Just Being or Becoming? A Mindfulness Controversy

Is mindfulness about the present, past, or future? People writing and doing research on mindfulness meditation are often not aware of the controversies that surround this practice in Asian Buddhist history. Evidently the cultural context in which mindfulness is practiced today in hospitals, corporations, or even the military is very different from the one in which the historical Buddha developed this practice about 2500 years ago.

mist

The contemporary mindfulness movement in medicine, psychotherapy, and education defines mindfulness primarily in terms of present-moment awareness. Accepting what is without necessarily judging it in any way may have positive effects on individual’s wellbeing in post-industrial societies in which striving for future achievements and goal-orientation often result in stress.

Susan Smalley and Diana Winston from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center point out that mindfulness is about “bare attention.” Similar to other authors who translate the practice into American popular culture they argue that present-time awareness such as taking a breath to become aware of one’s impulse before acting upon it, is already enough to make wise action likely to follow.

From this point of view you have to be fully present with what is in order to become more discerning with your thoughts and emotions. As Susan Smalley and Diana Winston point out in their book “Fully Present”:

“In practicing mindfulness you are not trying to change who you are, but to become more fully present with your experiences” and later they go on “you may also become more discerning of your thoughts, feelings, and actions, and that awareness will give you greater opportunity to make positive changes, if you wish to do so.”

Here change is a by-product of mindfulness and not its goal. This is in line with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s approach that emphasizes the negative effects of striving for positive treatment outcomes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs. He used to ask his patients at the Massachusetts Medical Center to leave their hopes and aspirations for change behind after the first session.

Responding with a more balanced and detached view on a difficult situation may indeed follow, but not necessarily.

Some of my Buddhist friends point out that a sniper can be mindful, too. Without ongoing ethical reflection, the evaluation of the benefit of an action, and related personal change mindfulness does not necessarily lead to wellbeing in relationships.

From a different angle you need to be more discerning with your thoughts and emotions in order to be able to be fully present with your experience and accept it. Some historians argue that this comes closer to what has been taught in Theravada Buddhism, which contains the oldest Buddhist scriptures. As historian Robert Sharf argues, the type of mindfulness that enters U.S. popular culture is a product of Buddhist reform movements of the early 20th century rather than an ancient practice. Other scholars agree.

In his article “Is Mindfulness present-centered and non-judgmental” Georges Dryfus points out:

“Mindfulness is then not the present-centered non-judgmental awareness of an object but the paying close attention to an object, leading to the retention of the data so as to make sense of the information delivered by our cognitive apparatus. Thus, far from being limited to the present and to a mere refraining from passing judgment, mindfulness is a cognitive activity closely connected to memory, particularly to working memory, the ability to keep relevant information active so that it can be integrated within meaningful patterns and used for goal directed activities. By paying close attention, practitioners of mindfulness strengthen their cognitive control because they increase their ability to retain information and thus see their true significance rather than being carried away by their reactions. What is well attended to can be maintained by working memory and thus become available for appropriate evaluation.”

Meditation teachers like Thanissaro Bikkhu argue that the “bare awareness” approach largely misinterprets what the historical Buddha meant when referring to mindfulness. For him the non-judgmental and completely accepting stance towards one’s experience comes in a later stage of mental training in which the meditator has developed the skill to willfully enter a state of choiceless awareness through concentration. This bare awareness is then founded on a set of skillful thoughts and actions that are in line with the ethical values adopted and remembered through mindfulness practice.

In my opinion, both perspectives can be helpful. I’m not sure which one should come first in the training of the mind. I started with practicing non-judgemental awareness for many years before I came across other possibilities and found this practice very beneficial. Being more directive to shape one’s experience seems to be a complementary step at any point. When I first notice things as they are without judging them, it gives me some distance to disassociate from dominant themes. In a second step I can see them more clearly, each thought, feeling, body sensation in its context and relation to another. Third, I thus discern what I want to cultivate and what I can let go of.

