Mindfulness Meditation practice has its origin in centuries-old religious-spiritual practices. In recent decades in the West, this practice has been “cleansed” of its religious-spiritual roots for therapeutic use in clinical settings, and “self-improvement” uses in corporate settings. But maybe something quite important has been lost.
In December 2015, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled: “Why Google, Target, and General Mills Are Investing in Mindfulness”. This short article listed the benefits for which companies were willing to invest resources into Mindfulness Training. Google for example, found it helped their employees “boost resilience to stress and improve mental focus.” Their employees also reported “being calmer, more patient, and better able to listen. They also say the program helped them better handle stress and defuse emotions.”
Aetna, which tried two different mindfulness programs, said “The goals of the programs were to help reduce stress and to improve reactions to stress.” General Mills offered mindfulness programs “to improve employee focus, clarity, and creativity.” Intel’s goals for their mindfulness training were a “decrease in stress and feeling overwhelmed”, an “increase in overall happiness and well-being”, and an “increase in new ideas, insights, mental clarity, creativity, ability to focus, quality of relationships at work, and level of engagement in meetings, projects, and team efforts.” Other companies cited similar goals.
With the exception of Intel’s goal of an “increase in overall happiness and well-being”, these major companies use mindfulness meditation training to improve employee skills that will make their businesses more successful and improve the bottom line. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. On the contrary, these companies may be applauded for transcending the traditional “carrot and stick” approach to motivation and instead utilizing training that benefits their employees, not just at work, but away from work as well.
But mindfulness meditation is an ancient practice with significant religious/spiritual historical roots. How much intrinsic value is being lost in the modern uses of mindfulness meditation which downplay or attempt to eliminate these roots, not only in the corporate world but also in therapeutic practice where it is widely practiced. Is this an example of the American tendency to isolate the “active ingredient” of a formula and discarding the rest? (Often to find out later that “the rest” was, in fact, quite important to how the formula worked.)
In an April 2015 article in the Counseling and Values Journal entitled, “Mindfulness and Contemplation: Secular and Religious Traditions in Western Context”, Stephen P. Stratton questions whether the historical religious/spiritual aspects of mindfulness meditation can, or should, be expunged from the contemporary applications of this practice.
He observes that: “When John Kabat-Zinn launched the first systematic mindfulness-based treatment program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979, a separation between religion and science was expected. At that time, scholarship that attempted to integrate R-S [religious-spiritual] issues was at least questionable and at times actively eschewed. Although valued by many, including Kabat-Zinn (1990), for its connection to Eastern meditative traditions, the R-S [religious-spiritual] aspects of MM [mindfulness meditation] were pragmatically downplayed for a secularized version (Kristeller, 2010; Salmon et al., 2004). All faith-based “accessories” were intentionally removed . . . In applied and academic settings, counselors and researchers engage mindfulness as a secular practice.”
While this might have been necessary when mindfulness meditation was first being introduced into clinical practice, Stratton notes there are now professionals who “formally integrate Buddhism and psychology [and] have raised concerns about the loss of a significant cultural infrastructure in which [religious/spiritual issues] are central features (Christopher, Charoensuk, Gilbert, Neary, & Pearce, 2009; Grossman & Van Dam, 2011; Maex, 2011; Rosch, 2002, 2007) . . . From this more integrative perspective, mindfulness meditation is actually regarded as an encounter with a comprehensive life view, more than as a therapeutic technique.”
So, the secularization of the language used in mindfulness meditation practice was intentional from the outset to make it more “scientific”. But perhaps this viewpoint needs to be revisited. Mr. Stratton points out: “At the very least, a secularized language may be confusing for those being served or studied who implicitly or explicitly value a more integrated experience.” In other words, what about those who bring with them a religious or spiritual point of view.
Buddhism is vastly more mainstream now than it was it the late ’70s when Jon Kabat-Zinn first introduced mindfulness meditation. So there are now many more people who would be comfortable including the Buddhist comprehensive world view in their mindfulness meditation practice. Yet the United States is still a majority Christian nation. What about Judeo-Christian meditation practices?
Is secular language still useful to avoid offending or confusing Christians who participate in mindfulness meditation practice? Perhaps, but one may ask if it would be better to offer more nuanced versions of this practice that take into account the cultural background of the its practitioners.
