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Mindfulness v. Meditation in the Court of Public Opinion

Mindfulness and meditation are getting a lot of press these days, with a lot of new science coming out and people wanting to find sanity in an increasingly complex world.  We should not be surprised, then, if the press begin to make hyperbolic statements about them - treating them as if they are the new cure-all for our ills.  We should be even less surprised when there is a backlash against it.  A recent New York Times article by author Tony Schwartz argues that despite there being evidence that meditation has some health benefits, that he hasn't seen "much evidence that meditating leads people to behave better, improves their relationships or makes them happier."  Furthermore, he quotes Insight Meditation founder Jack Kornfield's observation that meditation alone didn't transform several "areas of difficulty in my life, such as loneliness, intimate relationships, work, childhood wounds, and patterns of fear..." But aren't these exactly the types of issues that we hope to learn to cope with better through a meditation practice?

Schwartz states that we shouldn't expect more than meditation should deliver.  So is this just part of the pessimistic backlash that we should expect?  

I don't think so.  In fact, I don't think he goes far enough.

The problem is that American culture wants a single pill to solve all of our problems. Meditation, however, is not one thing. There are many techniques, and each has different goals. Schwartz notes that mindfulness is difficult to start with, that it traditionally would be taught after years of practice on shamatha, or learning to concentrate on one thing. Even this is missing the bigger picture, I think.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of meditation techniques in Buddhist traditions: Those focused on familiarizing us with how our minds and emotions work, and those focused on changing our habitual reactions. Mindfulness meditation works primarily on the first of these. There are many benefits to this, as I noted in this post on what mindfulness meditation can do for us. But if we have embarked on a meditation practice or spiritual pathway because we want to behave better, improve our relationships, and become happier, then I agree with Mr. Schwartz -- mindfulness meditation is not sufficient. It's the first step on a longer and broader path.

Let me put it another way. We know that we are a quivering hopeless mess, and we also know that we don't want to be a quivering hopeless mess. We desire to change. But there seems to be a paradox here. The type of person who is good at changing him/herself is the type of confident and strong person that we wish we were, not the type of quivering person we currently are. Doing meditation to familiarize ourselves with our minds will only show us in great detail all of the places we fail and all of the interesting ways we do it. It won't necessarily change any of our habitual responding that comes from our years of conditioning, trauma, and anxiety. This is where Schwartz is right when he states, "meditation is far more effective as a technique of self-management than as a means of personal transformation, much less enlightenment." But this argument assumes that there are no more steps past this first step. If we want transformation, then we need to move farther down the path to different styles of meditation practice - those focused on cultivation. 

From my point of view, this is where divorcing meditation and mindfulness practices from the philosophical aspects has failed. We don't need all of the superstitious religious aspects of Buddhism to recognize that the philosophy describes a path. The path has many stages along it, and it leads to somewhere that we aren't currently. This is very different from the idea of a singular technique or pill that fixes us. I agree with Mr. Schwartz that we need to help people understand that one technique can't fix everything, but I think the bigger point was missed: There are many techniques that have been developed to work on different stages on the path. If we want true transformation, we need to keep going past mindfulness.

 

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Comments

Mindfulness v. Meditation

There are so many ways of practising meditation and mindfulness. There is no right or wrong way (unless your chosen belief system tells you otherwise). But there are practical ways to lay the foundations that will work more effectively for us in our over-busy Western culture .
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