Remembering: The Forgotten Aspect of Mindfulness

How do you remember what really matters to you in each new moment? When my mind runs on automatic pilot I often get carried away by things that don’t matter at all. A retreat at the Metta Forest Monastery near Escondido made me aware of how mindfulness can be seen as purposefully letting go of what keeps me stuck and keeping in mind what makes me genuinely happy.

 

Buddha-Metta

The teachings of Thanissaro Bhikkhu, also called Ajaan Geoff, emphasize the role of thinking, recalling, and memory in meditation. From this perspective, mindfulness is about active memory or calling to mind and keeping in mind instructions and intentions that are helpful in attaining the goal of ending stress and suffering.

Alertness

Being aware of what is going on in the moment is important for the cultivation of mindfulness. It has a purpose. The Thai Forest Tradition of Buddhism as taught by Ajaan Geoff suggested that alertness helps the meditator to notice what works and what doesn’t during meditation. He continuously asked all students to be very alert and vigilant in order to see what kind of mental and bodily state makes them feel good and what kind of state produces stress. I was told to be alert not merely for the sake of alertness but in order to notice what makes me feel more wholesome.

After several days, I started to attend to particularly energizing or calm bodily states with more appreciation as well as to thoughts of goodwill towards self and others that made me feel simply more at ease. Instead of just noticing what came up, I tried to notice when, where, and why a particular experience arose. This made me somehow more committed to learn from insights.

As Ajaan Geoff pointed out, once they are noticed skillful states can be remembered and later recalled on purpose. In this process meditation becomes a skill in which the beginner actively shapes his or her experience.

Ardency

The practice of brining back the attention to the breath or the body as an object of focus is an expression of ardency. Ardency is about making a commitment for training the mind and developing mindfulness. I came to see this attitude as a passion for making a difference, a desire for personal change and growth. Ideally ardency enables me to pull myself out of unskillful states based on my remembrance of skillful ones that made me feel wholesome in the past.

When for example a negative emotion or a thought seeks to dominate experience Ajaan Geoff recommends to argue with the reasoning behind it and to remind oneself of its drawbacks. However, the dangers of striving, clinging to particular states of mind, and repressing uncomfortable thoughts has to be taken serious.

“You do want to succeed, but you need a balanced attitude toward failure and success so that you can learn from them. Nobody’s keeping score or taking grades. You’re here to understand for your own sake. So this process of developing your foundation of mindfulness or developing your frame of reference is not “just watching.” It’s more a participation in the process of arising and passing away — actually playing with the process — so that you can learn from experience how cause and effect work in the mind.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

Discernment

Mindfulness as practice of remembering is inextricably tied to discernment. It is important to be aware of whether or not a particular state of body and mind is skillful or not. Thanissaro Bhikkhu asks questions such as: Is a particular thought “worthy” of your attention? Is it helpful to identify with it? What is it composed of? Why is it coming and why is it going? Is it in line with your intentions? If not, how can you take it apart? This does not mean that meditation is merely about arguing with oneself. In his opinion, mindfulness seems to be a means to an end, namely, the transition into more calm and peaceful states without conceptual thought.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s approach is straightforward. When we know that a particular state has been harmful in the past, we should keep it from arising or take away it’s energy by focusing on the breath. When skillful thoughts and bodily states come up, he recommends to attend to them for a few times until one lets them go, too. During the retreat he also emphasized continuously that each meditator has to discern for him or herself what actions are skillful or unskillful during meditation.

Although the Buddhist teachings provide a compass, they do not exactly prescribe how to deal with one’s unique experiences on the path. In this sense discernment seems to be a matter of what he called “experimentation” – on the most basic level with the breath.

During my sittings in one of the monestary’s avocado groves I became intrigued about the notion of mindfulness as remembering. From this perspective meditation is not just about being in the moment. Remembering can keep me connected to the Buddhist teachings but also to my own knowledge about what works for me and what doesn’t. It also keeps me in touch with a broader vision of what I want in life. It is about choices and how to continuously shape my future based on what happened in the past. This aspect has largely been neglected in contemporary mindfulness-based therapies and stress-reduction.