The Politics of Mindfulness


In his 1942 essay, “The Yogi and the Commissar,” Arthur Koestler outlined two extreme responses to the exigencies of communal life.  One was the belief that social improvement could only occur through collective activity to alter the ownership of the means of production.  The other was the belief that change could only occur through individual spiritual transformation.  Each generation has seen these twinned Hegelian opposites reappear in new guises, viz., the beatniks and young Trotskyites of the 1950s, or the Hippies and Yippies of the 1960s.  Today, this same polarization is re-emerging in response to the introduction of the Dharma to the West.  Some see both Buddhism and secularized mindfulness as, for better or worse, a field of individual spiritual transformation, while others critique both Buddhism and mindfulness for insufficient social engagement. If one listens carefully, one can almost hear echoes of the original Mahayana critique of so-called “Hinayana” Buddhism for its alleged exclusive concern for individual liberation.  

It is Western Buddhism’s peculiar provenance that its early practitioners were drawn largely from politically liberal social strata: beatniks, hippies, peace corp volunteers, psychedelic enthusiasts, and disaffected intellectuals — I count myself among them — people who were alienated from the dominant culture’s emphasis on consumerism and conformity, its empty professions of piety, its worship of celebrity and success, its aggressive evangelization of American Exceptionalism, its insufficiently explored dark history of African slavery and native American genocide, and its profound unease with socially marginalized groups and unwillingness to share its largess with them.  It’s therefore not at all surprising that American Dharma has become an ideological battleground between those wishing to keep it arms length from politics, and those who take the Bodhisattva ideal as a mandate for political activism. Politically active Buddhists almost always continue to pursue their pre-Buddhist Leftist predilections under the Buddhist flag, providing, in some ways, a mirror image to Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christianity’s embrace of right-wing policies.

This debate over Dharma and politics has emerged with renewed energy as mindfulness practices have made their way into corporate America and the military, and the rhetoric of mindfulness has been adopted by wealthy elites.  The Left, reflexively suspicious of business, the military, and the rich, is concerned that mindfulness’s emphases on equanimity, acceptance and non-grasping may make it a tool for pacifying disadvantaged classes, encouraging them not to stand up and fight for what is rightfully theirs. It worries that secular mindfulness, divorced from a larger ethical frame, may help soldiers become better killers. It worries that, accommodating to the American gospel of success, it may become just another vehicle for promoting professional and material advancement.  It worries about a Dharma that “professionalizes” and becomes another way to “earn a living.”  It worries about a Dharma becoming just another brick in the capitalist superstructure.

In “The Yogi and the Commissar,” Koestler understood that the thesis of the commissar and the antithesis of the yogi required some new kind of synthesis, some Buddhist or Hegelian middle way.  On the other hand, he found the prospect of such a synthesis elusive:

“It is easy to say that all that is wanted is a synthesis — the synthesis between saint and revolutionary; but so far this has never been achieved. What has been achieved are various motley forms of compromise — the blurred intermediary bands of the spectrum — compromise, but not synthesis. Apparently the two elements do not mix, and this may be one of the reasons why we have made such a mess of our History.”

In dialectical debates of this kind, truth never abides in one corner. Every voice must be attended to, and hopefully people are not speaking past each other.  In fact, one hopes for dialogue rather than debate. That’s the best away to struggle towards a new synthesis.

That having been said, I have my own particular point of view as someone who is deeply interested in the future of both Buddhism and of secular mindfulness, but who is neither reflexively anti-business nor anti-military.  My general point of view is politically liberal, but not politically radical.  I don’t belong to a marginalized or disadvantaged social group, although I am sympathetic to their claims.  My family has historically benefited from the American experience. My father’s family emigrated to America from Romania in the first decade of the twentieth century to escape the rise of Romanian proto-fascism.  My father’s father was a simple cobbler who died in a work-related accident.  My father never graduated from high school.  He enrolled in the army before the onset of the second world war and trained as a flight navigator in the 8th air force.  When his plane was shot down over the North Sea, he endured fourteen months in a Nazi POW camp. After the war, he went to work driving a truck and then working in a small factory making vertical window blinds.  With a loan from a more successful brother, he eventually bought the blind factory, working long hours personally involved in sales, manufacturing, installation and repair for his product. My mother worked too, supplementing his income as a secretary in the New York City school system. My parents never owned their own home until they retired and used the proceeds from the sale of the business to help finance a small condo in Florida. My mother passed away that year and never got to enjoy it.

My father didn’t cheat or exploit people in his business. He made a superior product that people wanted and sold it at a fair price.  He was good towards his employees.  When one of his employees occasionally wound up in jail after a particularly rough night on the town, he was the one who showed up to bail him out.  My parents made it possible for my sister and I go to college and further ourselves. The American dream has been good for us, but I understand it has not been good for everyone. I also understand that there is some element to my own family’s success that may have been purchased at the expense of other people’s misfortune. The New York State Scholarship, the National Defense Education Loan, and subsidized state university education that enabled me to go to college were not available to everyone, and the monies spent on them might have helped someone else eat or get medical attention. The large corporations like the Chase Manhattan Bank and Union Carbide that bought my father’s vertical blinds for their international headquarters and helped put food on our table were not entirely benign enterprises. Just one look at the Bhopal tragedy attests to that.  I get that.  I only recite my background so that you can understand both my appreciation for and my ambivalence about the American experience.

I’ve also been someone who’s been politically active for liberal causes my entire life.  As a high school student I was involved in the movement to desegregate the New York City public schools, and as a college student, I organized the first demonstration against the Vietnam War in my college town of Binghamton, NY.  As an adult, I’ve demonstrated against the Iraq War and for changes in environmental policy.  I helped organize a chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, am an active supporter of Buddhist Global Relief, assist in my sangha’s soup kitchen, and helped write my town’s climate action plan.  I say all this to clarify my politics — I’m an old fashioned, unapologetic, dyed-in-the-wool liberal — the kind Marxists deride as being hopelessly petit-bourgeois.  

Having clarified where I’m coming from, allow me to move on to what I regard as several key points in the debate about the politics of mindfulness.

First, Buddhism, on its own, does not possess a social theory, anymore than it has a macroeconomic theory or a theory of particle physics.  While Buddhism is anti-greed and anti-hatred, it does not prescribe any specific remedies for social inequity or injustice.  While the Bodhisattva ideal requires us to hear the cries of the suffering and not turn away, it does not supply a social recipe for how to go about ending that suffering.  While the Buddha taught non-killing, he did not advise kings to abolish armies.  While the Buddha accepted women and members of all castes into his sangha, he did not advocate for the ending of the caste system. In saying this, I am not saying we should emulate the Buddha in this regard.  I am only pointing out the historic disconnect between Buddhism and social theory.  We can invent something new, a twenty-first century Buddhist social theory, but we cannot tell from historic Buddhism itself what the specific content of that social theory ought to be.  It will have to be something altogether new.

Second, there is no reason why a new Buddhist social theory needs be dogmatically anti-Capitalist. I can imagine it being neutral about capitalist economic organization, per se.  While the Buddha eschewed personal ownership of more than a robe, a begging bowl, and a razor, he never advised kings to divest themselves of their treasuries.  Some people think that global poverty will only end when capitalism ends, but it’s possible to make the case that capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other form of economic organization.  Socialism in its various forms failed China, India, North Korea and the Soviet Union, doing little to end poverty and alleviate human misery — in fact, in many ways only tragically adding to the level of human misery though terror, collectivization, famine, slaughter, cultural revolution, and the Gulag. Some may argue that these governments were not really socialist, and that one cannot judge socialism by their successes and failures, but then it is up to critics of capitalism to provide a counter-example, any example, of a non-capitalist society that has significantly ameliorated poverty within its borders, and even more so, has done so without endless accompanying terror and oppression.  China and India are only now making great strides at lifting their masses out of poverty after having adopting capitalist methods. It’s true that the mixed-economy social democracies of Western Europe have been successful at both producing wealth and limiting the growth of income inequality — better in many ways than our more gung-ho, free-enterprise, individualistic United States.  Here in the U.S. there are arguments to be made for finding a better mix of planning/redistribution and the free market. There are reasons to think that adjusting taxation formulae, reinvesting in infrastructure development, providing universal day care and pre-kindergarten schooling, improving models of and access to lifetime education, providing for adequate nutrition and universal health care, and reforming the justice and prison systems will help to reduce the current level of income inequality. But this is only an expansion of the ends and goals of the old-style welfare state, not a revolution.  On the other hand, there is zero evidence that radically unwinding capitalism itself  — whatever that means — would lead to human betterment.   Capitalism is far from heaven on Earth, but we could do a lot worse.

