June 30, 2009

It's mindfulness, but is it Buddhism? Does it matter?

In today's Washington Post, a New York clinical psychologist specializing in cancer treatment writes of her own stage II breast cancer diagnosis. A proponent of mindfulness, Mindy Greenstein remembers what she learned from another breast cancer patient before she herself was diagnosed:

Every hour she spent ruminating about the pain that was awaiting her was another hour she wasn't fully engaged with her life, another hour she couldn't enjoy. She couldn't pretend she didn't know her prognosis. So she chose a different route.

Quoting one of the most well-know Buddhist teachers in the West, she continues:

Even the basic act of washing the dishes can be a mindful act if one is focusing only on washing the dishes and not on what activity comes next. As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains in "The Miracle of Mindfulness," when we let ourselves get sucked away into the future, we're not really living; for every next activity that comes, we're already thinking about the one following.

There's no doubt that mindfulness and mindfulness meditation have become mainstream. Remembering her introduction to the practice, Greenstein describes it this way: "Originally a Buddhist notion, mindfulness was making its way into Western psychology as a method of teaching people to take hold of their own consciousness.

The Dalai Lama, speaking to a student, once commented that if mindfulness can help to alleviate suffering in this way, it's a good thing, but it's not  Buddhism. As we apply simple mindfulness to a whole host of activities--from pain management to stress reduction to enhanced attention spans--it'll help to keep in mind that there's far more to mindfulness meditation than its palliative uses. But it's also good to know that it's being used to such positive effect. Like Greenstein points out, for many of us, it sure beats attempts at forced optimism.

You can read Greenstein's Washington Post piece here.

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jjwalker7730's picture

It does not matter what practice, as long as you pay attention to it when you are doing it.

dhRma4all's picture

The meaning of words like Mindfulness, Alertness, Attentiveness, Attention, Buddhist Practice, etc. overlap a great deal. For example, much of Alertness applies to Mindfulness, but they are definitely not the same thing and the evolution of our practice will benefit if we maintain the integrity of the intended meanings.

Words, bless their hearts, also have an inescapable vagueness (especially when they are translations of centuries-old works!). This imprecision is part of the adventure of the Path, and is usually useful, but when we stray too far, we benefit from the wisdom of a wise teacher like HH (that's one reason human wisdom is not simply biological evolution). Unlike what I thought in high school English or undergrad Philosophy, this Continuing Conceptual Refinement is more than just pedantry or scholasticism, and recognizes how our Path is not simply a random walk in the park.

Dharma_Warrior's picture

what do you gain by throwing your opinions on this board? Self-worthiness? To feel Right? Justified? etc?

I'm sorry if I offended you. If I did, let's look at who's offended. That's Buddhism, Dalai Lama is referring to - To realize our true essence, which is inevitably Empty.

Remember, a sniper just about make his kill can be just as Mindful as someone applying Mindfulness to lessen his/her suffering from their chronic pain.

Mindfulness is a great tool to stay present but staying present (calm-abiding) alone does not lead you to Realization. It's the Open Inquiry that must be added to to the Presence. Just being open to present moment can give the peace of mind, which does lead to less-suffering; however, if you're searching to become the "Awakened One", you must look deeper into your mind to gain the Insights and Ultimate Realization of The True Essence of all. That's Buddhism = no more Suffering. To heal the Suffering of dissatisfaction, not just to quiet our monkey mind. Yes, there is a difference.

May we all be free from suffering through Wisdom and Compassion.
Om Mani Pad Me Hum.

gwallis's picture

Although I provide a different perspective from you, my recent blog post might interest your readers: http://speculativenonbuddhism.wordpress.com

Mindfulness's picture

Mindfulness is central to Buddhism as a tool to chip away at the screen of illusion that characterize the way normally see things. But as a Buddhist I think mindfulness is a universal phenomenon that may be applied in any setting, not necessarily religious or spiritual.

David Henise's picture

Justin said: "Distance is just a matter of extent or depth of the practice."

Exactly. What NellaLou is getting at is that "healing" is usually seen or felt to be a short term goal while buddhist mindfulness is a longer term goal. I'll try to put it in yet another new light..

Technically, buddhism itself could be described as healing. But NellaLou and others (including myself earlier in the comments) are trying to be careful to distinguish something: Often psychological therapies are or have been used to help a person cope with their everyday life in their given society. You could describe such therapies as simply the mind's grappling with society. On the other hand, buddhism ultimately cares about the mind's grappling with its own self as much as possible.

Yes, you could define your psychological therapy however you wanted to and thus assimilate buddhism into your therapy or your therapy into buddhism. But, I think that the distinction I tried to explain above is why some of us feel motivated to stop and clarify a point that we could see many people getting tripped up on. As long as the "mindfulness" of someone's psychological therapy is or becomes focused entirely inwardly then, yes, it would be or become the same as buddhism.

Buddhism asks us to gradually transition from "You are doing this. You must be thinking this." to "I am doing this. I am thinking this." to something like "This thought just took place." That could be seen as an advanced progression of psychological therapies. But I could go on and on about how some might get hung up on misunderstandings if buddhism is made to sound like a simple tool for psychological therapy rather than an umbrella under which psychological therapy makes more sense.

