In my enthusiasm I made the unfortunate error of posting prematurely—mea culpa. The post that appeared for a short while with much the same title as this one, though with a different subtitle, discussed an article by Ron Purser forthcoming in the journal Mindfulness, an article that was itself a response to another article in that same journal. The journal editor has requested that the post be held until Purser’s article actually appears in print. As a professional courtesy, editor to editor as it were, I am of course quite happy to comply.
Purser’s essay is a response to the article “Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness: Finding the Middle Path in the Tangle of Concerns,” by Lynette M. Monteiro, R.F. Musten, and Jane Compson, Mindfulness, published online: 29 April 2014. Since this is an already published essay, and has been made available by the lead author on Academia.edu, I hope that there is no problem about going to the source, as it were. Here we examine one rather small section of their essay, the claims they make regarding there being three components comprising all mindfulness based interventions.
(note: in the following, page citations are to the unnumbered page of the text as such of the version published online; in this instance the text of the essay is preceded by a title page and colophon which I am not counting—in my ignorance regarding whether a standard exists for citing this new kind of publication, i.e., online in advance of the journal publication and therefore unnumbered, I hope that this is at least clear; if anyone knows of a new standard for citing such works, I would be grateful to know what it is)
(another note: this is not personal, I don’t know Monteiro, Musten or Compton; I presume that they are all well-intentioned and I have no reason to doubt that the work they do at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic does provide the symptom relief that they discuss in their article)
One of the issues central to the therapeutic appropriation of Buddhist practices is that such appropriations almost always employ those practices in a framework that reinforces belief in an autonomous self and action based on such belief, rather than working to de-reify the self. That is, they actively promote the value of a personal ātman, rather than working to awaken the person to the dysfunctions resulting from clinging to the personal ātman. In other words, they reinforce the mistaken belief that the personal ātman is permanent, reliable, a stable and trustworthy center in a changing world. (Those of you familiar with Glenn Wallis’s blog “Speculative Non-Buddhism: Ruins of the Buddhist Real,” now archived, will know that Tom Pepper has been particularly effective at calling attention to this problem in the therapeutic appropriations of Buddhism.)
Much, if not most, or maybe even all, of the modern Western spiritual literature can be interpreted as the quest to locate this personal ātman, languaged under such phrases as “finding one’s true self.” Such conceptualizations of human existence dichotomize our existence into a false, shallow or inauthentic self, defined in opposition to a true, deep or authentic self. This simplistic “spiritual psychology” is so widely employed and often reinforced that it is taken as obviously true, something everyone knows, neither giving rise to doubt nor requiring justification. It is, in other words, part of contemporary popular religious culture that can be deployed to create unreflective acquiescence, to soothe, a soporific to induce a gentle comforting sleep.
Monteiro, et al., claim that what they call “contemporary mindfulness” integrates Buddhist understandings of how the mind works (see the second item in the next paragraph). This suggests that a close consideration of the conceptual system at the base of “contemporary mindfulness” to determine whether this is the case or not is worth pursuing. (note: we will be considering Monteiro, et al.’s, representation of contemporary mindfulness, and not attempting a survey of different kinds of mindfulness practices as found in the present)
In their discussion of mindfulness-based interventions (referred to as MBIs), Monteiro, et al., claim that “Despite their diversity, mindfulness-based interventions can be viewed broadly as an integration of three approaches or stances to the cultivation of well-being,” (p. 4). These three components, which they claim are the common sources of all MBIs, are (1) contemplative/meditative practices, (2) “the understanding of how we experience the flow of events in our body/mind,” and (3) to “shift away from experiential avoidance” (p. 4). Much of what the authors claim in their analysis of putatively “traditional and contemporary” mindfulness is informed by this explanation of the construction of MBIs.