There are some who argue that corporations, by their very nature, despoil the environment and exploit workers and third-world countries in their endless pursuit of shareholders’s interests.  One can point to innumerable disturbing examples of this, but there’s nothing inevitable about it. The problem with corporations is that they’re insufficiently constrained by both law and a countervailing moral ethos.  There’s no broad social consensus about how much profit is justifiable and how much is obscene.  There’s no extant social ethos compelling corporations to acknowledge their stakeholders and not just their shareholders.  Corporations can be morally constrained by the larger culture they exist within, but that kind of transformation is primarily an ethical and spiritual matter, and not an economic one. Socially important transformations of consciousness occur all the time — witness the changing world cultural consensus on matters like slavery and women’s suffrage over the past two centuries, or the rapidly changing consensus on gay marriage.  Marxists believe these changes are always economically determined by changing economic relations. While economics undoubtedly plays an important role in determining consciousness, reality is always a two-way street, with ethics and economics mutually informing each other.  We require a moral, social, economic, and political co-evolution — and moral evolution is something Buddhism has a great deal to say about.

In recent weeks I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a secularized version of the Dharma to employees of a large corporation.  I accept no money for this service, since it’s my belief that the Dharma should always be offered freely.  I also do not approve of the product this particular corporation is most famous for.  I do, however, appreciate the employees who come to learn what I have to offer. They are neither evil minions nor exploited workers.  They are people bedeviled by the normal existential issues of life and death, grief and loss, pain and illness, guilt and shame, success and failure that we all struggle with.  These are exigencies that owe little to capitalism, per se.  They are the same everywhere.  The Buddha, after all, taught that life is suffering, not that capitalism is suffering.  I’m happy to pass on what limited tools I can to make a difference in their suffering.  It’s heartening when something “clicks” and a member of the group “gets” what mindfulness is about — not adding to suffering through cognitive elaboration, touching the vital ebb and flow of life itself, becoming fully present, non-grasping and letting be, and finding all mental states ultimately workable.  I have no idea whether or not this will make them better “employees” or further their company’s “mission.”  I am unconcerned with that, and they’re there for their own myriad personal reasons. They come on their own free time and of their own free will.  It’s not a obligation placed on them by the corporation. I’m concerned that they have the opportunity to improve their emotional intelligence and find ways to more fully embrace their humanity.  If I wanted to change their corporation’s policies, I would write a letter to its president, or vote for change at a shareholder’s meeting, or organize a boycott of their products. Teaching the Dharma is an entirely different endeavor, and one that I believe transcends politics. 

In recent months I read concerns about aspects of the Dharma being appropriated by economic elites.  I’ve read criticisms of the Dalai Lama for speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, or Jon Kabat-Zinn for speaking at the World Economic Forum at Davos.  Some people react as if this is a kind of betrayal, as if the Dharma was solely the possession of the dispossessed.  This, in fact, has always been the way the Dharma has percolated through societies. The Buddha advised kings and Brahmans.  It was King Ashoka who spread the Dharma throughout India.  In China and Japan, Buddhism was adopted by elites before it disseminated throughout the broader culture.  Seminal figures like the Buddha, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, and Dogen were members of their respective aristocratic classes by birth, and often taught and advised other members of their class. 

Billionaires need help with the existential difficulties of life every bit as much as you or I.  You may not believe this, but they do.  The very rich, while more cognitively satisfied with their lives’s achievements, are not any happier on a day to day, moment to moment basis than you or I.  The Dharma is for them too, just as the Buddha taught that even the gods needed the Dharma.  Will their exposure to Buddhist ideas make them more socially responsible?  That’s a lot to ask from a brief encounter with the Dharma.  Years of deep and committed practice would probably be transformative, but not a mere dabbling acquaintanceship. On the other hand, for some CEOs, mindfulness can serve as a gateway to serious practice.  It may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but wealth is not of necessity a barrier to enlightenment.  And then there are always individual cases like the Aetna CEO who learned meditation to deal with his chromic pain and wound up raising the salaries of his lowest paid employees.    

Lastly, let me briefly turn to the issue of mindfulness in the military.  Mindfulness has been introduced to the military as a means of preventing the degradation of attention caused by stress, and perhaps preventing or reducing the post-combat sequelae of PTSD, alcoholism, and suicide. These are all desirable outcomes.  No one wants soldiers, armed to the teeth, making thoughtless decisions in the midst of heated emotion and diminished attentional clarity.  No one wants young men who only wanted to be of service to their country or to escape the jobless poverty of their communities to suffer the life-long consequences of intense stress — burdens they then impose on their families and on the communities they return to.  None of this training is designed to disengage soldiers from their consciences and turn them into more efficient killing machines. The question of whether recent military deployments have been either moral or wise were questions addressed, well or poorly, by men in Washington, DC, and not in the field. The Dharma belongs everywhere, in the boardroom and in the foxhole, and not just in the zendo. 

None of this is meant to be summarily dismissive of critic’s concerns. We need to do more to make our sanghas inclusive and welcoming to marginalized communities.  We need to attend to the ethical issues involved as secularized versions of the Dharma move into the hospital, the workplace and the military.  We need to keep the flame of Dharma transmitted to us by our Asian teachers fully lit, and in constant dialogue with its secularized cousins, as we make slow and careful adaptations to the needs of twenty-first century Westerners. We need to think through what a socially engaged Buddhism looks like as we try to develop Buddhist social theory.  Let’s be thoughtful about the process, and let’s not turn this into an us against them enterprise, whoever “they” may be.  Businessmen, the wealthy, and soldiers are not our enemy.  Greed, hatred, and delusion are.  And let’s not saddle our new Western Buddhism with outmoded Nineteenth Century political and economic dichotomies that do no real service to the complexities of modern life and offer no real assistance to those most in need.


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In Defense of Mindfulness

IMG_5524Mindfulness has taken an awful lot of flack lately with critics piling on from all quarters. There seems to be a kind of Thermidorian reaction, a counter-swing of the pendulum, in response to the successful dissemination of mindfulness-based techniques throughout society, not only in medical settings and schools, but in corporations, prisons, and the military. Some of the flak is from Buddhist scholars who question mindfulness’s emphasis on “bare” and “non-judgmental” attention, pointing out that mindfulness can be either “right” or “wrong” mindfulness depending on whether it’s accompanied by clear comprehension and discerning wisdom. Others worry that mindfulness is being merchandized while failing to anchor it to an ethical frame, or that it’s being deployed as a handmaiden to corporate capitalism, exacerbating complacency and inequality, or that it’s diluting the Dharma, making people merely comfortable instead of transforming or enlightening them.

As for myself, I’ve never had a problem with the idea of diffusing Buddhist-derived practices throughout the larger culture; half a loaf is better than none. Nor have I ever been much of a purist; we Zen practitioners can’t afford to be. Contemporary Zen is, after all, as syncretic as a religion can get — a tasty and at times confusing mélange of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and modern Western influences. So if Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness — paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally — doesn’t entirely map onto the ancient Pali word “sati,” but betrays other influences — some based on misinterpretation, some imported from Buddhist modernist or non-Buddhist sources — so be it. The word “mindfulness” has stuck, and now means, à la Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, “just what we choose it to mean, neither more nor less.” The more important question isn’t semantic, but empirical: Is mindfulness, as currently construed, useful or not? Does it reliably and meaningfully impact matters that human beings care deeply about, things like the perennial Buddhist concerns of sickness, old age, and death? As a science writer for the Mindfulness Research Monthly, I get to sample the approximately forty or so scientific papers that are published on mindfulness each and every month. I usually don’t comment on them here, but some recent findings may help illuminate the question.

So just how useful is mindfulness? Let’s start by looking at mindfulness and suffering, and let’s start with a very specific kind of suffering: physical pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s fabled 1982 study of mindfulness’s ability to reduce pain in chronic pain patients was the very first scientific study of mindfulness. It was a pilot demonstration, nothing more, conducted on a shoe string — no NIH grants, no randomization, no controls. It proved precious little on its own, but it was enough to suggest that mindfulness was worth a second look, that it needed to be explored using better, more expensive, more sophisticated methodologies. It opened the floodgates to an enormous outpouring of thirty years of subsequent research.


So where does the science of mindfulness and pain reduction stand today? Joshua Grant from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences recently reviewed the research on the neuropsychology of meditation and pain [1] What did he find out? First, that one could compare the efficacy of focused attention (e.g. shamatha, mantra practice, anapanasati) and open monitoring (e.g., vipassana, shikantaza, choiceless awareness, dzogchen) as to their respective abilities to reduce pain, and when one does so, the evidence for open monitoring is much better than that for focused attention. While there’s some evidence that a very skilled yogi practicing focused attention can suppress somatosensory cortical response to pain through a process of distraction, there’s precious little evidence that the average meditator can do so. On the other hand, there’s mounting evidence from three independent laboratories that open monitoring reduces pain sensitivity and related suffering, and does so in a consistent way. Unlike focused attention, open monitoring doesn’t suppress somatosensory cortical responding, but actually enhances it (along with insula and anterior cingulate responding). Instead, it decreases the prefrontal lobe activity associated with elaborative mental processes (e.g., mental narratives, cognitive appraising, and self-involvement) that exacerbate pain. A study of experienced Zen practitioners showed that they exhibited decreased functional connectivity between these brain regions — as if they had developed a way to decouple their sensory perception from their elaborative mental activities — and that the greater the decrease in functional connectivity between these regions, the lower their pain sensitivity. The really interesting thing here is that this neuropsychological account agrees completely with what mindfulness teachers have been saying all along about what mindfulness ought to and does accomplish — that it increases bare attention to sensation while helping the meditator to drop his or her self-involved story line.

