Over cups of coffee a few days ago, my friend Larry Berkelhammer and I discussed mindfulness meditation. For some reason, I felt moved to criticize Western mindfulness instruction as “derivative.” Larry served as a good foil to my rant, since as explained in the ‘About Dr. Berkelhammer‘ section of his website, he has a long, distinguished history of practicing mindful meditation and teaching it to those with chronic illness.
Let me admit up front that I was tossing out an ill-formed opinion that stands contrary to truth. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the well-known advocate of mindfulness in clinical settings, hardly deserves scorn. Nor do Buddhist meditation teachers, many of whom have helped me advance on my path toward greater acceptance and less neurosis. I could chalk my comments up to a momentary breakdown of reason.
But after considering the matter for several days, I wonder if there isn’t some vein of truth hidden amidst the sediments of useless argument. If so, we can consider this essay a mining expedition, a search for the valid nugget of concern that motivated my remarks.
Since I kept labeling Western mindfulness derivative, it makes sense to start there. Meditation as taught in medical centers, as popularized by Kabat-Zinn, comes stripped of the Eastern metaphysical context from which it emerged long ago. Teachers emphasize technique and downplay interpretation. There is no discussion of the nature of reality. The origins of mind might be considered from a neuroscience perspective, but not from a mystical one. Students learn body scanning, mindful eating, walking meditation, and nonjudgmental awareness, but they are not encouraged to question modernity’s basic assumptions about the universe. Non-duality and cosmic consciousness are off the table.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Larry Berkelhammer, and others who have introduced the power of mindfulness to the suffering would never have succeeded had they insisted on philosophical stances contrary to what moderns consider realism. Medical institutions are both cautious and conventional. Even devoid of metaphysics, mindfulness faced resistance at first.
Meanwhile, teachers at Buddhist centers have long brought contemporary values and outlooks to task. They point out …