(another brief aside: the categories that they construct their argument around—traditional and contemporary—are themselves inadequately theorized and lack clear definition in relation to the history of Buddhism. Hence in the sentence above those categories are marked with “putatively” as well as being placed in quotation marks. While they give a nod of deference to Cantwell Smith’s 1962 The meaning and end of religion when discussing the historical background of Buddhism, there is no substantive academic history of Buddhism listed in their bibliography. Cynics take note: this is not simply quibbling, but rather evidence of the lack of grounding in the actual history of Buddhism common to many of the therapeutic appropriations of Buddhist practices, i.e., part of the decontextualization that Jeff Wilson refers to as the “mystification” of mindfulness. While claims regarding the origins of contemporary therapeutic mindfulness often accord with this claim by Monteiro, et al.—that they are based on both Western psychology and Buddhism—there is an almost universal lack of historical understanding and a depressing lack of interest in that history. As a consequence the Buddhism represented is partial or selective at best. As I have previously discussed, the totality created by blending Western therapeutic conceptions with secondary sources about Buddhism that are already informed by Western therapeutic conceptions does not in fact do what is claimed about bringing the two together, but only creates that illusion.)
The following attempts to explore the resonances that Monteiro, et al.’s claims sound in contemporary popular religious culture and contemporary popular Buddhist discourse. It is those broader belief systems that their claims activate and which serve as the plausibility structure (see Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, 1967, reprint 1990, New York: Anchor Books, Random House, p. 45) that makes Monteiro, et al.’s claims appear obvious and unproblematic to some if not many readers of their article.
The authors explain the first of the three components saying that it “is composed of various contemplative practices that are spiritual and/or religious” (ibid.). This evaluation reflects the cultural practice of distinguishing technology from ideology. This distinction presumes, wrongly, that technology is value-free and context-neutral, and that meditative or contemplative practices can, therefore, be selected out of any religious tradition without distortion. It also assumes that the medicalized therapeutic employment is itself value-free and context-neutral, making the cultural frameworks of market capitalism invisible. There is, however, no value-free and context-neutral human situation. To pluck a practice out of its context in 18th century Tibet or 13th century Germany or 19th century American Southwest, and try to shake off the cultural significances by claiming that those are merely accidental cultural accretions around the essence, only recreates those practices in a new cultural framework—as well as exercising the arrogance of imperialism in the claim to be able to determine what that essence is better than the practitioners of that tradition.
One might note as an example that a great deal has been made about how inappropriate it is for new age-y entrepreneurs to offer weekend sweat lodge experiences. Can one really claim to identify the essence of sweat lodge practice sanitized of any Native American cultural accretions? Or imagine the response were someone to attempt to introduce “secular exorcisms” into medical settings. These comparisons raise the question, Why it is that Buddhism seems to be particularly vulnerable to such therapeutic expropriations? (This follows on Megan Bryson’s insightful analysis of the use of Buddhist images and languaging as part of creating appealing products, which she presented at AAR/2014/San Diego, and reflected in the substance of her website “Zensanity.”) Such appropriations are part of a wider colonialist propensity in which the colonized (Buddhism in this case) is exploited for resources to be utilized by colonizers (religio-therapeutic entrepreneurs), who in turn disdain and diminish the colonized in order to justify exploiting them. For all the mouthing of pious platitudes regarding respect for the buddha, dharma and sangha, to presume that those who wish to use Buddhism for their own ends have the capacity—unlike actual Buddhists—to distinguish “essence” from incidental cultural accretion is both arrogant and disdainful of the tradition itself.
The second component is key to the logic of the argument presented by Monteiro, et al. Their claim is that MBIs employ a model of the working of consciousness that draws on Buddhist concepts, but while at the same time claiming that “these concepts are also found in psychotherapeutic approaches such as focusing therapy” (ibid.) This points up another common rhetoric in this kind of discourse, that “it is all the same anyway.” Again, no theorizing is given here to support the claim, but implicit is a psychological version of Perennialism—the religious theory that there is only one TRUTH and that all religions are simply pathways leading toward it. In its psychological form, the notion seems to be that there is only one kind of human mind, and that all psychologies are simply pathways leading to it. As with the first component, both religious Perennialism and its psychological variant dismiss any differences as simply irrelevant to the single core “truth” revealed by a kind of triangulation—whatever is the same from two or more different perspectives must be the truth.