With regard to Christianity, Mr. Stratton makes this important point: “It is generally accepted that persons implicitly and/or explicitly bring their cultural heritage into treatment settings to aid in understanding and interpreting therapeutic tasks (Sue & Sue, 2008). It seems reasonable, then, to suspect that Western clients may come to therapeutic meditation with embedded values and culturally influenced behaviors that result in seeing such practices through a Judeo-Christian lens. Even when a secular meditational practice has been “cleaned” of overt references to faith, persons may be primed by prevailing culture to interpret research or therapeutic tasks in light of their acculturated view.”
In his article, Mr. Stratton takes a closer look at the Judeo-Christian history of meditation practice. He notes that Christian meditation practice still “creates ambivalence and even confusion in the West. In fact, it may be argued that, of all aspects of Christian practice in the West, its meditative tradition is the least understood or acknowledged (Keating, 2009).” Stratton cites a variety of reasons for this, but the fact is that contemplation and meditation were largely marginalized in the Christian West beginning in the 16th century and continues to be marginal for many Christians even to the present day. There was, however, a resurgence of interest in contemplative practices in the 50’s and 60’s do to very popular books by Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.
However, this was also the time when Eastern meditational practices were taking off in this country. Stratton says this: “However, the unsettling conjunction of Western reawakening and Eastern discovery by a broadening cross-section of the general population produced a clash of R-S [religious-spiritual] paradigms. Although the clash seemed to be more intense among Protestant groups than in Catholic or Orthodox groups, the result was still a complicated blend of curiosity and defensiveness for many who had been shaped by a Christian-influenced Western culture.”
Mr. Stratton suggests that the resistance among Western Christians to contemplative practices seems to be changing to one of cultural acceptance. But even so, the aims of Christian meditation are quite different from Buddhist meditation. The ultimate goal of Christian meditation is “communion with the God described in Christian scripture.”
In contrast, Jon Kabat-Zinn explained the Buddhist roots of mindfulness meditation in his 2003 Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice article entitled, “Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future”: ” . . . the actual practice of mindfulness is, however, always nested within a larger conceptual and practice-based ethical framework oriented towards nonharming (an orientation it shares with the Hippocratic tradition of Western medicine). This “view” includes a skillful understanding of how unexamined behaviors and what Buddhists would call an untrained mind can significantly contribute directly to human suffering, one’s own and that of others. It also includes the potential transmutation of that suffering through meditative practices that calm and clarify the mind, open the heart, and refine attention and action.”
Mr. Stratton examines the historical differences in meditation practices in much greater detail than this article will attempt to cover. But the question remains, since the goals of meditational practices differ significantly among religious groups, especially Christians and Buddhists, should mindfulness meditation remain secularized so as to not offend anyone?
The problem with this approach, Mr. Stratton suggests, is that important elements may be lost. He cites a couple of studies that illustrate his point. “Wachholtz and Pargament (2005, 2008) conducted two studies that compared secular meditation and spiritual meditation, with relaxation as a control condition in the context of chronic pain and migraine treatment.” There were two especially interesting findings: “. . . the authors found that spiritual forms of meditation were significantly better than secular forms for different randomly assigned samples.” and : “The authors reported increased daily spiritual experiences for the secular groups in both studies, even though the meditational trainings and the repeated phrases had no overt R-S [religious-spiritual] content.”
Mr. Stratton concedes that little other research in this area has been done to date. Still, these studies raise important issues. Mindfulness meditation tends to elicit religious-spiritual experiences despite all the efforts to maintain it as a secular practice. Further, this religious-spiritual aspect of mindfulness meditation appears to improve the effectiveness of the practice. More surprisingly, even people who are non-religious reported increased spiritual experiences during the training. One might then ask if the current secularized form of mindfulness meditation is not only unnecessary, but may reduce the effectiveness of the training and reduce the occurrence of deeper spiritual experiences that would benefit the practitioners. Mr. Stratton observes: “It can be a deliberate imposition of a secular worldview in cultural contexts that are often more R-S [religious=spiritual] than those who do the treating (see Delaney, Miller, & Bisono, 2007).”
If people are already predisposed to a religious-spiritual context because of their religious-spiritual background, would it not be better to create different versions, so to speak, of mindfulness meditation that have been tailored to the worldview of the subject?
