Buddhist Mindfulness: Cultivating an Awareness of its Limitations

Mindfulness is generally understood to mean the cultivation of present-moment awareness, including the attainment of a state of mind in which thoughts, feelings, and emotions are mere “objects of consciousness” from which the self may be “liberated.” Readers of the painstakingly thorough, Buddhist-inspired website, wildmind.org, may be familiar with numerous exercises that are said to enhance your perception of reality and liberate you from unnecessary suffering by teaching you that you are free to choose the contents of your mind. Although there are some genuine benefits to be derived from these mindfulness techniques, the veritable cottage-industry that has grown up around them is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of personal reality. If you want to follow the path of the Buddha, knock yourself out – and stop reading now, because you won’t like where we’re going.

Buddhist Mindfulness

From the Ancient Orient to the Modern Self-Help Industry

As we discussed in our previous post on guided meditation, there are two main conceptions of meditation: mindfulness (moment-to-moment awareness) and concentration (focused attention). In practice, this dichotomy tends to break down or become rather “fuzzy,” as open-monitoring of one’s experiences – the putative essence of mindfulness – mutates into focusing on particular aspects of that experience. Indeed, this confusion permeates much of the scientific literature on the subject of meditation, detracting somewhat from the clarity of its findings on the benefits of any particular technique. Practitioners of mindfulness, however, need no such validation, for they are imbued with the certitude that they are on the one, true path. But, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it, certitude is not the test of certainty….

Purists have argued that modern mindfulness techniques do not comport with the teachings of the Buddha or certain strands of Hinduism. The modern, Western emphasis on non-judgmental acceptance of whatever thoughts and feelings arise in one’s mindstream is said to depart from the original concern to cultivate virtue and wholesomeness, which obviously implies the exercise of judgment on some level. (The very concept of “right mindfulness,” central to traditional Buddhism, contains a judgment about what is wholesome and what is not.) But one of the leading proponents of non-judgmental mindfulness in the West, Jon Kabat-Zinn, sees no inconsistency, adducing instead Buddhism’s central concern with “the relief of suffering and the dispelling of illusions.” Kabat-Zinn, of course, founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which has spread widely across the medical, psychological, and even business fields, becoming quite a little empire in its own right.

The sheer number of traditions within Buddhism accounts for much of this dispute, and it could easily be dismissed as irrelevant. However, we shall see later that the issue of judging the contents of one’s mind is very, very important. For now, we must acknowledge that mindfulness as taught in the West has been shown repeatedly to effectively combat stress and negative dispositions.  Part of its effectiveness against stress is surely due to reining in the mind’s tendency to wander off and entertain worst-case scenarios in a hypothetical future. The reduction of corrosive stress hormones circulating through one’s system in response to imagined threats has much to do with the boost to immune function attributed to mindfulness. And a shift in the activity of the prefrontal cortex – from the right to the left side – seems to be involved in helping practitioners recover more quickly from negative experiences and escape depression. Clearly, the practice is not utterly devoid of merit.

Add A Dash of Neuroscience and Stir…

Buddhas Brain

Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (2009), has done much to popularize mindfulness and bring science and the contemplative disciplines together, exemplifying the kind of harmony we wished for in our post on the origin of consciousness. I am particularly thankful for his explanation of why it is that our minds tend to behave like “Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for positive ones,” which lays the blame on our reptilian ancestors, whose threat-avoidance mechanisms linger on in the brains of modern man. His suggested exercises include numerous ways to emphasize the positive in our lives and, over time, rewire our brains to counteract this inbuilt negativity bias. Hanson’s mindfulness takes us beyond open-monitoring toward active selection of beneficial inner states. One cannot help but wonder if the purists, too, would be impressed by his attempt to train the mind to learn more wholesome habits, instead of simply watching the mental world go by.

Dr. Hanson, with both scientific and contemplative training, sticks his neck above the parapet of the scientific establishment and acknowledges the inherent transcendence of the mind, then promptly ducks back down again by presenting the mind-brain connection as one of the fundamental challenges remaining to be unlocked by science. (Such a balancing act would obviously be laughable to thoroughgoing materialists.) He is well aware that the most experienced Buddhists, when performing a loving-kindness meditation, are able to place themselves into the exceptionally powerful Gamma state, harmonizing multiple regions of the brain. But his approach to continuing mental evolution ultimately returns to an application of the Buddhist triad of virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom. Fascinating though this might be, it misses an opportunity to exploit modern brainwave entrainment technology – a resource the Buddha could never have dreamed of. More importantly, this adherence to Buddhism makes him subject to the limits of its worldview, to which we now turn.

