Mindfulness in Cultural Context

Introduction to the 2013 Advanced Study Institute: Mindfulness in Cultural Context

Laurence J. Kirmayer, McGill University, Montreal

Dr. Laurence Kirmayer introduces the 2013 Advanced Study Institute.


Mindfulness or Mindlessness: Traditional and Modern Buddhist Critiques of "Bare Awareness

Robert H. Sharf, University of California, Berkeley

Buddhist scholars have shown that the form of "mindfulness meditation" (sometimes called satipatthāna or vipassanā meditation) that has become popular in the West is, at least in part, a relatively modern phenomenon; it can be traced to Burmese Buddhist reform movements that date to the first half of the twentieth century. The features that made Burmese mindfulness practice—notably the form taught by Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982)—so attractive to a Western audience are precisely those features that rendered it controversial in the Buddhist world. For example, Mahasi's technique did not require familiarity with Buddhist doctrine (notably abhidhamma), did not require adherence to strict ethical norms (notably monasticism), and promised astonishingly quick results. This was made possible through interpreting sati as a state of "bare awareness"—the unmediated, non-judgmental perception of things "as they are," uninflected by prior psychological, social, or cultural conditioning. This notion of mindfulness is at variance with premodern Buddhist epistemologies in several respects. Traditional Buddhist practices are oriented more toward acquiring "correct view" and proper ethical discernment, rather than "no view" and a non-judgmental attitude. Indeed, the very notion of an unmediated mode of apperception is, in many traditional Buddhist systems, an oxymoron, at least with respect to anyone short of a Buddha. (Indeed, it is a point of contention even in the case of a Buddha.) It is then not surprising that the forms of Burmese satipatthāna that established themselves in the West have been targets of intense criticism by rival Theravāda teachers in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. This doesn't mean that modern forms of "bare awareness" practice are without historical precursors. Both Tibetan Dzogchen and certain schools of Chinese Chan were, at least at first glance, similarly oriented toward inducing a mental state that was "pure," "unconditioned," "non-judgmental," and so on. Not surprisingly, these traditions were also subject to sharp criticism; they too were accused of heterodoxy—of promoting practices that contravened cardinal Buddhist principles and insights. My paper will begin with the parallels between the teachings and practices of these three traditions, and suggest that some of these parallels can be explained by historical and sociological factors. I will then move on to the philosophical, psychological, ethical, and soteriological objections proffered by rival Buddhist schools.


The Relevance of Non-Self in Pre-Modern Asia to the Contemporary Mindfulness Movement

Geoffrey Samuel, Cardiff University

Mindfulness-related techniques are continuing to spread through psychiatry, therapy, counselling and related communities at a considerable speed. Clearly they are meeting a need of some kind. At the same time, questions of what these techniques meant in their original context(s), how they have been transformed in relation to their new Western and global field of activity, what might have been lost (or gained) on the way, and how the entire contemporary Mindfulness Phenomenon might be understood, are increasingly being raised. After sketching some of these developments, I focus on two related issues. Firstly, what is the role of non-self in the meditative procedures of pre-modern Buddhist societies? Secondly, is non-self a meaningful or relevant issue in the contemporary Western and global context, where mindfulness is being reworked within societies where individualism is taken for granted? While I am particularly concerned with Tibetan traditions, I also examine the relevance of these issues within Theravadin-derived meditation approaches.


Mindful Embodiment and the Senses: Touch, Vision, and Song

Anne Carolyn Klein, Rice University

Scholastic and psychotherapeutic communities have to date mainly focused on very particular versions of Theravada and early Mahayana Buddhist mindfulness practice. Much good has come from this. Yet, looking at this work through the lens of Buddhist culture and the wider set of practices, intentions, and body-knowledge in which they are embedded, we are challenged to see if we can take this cross-cultural conversation a step further. To that end, I will propose a template for including in our inquiry such elements of spiritual practice as the integration of mindful attention with sound, imaging and, especially, the traditional theories of embodiment which give them meaning. I want to explore whether emic categories that do not, at first glance, map easily onto Western ones—prāna and the elements of the body, for example—can be meaningfully aligned with, and possibly refresh, our understanding of self, being, and embodiment, and the therapeutic avenues available to us.


