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.

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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.

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