In Chris Goto-Jones’s research into why people start mindfulness courses (discussed in his course De-Mystifying Mindfulness), he finds the reasons the vast majority give are around reducing negative experiences, feeling calmer, coping with stress and regulating emotion. Almost a third start because of a recommendation from someone else. But very few cite ‘spirituality’ as a motivation.
This could be down to the population of people he consulted, who were more likely to be doing mindfulness on an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Release (MBSR) course than a Buddhist meditation course. And the vagueness of the way in which people use the word ‘spirituality’ presents difficulties. Many associate it with a religion in which they were brought up, or which they’ve adopted as an adult. Rather than use the word ‘religion’ they’ll talk about ‘spiritual paths’. Others will go further and say they don’t subscribe to religion at all but to ‘spirituality’, but that assertion can have a wide spread of meaning too.
But it seems clear that what kick-started the mindfulness ‘movement’ was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work in a clinical setting at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the early 1990s. This led to a surge in peer-reviewed scientific studies of mindfulness, which seems to have given it a respectability in secular society that it wouldn’t have had if it had remained in the Buddhist sphere. This despite Kabat-Zinn’s consistent acknowledgement of his personal involvement in and support for Buddhism.
So people are attracted to mindfulness because it’s brought meditation into science and dumped the baggage of oriental religion? Not quite so simple, as Chris points out, looking both at people attracted to this view, and also at scholarly writing on mindfulness:
… some people come to mindfulness precisely because they have been convinced it has nothing to do with spirituality, but at the same time fearing it might have something to do with spirituality; for these people the idea of spirituality signifies something like the absence of scientific reason. … Their fear is that contemporary mindfulness is somehow in denial about its relationship with spirituality.
Buddhism by the back door
You can see this fear of ‘Buddhism by the back door’ in reviews of books. Neuroscientist Sam Harris’s book Waking Up, a sympathetic account of mindfulness, brought him flak from his New Atheist fanbase. One Amazon review read simply ‘Buddhist propaganda’. Some teachers emphasise ‘no incense, no robes’ – yes that’s me! Because I feel ambivalent about the idea of spirituality and guess I’m not alone in that, so I pitch my courses to people who may share my feelings.
Scholars as well as mindfulness teachers sometimes skirt around Buddhism. Is this because they don’t accept it but don’t want to offend people by rejecting it? Or is it just an assumption that any thinking outside the Western scientific paradigm is superstition and myth?
Mindfulness ≠ Buddhism
I think there are some answers to suggest here. One is that mindfulness is a modern cross-cultural phenomenon that allows us to draw on the expertise of other cultures without necessarily swallowing or dismissing those parts of their worldview we disagree with. I don’t think you’d find a mindfulness course that insisted on the reality of reincarnation for example – equally you’d be hard pressed to find one that didn’t recommend meditation on the breath as a useful practice.
Another is that mindfulness is not the property of Buddhism. Ellen Langer was writing about it a few years before Kabat-Zinn without any reference to Buddhism or meditation. Contemplative traditions in most of the world religions have practices that contribute to the quality of mindfulness.
The ‘scientist’ view – while arguably the most powerful voice in support of mindfulness as a contribution to human society – is often conflicted with a need to reject ‘spirituality’. Some writers go to absurd lengths to try to put badges of scientific credibility on their assertions – especially the ludicrous references to quantum physics in some articles. (If you find the word ‘quantum’ in an article about mindfulness you know it’s crap!)
I recognise myself in this quandary – are you there too?
Next we’ll look at the view that most embraces spirituality – the monk.