Mindfulness isn’t just for Buddhists anymore; you can find it in hospitals, schools, prisons, and in some of today’s largest corporations. It is being used to help people quell their cravings, find emotional balance, eat healthier, and even to fall asleep at night.

All of these things are well and good, of course, but there’s a question worth considering: Is anything lost when we remove mindfulness meditation from a Buddhist context?

In this interview with writer and mindfulness teacher Ed Halliwell we explore the ins and outs of mindfulness. We discuss the definition and benefits of mindfulness practice, whether it’s the same in Buddhist and secular contexts, and Halliwell’s new book (along with co-author Dr. Jonty Heaversedge) The Mindful Manifesto.

What is mindfulness? The way we’re using the word in The Mindful Manifesto, which is in line with what’s taught in most secular mindfulness-based courses, it means paying attention to what’s happening in our bodies, minds, and the environment in a manner that’s open-hearted, aware of but not caught up in our habitual patterns of thoughts, emotions and behavior. It’s knowing what’s happening as  it’s happening, and learning from that in a way that leads us to act from a place of greater skill, choice and compassion. Having said that, I think definitions can be a little tricky when it comes to mindfulness, as we’re referring to a quality that can only be really understood as an experience rather than a concept.

As you note in the book, mindfulness practice has deep roots in the Buddhist tradition. However, it is being used increasingly in secular settings—schools, prisons, hospitals, etc. What are the benefits of mindfulness going mainstream? The most obvious benefit is that a lot of people who would probably not have been drawn to practice meditation are now doing so, and many of them seem to be finding it helpful. Most people who sign up to a mindfulness-based stress reduction or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy course would not have gone along to their local Buddhist center (if there is one), or if they have, they perhaps haven’t felt this was the approach for them. Meditation practice presented as a way to well-being within a secular, psychological, mind-body-health perspective sometimes connects for people who might find learning in a Buddhist context too alien, too religious, or too institutionalized for them. I think it’s wonderful that they are finding a route to practice that works for them.

I also think the scientific rigor which is being brought to studying mindfulness-based approaches is very helpful. We now have good evidence that mindfulness courses help people work with stress more effectively, develop attention skills, and maintain physical and mental well-being, as well as cultivating greater empathy and compassion. Scientifically-minded people who might previously have dismissed meditation as irrational, flaky or new-age are becoming convinced that it can be usefully taught and practiced as a way to help people and communities become happier and healthier. Science is a main mode of validation in our culture, and a result of all this research is that areas such as healthcare, education, and workplaces are now opening up to meditation as something worth exploring.

I think the science is good for understanding what’s happening when we meditate, too. We are starting to know more about what’s going on in the brain and body when we practice, and what the studies suggest seems to correlate with what meditators have reported for thousands of years, which perhaps helps build confidence in the value of meditation. Knowing what we’re doing in this way may also help us cultivate precision in what and how we practice. In these ways, the scientific mode of inquiry is an excellent complement to the first person mode of inquiry that we engage in when we actually meditate.

Are there any possible cons? Yes, I think there’s the potential for mindfulness to become diluted and separated from other key aspects of a contemplative path—such as ethics, the understanding of impermanence or emptiness, loving-kindness or other aspects of wisdom traditionally cultivated as part of, say, a Buddhist training. As more and more people start to practice and teach mindfulness who perhaps don’t have any background in Buddhism or another meditative tradition, there’s a risk that we lose some of the depth and insight that has been cultivated and passed down through the generations, and this could become just another self-help movement, aimed at personal betterment, rather than a deep letting go of self, which is actually what really produces such a change in our experience of well-being.

As mindfulness is increasingly presented in a western framework—science, psychology, meeting healthcare targets, business goals and so on—if we’re not careful we could begin to lose the radical essence of what’s actually being taught, and turn it into a patching up of our egos, a watered down, even perverted version of what meditation training traditionally leads us towards. I think a certain amount of this is inevitable (indeed, don’t most of us end up falling into this trap with our practice?), but as mindfulness moves into the mainstream, will there be enough people willing and able to notice that it’s happening, and  draw attention to it?

Having said that, my sense is that most of the people who are pioneering this movement are deeply concerned to maintain the integrity of what’s being offered, shepherding its direction without also falling into the trap of trying tightly to control it. It may sound like what’s being offered is a one-fold path, but actually the other seven spokes of the wheel are implicit, if not explicit, in a good mindfulness course, and participants also start to discover and be drawn to them for themselves, as they connect with their own mindfulness, their own wisdom. People report becoming kinder, more ethical, more skillful in their words and behavior as they start to see things more clearly. I also think that the truth is ego-proof: as soon as we stop practicing the essence of the dharma, we won’t be able to access its power, and all these remarkable effects people report from going on a mindfulness course will stop happening in the same way. So there’s a kind of in-built protection. The challenge, and it’s an interesting and exciting one, is to be able to find the skillful means to share the wonders and difficulties of mindfulness and a contemplative path with people in a way they can relate to, without watering it down or bastardizing it, accommodating it to our cultural neuroses.