Now let’s examine another topic — aging. UCLA neuroscientist Eileen Luders [2] recently reviewed the evidence that meditation protects the brain against the effects of normal aging. She summarized the results from three independent studies that compared age-related brain changes in meditators and non-meditators. These studies found 1) a smaller age-related decline in gray matter volume in Zen meditators, 2) a smaller age-related decline in right frontal cortical thickness in vipassana meditators, and 3) a smaller age-related decline in white matter connectivity in a group of vipassana, Zen, and shamatha meditators.

Now some might point out that these studies used Zen, vipassana, and shamatha meditators — Buddhist practitioners all. They might wonder whether the same results would hold true for secular mindfulness practitioners. The answer is that it does. Harvard neuropsychologist Britta Holzel and her colleagues [3] found that a standard 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course resulted in significant increases in gray matter density in the left hippocampus, posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction, and cerebellar vermis. And that was the result of just an eight week course! The take away is that mindfulness meditation — whether Buddhist or secular — is good for your brain.

But what about the other objections I referred to at the beginning of this post? Is mindfulness guilty of making people happier without making them Enlightened?

You bet. Guilty as charged. There’s an awful lot of suffering in the world, and if we care deeply about our Bodhisattva vows, we want to see others suffer less. We really do. Buddhism isn’t just about Enlightenment. It’s about suffering and the end of suffering. Buddhism has always had an assortment of goals for people with different needs, in different sets of circumstances, or with different levels of aspiration. Down though the ages most nominal Buddhists have chosen to pursue better karma and rebirth rather than aiming for Enlightenment. If mindfulness only results in happier human beings, then — once again — so be it. Those of us who choose to pursue awakening and transformation can still do so, happily untroubled by the sight of all those cheerful, mindful people milling about in our vicinity.

I’m also underwhelmed by neo-Marxist carping about mindfulness turning workers into complacent zombies, uncritically accepting of the status quo. I can still recall one of my earliest teachers, Larry Rosenberg, saying that if a truly mindful person was meditating in a burning building, he wouldn’t be sitting there mentally noting “warm, warmer, hot, hotter….” He’d be the first person noticing fire and helping others out the door. During my internship at the Center for Mindfulness we were taught a four-step process adopted from Angeles Arrien’s Four-Fold Way: 1) show up, 2) pay attention, 3) speak your truth/do what’s necessary, and 4) let go. I’ve always considered those four steps to be very the essence of mindfulness practice, and it’s a recipe for wise engagement, not passive acceptance and complacency.

Finally, it’s not been my experience that mindfulness is usually taught untethered to an ethical context. While that context may not be overt and explicit— there isn’t any moralizing in MBSR— it’s implicit in mindfulness’s heartfelt emphasis on compassion towards oneself and others, whether as modeled by the mindfulness instructor in interactions with the students, or as practiced by the students themselves in lovingkindness meditation.

I don’t mean to imply that all of these criticisms are baseless. If there are mindfulness teachers out there who aren’t emphasizing compassion and lovingkindness, or who aren’t encouraging their students to exercise wise judgment after getting in touch with the fullness of the present moment — and who knows, it’s a big world out there, maybe there are — they are hereby put on notice: Get with the program. But we should remember that, as Jon Kabat-Zinn once said, “mindfulness” isn’t just “paying attention in the moment.” It’s a placeholder term for an entire secularized version of the Dharma. Is it the Buddhadharma in full? No. But it’s a near enough relative — a close second cousin — and I wish it continued good fortune, and it’s continuing successful diffusion into Western culture.

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  1. [1] Grant, J. (2013) “Meditative analgesia: the current state of the field.” Annals of the New York Academy of Science, DOI: 10.1111/nyas.12282
  2. [2] Luders. E. (2013). “Exploring age-related brain degeneration in meditation practitioners,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, DOI:10.1111/nyas.12217
  3. [3] Hölzel, B., Carmody, C., Vangela, M., Congleton, C., and Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T. and Lazar, S. (2010). “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density,” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (2011) 36–43

About “Speculative Non-Buddhism”


In music something exciting happens when traditions cross-breed.  African music’s encounter with the European tradition gave birth to gospel, blues, and jazz; Chicago and Memphis electrified blues and made it rock; Rock-a-Billy merged Rock and Country;   Bernstein melded classical and jazz and put it on Broadway; Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project furthers the cross fertilization of Eastern and Western traditions.

Similarly, Modern Buddhism (or “Protestant Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism”) continues to emerge from ongoing dialogues between East and West, traditionalism and modernity, Buddhism and science, romanticism, and existentialism.  Purists deride emergent forms as heretical, inauthentic, and watered-down. Skeptics think the emergent forms don’t go far enough in a modernist (or post-modernist) direction. Charismatic con men, hucksters, and self-appointed gurus ride the emergent wave along with a spectrum of sincere seekers, scholars, teachers, bloggers, reformers, and critics. In the midst of this ferment, Buddhist influence on American culture continues to grow (and vice versa).  According to the Pew Foundation’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, “Buddhism” (whatever that means) is now the fastest growing religion in America.

In staking out my own position regarding American Dharma – – loving practice, affectionate towards tradition, skeptical of dogma, favoring transparency, appreciating scholarship’s demythologizing of received narratives — I’ve recently come across a number of contributors to the Buddhist Blogosphere who take a position towards Buddhism somewhat more radical than my own.  I am thinking of writers like Ted Meissner (The Secular Buddhist) who is atheist where I am merely agnostic, of David Chapman  (Meaningness) who rues the incorporation of Western Romanticism into Modern Buddhism, and Glenn Wallis (Speculative Non-Buddhism), a long-term practitioner and scholar who, having found the Buddhist project “fruitlessly tedious,” makes no assumptions about the validity or value of any Buddhist practice or tenet, wishing to open everything to the “coruscating gaze” of reason.

I want to focus this particular post on Glenn Wallis, who holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard.  He’s taught at the University of Georgia, Brown University, Bowdoin College, RISD, and (currently) the Won Institute of Graduate Studies, and has written a number of books including Basic Teachings of the Buddha (Random House, 2007), The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way (Random House, Modern Library, 2004),  Mediating the Power of Buddhas (State University of New York Press, 2002), and, most recently, Buddhavacana: A Pali Reader (Pariyatti Press, 2011).  Clearly Glenn Wallis knows more about Buddhism than I can ever hope to know.

I welcome Wallis’s intention to examine Buddhism dispassionately — neither as insider nor outsider — from a distance sufficient to obtain clarity, but close enough to know the material intimately.  He brings an interesting and provocative mind to the online mix.  It’s his tone, however, that I find disquieting.  He intends his gaze to be coruscating, but his voice tends toward the corrosive  —  arrogant, scornful, and dismissive of those holding differing beliefs and attitudes.  Now I’m not one of those who believes, along with Alice’s Dodo, that “everybody has won and all must have prizes.” Not all opinions are created equal — some are clearly wrong.  (As Daniel Patrick Moynahan famously observed, we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.)  It’s fine to engage in robust discussion and critical discourse, to call things as you see them.  I draw the line, however, at sneering derision that impugns the intelligence and motivation of one’s peers.  Buddhist (and Non-Buddhist!) values call us to a higher standard.

Let me cite examples from two of his recent posts on Speculative Non-Buddhism.   Wallis begins a post entitled “The Elixir of Mindfulness” with the following paragraph:

 “The mighty “Mindfulness” juggernaut continues to roll joyously throughout the wounded world of late-capitalism. And why shouldn’t it? The Mindfulness Industry is claiming territory once held by the great occupying force of assorted self-help gurus, shrinks, health care workers, hypnotists, preachers, Theosophists, the church, the synagogue, actual gurus, yogis, meditation teachers, and even—gasp!— Buddhists themselves.  Who, after all, can compete with an industry that claims to offer a veritable fountain of bounty, an elixir to life’s ills?”


He concludes:

 “By re-packaging age-old optimisms, the Mindfulness Industry feeds off of the multi-billion dollar addiction of the desiccated twenty-first century middle classes for anything that will lead them to the promised land of ‘well-being.’”


