I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation since 2004 when I completed a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course – more specifically, a Mindfulness for Health course taught by Lucinda Sykes, M.D. – in Toronto to deal with urgent stress-related issues in my work at the time as a public school teacher.
I had a good instructor and have been applying what I learned. The stress-related issues that were the original reason that I learned mindfulness meditation are no longer a source of concern.
I have been practising mindfulness for over a decade. I’ve been learning on my own as I go. To my mind, the practice of mindfulness – mindfulness meditation and the application of mindfulness in daily life – can be one of life’s great projects. Practising mindfulness, ever since I received competent instruction in the practice of it, has added immeasurably to the quality of my life.
The quality of the instruction is a crucial variable. The MBSR course that I took started with careful and focused interviews by the instructional staff with prospective students, to ensure the course was a good fit for the applicant. Suitability of a specified course in mindfulness for a specified individual warrants close consideration. Mindfulness instruction is not without its risks. If a person proceeds with getting instruction, it’s advisable to be certain the instructors have the requisite teaching skills, training, and experience in mindfulness meditation.
In the first few years after taking the course and embarking upon a meditation practice, which includes a focus on the application of mindfulness in everyday life, I read extensively about Tibetan Buddhism and other Buddhisms. In subsequent years I’ve read academic studies about the relationship between Buddhisms and violence.
I mention this, because there’s an ongoing narrative, that a person will frequently encounter, that spiritual practices associated with mindfulness meditation are invariably of a peaceful and non-violent nature. A study of the evidence is useful to ensure that such generalizations do not lead us astray. As well, the historical record attests that major world religions can readily end up promoting violence toward individuals and groups who do not follow a mainstream faith in a given setting.
The one exception, it has been claimed from time to time, is Buddhism. In fact, the historical record underlines that even Buddhism is not immune to the practice, not unknown among major world religions, of seeking to destroy the lives of persons who are classified as “unbelievers.”
In recent years I’ve also followed up on my interest in local history, in Ontario, Canada where I live, and for that reason have been reading about military history.
Part of what I’ve been learning about the latter topic is outlined at this post:
Killing, or engaging in structural violence in the name of religion, ideology, or some specified “way of seeing” is standard practice in extremely violent societies, now and in the past.
Competition for scarce resources is a key underlying narrative with regard to large-scale killing on behalf of one’s group, community, or society. In this context, an August 17, 2015 Guardian article comes to mind:
Such an article describes, in a vivid way, a topic that otherwise is approached in a manner that is dry and abstract, and lacks a resonance with day-to-day realities in countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and China.
A Jan. 9, 2016 New York Times article is entitled: “Myanmar’s Peace Prize Winner and Crimes Against Humanity.”
The above-noted essay speaks of the strong appeal of religion in dealing with stress. An Aug. 15, 2015 Toronto Star article comes to mind with regard to this topic:
What the Buddha Taught (1974) was among the texts that I read after completing an MBSR course in 2004. Further reading about Buddhism in Sri Lanka, in Buddhist Warfare (2010) and elsewhere, has enabled me to note that things are not always as they seem.
The latter study, originally published in 1959, asserts (p. 5) that there is nothing in the history of Buddhism that links it with violence in any form. The statement contradicts the available evidence, including as it relates to Walpola Rahula’s own involvement with conflicts in Sri Lanka. A good overview of the latter author’s influence on warfare in Sri Lanka is provided by a paper entitled:
Buddhist Warfare (2010), referred to above, serves to place into context the topics highlighted at the above-noted links.
A noteworthy topic that I’ve occasionally encountered concerns the role of sophistry in explaining the emergence of concepts such as “compassionate killing.” A definition of sophistry at Dictionary.com reads:
Sophistry: noun, plural sophistries.
1. a subtle, tricky, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious method of reasoning.
2. a false argument; sophism.
A point that is made in Buddhist Warfare (2010) is that in some cases, sophistry is not an adequate explanation for the promotion of a concept such as “compassionate killing.” An alternative explanation, that is, is that the concept may follow naturally from inherent doctrinal principles of a given religion.
An Oct. 15, 2014 post at the Scientific American website refers to an article in Volume 311, Issue 5, entitled: “Neuroscience Reveals the Secrets of Meditation’s Benefits: Contemplative practices that extend back thousands of years show a multitude of benefits for both body and mind.” I made a point of buying the print version of Scientific American, that features the article, so that I could read it in full. The article is of interest.