Panel Session 1- Varieties of Mindfulness

Participants: Robert H. Sharf, University of California Berkeley; Geoffrey Samuel, Cardiff University; Anne C. Klein, Rice University. Chair: Laurence Kirmayer, McGill University


The Best Dharma for Today": Mindfulness Meditation and Modernity in Contemporary Nepal

Lauren Leve, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Recent years have seen the dramatic spread of popular interest in Buddhist teachings and contemplative practices in North America and Europe. The phenomenon has generated an increasing body of scholarship on the establishment of Buddhism in the West and, particularly, on the ways that these diverse religious and ethical traditions have been transformed as they have adapted to new cultural and historical environments. What is less often remarked in these discussions, however, are the ways that Asian Buddhisms have often already been impacted through contact with Western modernity. Furthermore, Asian Buddhists are themselves embracing the same techniques and traditions that have captured Westerners' attention—often, indeed, flocking to the same teachers as Europeans and Americans. This paper examines the rise of a transnational vipassana movement among traditional Buddhists in Nepal, and the ways that the Nepalese embrace of the modernized, rationalized form of meditation taught by S.N. Goenka sheds light on the parallel rise of mindfulness meditation in the United States. While rooted in Nepal and most heavily patronized by traditionally Buddhist families, the Kathmandu meditation center I discuss is, in fact, one of over one hundred sister-centers around the world that conduct courses according to identical schedules and structures, offer the same (pre-recorded and mass produced) instructions and discourses, and represent vipassana as a universal, secular, scientific technique that is essentially about healing—and emphatically not about religion. Understanding why Goenka's followers claim that vipassana meditation is "the best dharma for today" troubles standard notions of sociocultural boundaries and offers a new lens onto meditation and its popular spread.


Mindfulness of the Kindness of Others: The Contemplative Practice of Naikan in Cultural Context

Chikako Ozawa-de Silva, Emory University

Mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition involves a variety of practices, and contemporary secular forms of mindfulness practices, therapies and interventions that can similarly be broadened to include more of these forms. The Japanese practice of Naikan (meaning introspection or innerlooking) takes one mindfulness practice from the Buddhist tradition—that of recollecting the kindness of others—and asks clients to engage in this practice for one solid week, fourteen hours per day. Naikan does not see itself as a "therapy" or as a means for addressing particular mental health disorders, but as a "way to happiness." Nevertheless, difficult interpersonal relationships and a perceived lack of social support are chief sources of stress, and Japanese selfhood in particular has been described as interdependent and highly social in nature. It is unsurprising therefore that Japanese would be drawn to relational forms of practice like Naikan, and that they would find particular benefit from such practices. Furthermore, my research on suicide in Japan suggests that feelings of loneliness and a lack of meaning in life (ikigai) are underlying causes contributing to suicidality and are not necessarily reducible to mental illness and depression. Recent ethnographic and survey work I have conducted at two Naikan centers suggests that Naikan significantly improves positive mental health, perceived connection with others, and perceived meaning in life, even up to six months later, thereby potentially undercutting factors contributing to depression and suicide. Naikan practice is not entirely limited to Japan, however, and its use in Europe and North America prompts us to ask about the culturally-specific and universal aspects of mindfulness practices, and how we may construct mindfulness interventions that are best suited for addressing the mental health problems that face our communities.