Not content to skewer would-be healers who have jumped aboard the mindfulness train without sufficient grounding in practice, Wallis goes right for the jugular in attacking its founder, stating “the vacuity of the term ‘mindfulness’ can be traced, in fact, to the vague, platitudinous, and circular definition given it by Jon Kabat-Zinn.”

Now Mindfulness is not sacrosanct.  There are plenty of unresolved questions about what to properly include in its definition, how best to measure it, differentiating state and trait aspects, discriminating active ingredients from placebo, and understanding who might best benefit from it.  There is already a substantial and mind-numbingly voluminous body of research and scientific literature exploring all of these questions.

Having followed a great deal of that scientific literature (which I doubt Wallis has), having contributed to it, having participated in an MBSR internship at the Center for Mindfulness in Healthcare, Medicine, and Society, and having had the experience of teaching mindfulness to clinicians, medical patients, and psychiatric patients over the years, I have a different perspective on mindfulness than Wallis has.  I found it to be personally transformative and of great benefit to a variety of my clients with problems as diverse as anger management, chronic pain, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative disorder.  The research literature has found it helpful in a great variety of other disorders, as well as in simply relieving stress, and has begun to explore the biological correlates of mindfulness practice, including its effects of brain structure and function and immune function.  This is not trivial work.

Nowhere, however, does Wallis acknowledge Kabat-Zinn’s depth of understanding of the Dharma, sincerity, intelligence, and commitment to the scientific method as a means of exploring the nature and value of mindfulness.  I find Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness to be perfectly intelligible and clear as a guide to practice, if not sufficiently operationalized for research purposes.   I’ve always found him, and the researchers associated with the Center for Mindfulness in Healthcare, Medicine and Society, to be open to critique and willing to follow wherever the data leads.  These are serious people engaged in a serious project.

Why the animus against them?  Why question the relationship of mindfulness practice to Buddhist practice in general?  Are Thich Nhat Hanh (who wrote The Miracle of Mindfulness and Bhante Gunaratana (who wrote Mindfulness in Plain English) not sufficiently Buddhist-y for Wallis?  Who meets his qualifications?

In the second example,  Wallis accuses Buddhism (in general) and Zen teacher Barry Magid (in particular) of “flinching” because of its/his claim that practice leads to deep joy.   Wallis begins by expressing admiration for Magid (and his teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck), but then quotes Magid’s “In Memoriam” piece for Beck in Buddhadharma:

“When students were preoccupied with transformation, she took what was in danger of becoming a toothless Zen cliché—being just this moment—and turned it into the challenge of having no hope—a radical acceptance of the totality of the present. Yet she never failed to emphasize that at the bottom of the well of self was deep joy. A lifetime of teaching about death and dying was summed up as ‘this too is joy.’”


Wallis, apparently, objects to all this “joy” talk, writing:

He, Beck, and all of Buddhism shore up the existential nullity…  with what amounts to an ideological sandbag: “deep joy.” The “bottom of the well” and the “deep” are not given in the equation. They are smuggled into to it by merchants of hope. They are instances of a transcendent, specular, all-seeing-from-above dharmic dream of what should be/we would like to be the case. They are not, by any means, necessarily what is. The “deep joy” at the “bottom of the well of self” is a new, uniquely self-help-obsessed-American Zen cliché; one, moreover, that flashes the sharp teeth of all “spiritual” salesmen—and saleswomen. For it locks the practitioner into the endless pay loop of should-could-want-would-like-deep-joy.”

Toni Packer, one of the teachers who has deeply influenced me, shares a great deal in common with Joko Beck.  Like Joko, she makes all of life grounds for investigation and questions the value of many traditional Buddhist practices.  She also went one further than Joko, leaving even words like “Buddhism” and “Zen” behind.  For Toni, there is truly “just this.”

I can’t remember Toni ever using the word “joy” per se, but this [1] is her interpretation of her own experience:

 “Sitting quietly, without desire or fear, beyond the sense of time, is vast, boundless being, not belonging to you or me.  It is free and unattached, shedding light on conditioned being, beholding it, and yet not meddling with it…. It is not what is seen that matters, but that there is seeing, revealing what is as it is, in the light of wisdom and compassion too marvelous to comprehend.

I suspect this description of “vast, boundless being” and “wisdom and compassion too marvelous to comprehend” is what Beck and Magid mean by “joy.”  It’s what Shabkar Tsodruk Rangdrol meant when he described the mind’s nature as “intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, and ceaselessly responsive.”  It’s quite all right to say that never having experienced what they experienced, one wonders whether their view of the way things are is real.  Its quite another to say that in presenting their own experience they are “flinching,” in other words, being intellectually dishonest and evasive.  I never thought Toni was offering up a “new, uniquely self-help-obsessed-American Zen cliché” or acting as a “spiritual” saleswoman.  She was just sharing her own experience, and her belief that if others would only look they might discover the same.

Magid responded to Wallis in this way:

 “The Buddha might have said Life is Suffering and left it at that. Impermanence is inescapable and our practice is first and foremost a confrontation with our avoidance of this reality. But Zen is not just a matter of swallowing bad tasting medicine. The experience of long sitting also opens the door of joy — when we cease our protests against life as it is we experience the poignancy and joy that life emerges changes and departs. I don’t hold this out as a carrot or antidote or promise. But it is my (and Joko’s) first hand report from the front lines.”


To which Wallis, in turn, responded:

“I am sure you’ll agree that each of us has to submit our own first-hand report. It’s wonderful that some reports contain descriptions of deep joy. But I can’t submit a report based on what you or Charlotte Beck or the Buddha discovers on the front lines. That report would be untruthful. Why are some first-hand reports from the front lines universalized by tradition (and its present-day teachers) as necessarily desirable, as a special species of experiential truth-telling? And what effect does it have on students when teachers make such reports openly? What are teachers doing when they do so?”

I’m sorry that Wallis hasn’t found the joy at the bottom of the well in his own practice.  I can’t imagine, however, why he questions the value of teachers reporting on their own experience as a way of pointing out what might be possible to their students.

All of this boils down to the question of what motivates our practice to begin with.  Why practice at all, unless one is seeking medicine for spiritual unease and the unsatisfactoriness of one’s life?  If the Dharma isn’t authentic medication for that, what use is it?  Does it provide us with a way of being that feels more authentic and vital?  Does it help us to develop awareness and equanimity?  Does it help us in becoming less self-centered?  Does it assist us in exploring our narrative of who we are and the way we construe the world? Do we become more compassionate in the process?  These are all meaningful questions.  We all have skin in this game.  We are in it because we are seeking something.  If some people who have been at this longer than we have report that joy is part of what we might find at the bottom of the well, is that somehow magically illegitimate?  Is that hucksterism?  Is that wishful thinking?  Why not include that in the list of things we may just discover if we persist in our practice?

Wallis loves the idea of existential courage — of facing things as they are without any sops.  But the idea that in moments of clear seeing there might be genuine peace and happiness beyond mere sensory pleasure can be part of reality too. It’s not all grimness and eat your peas.  There’s a certain degree of sourness at the bottom of Wallis’s well.

I want to contrast Wallis’s slash-and-burn style with an alternative mode of inquiry that Andrew Olendzki proposes in an article excerpted in the latest issue of Buddhadharma.

In discussing rehabilitating Protestant Buddhism Olendzki writes:

“A crucial first step in the process is to recognize that new forms of Buddhism, at their best, are based upon the creative ways of synthesizing meaning rather than on undermining the beliefs and practice of others.  In other words, while it is not okay to say that others have got it wrong and this is the right way of looking at things, it is entirely appropriate (and natural) to say, “ Here is an interesting new way of understanding things that I find particularly meaningful.”  Even if we get it wrong once in a while, better to be actively inquiring into the meaning of the dhamma at every opportunity than to passively accept tradition in a given form…. We are not necessarily better at understanding these teachings because we are moderns or Westerners or humanists or typing on keyboards.  We cannot assume the troubling bits, about miracles, rebirth, and hell realms, for example, must not be “true” and that we, of course, know better.  It is possible to hold the greatest respect for all those who think differently from ourselves, for all those who construct their own meaning of these teachings differently than we do, and simply say at some point that we are not capable of seeing it that way.”



Catch the difference in tone?  It’s possible to question, critique, and explore, without being beholden to any orthodoxy, and at the same time remain open to, and respectful of, those who hold the teachings differently.

I’ll continue to read Wallis’s blog.  He has interesting and important things to say.  It’s helpful to grapple with ideas that challenge one’s own assumptions.  He’s a member of my club — the club of Westerners struggling with the gift of centuries of Buddhist practice, devotion, and contention.   But I hope he finds a way to be more at home in the world, more happy, and  — dare I say it — more joyous.  And I hope he discovers a tone of voice that’s less prickly, less irritating, less dismissive, and — dare I say it — more consistent with Buddhist aspirations.