The quality of the research methodology is a key consideration when assessing research about mindfulness. With regard to research, a January 8, 2015 Harvard Business Review article is entitled:
A blurb at the Toronto Public Library website (I’ve broken the text into shorter paragraphs) notes:
Millions of people meditate daily. Many believe it affects how we feel and behave. But can we actually change through meditation? Does it work like a pill to alleviate stress? Can it put us on the path to personal transformation?
Psychologists Dr. Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm explore the human ambition for personal change and its possible illusions, with a focus on yoga and meditation. They examine the psychological and biological evidence, from early research on Transcendental Meditation to recent brain-imaging studies on mindfulness. They also include personal accounts from practitioners, as well as recounting their own experiences of testing the effects of meditation and yoga on incarcerated criminals.
This isn’t simply another book about the route to enlightenment and happiness, nor is it a ‘how to.’ Farias and Wikholm challenge assumptions about the uses and effects of meditation and yoga.
Controversially, The Buddha Pill argues that personal change effected by these spiritual practices can vary widely from one individual to another, and that peace and compassion may not always be the end result. Combining insights from decades of scientific research with fascinating accounts from gurus and prisoners, The Buddha Pill weaves together a unique story about the science and the delusions of personal change.
It’s not clear how controversial the assertion that is referred to in the blurb actually is.
This point aside, The Buddha Pill (2015) is a useful addition to ongoing conversations regarding the topics at hand.
A Jan. 23, 2016 Guardian article article addressing the above-noted themes is entitled: “Is mindfulness making us ill?”
The subhead reads: “It’s the relaxation technique of choice, popular with employers and even the NHS. But some have found it can have unexpected effects.”
The volumes include many stories, which I find of interest to read, in many cases translated for the first time. The above-noted anthologies place “particular emphasis,” as Donald S. Lopez, Jr. notes (p. v) in Religions of China in Practice (1996), “on the ways in which texts are used in diverse contexts. The series therefore includes ritual manuals, hagiographical and autobiographical works, and folktales, as well as ethnographic material.” The series do not place a heavy emphasis “on the religious expressions of elite groups in what were termed ‘classical civilizations.’ ” I much enjoy reading the texts – for their intrinsic value as texts – in the above-noted series.
On the other hand, from what I have read in The Scientific Buddha (2012), the above-noted authordoes not, from my perspective as a reader, demonstrate an in-depth understanding of what Western approaches to mindfulness, such as exemplified by Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, entail. By way of example, at least in my anecdotal experience of what is taught in MBSR courses, contrary to the argument that Lopez advances in his 2012 study, no claim is made by MBSR that the mindfulness taught in such courses is a form of Buddhist meditation.
The situation is not unlike efforts to link research findings in neuroscience to the wider world. A person may have a strong grasp of what the neuroscience research indicates; linking that research to events that happen in the wider world, however, requires the capacity to state cogently, and in a manner that is meaningful, what aspect of the outer world the research findings are being compared to.
Previous posts addressing themes of relevance to the current post include:
One of my volunteer projects has involved publicizing the work of Roy Hintsa, who for some years has been teaching mindfulness meditation to Ontario high school students, thereby helping them to deal with test anxiety and similar concerns. Some time back (February 2014) I heard from Roy Hintsa that the work he began in this area is now being done by Everyday Mindfulness, whose website is at www.mindfulnesseveryday.com
A key feature of Roy Hintsa’s work is that he’s been following an evidence-based approach to the effective teaching of mindfulness meditation in public school settings.
Lucinda Sykes introduced me to the practice of mindfulness meditation in 2004 when I was teaching elementary school at the Peel District School Board.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
I enrolled in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course that I found beneficial in dealing with the stress responses I was experiencing in my work as a teacher. Had I not been experiencing stress in my job, it’s unlikely I would have gotten around to learning how to mediate.
Learning to meditate, and teaching of role play and drama, are among the things I remember the best from my previous career as a teacher.
Mindfulness meditation, in my experience, is easy to practice as part of a secular lifestyle.
A Jan. 15, 2016 Toronto Star article, which I found of relevance, is entitled: “Stressed out students turn to mindful meditation.”
The subhead reads: “U of T prof believes meditation classes are set to explode across Canadian campuses as universities work to reduce stress and anxiety.”
An increasing number of methodologically sound research studies have been published in recent years in peer-reviewed professional journals regarding the benefits of regular meditation.
For example, the enhanced emotional control provided by meditation may give a person a measure of protection against secondhand stress.
My own anecdotal experience is as follows.
