On Science and Mindfulness

I’m a practitioner of Buddhism, not a scholar of Buddhism. As someone who writes about responsibility in writing, I want to acknowledge first and foremost that I’m speaking from the position of a single practitioner who comes from a small branch of a particular family in a particular school of Buddhism.

Before writing this, I sat with my left foot atop my right thigh in the “half-lotus” position. I sat for forty minutes, breathing in and out through my nose, my concentration set—as much as my will would allow—on the point three finger-widths below my navel: a point the Chinese refer to as dan tien. I meditated as a practitioner of the Cao Dong family of Ch’an Buddhism; with an eye to cultivating mindfulness and, eventually, to finding my own enlightenment.

I didn’t come to mindfulness through Buddhism, however. In fact, it was the other way around, and via a route at which many other Buddhists would probably raise an eyebrow. I started cultivating mindfulness through martial arts. Among other things, Ch’an is associated with the Shaolin Temple, and can count the martial arts as both a tool of, and an entry point into, the practice of Buddhism. It is common in my tradition that the boxing and mindfulness come first, and the Buddhism comes later.

So when Jan Henderson kindly passed on an editorial decrying science’s Not So Sudden Interest in mindfulness, I was intrigued. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, responded to Kate Pickert’sThe Mindfulness Revolution,” (also here) saying:

“It may be a mistake to dissect [Buddhism], discarding Buddhism’s broader ideas on wisdom and morality (even its ultimate purpose), and putting only a single part to use—even if it is a very good use.”

That is, the surge of interest in the cultivation of mindfulness by Silicon Valley, the NIH, and even the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is somehow undermining the greater purpose of mindfulness as an element of Buddhism, and that this is a Bad Thing.

As a Buddhist, I have to respectfully disagree.

Horton’s article does raise serious questions about the current interest in mindfulness, but whether or not it should remain a part of Buddhism isn’t really one of them. For one, even if the term “mindfulness” is by and large associated with Buddhism, the types of things to which we refer when talking about mindfulness are not exclusively Buddhist. Being more aware of your surroundings, your own body, and those around you can be found in a great number of the religions of the world, and a range of comprehensive practices beyond the religious.

Moreover, as a Buddhist I’m committed to the idea that human beings shouldn’t suffer as much as they do. If mindfulness offers a way to alleviate some of that suffering then that is a great, great thing. I’d gladly see the same well-being I’ve experienced through my practice improve the lives of others. Mindfulness is a part of Buddhism, but it is also valuable in its own right.[1]

It is imperative, however, to subject practical methods to empirical scrutiny. In my tradition, it isn’t enough to just do—or not do—because someone else is doing or not doing it. You must subject practice, rigorously and straightforwardly, to your own experience.

People can critically evaluate a practice on their own, but science also provides us a powerful tool in doing this. Mindfulness is vulnerable to being co-opted by a range of more or less spurious characters and self-styled gurus. If science can help confirm what works and doesn’t work, that’s a good thing. At my most optimistic, nothing would make me happier than the demonstration, in a systematic fashion, that mindfulness training is effective, safe, and cost-effective, and thus worthy of consideration by, say, the Medical Services Advisory Committee as a legitimate practice worthy of subsidization by the Australian Government.

Of course, science’s involvement with mindfulness could be extremely problematic. It would be unfitting for scientists to claim that they have “discovered” mindfulness. As Ben Lillie has noted in the case of science communication, science doesn’t do anyone any favors when it “discovers” millenia-old practices that clearly work. Science can’t discover mindfulness—that’s been done. It can, however, help us explain certain aspects of mindfulness in new ways, and give us a particular perspective from which to examine and critique mindfulness.

There is something important in Horton’s editorial that I’m sympathetic to as a Buddhist, but I don’t think you need to be a Buddhist to have this concern. Pickert’s article is full of stories about people using mindfulness, but these stories are often about the rich and privileged. In these stories, mindfulness is often a tool they use so they can go back and do even more work. On my reading, the stories of “X uses mindfulness to be a better innovator/entrepreneur/thought leader/whatever” lay in tension with the latter section of her article, on the possibility that mindfulness could just be a good thing, even if it doesn’t help you make that next killer app.

Make no mistake, I think that mindfulness in one’s professional life is a good thing; I’m a firm believer that moralizing another’s mindfulness is deeply problematic. Nonetheless, I do worry that this new surge in mindfulness will remain primarily a tool of the privileged, even as I say that I find it exciting that it is being used at all. As a Buddhist, and also someone who believes in robust and equitable public health including mental health, I think we can do much better than that.

It is from there that I think our critique should begin. Mindfulness without Buddhism—as far as I’m concerned, mindfulness within Buddhism—is a tool for navigating the world. And like most tools, there are better or worse uses. We should be aiming, then, to make sure that mindfulness training and practice, scientifically informed and pursued, is distributed fairly, and approached carefully.

We should be mindful about how we practice, conceive of, and wield mindfulness.

  1. Though I’d say he needs to be a little clearer on that connection. The role, place, and meaning of mindfulness isn’t the same for every school in Buddhism, and one of the issues I had with Horton’s account is that it gave a remarkably monolithic view of Buddhism. In my experience, nothing is further from the truth. I won’t pursue that further here, however.  ↩

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