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  1. [1] Packer, T. (2004). The Wonder of Presence. Boston: Shambhala, p. 131

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Pali for “Noble Eightfold Path” is Ariya Aṭṭhangika Magga, literally the “Aryan Eight-Limbed Path.”   Nowadays, the word “Aryan” has negative connotations because of its appropriation by Nazis and white supremacists, but in ancient Pali it meant “noble” or “exalted,” and Buddhists reserved it as an honorific for practitioners who had reached a high level of realization: stream-enterers, once-returners, non-returners, and arahants.  The name “Noble Eightfold Path” is a bit misleading, because it’s not so much the path that’s noble, as it is the path that nobles follow to attain realization.  The Noble Eightfold Path is the path alluded to in the Fourth Noble Truth: the path towards release from suffering.  It’s the Buddha’s prescription for what ails us.

Traditionally, the Eightfold Path is subdivided into three aggregates: wisdom (pañña), virtue (sīla), and concentration (samādhi).

The wisdom aggregate has two components: right view (sammā ditthi) and right intention (sammā sankappa).  Right view, at an initial level, is an understanding of karma — that actions have consequences — as well as belief in rebirth and the possibility of liberation.  At a higher level of realization, it is also the ability to directly perceive the three marks of existence: unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and non-self (anattā) in all compound phenomena.  Right intention involves both a renunciation of clinging, and the adaptation of an attitude of good will and non-harming to all beings.

The virtue aggregate includes the components of right speech (sammā vācā), right action (sammā kammanta), and right livelihood (sammā ājīva).  Right speech refers to abstaining from lies, backbiting and slander, abusive and hurtful speech, and frivolous talk. Right action involves adhering to the ethical precepts of abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual impropriety, and intoxicants.  Right livelihood means earning one’s living in a way that adheres to the precepts.  Certain occupations are specifically proscribed for Buddhists including trafficking in human beings, weapons, meat, intoxicants, and poisons.

The concentration aggregate also has three components: right effort (sammā vāyāma), right mindfulness (sammā sati), and right concentration (sammā samādhi). Right effort means developing control over one’s mental state by abandoning unskillful thoughts, preventing unskillful thoughts from taking hold, and reinforcing skillful thoughts.  Right mindfulness means cultivating awareness of bodily sensations, feelings, mind, and mental objects in all one’s activities.  Right concentration is the development of one-pointed concentration through practicing the meditative absorptions (jhānas) in order to have sufficient stability of mind to develop insight into the marks of existence.

The Eightfold Path has both a mundane and supramundane level.  On the mundane level one follows the path elements to prepare for stream-entry, but at the point of stream-entry all eight elements coalesce into the supramundane path from stream-entry to arahantship.

One can think of each of the path elements separately, but one can also think about them as reflecting and reinforcing each other, like the jewels of Indra’s net, or like holograms, each element containing all the other elements within them.  For example, right speech requires right intention, abstaining from intoxicants, abandoning unskillful thoughts and maintaining right mindfulness.  When one is practicing one aspect of the path, one is reinforcing them all.

The Noble Eightfold Path is Theravāda Buddhism’s map for Destination Nirvana, but other schools have provided somewhat different maps for realization.  Mahāyāna Buddhism has its Bodhisattva path; Vajrayāna has Atiśa’s Stages of the Path. There’s even a Zen-inflected pathless path:  As Toni Packer has written:

“Awareness cannot be taught, and when it is present it has no context. All contexts are created by thought and are therefore corruptible by thought. Awareness simply throws light on what is, without any separation whatsoever.   Awareness, insight, enlightenment, wholeness — whatever words one may pick to label what cannot be caught in words — is not the effect of a cause. Activity does not destroy it and sitting does not create it. It isn’t a product of anything — no technique, method, environment, tradition, posture, activity, or nonactivity can create it. It is there, uncreated, freely functioning in wisdom and love, when self-centered conditioning is clearly revealed in all its grossness and subtleness and defused in the light of understanding.”

So what do I make of the Noble Eightfold Path?  After all, I’m an existential Buddhist who doesn’t believe in literal karma and rebirth.  Since I don’t believe in literal rebirth, I also don’t believe in the literal meaning of stream-entry, i.e., being on the glide path to non-rebirth.  According to the Theravāda map, I’m already hopelessly mired in wrong view.

With the exception of the karma/rebirth issue, however, the Noble Eightfold Path still seems like a pretty good prescription.  It emphasizes the importance of the interplay of intellectual understanding, intention, ethics, enlarging the heart, and meditation.  Practicing one of these without the support of the others is probably the fast track to nowhere.  Without an initial understanding of suffering, impermanence, and interdependence there is little motivation to practice.  Just meditating, however, without the larger envelope of the intention to help all beings can lead to detachment and withdrawal.  Trying to calm the mind while one’s immoral behavior is busy generating turbulence is like trying to erect a tent during a hurricane. Rushing out to save beings without developing discernment, mindfulness, and equanimity is a recipe for what Trungpa Rinpoche called “idiot compassion.”  Finally, a sterile intellectual understanding of Buddhist concepts without the direct experience of reality arrived at through meditation leads to a mistaking of the map for the territory.  One haggles over concepts without ever touching the reality the concepts merely point at.  Alan Watts called this eating the menu instead of eating the meal.  Compassion, ethics, meditative practice, and intellectual understanding are all necessary components of paths to realization — however one imagines that destination — if we are to avoid drifting too far off, either to the left or to the right, and winding up in a side-ditch.

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Decisions, Decisions

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura…

In the middle of our life-journey
I found myself in a dark wood…
— Dante, Inferno

As Kierkegaard noted, while we understand life backwards, we can only live it forwards. We are all time travelers [1], and while we only live within each moment, moment to moment, the moments tick inexorably away towards the future. The thoughts we entertain and the actions we engage in within each moment give birth to the next moment. This is the meaning of paticca-samuppāda, or dependent origination.

We do this living forwards in a fog of uncertainty. Every choice we make is a bet with an associated degree of risk and uncertainty. We can never accurately predict where each step, each decision, each fork in the road, will eventually lead.

We all crave certainty. We want to know the right stock to invest in, the best school to attend, the right career path to follow, the right partner to marry, the right time to have children, the best smartphone to own, the true religion that will save us. We try to contrast and compare, weigh the pros and cons, play the odds, but we’re really like the farmer with the lost horse in the Taoist fable. Good choice? Bad choice? Who knows?

Despite the uncertainty that shrouds our every decision, we still need to do the best we can. What other choice is there? This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is a light that illuminates our path one step at a time. Mindfulness allows us to see one moment ahead in the fog of uncertainty.

Before making an important decision, after we have done our diligent research and weighed the pros and cons, it’s helpful to take the time to sit mindfully with the choice at hand. This means giving up thinking about the choice but just sitting quietly with the choice as an open question. As Dogen might say, “think non-thinking.” This allows the choice to breathe and reverberate throughout our being, permitting all aspects of Being that rational thought alone cannot fathom or penetrate to resonate with the choice. As we sit, inchoate thoughts and feelings we had not been previously aware of have the space to unfold. When we take the time to sit with a decision in mindfulness we emerge into a new kind of clarity, one that rings true within our deepest selves.

When we have done everything possible to make a good decision, it can still come out badly. We can never control the consequences of our decisions once our actions have launched them into the real world. Whatever the consequences are, we now own them. We may not like them, but we have to deal with them as best we can. Is it possible to live without regret? Without longing for the road not taken? Without whining? Is it possible to accept our current life fully, just as it is?

In the Angulimala Sutta, a murdering brigand gives up his thuggish ways to become a member of the Sangha, and eventually achieve Enlightenment. Despite his enlightened status, he’s vilified by the public. The Buddha tells him to accept the consequences of his past actions with equanimity:

“A clod thrown by one person hit Angulimala on the body, a stone thrown by another person hit him on the body, and a potsherd thrown by still another person hit him on the body. So Angulimala — his head broken open and dripping with blood, his bowl broken, and his outer robe ripped to shreds — went to the Blessed One. The Blessed One… said to him: ‘Bear with it, brahman! Bear with it! The fruit of the kamma that would have burned you in hell for … many thousands of years, you are now experiencing in the here-and-now!’ [2]

The Buddha would give us the same advice: “Suck it up!” Imagining a world where things can be different right now than they actually are is a waste of our energy. It’s the way we made it. The world is as the world is. Can we live in it with mindfulness, acceptance, and even joy?

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  1. [1] Thanks to Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe for this metaphor!
  2. [2] Translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The Psychotherapist’s Path

Vajrayogini, Rubin Museum of Art
The following is a revised excerpt from my chapter “Psychotherapy Practice as Buddhist Practice” in Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings which explores the relevance of the Eightfold Noble Path to the psychotherapist’s craft.  If you’re not a therapist, you might not find this all that interesting.  On the other hand, you could replace the words “therapist” and “client” with the words “myself” and “anyone I’m in a relationship with” and see if the shoe fits.

