This is something I have been thinking about for some time. As a psychologist, I am excited about advances in my field of interest. However, I am also quite skeptical about the (very bad, in my opinion) tendency of looking for psychological applications of spiritual traditions. Naturally, I’ll talk about Buddhism here, but I think this is applicable to other spiritual traditions as well.
Briefly, I think psychologists (of course, not every single one of us) that make use of mindfulness-based interventions, for example, are grossly misrepresenting what mindfulness means in the wider context of a spiritual tradition that has hundreds of years of accumulated experience and wisdom. In other words, what I see is that people are extracting what they consider to be convenient for them and throwing away other elements that they do not want to deal with: “it is nice to be mindful, but renunciation, restraint, or what-not, I don’t want these”. This has some level of self-criticism: I have engaged in this type of behavior too.
So I’d like to hear from you what your thoughts are. Do you believe this is a real issue or am I being over-zealous?
P.S.: I do not oppose the idea that people could get benefits from meditation practices, but I do not think it is a positive thing to adopt a vocabulary which mimics the terminology that has a very specific (and often richer) meaning inside a tradition like Buddhism.
@ngvitor I have been following a spririted debate on this very issue on academia.edu, specifically as it relates to MBIs mindfulness based intervention therapy techniques, which seems to be a bigger umbrella term for what started off with MBSR, mindfulness based stress reduction. I am not a psychologist so I cannot really judge the quality of research at the level of a professional but I have found some authors who are indeed arguing that dropping Sila and other important factors for convenience and broader reach is counterproductive in the long run. It is also short changing both psychotherapeutic approaches and Buddhist teachings. One group whose papers I have read the most on this topic is headed by Lynette M. Monteiro. It should be easy enough to search for her papers but if you want, I can link some specific papers here. There are several psychologists engaged in this debate, finding one paper will lead you to most of the others.
It is a real issue. Experienced Buddhists see the acceptance of mindfulness into western thinking as a cultural phenomenon with a long time frame into the future, and are not concerned about it happening in a piecemeal way. You can watch the topics as they evolve at the forefront of research by following Ven Analayo’s papers:
Yes, one can take the view that any exposure to something connected with the Dhamma is a positive. I’ve come across people who started out with a basic mindfulness course, and subsequently wanted to go deeper.
Furthermore, most people promoting mindfulness in a psychology setting are genuinely agnostic about the rest of the Dhamma. I.e. they just ignore it.
I think that is less problematic in many ways than “Secular Buddhist” approaches, which are often far from agnostic.
The teachings are not confined to religion label, so people other than practising Buddhists can benefit from some aspects of mindfulness.
It thus acts as a soft, passive conversion tool. Attracting those who has the right conditions and aptitude to come deep into the Dhamma and Buddhism.
Just as the study of science produces tech for all to use and benefit, the existence of Buddhism can output secular mindfulness for all to use and benefit. Whereas previously, the tech of Buddhism is only for those who converted or open minded to learn. It’s akin to being able to use computers only if you’re a scientist.
It’s not done yet. Secular mindfulness wouldn’t remain this way forever. If the trend continues and scientists keeps on exploring more and more about meditation, Jhanas, supernormal powers, rebirth evidences etc, eventually, just as secular mindfulness is able to be accepted by all, Buddhism may gradually become scientifically verified bit by bit. Especially cool if the scientists trains in the Jhanas, gain supernormal powers and use them as tools to advance other areas of science and knowledge. It’ll become more and more stupid to think that Buddhism can be separated into the scientific “secular mindfulness”, and the rest of the supernatural stuffs which maybe corrupted by myths. The recognition of Buddha as the awakened one, supreme to all beings becomes harder and harder to ignore.
One thing that becomes quite clear in our generation is that once you say/communicate something it doesn’t ‘belong’ to you anymore - it ‘belongs’ to the beholder. (Ex-)parters do it when breaking up (“I’ll never forget how you said that two years ago”) and it’s ubiquitous in social media - people will take out of context, misquote you, use what you said for their purposes.
And actually, didn’t the Buddha do the same? When he took Brahmanical or Jain terms out of context, reframing them for his purpose? What is the orthodox Buddhists’ reply if a Brahmin said “Hey, you can’t use brahmacarya like that - this is our concept!”
Generally I’m sure ancient Indian teachers would be quite forgiving about what Kabat-Zinn et al are doing, they used that tool all the time. After all the mindfulnessists don’t say “This is Buddhism”. Mostly they’d say, I assume, that it’s inspired by Buddhist practice, but the label is MBSR, so let them enjoy their fruit.
To me, it’s like if you wanted to get fit. If you already have a reasonably good diet, then you can just focus on the exercises, good technique, etc., and it’ll work well.
But if you’re on a diet of fast food and soda and chocolate, what happens in the gym is kind of irrelevant until you fix your diet.
Likewise, if you have fairly good ethics, then the meditation will work pretty well on its own and you don’t need to look at ethics too much if you’re happy with the results you’re getting. But if you’re ethics are a bit so so, or you’re not getting the results you want, you have to look at what you’re doing outside of the meditation hall.
And just like an athlete, if they wanna go to the “next level”, you’ll need to look at all aspects of training, not just the exercises in the gym.
My understanding of the difference between modern psychology and Buddhas teachings, is that psychology tries to “help” us to change our daydreaming into a kind with less nightmares, while Buddhas teachings is aimed at waking us up permanently. And when the dream is over, there is no nightmares arising.