Mr. Stratton says this: “A more culturally aware perspective might suggest that R-S [religious-spiritual] dimensions are always potentially present, even in overtly secular processes. Reflecting ethically, it seems more reasonable to consider the degree of R-S [religious-spiritual] influence, not its presence or absence. It is unwise to assume that no R-S [religious-spiritual] process is engaged when using secularized meditational practices in applied or research settings. Such respect for culture may be a step into a more mutually enriching partnership of faith and practice. Whether acknowledged or not, it seems increasingly likely that meditational processes tap R-S [religious-spiritual] dimensions for many people in the West. This article suggests that clients and research participants may actually be primed to engage meditational practices from an R-S [religious-spiritual] perspective by cultural influences.”
It is probably not coincidence that Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is credited with starting the use of mindfulness meditation in a clinical setting, was saying essentially the same thing in his 2003 article (Ibid). “Thus, in encountering the consciousness disciplines [in particular, mindfulness meditation] and the question of their possible adaptation and application in secular clinical or medical contexts, it is critically important to treat mindfulness and the traditions that have articulated it much as a respectful anthropologist would treat an encounter with an indigenous culture (Davis, 1998) or a different epistemology (Zajonc, 2000). This intimate sensitivity will be necessary to understand, evaluate, and preserve essential elements of the universal dharma dimension of mindfulness practice as it is analyzed by and incorporated into Western science. It in no way contradicts the call by Hayes (2002) to find ways to fit practices and knowledge from spiritual traditions into the theoretical matrix of scientific psychology. The challenge is to find a fit that honors the integrity of what may be different but complementary epistemologies.”
Mr. Stratton’s article brings attention once again to the ongoing conflicts between secular science and a religious-spiritual point of view. He is hopeful for more dialogue, but admits it is early in the process: “Walsh and Shapiro (2006) described the evolving relationship between faith-based meditational disciplines and Western secular counseling practices as being at an assimilative juncture. At this point, faith-based and secular systems may look to glean from the other, yet have not entered into real dialogue. According to the authors, the next evolutionary step, a more mutually enriching and shaping conversation, is avoided because faith-based groups and secular practitioners remain wary of one another.”
Mindfulness meditation has shown great potential in both the corporate world and therapeutic world to help people cope better with their life circumstances, reduce stress and improve their focus and creativity. But mindfulness meditation has potential far beyond this.
From ancient times to the present, meditational/contemplative practices have been a way for individuals to experience a deeper dimension to life. In meditation, many people experience a profound sense of presence or interconnectedness with something far greater than themselves. For people of monotheistic religions, it is a way of coming closer to God. For Buddhist and other Eastern disciplines, it is a way of discovering the deeper meaning of life and finding a solution to suffering. And many people who are not religious nonetheless experience an intuitive dimension to life that offers meaning and purpose beyond strictly secular values. As noted above, it is a means to “an encounter with a comprehensive life view” in whatever way this view may manifest in an individual.
For these reasons, one might ask if current uses of mindfulness meditation training in the corporate world, may be similar to learning to play the piano primarily to improve eye-hand coordination. Or learning to write poetry so as to improve one’s vocabulary. In other words, what would ordinarily be considered a side benefit of a practice becomes the goal instead.
Historically, the potential for deep transformative experiences in the practitioner has always been understood as integral to mindfulness meditation. Recognizing the importance of this, Jon Kabat-Zinn has felt strongly that teachers of mindfulness meditation should also practice it themselves to acquaint themselves with the subtleties and difficulties, and to understand the full scope of its possibilities. Otherwise, he says: “. . . attempts at mindfulness-based intervention run the risk of becoming caricatures of mindfulness, missing the radical, transformational essence and becoming caught perhaps by important but not necessarily fundamental and often only superficial similarities between mindfulness practices and relaxation strategies, cognitive-behavioral exercises, and self-monitoring tasks.”
In the therapeutic world, Mr. Stratton suggests that ignoring the religious-spiritual contexts of the practitioner may now be unnecessary and, in fact, is inhibiting the effectiveness of the training. Perhaps the science-based approach, especially in the behavioral sciences, need not be hermetically sealed, as it were, to exclude a religious-spiritual context. As Mr. Stratton points out, that context likely exists in the individual whether it is recognized or not. Perhaps those who teach mindfulness meditation in corporate and therapeutic settings can devise more nuanced versions of the practice that allow for the religious-spiritual dimensions that most clients bring with them. Then mindfulness meditation would offer not just therapeutic value in clinical settings, or self-improvement value in corporate settings, also potentially life-transforming religious-spiritual experience.