Psychotherapy is a form of right livelihood that depends on right speech, and as such, every encounter with a client can be a spiritual encounter.  Therapists are supposed to maintain mindfulness, avoid ensnarement in transient states of desire and aversion that can derail therapy, and skillfully employ compassionate and discerning speech with the intent of relieving suffering.  This kind of moment-to-moment attentiveness and compassionate non-egoistic focus elevates the therapist’s practice from the merely professional to the spiritual.  Being fully present with a client becomes not only a means of earning a living or fulfilling a moral imperative but part of the therapist’s path of spiritual development. Every client encounter becomes part of the therapist’s learning process, not just in terms of becoming a better therapist, but in terms of becoming more fully human.

In considering the practice of psychotherapy as a form of spiritual endeavor, it can be useful to explore the psychotherapist’s role and craft from the vantage point of the Eightfold Noble Path.   For purposes of convenience, we will begin by dividing the The Eightfold Noble Path into its three traditional components of sīla (virtue), samādhi (concentration), and pañña (wisdom).

Sīla (Virtue)

The Buddhist concept of sīla is best exemplified by the Five Precepts: 1) Desisting from killing other beings, 2) Not taking what doesn’t belong to one, 3) Not harming others through acts of speech, 4) Refraining from sexual immorality, and 5) Abstaining from intoxicating substances.  Making sure one’s mind is unclouded by intoxicants and guarding against sexual boundary violations are part of the therapist’s minimum standard of care, as is the duty to prevent physical harm to self and others.  “Not taking what is not freely given” is relevant to fair billing practices and ethical financial dealings with clients and insurance companies.

What do Buddhists mean by harmful or wrong speech?  The Kakacūpama Sutta states that speech can be “timely or untimely, true or untrue, gentle or harsh, connected with good or with harm, and spoken with loving-kindness or inner hate.”  In therapy our words must arise out of loving-kindness, and be gentle, timely, true, and spoken with helpful intent.  Following this precept requires that we mindfully monitor our moods, intentions, and communication to attend to our countertransference, and to guard against our own anti-therapeutic behaviors.

Samādhi (Concentration)

Samādhi consists of  “right concentration,” “right mindfulness” and “right effort.”   The most precious gift one can give anyone is the quality of one’s attention.  As therapists, our goal, over and over, is to attend to this client/therapist interactive field in this moment, just as in meditation our goal is to attend to this breath in this moment, over and over.  In meditation, the meditator quickly discovers how easily attention slips off of the breath and wanders, and learns to keep bringing attention back to the breath without judgment. In psychotherapy we quickly learn how easily attention wanders from bare attention to the client/therapist field, and learn to keep bringing attention back to the client/therapist field without judgment.  Mindful concentration is an essential ingredient to forming a positive therapeutic alliance and to the kind of deep listening that nurtures the interpersonal space where transformation and healing occurs.  Whatever theory we operate within, our very next intervention, our very next interpretation, our very next action,  proceeds from the depth of our understanding of this very moment in this particular client/therapist interactive field.

We are also mindful of our tendency to identify with or distance ourselves from our clients in each passing moment of our therapy sessions.  If unwatched, our tendency is to take what is said and happening personally rather than just hearing it openly and freshly, with curiosity and wonder.  If the client is critical or resists our interventions, we can become angry and defensive; if the client is compliant and friendly, we can be co-opted or seduced.   We can think/feel that the client is “one of us” or “one of them.”  Our sense of self can become inflated as a client improves, or deflated as a client’s illness festers despite our best efforts.   Mindfulness listens to and watches all of this impartially: the contracting and expanding, the distancing and merging, the openness and the defensiveness, the criticism and the appreciation.   It is for or against none of it.  It does not get ensnared and entangled, or if it does, it notices the ensnarement and entanglement with equanimity and compassion.

As we listen, we strive to maintain a friendly attitude toward the client, toward ourselves, and toward our own experience, an attitude marked by mettā (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), and upekkhā (equanimity). Loving-kindness implies an openness, receptivity, and willingness to accept ourselves just as we are and others just as they are, with equanimity, and without needing to distance ourselves.  We try not to become ensnared by states of aversion that separate us emotionally from the phenomena we are observing.

We can’t accurately understand clients if we emotionally distance ourselves from, feel separate from or superior to, or condemn or feel disgusted by them.  This doesn’t mean we approve of all our clients’s actions; we recognize how clients contribute to their own misery and the misery of others.  We understand, however, the conditions out of which these actions arise, and how we, faced with similar causes and conditions, might act no better.  We also understand how condemnation and disgust creates feelings of humiliation, shame, and rage, closing clients off behind walls of defensiveness, and making clients less able to comprehend the consequences of and their responsibility for their actions.  Words of instruction can be spoken from a compassionate heart, and decisive action to prevent harm can emerge from care and concern rather than anger and aversion.

Our friendly stance towards the client’s experiential world supports the client’s  acceptance, toleration, and integration of thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors that have previously been objects of self-aversion.  Our ability to be with clients in a friendly, experience-near way is a precondition for clients to take a friendly, self-nurturing stance towards their own experiencing, which can ripen into wholeness and appropriate self-regard and self-care.  In many therapies this shift from self-loathing to appropriate self-caring is the turning point on which a successful outcome depends.

Pañña (Wisdom)

Wisdom refers to an understanding of dukkha (suffering/unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermanence), anattā (non-self), and śūnyatā (emptiness/interbeing).  It posits that all phenomena are impermanent, devoid of a solid, unchanging essence, and co-existent as aspects of the entire web of being. As a corollary, all phenomena are ineffective as permanent solutions to the existential unsatisfactoriness of the human condition.

Dukkha (Unsatisfactoriness). Unsatisfactoriness is not only an essential fact of the client’s life, but also our own.  As we conduct a psychotherapy, we experience many unpleasant moments.  We need to sit unflinchingly with the client’s pain.  We also need to sit with our own pain: the ache of our own uncertainty and insufficiency, our moments of discouragement and hopelessness, our moments of boredom and disinterest, our own myriad personal distresses which reverberate in sympathetic harmony with the client’s problems.  If we withdraw emotionally or attentively, or react without mindful attention, breaks in the therapeutic alliance are inevitable.  If we can be attentive to these states, accept them, and hold them within our own spacious being, the therapy is more likely to succeed.

Annica (Impermanence). There is no solidity to existence; existence is always in a state of transformation.  Everything is always on its way to becoming something else.  This is as true for our world as for the client’s.  We often get caught up in psychological constructs which reify clients rather than seeing them as changing, fluid beings:  To the extent that we assume a static and unchanging world we become blind to the possibilities for change within each moment.

We can also cling rigidly to an idea of what it means to be a therapist.  Our own changing, flexible, protean self can become encrusted within a rigid conception of our role;  Our ability to flow and adapt can be obscured by a social role or personal character armor.  We can lose our ability to see the genuine therapeutic possibilities of this moment right here, right now, which may just call for something original, daring, and never-before-thought-of.  In a world that is constant transformation, the possibilities inherent in this moment may never come again.

In understanding anicca we understand that we are subject to causes and conditions just like all other beings.  One moment we’re attentive, the next moment lost.  One moment we’re brilliant, the next moment befuddled.  One moment we’re compassionate, the next moment threatened and self-centered.  We must be at home with all of this, as attentive as possible to our shifting mental states, accepting of change, and ever ready to seek a new state of balance.  In addition, we must be willing to allow the role of client to change as the client’s needs shift due to  either growth or deterioration.

Anattā (Non-Self). Since things are in a constant state of flux, there can be no such thing as an immutable identity to things.  Anattā is often misunderstood as being primarily an ontological statement, but it actually is intended to serve the pragmatic purpose of liberating us from our selfish preoccupations.  The more we understand anattā, the less likely therapy will be about the selfhood of the therapist.  Why work so hard to protect an identity that has only a quasi-existence?  Why cling tightly to images of ourselves as better, smarter, healthier, more knowledgeable, or more right than our clients?  If a client is angry with us, why get caught up in an identity narrative about being the aggrieved helper?  If the client improves, the value of our self doesn’t have to go up ten points, nor does our stock need to decline when therapy fails.  The client doesn’t need to get better for or stay sick for us.  With less of a sense of self to protect, we are freer to hear and open to the client.  When self-identification loosens, a natural connectedness to and caring for the suffering of others can manifest freely.  That connectedness and care is impeded by the need to protect oneself, and flows when attention to “me” and “mine” abates.

Śūnyatā (Emptiness/Interbeing).  Śūnyatā is usually translated as “emptiness,” although Thich Nhat Hahn’s “interbeing” seems a more helpful translation.  Interbeing is a natural consequence of impermanence and non-self,  pointing to the interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena.  Nothing exists except in interrelationship with everything else.  Clients do not exist separate from their families and social systems; clients and the clinical phenomena which they exhibit in therapy do not exist separate from the client/therapist interaction; Phenomena do not exist by themselves, but only as part of a field, and the arrow of causality within that field is always multidirectional.