What this ignores is the differing functions for which the two systems—Buddhist philosophy of mind and Euro-American psychotherapies—have been constructed. Or, not just an ignoring, but rather bringing to bear another questionable rhetorical strategy to erase such differences. That is the claim that both seek to relieve suffering. Monteiro, et al., deploy this rhetoric in the introductory paragraph: “both the traditional Buddhist and contemporary views of mindfulness share a functional intent (to alleviate suffering)” (p. 1). By erasing differences in this way, both Buddhist philosophy of mind and psychotherapeutic conceptions of mind are so reduced in their uniqueness and complexity that they can easily be equated with one another.
another more tangential notes: in this section—in which the uniformity of Buddhist and psychotherapeutic philosophies of mind are equated—the only source the authors cite is Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught (1974); this work, however, is itself informed by the rationalizing and psychologizing of Buddhist modernism, and is not therefore a reliable independent witness to Buddhist philosophy of mind, reliance on works already holding the same view is a petitio principii fallacy; a further thought, this one regarding Perrennialism: two of the sources that the authors use are Karen Armstrong’s Buddha and Great Transformation. Like Huston Smith before her, Armstrong is deeply committed to Perennialism, which informs her (mis-)representations of Buddhism. Additionally, citing Armstrong, Monteiro, et al., buy into the rhetoric of an Axial Age, which far from being an established fact, is a very dubious historical speculation, and one that serves to marginalize everyone not part of the Greek, Indic or Sinitic cultures.)
In regard to the third component, the authors say “While the protocols of the specific program will vary, MBI programs have the common intention to reduce mental dispersal, which can encourage avoidance of our experience, so that we have a direct contact with our unfolding experience. Ultimately, the practice leads to taking responsibility for our own experience and cultivating the wisdom to manage it skillfully” (p. 4.). Each of these two sentences are problematic, and, as noted previously in relation to other aspects of the essay, are expressed without a clearly articulated theory.
The first of the two sentences quoted above refers to having “direct contact with our unfolding experience.” This assertion is so much of a commonplace that the uncritical reader may not stop to ask: What does this mean? How does it work? Why is it good? In the absence of any such theoretical explanation, the assertion appears to be simply a vacuous platitude.
The claim does resonate with elements of the plausibility structure of popular religious culture, specifically with the idea that it is possible to have direct, unmediated experience, and that this kind of experience is privileged as incorrigible, i.e., in the philosophic sense of not subject to correction. This notion of direct, unmediated experience is at the core of Western religious conceptions of mysticism and informs theologically rooted definitions of religion as experience from the early nineteenth century (for discussion see “Grandfather to Contemporary Buddhism in the West—Friedrich Schleiermacher?“). This idea has worked its way into contemporary popular religious discourse largely through the Romantics and their formative influence on psychology. Despite its common usage and wide acceptance it has (quite successfully to my mind) been refuted by a variety of thinkers over the last century. Most thoroughly and extensively by Richard Rorty in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, 1979), as well as also in the several treatments of this topic by Steven T. Katz.
The second sentence is also problematic. This is the claim that “practice leads to taking responsibility for our own experience” (p. 4) Perhaps this is just undertheorized (or poorly written), but how is it possible for experience to be something that one takes responsibility for? I can understand taking responsibility for one’s actions, but not one’s experience. Unless, and this is a distinct possibility, concealed by lack of explicit theorizing there is an idealist conception of mind at work here. Similarly, we find them claiming that “Mindfulness-based interventions have adapted to and influenced conventional perspectives of the individuals capacity to heal through their own wisdom” (p. 5). These two expressions share the idea of an autonomous self, deeply concealed and infinitely powerful, just waiting to be tapped into. This inner resource of life and vitality is a fundamental conception of the self for the Romantic tradition, but does not constitute part of the Buddhist philosophy of mind. It cannot simply be assumed that Buddhist philosophy of mind, in any of its myriad instantiations, is unproblematically identical with Western conceptions of mind, even the select ones that Monteiro, et al. mention.
Many of the therapeutic appropriations of Buddhist practice place those practices into new contexts, ones that support and reinforce the idea of an autonomous self, in the form of a deep inner healing wisdom or a true self or a Self or… Fundamental to Buddhist teachings, however, is a critique of all such beliefs regarding an autonomous self on the grounds that such beliefs are conducive to suffering. Rather than simply the alleviation of suffering, the goal of the teachings and the goal of practice in Buddhism is the de-reification of the autonomous self.