlled individuals ‘emphasising equanimity, the importance of appearing calm, composed or in control’ may actually increase these individual’s psychological problems.
Are (Buddhist) retreats that emphasise (or can be seen by participants as emphasising) equanimity, detachment and calm, playing into the very psychological difficulties that some people have? And perhaps Buddhism is particularly attractive to over-controlled individuals? Such individuals really need to train to loosen up; to have fun, to let go of trying to be perfect.
This type of research will have a growing impact on Western Buddhism. The fortunes of traditional Buddhism and the mindfulness movement are increasingly intertwined. Not only are studies suggesting that mindfulness meditation (whether secular or traditional) may not be helpful for some people, but many of the other research areas – on the qualities and training of mindfulness teachers, and on just what is meant by such subtle factors as mindfulness, awareness, attention, presence and concentration, may well change the playing field for traditional Buddhism. For example, how do we know that Buddhist teachers are suitably trained and qualified? And how do we know that ‘Buddhist’ meditation practice and retreats are not damaging some individuals?
Those who try to position the mindfulness movement as simply a therapeutic movement distinct from ‘traditional’ Buddhism will be confounded. The mindfulness movement includes many who clearly see it as a much broader movement benefitting many: the young and old, healthy and sick, religious and non-religious. MT is being widely deployed to healthy populations in schools, for example.
To me, what is being presented within this Handbook under the general title of ‘Mindfulness’ looks increasingly like a reworking of the heart of the Buddha Dhamma into an accessible, pragmatic, and evidence based new Westernised form. Personally, I do not find this threatening; it shows that Buddhist teachings are taken seriously by a core Western ideology – science – and bears comparison with the ways that Buddhist ideas have previously connected with historically dominant ideologies in China, Tibet, Japan and other Asian nations to generate new naturalised Buddhist forms.
Is this the arising of a Western Buddhism?