While these insights aren’t new, it’s often hard to directly perceive the interdependent nature of things.  Western culture has a bias in favor of emphasizing independence and autonomy over interpersonal relatedness.  Our cultural and personal biases cause us to continually lapse into unbalanced and simplistic modes of thought that fail to take interbeing into account.  It’s often hard to see how we and our clients co-create phenomena during the complex and intense emotional pushes and pulls we experience within the therapeutic relationship.  Buddhist practice is one way to ground ourselves in an appreciation of interbeing during the most emotionally charged therapeutic interchanges.

Psychotherapists are supposed to know how to monitor their own emotional processes, to see complex interpersonal transactions with a minimum of defensiveness, and to use this monitoring and seeing in service of maintaining a therapeutic relationship that is focused on relief of the client’s suffering.  These expectations are taught in graduate school, but the emotional skills required to achieve them rarely are. All too often, training in psychotherapy has to do with the acquisition of skills that can be externally measured and quantified: the mastery of a body of facts and theories, the development of specific communication skills, the adherence to a manualized protocol.  Buddhist practice can be an important vehicle for developing emotional skills that are vital for the successful practice of psychotherapy, (and interpersonal life in general!) but are harder to teach: openness, receptivity, awareness of internal process, equanimity, compassion, and an enhanced sensitivity to inter-relatedness.

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The Five Practices

Buddhism has a thing for numbered lists:  Two Truths.  Three Marks of Existence.   Four Foundations of Mindfulness.  Five Precepts.  Six Paramitas.  Seven Factors of Enlightenment.   The Eightfold Noble Path. Twelve links of Dependent Origination. Thirty-two Marks of the Buddha. Fifty-one Mental Factors.  Fifty-two Stages of the Bodhisattva Path.  There’s a lot of stuff to remember and the lists are mnemonic devices that help keep everything straight.

Buddhist practice can be endlessly complicated.  Some people like things with more details, more rules, more rituals, more practices, complex visualizations.  If you are one of them, there is a Buddhism that is just right for you.  There are 84,000 different Dharma doors.

Not me.  I like things simple.  My favorite ice cream is plain vanilla.

My practice is very simple.  My numbered list contains only Five Practices:

  1. Be Present
  2. Be Open-Hearted
  3. Show Respect
  4. Have Courage
  5. Let Go

Five is as much as I can wrap my head around.  If I stick with these five there is more than enough to keep me busy.

1) Being Present — The practice of Being Present involves mindfulness, both in dedicated sitting practice and in daily life.  It also involves a commitment to whole-heartedness — if you are going to do something, do it all the way with your whole being.  It also means showing up — be there to do what is needed — don’t evade responsibility for doing what has to be decided or done.

2) Be Open-Hearted — Open-Heartedness is the practice of commitment to the way of compassion, lovingkindness, empathy, tolerance and forgiveness.  It is the practice of accepting people the way they are, no matter how different or deficient they may be.  That doesn’t mean that you accept or approve of everything others do, and it doesn’t mean you don’t protect yourself from the harmful action of others.  It just means that you keep them in the category of “one of us.”  All beings are “one of us,”  no matter how much they might seem otherwise.  We say, in the metta chant, sabe satta, “whatever beings there are.”  We wish them happiness and freedom from suffering.  Compassion and kindness are not just emotions to be cultivated as mental states.  They involve our compassionate and loving activity in the world.

3) Show Respect — All things are interconnected.  Who we are, our very life and existence, is dependent on the interdependent cooperation of all things.  Can we show appreciation, gratitude, and respect for all things?  This means not only bowing to and respecting all beings, including animals and plants.  It means appreciating and caring for all things that come into our little circle of life. It means keeping air and water clear and unpolluted.  It means appreciating and respecting the earth, and being a good steward.  It means raising animals humanely and growing crops without toxins.  It means keeping our living space orderly and clean.  It means taking care of the things we own.  It means respecting and caring for other people’s belongings.  We bow deeply to all.

4) Have Courage —  Don’t live your life out of fear, but live your life out of your convictions.  Don’t be afraid to take a stand, to express a conviction.  Don’t be afraid to love.  Don’t be afraid to do what wisdom tells you needs to be done.  This doesn’t mean that you should be in other people’s faces or take foolhardy risks.  It just means that your existence should be life-affirming, not fear-based and avoidant.

5) Let Go — No one died and left you in charge of things.  The world is not yours to control.  Our practice is one of mindfulness, open-heartedness, respectfulness and courage.  That doesn’t mean that everything we do turns out right, the way we had hoped and expected.  It doesn’t mean that others always reward us or appreciate us for what we do.  It doesn’t mean we get what we want.  We still get old, and sick, and die.  All relationships, even the one’s we care about most, even the good ones, all end eventually.  If all goes well they end with our death or theirs, if all doesn’t go well, they end in acrimony.  Nothing we like and want to hold onto remains constant.  Change, entropy, habituation, and cycles of decline, transformation, and rebirth govern the multiverse.  Our practice is a continual one of letting go, non-clinging, and acceptance, over and over.  Just like when we do our sitting practice, the practice is one of continual letting go moment by moment.  Letting go of our demands on the moment — how this moment ought to be — and accepting it just the way it is.

Do I personally embody these practices in my own life?  No.  They are horizons to be aimed at, not accomplishments to be attained.  The practice-life never ends.  We have to recommit to it moment by moment.  We continually fall short of our practice goals, notice when we have fallen short, and recommit again, until we forget again.  This is our human life.

Will these practices make you Enlightened?  They haven’t made me Enlightened.  But engaging in these practices is enlightened activity.  When we engage in these practices all things express Buddha nature through us.

“Grass, trees, and lands are all embraced by this activity and together are radiant and endlessly express the inconceivable, profound Dharma. Grass, trees, fences, and walls bring forth the Teachings for all beings, usual people as well as sages. And they in accord extend this Dharma for the sake of grass, trees, fences, and walls. Thus, the realm of self-Awakening and Awakening others is fundamentally endowed with realization lacking nothing, and realization itself is actualized ceaselessly.”  — from Dogen’s Bendowa [1]

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  1. [1] translated by Anzan Hoshin Roshi and Yasuda Joshu Dainen Roshi

The Blogger’s Path to Enlightenment

All human activity has the potential to both enrich one’s life and to increase one’s suffering.  Doubt this?  Just pick any human activity!  Work, sex, eating, politics, religion, whatever.  This is just a restatement of Buddhism’s First Noble Truth.  Whether these activities generate happiness or misery depends on one’s intentions and expectations as well as the degree of mindfulness, compassion and wisdom one can muster while engaging in them.

Blogging is no exception.  It can be for better or for worse.  It can be part of one’s Buddhist practice or it can be a detour and distraction.  It’s a matter of intention, mindfulness, compassion, wisdom, and non-attachment.

What and how you write can be guided (or not) by the Precepts.  Do you employ right speech?  Is what you write truthful and without intent to cause harm?  Is the content  your own  (have you not taken what is not freely given)?  Are your readers someone you care about?  Are you mindful of your potential effect on them?   Do you want to enhance their lives or merely amuse them, titillate them, or use them to sell products or advance yourself?  Are you clinging to and hiding behind an ideal persona, or sharing your actual self?  Does your writing help you to reflect more deeply on your own experience?  Do you learn more about yourself and the Dharma through the act of writing?  Does the amount of time you spend on blogging cause you to neglect other aspects of your life?  Your work?  Your relationships? Your meditation time?

How do you work at building subscribers, links, retweets, and followers on various social media platforms?  Are you spending too much time on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, et al.?  Are you adding quality links or junk links?  Are you building a genuine community of fellow bloggers and faithful readers, or are you using others to further yourself?  Keeping your life in balance and keeping relationships real are part of the Blogging Path.

What do you expect out of blogging?  Is it a way to tell your truth?  To create community?  To get noticed?  To make money?  How do you feel when your Feedburner counts go up or down?  How do you feel when something you write gets criticized or ignored?  How do you feel when splogs hijack (and monetize!) your content?  It’s all grist for the practice mill.  Do your best and let go, again and again.

This blog is now into its fifth month.  I’ve enjoyed the learning, thinking, writing, corresponding, and befriending.  I’ve tried to keep the process truthful, not have it become addictive, and attempted to maintain mindfulness and equanimity.  I’ve learned more about my strengths and vulnerabilities.  How has your journey been, fellow bloggers and faithful readers? Part of the path or a distraction from it?

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Working with Fear

My wife and I just spent two weeks traveling the Colorado Plateau, that astonishing five million year-old uplifting of sedimentary rock that makes Southern Utah and Northern Arizona (as well as parts of Colorado, and New Mexico) so amazingly unique.