In 2004, I enrolled in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course in Toronto. There was a class one evening per week, and an hour of practice per day. Certain situations, in my work as a teacher, used to be a source of strong stress-related responses for me. In the months and years that followed the above-mentioned course, I’ve been meditating regularly every day.
Over that time since 2004, the stress-related responses have been reduced significantly. The kinds of stress I was experiencing several times a day now occur once or twice every several months. The intervals between such responses have been growing progressively longer over the years.
The experience of stress has been a great way for me to learn how to meditate. I would not have learned this skill had I not been in a line of work that can be stressful.
An article by Daphne M. Davis and Jeffrey A. Hayes of Pennsylvania State University, entitled “What are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research,” originally published in 2011, can be accessed here.
A May 12, 2014 New York Times article is entitled: “Exercising the Mind to Treat Attention Deficits.”
An excerpt reads:
Such quotidian decisions test a mental ability called cognitive control, the capacity to maintain focus on an important choice while ignoring other impulses. Poor planning, wandering attention and trouble inhibiting impulses all signify lapses in cognitive control. Now a growing stream of research suggests that strengthening this mental muscle, usually with exercises in so-called mindfulness, may help children and adults cope with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and its adult equivalent, attention deficit disorder.
The studies come amid growing disenchantment with the first-line treatment for these conditions: drugs.
In 2007, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a study finding that the incidence of A.D.H.D. among teenagers in Finland, along with difficulties in cognitive functioning and related emotional disorders like depression, were virtually identical to rates among teenagers in the United States. The real difference? Most adolescents with A.D.H.D. in the United States were taking medication; most in Finland were not.
The capacity to make more effective use of one’s central nervous system as a result of ongoing meditative practices appears to be an outcome of evolutionary biology.
It may be tempting to associate mindfulness meditation with spirituality and for some of us such a connection is a given, but I do not see the association as an inevitability.
If a person wishes to speak about spirituality, it may be useful to begin by defining what the term means. Such a definition would need to distinguish between the brand and the back story. Popular literature about topics such as mindfulness tends to focus on the brand; academic literature tends to focus on the back story. Our brains (given how our brain are wired, as the research available to date indicates) tend to be entranced by the brand, even if the back story (which is typically based on some form or reliable, corroborated evidence) contradicts the brand.
If we encounter discussions about compassion, it’s useful to understand how the term is defined, in a particular discourse. The term, like spirituality, can mean different things to different people, and may depend upon particular circumstances, or situations. By way of example, being compassionate, as I understand the concept, does not mean relinquishing the right to defend one’s self.
With regard to these topics, as they relate to mindfulness, a November 1, 2013 New York Times article highlights relevant issues:
The posting of the above-noted link is not meant to imply a blanket endorsement of the content of the article. For example, how did mindfulness get introduced to the west? The explanation offered in the article demonstrates a lack of awareness of cultural history, and a characteristic lack of diligence in fact-checking, on the part of the New York Times.
Closely following the evidence involves more uncertainty, than the certainty that a person otherwise possesses.
Regarding this topic, a September 2015 Harvard Business Review article, entitled “How Certainty Transforms Persuasion,” is of interest; the opening paragraph of the article reads:
Certainty profoundly shapes our behavior. The more certain we are of a belief—regardless of its objective correctness—the more durable it will be and the greater its influence on what we do. Across dozens of studies spanning more than two decades, consumer and social psychologists have shown that people who are certain of their beliefs are more likely to buy, buy sooner, and spend more. They’re more likely to sign petitions and to vote. They’re more willing to express their opinions, endorse products, advocate for causes, and try to persuade others to adopt their views. They’re better able to withstand attacks on their own beliefs and more inclined to challenge opponents.
The above-noted article also refers to situations where you can go about persuading with uncertainty.
“People can be better persuaded,” the article notes, “by ads, recommendations, and even résumés that emphasize uncertain but exciting potential rather than impressive and certain accomplishments. The uncertainty piques subjects’ interest, causing them to read more carefully and ascribe great value to uncertain future impacts.”