You say that one reason that mindfulness has gone mainstream is because of science. We’re finding out that there are measurable benefits to practicing. But let’s say that tomorrow all the science was proven false—that scientists said “actually we don’t know what mindfulness mediation does to practitioners.” Unlikely as that is, if it happened, would you still practice?
Well, I started practicing meditation before I knew about any of the science, and I’m pretty sure I’d still be meditating if there was no science now, because my own experience has been so powerful. I can see, feel, taste and touch the benefits of practice on my mind, body, and relationships with others and the world. So, for me, the scientific evidence for meditation is a useful confirmation of that first-person experience—it suggests my mind isn’t deceiving me. But if scientists said ‘we don’t know what’s happening when you meditate’ (which, incidentally, is still very largely the case in many aspects!), then yes, I’d still practice. Science is an observer at the material level, and it’s a really important part of the story, but my own experience of meditation is much richer and deeper than just the quieting down of my amygdala, or some other scientifically observed process.

However, if there was lots of science which suggested meditation was generally harmful or ineffectual, then that would give me an interesting pause for reflection. I would be puzzled, because it would be so contrary to my experience, and I think I would be prompted to ask some questions about both the science and my experience, to see if it was possible to understand this discrepancy. So far, what is being observed scientifically with meditation seems very much in line what most people report when they practice.

For some people, the science can lead them into a practice when they might otherwise have been skeptical, say, of first person reports like mine. Even so, I still suspect that once people engage with meditation, it’s the experience of something shifting, or unfolding in themselves that really convinces that this is worthwhile, rather than the promise of a smaller amygdala, or even reduced stress. Indeed, focus on a future goal like that can really get in the way of meditation practice…

What is the difference between mindfulness as it’s used in secular mindfulness-based courses and as it’s used in a Buddhist context?
Not so much, I think. Most Buddhists will feel familiar with the practice of cultivating awareness through a regular meditation practice—sitting, walking, lying down—and working with mindfulness in everyday activities like eating, working, relating with others and so on. And this is also what’s practiced on a secular mindfulness course (at least in the MBSR model). So, the practices themselves are likely to be quite similar. What may be different is the context and framework—whereas mindfulness in Buddhism is one aspect of the eightfold path, it is the primary explicit teaching in a secular mindfulness course. Having said that, the attitudes towards practice that people learn on a mindfulness course are generally very consistent with what is taught in most Buddhist contexts—gentleness, openness, loving-kindness, a certain kind of effort and a certain kind of letting go—as is the shared notion that people are basically good and that our practice is a means to uncover an innate wisdom that we can use to work skillfully with our life situations. Many mindfulness teachers (at least up till now) have a Buddhist background and work to embody these qualities in themselves, and in so far as they’ve managed this, they will naturally transmit these qualities to their course participants, implicitly if not explicitly. It will be interesting to see if this changes as more people come to practice and teach mindfulness who don’t have a Buddhist background.

Of course, there isn’t one single Buddhist context for mindfulness either—scholars have great discussions about what the word actually means, and don’t always agree, while different sanghas use different language and forms to point people in the direction of mindfulness. Understandings and practices are likely to vary between Buddhist communities, as they are likely to on mindfulness courses that aren’t labelled Buddhist. And ultimately, the experience of mindfulness goes beyond the definitions of the word—it’s something we engage with personally in our own minds and bodies and which the definitions, practice instructions and forms can only point us towards. So maybe painting this as Buddhist vs. secular isn’t always helpful—there are many shades of presentation, but awareness is awareness—it isn’t Buddhist or secular.

When we’re mindful, what are we mindful of? Can you give me an example of what that looks like? It can look a little different according to how we’re directing our attention. When we’re practicing a formal meditation, we’re being mindful of whatever we’re paying attention to as part of our practice—that could be the breath, sensations in the body, sounds, sights, thoughts or something else. So in meditation, we train our mindfulness using different objects, paying attention to them and gently replacing our attention on them whenever our minds wander away, as they tend to do. However, this training is generally undertaken as a way of cultivating our ability to pay attention consciously outside of ‘formal practice.’ We can be mindful of a task we are engaged with, mindful of how we feel in our environment, mindful of the effect of our actions on others, and mindful of how we think, feel and behave leads or does not lead to a life of greater well-being for ourselves and others. All of this attending—which is an experiential sensing more than a thinking about—offers us useful information about our lives, giving us the capacity to work with each situation more skillfully than if we were not paying attention in this way. So, by training gently and patiently with different objects of attention—sometimes focusing more narrowly, or inwardly, sometimes more widely, or outwardly, and sometimes practicing receiving what is coming into our awareness in a very open, unlimited way,  we can develop some choice and flexibility with our minds. What this looks and feels like is a more expansive, fully present knowing of what’s really going on in our internal and external world, and a greater freedom from being compelled to act out our habitual, automatic patterns of perceiving and relating when those patterns aren’t serving us.

How is the practice of mindfulness suited to helping us, individually and collectively, deal with the problems of modern life? To live well, we need to be able to see what’s happening, in us and around us. We also need to know how not to get impulsively drawn into unskillful, reactive patterns of behavior that don’t serve us or those around us well. Mindfulness offers us a way of paying attention to what’s actually going on, to know what’s happening at an experiential level. And that is something that we tend not to train ourselves in these days—instead our education system, our workplaces, our media, our governments, all tend to train us in creating and valuing concepts or products—we get stuck at a head level and a doing level, driven by thinking and activity. There’s nothing wrong with ideas or products, but there’s an imbalance in our culture whereby a more intuitive knowledge is ignored, or just not cultivated, and it is this kind of intuitive awareness that mindfulness practice can help us to unlock. So mindfulness could be a way for us to restore balance—to help us recalibrate in a way that enables us to connect with our deepest, most heartfelt values and to act in accordance with them more often. That in turn, could lead to us living happier, healthier lives in a happier, healthier world.

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