We toured some of the National and Tribal parks that dot red sandstone country: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Mesa Verde, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.  Those of you who have been there know words are inadequate to describe the awesome natural beauty of the high desert plateau with its myriad canyons, arches, windows and hoodoos.

A few days into our journey my wife and I decided to trek down into the Bryce Canyon amphitheater to get a closer view of the erosion-formed hoodoos at its bottom.

As we started snaking down the switchbacks that led to the canyon floor I became aware, for the first time in my life, of an overwhelming fear of heights.  I was terrified of the closeness of the trail rim and the precipitous drop that lay to my right.  My knees weakened and when I couldn’t see around a narrow stretch of switchback I became fearful I’d trip and fall, and refused go any further.  I apologized to my wife, who was enjoying the descent, and told her I had to turn back.

Now if you look objectively at me beginning down that trail (see below) you’ll see the trail is really fairly wide, but that I am nevertheless clinging to the left side of the trail where there’s a high wall and no drop off.  If I’d tripped and stumbled there’s no way I’d have plunged to my death.  I’d have skinned my knees at the worst.   I was suffering from a sudden case of acrophobia.  I was mystified!  Climbing up ladders or doing housework on the roof had never been my favorite activity, but I’d always been able to do it.  Young children were hiking that trail without any difficulty, for heaven’s sake!  I felt thoroughly ashamed!

This event reminded me of another time in my life when I’d experienced significant irrational fear.  I was on my second ten-day meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts.  My first retreat had been heavenly bliss, so naturally I expected my second to be a repeat of my first.  Oh, dread beginner’s naiveté!  Beware of expectations!  They always come back and bite you!

A few days into the retreat I developed a paranoid fantasy about one of the other yogis, an eccentric individual who kept showing up at the outdoor spots I’d picked for my walking meditation.  Only he wasn’t doing walking meditation.  He was doing his own thing.  He’d stand motionless for ten minutes, then take off running towards me at full speed, then suddenly stop a few feet in front of me resuming his previous stillness.  I was baffled and unnerved, and began thinking that his intentions were malevolent.  Perhaps he was a serial killer and he’d selected me as his next victim?

He seemed to be everywhere.  I’d go for a walk around the loop of roads circling IMS after lunch and hear someone clearing his throat behind me.  I’d turn around, and there he was!

My paranoia intensified.  I was wearing  a baseball cap with the name of my daughter’s college written on it.  What a mistake!  After he killed me, he could go after her!

A part of me recognized that this thinking was seriously disturbed and I tried using logic to derail it, but to no avail.  Another part of me thought that my meditation had made me super-sensitive and that I could read his energy or thought waves.  I wasn’t being paranoid, I was just tapping into his aura!

This paranoid episode lasted for several days, and I was thoroughly miserable.  Then one evening one of the teachers at the retreat gave a talk about fear.  How perfect! How excellent! How well timed!  When the pupil is ready, the teaching appears!

The teacher, Michael Liebenson Grady, discussed his own fear of unleashed dogs on the loop around IMS.  Once when confronted by a growling dog, he recalled the tale of how Ajahn Maha Boowa recited metta verses to a tiger he encountered during his nightly walking meditation.  Maha Boowa had escaped unscathed.

Ajahn Maha Boowa

Michael decided to try the same method on the dog by reciting the metta verse “May you be happy!”  The dog bit him.  Michael quipped that perhaps that was what made the dog happy!

On a more serious note, Michael went on to say that the only way out of fear is through it. Instead of trying to argue the fear away, he suggested being mindful of the physical sensations and fear-generating thoughts, just watching them without any effort to change them.  That evening I tried Michael’s suggestion, and the fear magically dissolved and melted away.  It became completely insubstantial.  I was amazed!  I was at ease with my would-be serial killer for the rest of the retreat and saw him as just a harmless eccentric. The retreat ended with yogis being invited to share parting comments.  One older woman singled out my killer for praise, commenting on his great kindness to her during the retreat.

Several days later on the Colorado Plateau my wife and I went on a hike to see the petroglyphs that an ancient Puebloan had inscribed on one of the sandstone bluffs at Mesa Verde.  Our trail guide rated the hike as “easy.”  About fifteen minutes into the hike, however, the narrow trail began following the canyon rim with a precipitous drop off to my right.

Once again my knees weakened and I began to feel the fear I’d experienced at Bryce Canyon.  There was even one point when the trail went up 90 degrees over sheer rock.  One had to put one’s right foot onto a toe-hold off to one’s left and then pull oneself up the rock.  It was worse than Bryce!  They had to be kidding!

This time I was going to go about things differently, however.  I mindfully noticed the weakness in my knees as sheer sensation, and my thoughts of falling as just thoughts.  I also did some stimulus avoidance, trying to keep my eyes straight ahead and slightly to the left to avoid staring into the abyss off to my right.  Once in a while, however, when the trail widened a bit, I’d sneak a peak and appreciate the grand vista off to my right from a safe distance.

I wish I could say my fear totally vanished like it had during my IMS retreat.  It didn’t.  But it was manageable in a way it hadn’t been at Bryce, and I now look back on the petroglyph hike as one of the highlights of our trip

Ancient Puebloan Petroglyph

Behavior therapists say that exposure is the best cure for phobias, but the exposure has to be lengthy for it to work.  I guess the two-hour petroglyph hike was long enough for exposure to work some of its magic.

A few days later my wife and I walked part of the rim trail around Grand Canyon.

I was able to walk it comfortably, although I didn’t walk as close to the edge as my wife did.  There were some intrepid teenagers walking the same trail who stood on the rocks and ledges on the canyon’s edge posing for pictures, fearless as mountain goats.  How I envied their courage!  I wasn’t totally over my new-found phobia, but it remained manageable, and I enjoyed the hike.

So here’s a recipe for coping with fear: One part mindfulness, one part exposure.  Instead of believing the fear-talk, see it as mere thinking.  Notice the weakness in your knees as mere sensation.  Don’t get caught up in being fearful of the sensations and believing the thoughts. (“Oh, no!  My knees really will buckle and I’ll tumble into the abyss!”)   Don’t try to make the fear go away, but just mindfully observe it in all its manifestations. Mindfulness is itself a form of exposure: one accepts and explores the fear rather than pushing it away.

Lastly, do the thing you fear, don’t avoid it.  Expose yourself to it for a sufficiently long time (at least ninety minutes!) without avoidance.  I cheated a bit by avoiding looking to the right when I was climbing the Mesa Verde petroglyph trail.  But I was only cheating myself.  Who knows?  If I’d forced myself to look I might have become one of those courageous teenage mountain goats posing on the Grand Canyon ledge!

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Mindfulness is Intimate Attention

Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.” –Dogen Zenji

There are two types of attention.

One is a kind of critical scrutiny.  It’s the kind of attention in which we set ourselves up to be judges rating and evaluating some aspect of our behaving, thinking, or experiencing.  We watch ourselves in a distant and detached way like scientists observing a specimen under the microscope.  We make our behavior the focus of a series of inquiries:  “Why did I do that?” “What happened in my past that caused me to establish such-and-such a pattern?” None of this really helps us much: it distances us from life rather than joining us to it.  It leads to a proliferation of thinking rather than dropping us into a deeper space of awareness.

The other kind of attention involves genuine contact with what is being attended to.  It’s an empathic attunement to our own experiencing; an open listening without judgment; an intimacy with our own stream of consciousness.  Meditation brings this open, noncritical, intimate listening, seeing, and feeling back to our life again and again.

The Pali word for this kind of attention is sati (mindfulness).  Mindfulness is a bare-bones attention that lightly touches its object in an intimate way.  It is free from judging, comparing, and thinking.  It notices both sensations and the mind’s emotional, cognitive, and somatic reactions to them.  It is for and against nothing.  It doesn’t take sides or wish for things to be different from the way they are.

Mindfulness involves adopting an intentional stance vis-à-vis one’s own experiencing.  That stance can best be described as both a “letting go” and a “letting be.”  When we are mindful we let go of aspirations to achieve any particular outcome.  We temporarily suspend acting on our desires to prolong or avoid experiences and our tendency to label experiences as either “good” or “bad.”  We let experiences be.  We give them space and let them breathe. We let them speak for themselves.  Experiences manifest without effort on our part, and subside without effort on our part.

When we are mindful we don’t allow experiences to take us for a ride, however.  We sit like a mountain, intimately experiencing phenomena blossom, persist, and fade.

When we are mindful, we are not observing the world.  The world is manifesting through us.

A bird is singing in a tree.  Where is the birdsong?  In the tree?  In the vibrating air molecules?  In our ears?  In our auditory cortex?  In our minds?  In the bird’s mind?

When we are mindful we co-participate with all things as they co-arise in the world/mind.  We are an integral part of the seamless web of being.   How could it be otherwise?

“Conveying oneself towards all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion.  All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.” –  Dogen Zenji

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