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 the destructive power of greed and selfish competition. They emphasize the delusions that underlie unhealthy behavior. If the situation demands it, they don’t shrink from questioning cherished Western notions.
So I have to ask myself, what makes me resist acquiescence to the status quo? What important ingredient is missing from mindfulness training?
Mindful meditation remains powerful as a stand-alone technique. And the Buddha himself cautioned against obsessing about unanswerable metaphysical questions; he advised us to focus on healing our tormented minds. So if isolated mindfulness instruction is deficient in some way, the flaw is far from fatal.
Still, some nugget of valid concern drove me to criticize this demonstrably useful training.
Twenty-five years ago I began my spiritual quest after Alcoholics Anonymous challenged me to believe in a “higher power.” Since I’d been raised as an atheist, this seemed like an impossible demand. But I valued my sobriety and felt it important to seek something like God.
Visitors to this site have read some of the results. During my search for a higher power, I’ve experienced profound religious visions and felt “something like God” burn its presence into my consciousness. I’ve entered deep meditative states and seen cosmic unity as not only true but obvious, brimming with love and rightness. My entire worldview has been transformed. I can’t say anything too specific about reality’s underpinnings, but my heart is flooded with affection whenever I contemplate this fertile world. I don’t believe in a God separate from creation, but I wonder if the Cosmos itself isn’t something like the great deity religions speak of: timeless, creative, powerful, and embracing.
I imagine that anyone reading the previous paragraph can see how it goes beyond everyday mindfulness. To be precise, it opens to the Sacred. Numinosity, I now understand, is what’s missing from clinical mindfulness training. Sadly, because of prejudice against mysticism, Buddhist Vipassana meditation centers emphasize it less than they might. There is reverence, yes, but not much awe.
I would argue that one big problem in the modern world is exactly our refusal to feel dumbstruck by Creation. We believe that because we can explain its mechanistic details, we have bridled Nature. This leaves us feeling powerful, but alone. Deluded into thinking we can control chaotic and complex forces, we destroy the very world that nurtures us.
Religions, for all their faults, encourage us to crumble to our knees before powers too vast and mysterious to be comprehended. This is the essential ingredient that contemporary mindfulness instruction lacks. Even some “spiritual” teachings, like those in many urban Buddhist centers, constrain their demands in deference to a widely accepted but devotionally bereft worldview.
Materialist atheism is no more provable than traditional deism. And ultimate truth likely lies somewhere in between. I am by no means advocating belief in improbable doctrine or literal interpretation of primitive myths. But let’s also be realistic in our valuation of human reason, which easily dissects processes but cannot nail down absolute reality. The appropriate stance is therefore humility, not certainty. Humanity would do well to nourish feelings of awe in place of arrogance.
Meditative techniques were developed in India, millennia ago, in order to guide seekers to union with the great mystery, with Brahmin, or God (take your pick of terminology). Nowadays intellectuals dismiss most theologies, and Buddhism moved away from asking about ultimate reality in order to confront the more immediate problem of day-to-day insanity. But the human spirit seems driven to worship something, and there is great danger if it chooses to worship itself rather than the inscrutable forces that created it.
While evolving as hunter-gatherers, humans recognized their smallness relative to the biosphere and their intimate dependence upon Nature. This would have felt frightening, but also embracing. Our society now acts as if it stands separate from global ecology. The traditional Gods of civilization appear inorganic and detached. Scientific materialism appeals to the intellect but not the heart. The human psyche feels ever more disconnected and bored in this stark conceptual landscape.
Because conventional mindfulness training fails to encourage bowing before ineffable forces, it is not the most effective cure for feelings of isolation and alienation. Admittedly, in its full expression mindfulness triggers the non-dual state, which opens one’s eyes to the lack of distinction between the witness and the Witnessed. But resonant awareness comes late in the game, and not everyone experiences it. Mindfulness is a derived technique of great value, but recovering the abandoned Sacred is at least as vital to a healthy future.
With everything said above, my conclusion still must be that I was wrong to criticize mindfulness. It is an invaluable tool that has brought relief to many suffering souls, including mine.
Still, no single tonic is capable of healing all disease. The human collective needs mindfulness, but it also needs devotion to something greater than itself.