The article also lists the research, covering “more than 20 years of research in the field of consumer and behavioral psychology,” on which the overview about certainty is presented:
“Consumer Conviction and Commitment: An Appraisal-Based Framework for Attitude Certainty”
Derek D. Rucker, Zakary L. Tormala, Richard E. Petty, and Pablo Briñol
Journal of Consumer Psychology, January 2014
“Unpacking Attitude Certainty: Attitude Clarity and Attitude Correctness”
John V. Petrocelli, Zakary L. Tormala, and Derek D. Rucker
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, January 2007
“What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger: The Effects of Resisting Persuasion on Attitude Certainty”
Zakary L. Tormala and Richard E. Petty
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, December 2002
A Nov. 6, 2015 Guardian article is entitled: “Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds: Religious belief appears to have negative influence on children’s altruism and judgments of others’ actions even as parents see them as ‘more empathetic.’ ”
In a Comment at the end of this page (“Update (3)”) I have shared several links addressing views on the distinction between empathy and compassion.
On the topic of empathy (discussed at some length in Comments below), a Sept. 4, 2020 New York Times article is entitled: “The Trouble With Empathy:
Can we really be taught to feel each other’s pain?”
An excerpt reads:
Our capacity to see one another as fellow humans, to connect across differences, is the foundation of a liberal pluralist society. Yet skeptics say that what seems like empathy often may be another form of presumption, condescension or domination. In his 2016 book “Against Empathy,” the psychologist Paul Bloom argued that empathy can cloud rational judgment and skews toward people “who are close to us, those who are similar to us and those we see as more attractive or vulnerable and less scary.” The scholar and activist bell hooks put the matter more starkly. White desire to feel Black experience is predatory, exploitative, “eating the Other,” she wrote.
The topic is of interest. Key aspects of the discussion include how empathy is defined, quality of the evidence that is introduced, and the framing and motivations and sense-making processes that are at play, when the topic is under discussion.
A March 2015 Baffler article is entitled: “Mind Your Own Business.”
A Feb. 18, 2016 New York Times article is entitled: “How Meditation Changes the Brain and Body.”
A May 2, 2016 Harvard Business Review article is entitled: “Mindfulness Can Improve Strategy, Too.”
A May 20, 2016 Atlantic article is entitled: “Does Mindfulness Actually Work in Schools?” The subhead reads: “Scholars want to know whether the practice helps young kids of color succeed academically.”
A June 4, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Tiger temple scandal exposes the shadowy billion-dollar Asian trade: Campaigners hope the Thai temple raid will stir the world’s conscience – but the trafficking of tiger parts to China is a booming business.”
A Nov. 6, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “Is the Market the new God?”
A Nov. 18, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “‘It will blow up’: fears Myanmar’s deadly crackdown on Muslims will spiral out of control: Generations of distrust between Rohingya Muslims and wider Buddhist population have boiled over into reprisals fuelling the spectre of an insurgency.”
A Nov. 18, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Bhutan journalist hit by defamation suit for sharing Facebook post: Namgay Zam, who faces a fine or jail, says case involving prominent businessman risks further subduing deferential media.”
A Nov. 24, 2016 BBC article is entitled: “Myanmar wants ethnic cleansing of Rohingya – UN official: Myanmar is seeking the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority from its territory, a senior UN official has told the BBC.”
A Nov. 24, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: Rohingya flee to Bangladesh to escape Myanmar military strikes: As Bangladesh boosts border controls, UN official says Myanmar wants to ethnically cleanse country of Muslim minority.”
A Dec. 22, 2016 Quartz article is entitled: “Americans are finally meditating because corporations are telling them to.”
A July 25, 2017 Tricycle article is entitled: “New Allegations of Sexual Abuse Raise Old Questions: Students of Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche have accused him of improper conduct.” An excerpt reads:
“As in the case of Rigpa, it usually takes a number of brave students who are willing, at the risk of alienating themselves from communities they have worked and lived in often for decades, to come forward publicly.”
Comment: The fact a book appears on The News York Times bestseller list may or may not be relevant, with regard to the value of the book. I am reminded, as well, of Erving Goffman’s concept of the “total institution.”
A July 31, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Sales of mind, body, spirit books boom in UK amid ‘mindfulness mega-trend’: While fewer titles are selling in other genres, reading that offers a path to spiritual growth has risen 13% in 2017.”
A May 7, 2018 BBC article is entitled: “Mindfulness may have been over-hyped: Mindfulness meditation has been practiced for millennia – and today is a billion-dollar business. But how much does the practice really change our health?”
