The advocacy of mindfulness meditation in secular society continues to get attention. A Washington Post news article (“Meditation and Mindfulness May Give Your Brain a Boost” by Carolyn Butler (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/14/AR2011021405973.html) promotes mindfulness as a way to reduce stress and tension.
Buddhism believes that everyone is ignorant of true reality and is trapped in the delusion that they are an individual in a real world. Buddhism teaches that the self does not exist; belief in self is a result of attachment to this world. The mind is part of this delusion, so thoughts are in the way of realizing ultimate truth. Therefore, mindfulness, which is not only a form of meditation but is also a way of viewing the world, is essential in Buddhism. Mindfulness helps cultivate detachment, which leads to lessening attachment and eventual enlightenment and liberation.
Mindfulness has already been addressed in other articles on this site (see links to the right; please read for more background).
Stress is the Newest Bogeyman
Studies at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston claim that Mindfulness meditation causes brain changes for the better. Nearby is the Center for Mindfulness (formerly the Stress Reduction Clinic) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, founded in 1979 by Zen Buddhist Jon Kabat-Zinn (http://www.umassmed.edu/Content.aspx?id=41252). Kabat-Zinn’s stress reduction and mindfulness program has spread to dozens of hospitals and medical centers around the country.
The article cites an earlier study that showed “decrease in gray matter in the amygdala, a region of the brain that affects fear and stress, which correlated with a change in self-reported stress levels.” Whether this decrease really indicates stress reduction, temporary or permanent, is not known. Showing cause and effect in the brain is difficult with something as vague and varied as meditation (there are a variety of ways to meditate). Moreover, there are other ways to reduce stress.
There has been a great effort on the part of alternative treatment practitioners to emphasize stress in the culture, which then allows them to advocate their particular remedies for it. This effort has succeeded to the extent that people automatically accept the need for stress reduction techniques without thinking about whether stress really is such a problem for them, and whether one needs to practice the recommended techniques in order to reduce their alleged stress.
Mindfulness therapy is now a growing trend in psychology and psychotherapy. One example is Daniel J. Siegel, M.D… On the website of one doctor, is the push for this technique and for his book:
“An integrated state of mindful awareness is crucial to achieving mental health. Siegel reveals practical techniques that enable readers to harness their energies to promote healthy minds within themselves and their clients. He charts the nine integrative functions that emerge from the profoundly interconnecting circuits of the brain, including bodily regulation, attunement, emotional balance, response flexibility, fear extinction, insight, empathy, morality, and intuition. A practical, direct-immersion, high-emotion, low-techno-speak book, The Mindful Therapist engages readers in a personal and professional journey into the ideas and processes of mindful integration that lie at the heart of health and nurturing relationships.” (http://drdansiegel.com/?page=books&sub=the_mindful_therapist)
Has anyone considered that instead of taking time to learn a stress reduction technique and practicing it, it would be more valuable and practical to use that time for playing board games with one’s children, going to a park, relaxing to soft music, reading a good book, taking a nap, developing a hobby, or one of many other pleasant activities that people enjoy? Studies have shown that such actions lower blood pressure and bring down heart rates.
Yoga and Buddhism Come Together
Another article promoting Mindfulness advises that one should live “consciously in the moment” in order to “keep calm and focused” (Washington Post Local Living Section, March 3, 2011). It is worth noting that this advice comes from a Yoga teacher, who suggests applying this principle to eating. “When you eat mindfully, you concentrate on and savor every bite you eat, which in turn can keep you from eating more than you need.” This eating exercise is a Buddhist practice.
This Yoga studio now offers “Monday Night Mindfulness” twice a month. The website states: “In the Buddha’s time, a community that came together to practice, as we do, was called a sangha . . . . We will come together to meditate, connect, and talk about how we practice mindfulness in our lives” (http://circleyoga.com/mindfulness/monday-night-mindfulnes). A sangha, however, is not just any gathering but refers to the community of Buddhist (who are almost always male) monks.
The site further states that each session will begin with a sitting and walking meditation, followed by a “Dharma discussion.”
The sangha, sitting meditation, and walking meditation, as well as “dharma” are all Buddhist. It is interesting that a Yoga group is doing this since Yoga is Hindu. But Yoga teachers in the West have always been open to all types of spirituality.
Dharma is a complex word in Buddhism. The following explanation of dharma is from Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, p. 989: “It means ‘the law’ of how things in the physical world are regulated; teaching; also, the physical aspects of the universe such as the four elements, organic life, the senses, emotions, the will, reasoning, sexuality, hunger, ageing, and dying; the practice of Buddha’s teachings, Buddha being a manifestation of the truth of dharma; ‘He who sees the Buddha, sees the Dharma, he who sees the Dharma, sees the Buddha,'” (the latter statement supposedly said by Buddha).
Since Yoga has been so successfully marketed and linked to health, youth, peace, and beauty, people assume that advice from a Yoga teacher must be good. However, mindfulness is a religious practice, an important spiritual discipline of the Buddhist eightfold path.
The Chattering Monkey
You might notice the term “monkey mind” popping up here and there; it is becoming more common. In promoting mindfulness, the thinking mind is targeted as a “chattering monkey.” Thoughts are the chatter, and meditation is to tame and silence this monkey mind, so that it can become “Buddha mind.” As one site states:
“Often in meditation, that monkey mind doesn’t transform into a peaceable primate, but continues to scurry about, distracting attention. Indeed, it is common for thoughts to appear to increase in intensity during concentrated meditation practice. This is either because whilst in the confines of the practice the monkey mind reacts with increased activity, or because in focused meditation thoughts are ‘lit up’ and are noticed more than they normally are.”
Thoughts are treated as an independent activity, divorced from the “true” essence of the person, which is the Buddha self, or formlessness. The temporal world, including the mind, are part of a “rising and falling” which is not real. One must transcend this rising and falling through meditation practice.
Meditation trains the person to watch thoughts so that the meditator does not attach to the thoughts and follow them. The meditator is the “witness” or “observer” of thoughts. Eventually, the space between thoughts widens until there are no thoughts and “No Mind” is reached. The site continues: “Buddha Mind is our real nature, the unconditioned ‘Mind’ – and words are metaphors here, remember – that lies beneath the conditioned monkey mind that is interdependent with the world with which it interacts.”
Mindfulness meditation is therefore the Buddhist way to tame the so-called “chattering mind” and uncover the silent Buddha mind underneath all the rising and falling. It is not designed for stress reduction or to be a trendy dabbling for harried Westerners. It is rigorously religious and strictly spiritual.
The Mind and God
Whereas thoughts and thinking are dangerous to spiritual enlightenment in mindfulness, God tells us that thinking and reason are part of how God wired us, since man is made in his image. Reason and thought are rooted in God’s character.
Moreover, the world is God’s creation. It is not a mere illusory phenomenon of rising and falling. The world was created good (Genesis 1 and 2), became corrupted through man’s sin (Genesis 3; Romans 5), but one day will be restored (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1).
Any teaching that the mind or thinking is bad or prevents spiritual understanding is at odds with the nature of God as he has revealed himself. In giving us his word in the 66 books of the Bible, he expects thinking and reasoning since language cannot function without them. Using the term “chattering mind” or “monkey mind” denigrates the mind God gave us.