The Ultimate Failure of Buddhist Mindfulness

Although mindfulness is undoubtedly an effective stress-reduction tool, I remain personally underwhelmed by the practice, for reasons that are far more fundamental than its apparent disdain for brainwave entrainment technology. The fatal weakness of mindfulness is its failure to grasp both the creative and predictive power of our thoughts and emotions. While I share their concern to advance personal freedom, I find that mindfulness practitioners have an unduly stunted conception of the nature and scope of that freedom. This limitation may stem from an excessively rigid adherence to the teachings of the Buddha (and their ridiculously variegated iterations); but, ultimately, it stems from a failure to notice what is really going on. And that’s a pretty damning indictment for a movement that purports to be all about cultivating awareness.

Simply put, the mindfulness industry hasn’t noticed that we create our reality with our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. Thoughts and emotions are not just “objects of consciousness”; they impinge materially and directly upon the very fabric of our lives. In the Buddhist conception of reality, suffering is inevitable and all we can do is choose how we’re going to react to it. By distancing ourselves from our thoughts and emotions – rising above them and becoming a mental gatekeeper – we learn over time that we do not have to entertain thoughts and emotions that magnify or perpetuate suffering. That is all well and good, but it remains a passive and reactive conception of personal reality. There is simply no discussion of the much more profound role we can take on when we act as a mental gatekeeper – that of choosing the thoughts and emotions that will actively change our reality. And, by extension, there is inevitably no recognition of the corollary that suffering can be, if not eliminated, certainly reduced by a wise application of this creative principle. Rick Hanson gets half way there by acknowledging the impact of thought patterns on neuroplasticity, and seeing the need to “burn” better circuits. But he does not go further than that, perhaps because of his desire to retain credibility in the mainstream scientific community and within the mindfulness industry. With one foot stuck in ancient oriental mud, he can’t stride boldly forward into the New Age.

Thus, the kind of mindfulness we should be aiming for is one which does not merely observe the contents of the mind, but also compares them to the components of external reality, constantly seeking possible patterns of causation. Thoughts are not just transient mental guests with only fleeting, internal consequences; on the contrary, they are potent agents of creativity, with potentially life-altering consequences. To simply observe our thoughts in a non-judgmental way is to abdicate our responsibility to actively select those thoughts and feelings which will create the realities we seek. To be clear, then, this kind of mindfulness differs from the usual prescriptions not just in its focus on the vital interplay between inner and outer reality, but also in its explicit call for personal judgment. A fully mindful person is, therefore, aware of his true power and wisely evaluating whether that power is being applied intelligently and beneficially. This is not what the Buddha meant by wholesomeness, but in case it is not already painfully obvious, I see no reason to be constrained by his conceptions.

Buddhist Mindfulness

Of almost equal importance, the cultivation of a rather condescending attitude toward the thoughts that come to us spontaneously – treating them as unruly gatecrashers upon our blessed mental tranquility – leads us to discount the incredibly valuable information that those thoughts are giving us. Just as we send thought and emotional energy “out” into the universe, so energy returns to us and is “detected” as thought or emotion, in a kind of psycho-spiritual sonar system, if you will. This is not mere chatter above which we should rise; it is a bona fide sense that should be embraced. If you’ve ever received a telephone call from someone and said, “Funny, I was just thinking about you…” then you know exactly what I mean. Conventional mindfulness doesn’t just disconnect us from the controls of our personal “vehicle”; it also turns off the lights so we can’t see where we’re going.

Buddhist mindfulness, which beguiles the faithful with promises of “insight” and the “dispelling of illusions,” ultimately cheats us (like all major religions) by denying us the truth. While not guilty of foisting upon us the utter nonsense of omnipotent and omniscient imaginary friends, and helpful to some extent in turning our focus within, a fatal sin of omission renders it inadequate to our need for complete understanding and unworthy of further attention.