Tricycle » It’s Mindfulness, but is it Mindfulness? redux's picture

[...] Post article that discussed mindfulness’s uses in dealing with diseases like cancer (”It’s mindfulness but is it Buddhism? Does it matter?“). Given the number of comments and a few mentions on other blogs (our friend the Rev. Danny [...]

Justin's picture

"Does one “see it as it is” with it’s intrinsic emptiness or does one sustain it by “healing” it? "

There seems to be an implicit assumption here that Buddhism is 'seeing it as it is' and mindfulness therapy is 'healing it'. I agree that there appear to be differences, but these are differences of depth and emphasis not fundamental differences in direction. In mindfulness therapy for example people can arrive at the same insights 'I am not my emotions', 'I am not my thoughts' as in Buddhism. And the practice is essentially the same.

"If one is resolved to go the entire distance, as uncomfortable as it can be, then more is needed than mindfulness therapy.

Even if that distance is not scientifically verifiable there is certainly enough anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that is it a worthwhile endeavor.

And Justin the more people I encounter who are far more advanced than I am the more I am convinced of that."

Distance is just a matter of extent or depth of the practice.

NellaLou's picture

My intention is all of the above. The idea becomes more clear the longer I practice. And it goes far beyond an idea or mental construction that I am trying to fit myself into. It is the opposite of that.

The crux of the situation is what is considered ego and what is to be done about it. Does one "see it as it is" with it's intrinsic emptiness or does one sustain it by "healing" it? Cases can be made for both.

There are times in practice that some obstacle throws one off balance and healing is needed to view the situation clearly. Not unlike a car on the road hitting an obstacle and going in the ditch. A little assistance and repair are required to carry on the journey. Again it depends on what Point B is for someone. If one is resolved to go the entire distance, as uncomfortable as it can be, then more is needed than mindfulness therapy.

Even if that distance is not scientifically verifiable there is certainly enough anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that is it a worthwhile endeavor.

And Justin the more people I encounter who are far more advanced than I am the more I am convinced of that.

Justin's picture

So what is the intention of your practice? To become a Buddha? Do you have clear idea in your mind what that is?

Or to overcome suffering caused by desire, aversion and delusion? If so, this is not so different from the intention of mindfulness therapies - just formulated differently.

NellaLou's picture

Hi Justin.

I mean the intention differs and yes, there is a belief system and set of values that are interconnected with Buddhist mindfulness that may not be present with therapeutic mindfulness or may be secondary to the initial goal of therapeutic mindfulness. It is not a question of better or not. The only question is, does it fulfill the intention. When the intention differs the results differ as well.

In a metaphorical illustration suppose you and I decide to walk somewhere each on our own. My intention is to reach the grocery store and your intention is to reach the park. We are using the same methodology, walking, but we end up in different places due to intention. It isn't ideology that accounts for the difference but intention.

Buddhists that I am aware of who practice mindfulness meditation do not do so for overtly therapeutic purposes although that may be a secondary resulting benefit.

Justin's picture

"The objective of Buddhism involves not only methodology but ideology."

Do you mean that mindfulness therapy is a practice while Buddhism is a practice plus an ideology ie. a belief system and set of values?

Is this better? Do the results really differ or is this just part of the ideology?

Glen D's picture

a little article on the relationship between mindfulness, concentration and how wisdom needs to enter the equation.


maybe it helps

dhRma4all's picture

Thanks, Glen, for your excellent article. The final chapter in Andrew Olendzki's book, Unlimiting Mind, is another great resource. Thanks again.

David Henise's picture

Perhaps a shorter statement will help: Buddhism is not intentionless.

At certain stages of our growth, we don't yet see how true this is. But if we live long enough, we will learn that simply being mindful of events, while helpful, will not take us all the way to buddhahood. We must eventually question, not simply be mindful. It's not worth arguing over - it's simply something we learn when we learn it.

NellaLou's picture

To my mind Buddhism has a specific agenda outlined in the Buddhist canon. Mindfulness as a therapeutic method is laudable and if it helps people I am all for it.

The objective of Buddhism involves not only methodology but ideology. That is where the division lies between Buddhist mindfulness practice and therapeutic mindfulness practice.

It may be the same methodology but context, intention, ideology, and results all differ.

Justin's picture

"mindfulness has the goal of consciously promoting growth so if the growth helped by mindfulness is not conscious then in one sense we are not being mindful of the purpose of our mindfulness. Thus it can be said that in that sense random mindfulness is “not Buddhism”."

Not sure what this means. The mindfulness of Buddhism and the mindfulness of mindfulness are both just mindfulness to whatever arises. In both cases there might be some concentration on particular phenomena. There is no real difference in terms of intentionality.

David Henise's picture

To answer the questions above, although the objections are also true: mindfulness has the goal of consciously promoting growth so if the growth helped by mindfulness is not conscious then in one sense we are not being mindful of the purpose of our mindfulness. Thus it can be said that in that sense random mindfulness is "not Buddhism".

pdignan's picture

Hard to imagine HHDL saying that everyday mindfulness is "not Buddhism." Everything is Buddhism. Nothing is Buddhism. Less suffering is less suffering.

bryantp's picture

Buddhism does not exist apart from daily life.

orkneyearl's picture

If Buddhism can be summed up as "it is what it is", then why isn't this Buddhism, and why should it matter?

With all due respect to His Holiness, what is it about engaged mindfulness that isn't Buddhism?

Oh yeah, by the way... FIRST!!! ;^{)>