May 28, 2010

The benefits of mindfulness meditation... but what is it?

A recent article in UCLA's Daily Bruin reiterates a common theme that is repeated daily in news reports around the world: Meditation is good for reducing stress, and therefore is good for your health:

Breathe in. Hold. Release. Repeat.

Do you feel calmer?

Some students have turned to meditation as a useful way to help study for finals and focus their attention....

Researchers at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging found that daily meditation helped certain areas of the brain to grow denser.

Researchers studied 22 test subjects who had been meditating on a daily basis for at least five years and compared their MRI scans to those of a control group who do not meditate. The study showed an increase in the density of the gray matter of those subjects who meditated, said Eileen Luders, Laboratory of Neuro Imaging researcher and head of the study.

“I think everybody should meditate because the threshold for being able to do it is so low,” Luders said. “You just need a comfy chair, some quiet and 15 minutes. It’s so simple, but it has huge effects.”

Great, right? A form of practice developed thousands of years comes to the rescue in our hectic, stressed-out lives.

And here is mindfulness meditation used as a strategy to reduce shyness in job interviews. But does what is described in the Daily Bruin article constitute meditation? And what exactly is mindfulness meditation? We certainly can't say that they're whatever we want them to be.

In his new book Unlimiting Mind, Andrew Olendzki goes back to the source and analyzes mindfulness and meditation from an Abhidhamma perspective. (The Abhidhamma is a collection of works that refines and systemizes the early teachings of the Buddha.) Olendzki writes:

We have already seen that if I sit with my legs crossed, back straight, and intentionally direct my attention to a single point, I am not necessarily meditating. These are all factors that will manifest spontaneously in any endeavor, and are not unique to meditation. If I further apply my mind and sustain its attention on the in-breath, put forth energy with determination, and a self-inclination for the well-being of all living creatures, I may well be meditating—but that does not necessarily mean that I am cultivating mindfulness.

Mindfulness (sati, 29*) according to the Abhidhamma, is a wholesome mental factor that will arise only under special circumstances.... (1) its characteristic is not wobbling, or keeping the mind from floating away from its object; (2) its function is absence of confusion, or non-forgetfulness (the term sati comes from a term for memory); (3) its manifestation is the state of facing or engaging with an objective phenomenal field; and (4) its immediate cause is strong perception or the four foundations of mindfulness (i.e., mindfulness of body, feeling, mind, mental objects). (pp. 169-170.)

That may seem like a lot to take in. Is that why mindfulness and meditation are usually explained in reductive, simplistic terms in the culture at large? Does it help or harm Buddhism if "Buddhism Lite" spreads out into the world? Does the dharma get diluted, or do these sticky tendrils pull people into the core teachings?

Andrew Olendzki's Unlimiting Mind is published by Wisdom Books. It is the subject of the current Tricycle Community Book Club discussion, where you can watch a video interview and reading with the author.

*That is, 29th of the 52 factors mentioned above.

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Gwen Bell's picture

Absolutely, the sticky tendrils pull people into the core teachings.

Further, if they never make it to the core teachings, what harm is done?

Craig's picture

Thanks for the reminder. Whereas sitting still and collecting your thoughts, or even perhaps stopping at the pub for a beer can reduce stress, mindfulness is a totally different brew.

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