People are talking about mindfulness as if it’s the latest fashion trend: mindful eating, mindful communication, mindful movement, even mindful business management. The explosion of books, CD’s and videos on the subject now includes weekend seminars and lengthy meditation retreats. Leaders of this new field articulate the merging of mindfulness, technology, and ancient wisdom traditions to rapt audiences. Academies are dedicated to its study. An industry has been born.

But what exactly is mindfulness?

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a well known expert in the field, “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” In this mental state, one can release one’s mind from the weight of past actions and thoughts as well as from worries about the future. Each person can experience  life fully and deeply, right now.

Historical Origins

Twenty five hundred years ago, an Indian Prince named Siddhartha Gautama left the protected confines of his palace, seeking answers to his most profound questions about life.  Why do we get sick and die? What is the nature of joy and happiness, of sorrow and pain? Who are we? How should we live?

At his moment of enlightenment, Siddhartha realized that life itself was suffering, and that this suffering had a cause. The cause, he saw, was rooted in our attachment to transient things.  But he also realized suffering could be eased by following what he called the “middle path.”  This was a way of living between the extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-denial (asceticism).

These were the Four Noble Truths and became the foundation of the religion known as Buddhism (after the Sanskrit word buddha, or “enlightened one”).

One method used to achieve this detachment is meditation. By focusing upon one’s breath, a ritual phrase (called a mantra), or musical notes, a person can release him or herself from the ego attachments that keep us trapped in the ongoing state of suffering that Buddha described. With practice, the relentless chatter in our heads–“monkey mind”– begins to slow down.  One can breathe into the silent spaces between words, achieving a state of peaceful calm.

But Buddhism is more than just the resolution of suffering through meditative contemplation.  Buddhism is also a religion, replete with gods, dogma and a doctrine of reincarnation; a religion where people spin prayer wheels, carry mallas of prayer beads, and worship relics believed to be the hair and teeth of the historical Buddha.

As the religion moved through space and time, it absorbed the characteristics of the tribes and countries it entered.  The teachings of Siddhartha, also known as the Buddha, eventually spread south and east to Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos.  Carried by itinerant teachers, it took root in Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan.

Along with focusing on Siddhartha himself, many Buddhist centers began to include worship of bodhisatvas: enlightened beings (often considered saints) who refuse release from the cycle of birth, death and re-birth, choosing instead to be reborn again and again until all sentient beings are liberated from suffering.  The fundamental tenets of the Buddha’s original teachings, however, always remained at the center of these variations.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Buddhism washed ashore in America. The ancient religion found fertile ground in a country receptive to fresh ideas. Material prosperity and stifling conventionality pushed many in the young generation to search for new sources of meaning in a world where the good life was defined by material success. At the same time, the Vietnam War raged on, further undermining faith in western modes of thought and action. Restless, youthful eyes were turned eastward.

And from the far east came waves of smiling Buddhist monks, ancient texts in hand. They opened up institutes, meditation centers, and printing presses to spread the word.

The Science Buddha

Among them was the affable Dalai Lama.  Fascinated by science, he presented Tibetan Buddhism as a belief system that could provide spiritual satisfaction, while it satisfied scientific rationality.

The Dalai Lama and his cadre of monks and nuns calmly submitted to a battery of evaluative tests.  These included electroencephalograms (EEGs), fMRI’s, and blood draws to monitor their serotonin and dopamine levels as they moved from ordinary consciousness into deep meditative states.

The possible health benefits of these practices for the general population were duly noted:  lowered blood pressure, improved sleep, and the relief of anxiety. In combination with proper diet and exercise, heart disease could be slowed down and even reversed.

The marriage of science and Buddhism provided the legitimacy needed to allow an ancient religion to become fully modern.  Buddhism was embraced by spiritual seekers and the scientific community alike.  It was this evolution that gave rise to the mindfulness movement.

Bait and/or Switch?

Though one cannot be a Buddhist without practicing mindfulness, one can certainly practice mindfulness without being Buddhist. But there has been a subtle merging of the two under the new heading of “Buddhist Psychology”.

Western psychologists have naturally taken the lead in this field. They teach classes with titles such as “The Hungry Ghost: Mindfulness for Addiction Recovery”, “What the Buddha Felt”, and “Nyngma Psychology”. Classes commonly begin with the Indian greeting “namaste”, sometimes include group chanting of “om”, and often end with the ringing of a Tibetan bell or bowl.  Buddhist philosophy and ritual mingle seamlessly with the science of psychology.  It becomes difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins–or if there is really any difference between them at all.

In his seminal book “Orientalism”, Edward Said described a process in which westerners travel to the “Orient”, return, and describe the world they have seen.  But the Orient of their telling is a projection of their own romantic fantasies, rather than an accurate description of the thing itself.  Eastern thoughts and practices came to fit the shape of their container: western desires.

According to Said, this was part of a colonial project, grounded in a powerful narrative. The Orient was seen as a mysterious land of riches (territory and treasure) and superstitious beliefs (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam).  It was all but calling out to be conquered by the advanced (scientific) and compassionate (Christian) west—conquerors who would protect its cultural and material wealth and civilize its heathen population. The West would even save their oriental souls (with conversion). As Rudyard Kipling, the great British poet and colonialist said, such was the “white man’s burden”.

We in the west have embraced Buddhism. It’s rich history has left the world beautiful gold-adorned temples and a legion of monks and nuns who walk the earth peacefully, offering an alternative to the hustle and bustle we have come to call normal.

But there are aspects of this religion that don’t really make sense to our western minds.  They offend our rational, scientific view of the world. With the help of western trained psychologists, though, we have been able to “cleanse” Buddhism of its superstitions, extract its scientific core, and replace it with an improved, modernized version: mindfulness.

One cannot deny the health benefits of mindfulness.  However, we should not confuse mindfulness with the ancient spiritual traditions from which it arose.  Buddhism—and the Vedic teachings that inspired it–is a complex mix of ritual and belief, a culture–based path to enlightenment. Mindfulness is a single piece of that path, a thread pulled from a complex tapestry.

On its long journey from the Himalayan foothills to the conference halls of Silicon Valley, Buddhism has been recast in a purely scientific, psychological and neurological light. Psychologists, with the stamp of professional legitimacy, now stand behind lecterns and presume to be expanding the teachings of Siddhartha Gauthama.  Listeners beware.  While we can embrace mindfulness, it’s important to remember what it is—and what it is not.

Dr. Ricky Fishman has been a San Francisco based Chiropractor since 1986.  In addition to the treatment and prevention of back pain and other musculoskeletal injuries, he works as a consultant in the field of health and wellness with companies dedicated to the re-visioning of health care for the 21st century.

Copyright 2013 Ricky Fishman

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