Update with regard to: Making sense
A May 16, 2016 Science of Us article is entitled: “Here’s a New Way to Make Sense of Good People Doing Bad Things.” I mention the article in passing, as I find it useful in organizing my thoughts about the topics at hand. The article refers to related articles including an Oct. 19, 2015 Science of Us article entitled:
By way if an additional update in particular regarding the apparently near-universal tendency of religions (including even Buddhism) to dehumanize (and consequently oppress, persecute, and in some cases kill) non-believers, I am impressed with the novel Purple Hibiscus (2003) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
A blurb reads:
A haunting tale of an Africa and an adolescence undergoing tremendous changes from the talented bestseller and award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Fifteen-year-old Kambili’s world is circumscribed by the high walls of her family compound and the frangipani trees she can see from her bedroom window. Her wealthy Catholic father, although generous and well-respected in the community, is repressive and fanatically religious at home. Her life is lived under his shadow and regulated by schedules: prayer, sleep, study, and more prayer. She lives in fear of his violence and the words in her textbooks begin to turn to blood in front of her eyes.
When Nigeria begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili’s father, involved in mysterious ways with the unfolding political crisis, sends Kambili and her brother away to their aunt’s. The house is noisy and full of laughter. Here she discovers love and a life – dangerous and heathen – beyond the confines of her father’s authority. The visit will lift the silence from her world and, in time, reveal a terrible, bruising secret at the heart of her family life.
This first novel is about the promise of freedom; about the blurred lines between the old gods and the new; between childhood and adulthood; between love and hatred. An extraordinary debut, ‘Purple Hibiscus’ is a compelling novel which captures both a country and an adolescence at a time of tremendous change.
[End of text]
Update: What is a self?
A March 26, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Can Harvard’s most popular professor (and Confucius) radically change your life? Michael Puett’s book The Path draws on the 2,500-year-old insights of Chinese philosophers. He explains how ‘straightening your mat’ can help you break out of the patterns that are holding you back.”
An excerpt reads:
He doesn’t refer to notes, and he has no visual aids. His sermon, like his course, begins by shattering some commonly held preconceptions about the self: there is no self, he says. The idea that we should look within, discover our true nature and act accordingly is, according to Confucius, nonsense. What we really are, Puett says, is ‘a messy and potentially ugly bunch of stuff’, a collection of emotions and conditioned responses, with no guiding inner core. We think we are self-determined, but in reality we are so set in our patterns that Google exploits our predictability to sell us stuff without us noticing.
A June 28, 2017 Science of Us article is entitled: “There Might Be a Biological Reason You Can’t Stand Uncertainty.”
A Dec. 23, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Aung San Suu Kyi once called for a free press. Now, the dead are used for fake news: As the Rohingya crisis escalates, the state of Myanmar is silencing the media – and the people who dare to talk to them.”
Earlier updates can be found in the Comments below.
The Myanmar story underlines an evolving divergence between rhetoric and reality, as it related to Burma/Myanmar and as it relates to the role of religion (and the strongly enforced certainty associated with it) in world history.
An April 3, 2018 Guardian article is entitled: “Revealed: Facebook hate speech exploded in Myanmar during Rohingya crisis: Analyst says: ‘I really don’t know how Zuckerberg and co sleep at night’ after evidence emerges of a spike in posts inciting violence.”
Update: Empathy and compassion
At this post and in Comments below I refer to research related to empathy, and refer to the distinction between empathy and compassion.
An Oct. 1, 2020 BBC article, entitled “The surprising downsides of empathy,” addresses the distinction between empathy and compassion in a way that I found clear and cogent.
An excerpt reads:
So, where does that leave us? Surely feeling no empathy at all is worse? That would make us closer to psychopathic. These scientists are not suggesting that empathy should be actively discouraged. There are times when stepping into somebody’s shoes is a necessary first step towards positive action, care and help for others.
Instead, the research suggests that we ought to start making a clearer distinction between empathy and its apparent synonym: “compassion”. If empathy is about stepping into someone’s shoes, compassion is instead “a feeling of concern for another person’s suffering which is accompanied by the motivation to help”, according to Singer and Klimecki. To be compassionate, it does not mean you have to share somebody’s feelings. It is more about the idea of extending kindness towards others.
Bloom uses the example of an adult comforting a child who is terrified of a small, barking dog. The adult doesn’t need to feel the child’s fear to help. “There can be compassion for the child, a desire to make his or her distress go away, without any shared experience or empathic distress,” he writes.
Inspired by scanning the brains of Buddhist monks, Singer discovered that it’s possible to foster greater compassion in people, via simple training methods based on mindfulness, where the goal is to feel positive and warm thoughts about others without focusing on vicarious experience. By comparing this training with techniques designed to foster greater empathy, she and colleagues found that it reduces the effects of empathic distress and makes people more likely to be motivated to help others.