Panel Session 2 - Mindfulness in Global and Local Cultural Contexts

Participants: Lauren G. Leve, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Chikako Ozawa-de Silva, Emory University; Geshe Thupten Jinpa, McGill University. Chair: Laurence Kirmayer, McGill University


Paying Attention to the Contents of Mindfulness: Meditation within the Context of Secular Ethics

Brendan Ozawa-de Silva, Life University

Mindfulness, often described as "moment-by-moment awareness," is popularly taught as involving a change in the practitioner's relationship to their thoughts, rather than a change in the content of the practitioner's thoughts. Understood in this way, mindfulness might appear to be relatively unrelated to cultural context. In actuality, however, both traditional Buddhist forms of mindfulness practice and many secular contemporary forms of mindfulness practice understand mindfulness as retention of a familiarized mental object, which can and often does include virtuous thoughts, and therefore emphasize both the content and process of mindfulness. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, for example, a fundamental Buddhist practice, involves becoming more and more mindful of specific aspects of one's body, mind, and experience, such as one's mortality, in order to live in better accord with reality and thereby achieve greater wellbeing. Many of the beneficial aspects of contemporary mindfulness practices may result not merely from more refined "moment-by-moment awareness," but from the insights that are achieved through increased awareness and the content of what the practitioner retains in mind. By focusing on only a limited portion of what mindfulness means in its indigenous traditions, such as Buddhism, such modern presentations of mindfulness can obscure the close relationships between mindfulness practices and their cultural, normative context, and may even limit the full effectiveness of mindfulness practice. Some contemporary secular practices, however, employ mindfulness in an explicitly normative way. Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), developed at Emory, and Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT), developed at Stanford, employ mindfulness along normative lines to help the practitioner bring about specific changes, such as a decrease in excessive self-centered thinking and an increase in other-orientation. These meditation practices are also explicitly relational, whereas most other mindfulness practices, by focusing so heavily on the self's relationship to thoughts as thoughts, tend to be more nonrelational and individual-centered. Emerging data suggests that other-oriented meditation styles lead to more other-oriented and social behavior as opposed to non-relational styles of mindfulness. Maintaining the links between mindfulness and normative values in meditation practices may help us retain the full strength of these practices as tools for promoting flourishing, happiness and well-being, while not endangering their secular character in contemporary use. Moreover, without attention to culture, we will remain unaware of the culturally-embedded notions of flourishing and happiness that influence contemporary mindfulness-based practices and which may differ in significant ways from traditional Buddhist contexts. This would limit the adoption and secularization of mindfulness practices.


Ties that Bind/Ties that Free: A Cross-Cultural Conversation between Buddhism and Modern Psychotherapy on Attachment, Mindfulness, and Self-Reflection (Mentalizing)

Harvey B. Aronson, Houston

Modern psychotherapy, in the space of my adult life-time, has gone from neither an accurate nor a useful understanding of Buddhist practice to wholesale adoption of "mindfulness" practice in the service of a host of legitimate therapeutic aims. Using Richard Shweder's frame for crosscultural reflection, I will be looking at traditional Buddhist writings on maternal love and attachment, and contrast these with some modern research-based reflections on the child-mother attachment system—in particular its bidirectionality. Buddhist theory finds "attachment" (clinging/grasping) problematic, traditional Buddhist culture enshrines the loving connection between a mother and her child and identifies it as love (metta). Western psychotherapy finds this loving connection an essential element of mental health, and calls it "attachment." I will explore and sort out to the extent possible, the diverse uses of "attachment" in both Buddhist translations and psychological literature. I will use these observations as a jumping-off point for briefly considering the traditional individualistic moral/spiritual and soteriological orientation of mindfulness practice, and contrast this with how "mindfulness" practice is currently being integrated into relational psychotherapy as a source for a sense of inner security, and as a basis for significantly enhancing our relational capacity. Overall, I see a remarkable trajectory of cultural importation, with "mindfulness" practice as now embodied in the West being an amazingly telling revelation of our cultural values. Psychotherapeutically, this practice is a behavioral tool with very valuable qualitative outcomes—a practice with roots going back twenty-five hundred years and whose flower, albeit a hybrid, is yet of benefit today.


Panel Session 4- Clinical Applications of Mindfulness

Participants: Harvey B. Aronson, Brendan Ozawa-de Silva, Life University; Cécile Rousseau, McGill University. Chair: Jaswant Guzder, McGill University

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