Is mindfulness free of effort? Does it bypass the intellect? Does Buddhism?
In the last few posts I’ve described the characters used by Chris Goto-Jones in De-Mystifying Mindfulness to sum up different expectations about mindfulness and looked at the relationship between modern scientific mindfulness (MSM) and Buddhism. I’ve said that there is no one thing called Buddhism and that MSM is a modern creation based on a relatively modern (20th century) Buddhist school. In this post I’m going to look at a couple of notions you’ll find in mindfulness books and classes and look at where these might have been picked up along the way.
A common notion in MSM is ‘non-striving’ or ‘non-effort’. We see this in many guises. It usually emerges as the idea that trying too hard is an obstacle in meditation. If you have an unrealistic idea of an end state or goal state that you should be in, then the more you dwell on that the less you are actually present to what is going on – and so you’re failing to do what you set out to do, so then you have self criticism to contend with too, making you even less likely to be present. And this is true in meditation. This comes primarily from the modern Vipassana tradition, originating in Burma in the early 20th century. Part of its aim was to make Buddhist practice more accessible to lay people (i.e. not monks in a monastery). So it was strong on self-acceptance and on simple persistence rather than the struggle to achieve a goal.
However, if you look at other historical Buddhist schools, there’s plenty of striving and goal-orientation going on. Early Indian Buddhist scriptures are full of references to ‘ardent striving’ and the effort described was much more like the effort to clean a kitchen spotlessly than accepting it as it is. The idea that striving to achieve was counter-productive probably came from the period when Buddhism travelled to China and met Daoism, which frowned on effort and goal-orientation. But even later when Buddhism reached Japan, we find the non-striving idea strongest in the Soto school while the Rinzai school was all about effort, screwing the rational mind up as tight as a dishrag to solve a puzzle that can’t be solved.
Even one of the simplest beginner meditation techniques, that of watching the breath, has to have some effort and application to build up a foundation. Often the practice of counting the breaths to ten and starting over is used as a scaffold to help beginners establish a core of mental stability before going on to more open self-acceptance practices. You can’t do these practices without effort and without goal orientation – like ‘reaching ten without being distracted’. So it’s wrong to say that Buddhism is all about non-effort, and equally wrong to say it of all aspects of modern mindfulness. Just
consider the mental and emotional effort involved in sitting on a bus without reaching for your mobile phone, or that involved in stopping yourself bursting into a conversation with your agenda and instead pausing to really listen to the other person.
‘You cannot grasp this with the intellect’ (so do as I say!)
Another difference in the attitude of historical schools of Buddhism that finds its way into modern practice is the its attitude to intellectual understanding, logic and reason. The original Indian followers of the Buddha, for centuries, were great thinkers and builders of elaborate conceptual castles. Again, when Buddhism grew intertwined with Chinese Daoism to produce Chan, which became Zen in Japan, it picked up on Daoism’s mistrust of the ‘meddling intellect’. Daoists held up the idea of the ‘natural’ as the ideal, and thought all constructions of reason and concepts were a corruption, a distraction from the simple awarness of what is real. Even language cannot really address it. While the Buddhism that travelled to America and Europe in the early 20th century tended to be of the scholastic Indian and Sri Lankan heritage, the Beat poets of the 1950s and hippies of the 1960s fully embraced the anti-intellectual stance of Zen and it was probably they who set the tone for the meeting of Eastern and Western Buddhist thought in the latter part of the century, where philosophising was seen as ‘missing the point’ of direct experience.
This had its issues of course, when a few misguided teachers would claim that any argument against their teaching was mere Western intellectual game-playing. The modern mindfulness movement has been more keen to accept and embrace Western philosophical and scientific stances than those of historical Buddhism, but the idea of ‘missing the point’ is still played out quite often. An example would be those who dismiss the enthusiasm for brain scans and brain activity monitors to trace changes made in meditation, describing it as ‘missing the point’ that subjective experience is the only thing that matters. Less attractively, we can see a tendency in some circles to uncritically hold up ‘natural’ as a good in itself and condemn anything man-made as ‘unnatural’, particularly in the fields of medicine and food.
Mindfulness and philosophy
Mindfulness and anti-intellectualism do not have to go hand-in-hand. Not only the Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist traditions but the Greek Stoic tradition all value rational thought. Stoicism for example holds up its disciplines, many of which resemble mindfulness, as clearing mental obstacles in order to allow rigorous, rational thought. In the mindfulness movement, Kabatt-Zinn himself, Mark Williams and Danny Penman couldn’t be accused of being anti-intellectual or anti-rational. Embracing the ‘being mode’ doesn’t mean forsaking the ‘doing mode’.
Does it matter?
I think if you’re interested in mindfulness, it’s important to know where your expectations of mindfulness come from. How you feel about the Buddhist background of mindfulness is part of that. Are you more like the Scientist, who believes we’re progressively isolating the essence of the truth that’s been mixed up for centuries in belief, superstition and bad science? Or more like the Monk, who values a connection to what you see as sources of timeless wisdom? Above all, don’t uncritically accept any assertion or practice that is justified by ‘the Buddha said …’ or ‘the Dalai Lama says …’ or ‘According to Buddhist scripture …’ There’s just as likely to be a scripture or a Buddhist who’d say the opposite.
The scientist, the monk, the ninja, the zombie and the hippie
This post was inspired by, and is my interpretation of, the lectures in De-Mystifying Mindfulness from the University of Leiden, which I’d strongly recommend.