Saturday, 22 April 2023 07:19

Buddhism, Mindfulness and the Modern World: A Historical Perspective


To many, the description in this paragraph may appear obscure, dry, boring, or simplistic. However, it would not be an exaggeration to say that this paragraph contains the psychology of wellbeing! This deceptively simple paragraph hides layers and layers of “how to” advice on facing and overcoming the universal difficulties life poses for us.

First was the great interest in Buddhist ideas by Western scientific community for applying modern research methodology and testing in labs. Second was the secularization of mindfulness as a tool for wellbeing. And the third was the explosion of methodological advances and new discoveries in brain research.

The first can be attributed to his Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama opening up the field of Buddhist claims for psychological transformation to the world of scientific studies. He began holding conferences with Western scientists, co-founded the Mind and Life Institute in 1987, and showed a willingness to reject Buddhist claims if science proved them wrong. The second event that pushed mindfulness into the mainstream was that in 1979, the MIT trained molecular biologist and meditation expert John Kabat-Zinn, realized that the practice of mindfulness did not need to have religion attached to it.

After a few successful studies, MBSR was being used in several hospital settings with patients dealing with high stress. Stress was and continues to be a huge concern in today’s world, so a non-invasive program such as MBSR became a very attractive option for the medical as well as the professional community. The program’s popularity allowed researchers to test MBSR and related programs in behavioral studies with control groups to check its efficacy in reducing mental health issues as well as enhancing cognitive capabilities.

Siddhartha Gautama searched for years for the anecdote to the universal experience of pain and suffering which resulted in his teachings. As His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama says, “Since the primary motive underlying the Buddhist investigation of reality is the fundamental quest for overcoming suffering and perfecting the human condition, the primary orientation of the Buddhist investigative tradition has been toward understanding the human mind and its various functions. The assumption here is that by gaining deeper insight into the human psyche, we might find ways of transforming our thoughts, emotions and their underlying propensities so that a more wholesome and fulfilling way of being can be found.”

Track 1: Closer Look at Buddhist Teachings on Mindfulness

Stage 1: Concentration (Samadhi)

In the business world, the ability to focus is highly valued. Ironically, research shows that the ability to multitask improves with an eight week long, once a week mindfulness training which includes breath and body awareness. The ability to concentrate better is associated not only with focus, but with better emotional regulation and less depressive thoughts. What makes this type of meditation significant and attractive is the “calmness” that this samadhi is supposed to achieve and the intended effect of removing the five hindrances (see stage 5 for the explanation of hindrances).

Stage 2: Calm (Samatha)

Stage 3: Mindfulness (Sati)

For all practical purposes, the craving and aversion together create misery in our lives and keep us imprisoned into our own clinging. The way to cultivate non-attachment through mindfulness is to objectively notice and internalize the Buddhist notion of emptiness of objects. Sometimes emptiness is misinterpreted as “nothingness” or nihilism. However, emptiness is the realization that no object stands as a permanent or independent entity with a fixed identity. Emptiness can be beautifully explained as a combination of two most important laws from Buddha’s teachings: the Law of Impermanence and the Law of Interdependence.

The Law of Impermanence states that everything changes, including experience of breath, body sensations, feelings, thoughts, mental images, mental habits and values. As the meditator is diligently paying attention to these factors, they realize that everything will pass. The Law of Interdependence becomes obvious when observing feelings and thoughts as not stand alone entities. In fact, one action gives rise to something else and this ripple effect will be experienced by the meditator depending on which sense sphere they are standing in at that time. Realizing emptiness implies not to take our current experience so seriously and not to react impulsively and is the foundation of developing non-attachment.

Stage 4: Insight (Vipassana)

samadhi to vipassana graph

Figure 1

The contemporary use of insight meditation is less to do with true insight into emptiness (as intended in Buddhist teachings), and more to do with psychological insights into oneself. For example, if a practitioner is experiencing an intense emotion or is trying to choose between careers, they would focus and comprehend their predicament first, and then observe the feelings and thoughts that are coming to them in the OM meditation style.

While doing so, an insight about their own needs or the origin of their own needs may fall into their lap. Some insight into what and why they should make a specific choice may suddenly flash in front of their mind’s eyes. This type of insight is corroborated by research on creative problem solving in which after complete comprehension and analysis of a problem, the problem-solver is advised to let go of the analysis and engage into a restful activity. This restful phase is likely to produce a creative solution to the problem. In research studies performed to test creative problem solving and mindfulness meditations, OM meditators were shown to have increased creative problem solving ability.

Stage 5: Result of Practicing the Above Stages is to Remove Hindrances on the Path (Vineyya).

It is not a prerequisite to any of the above stages, but removed hindrances are supposed to be happening with all stages of practice. The practitioner is diligently removing the hindrances or obstacles to their practice simultaneously and in that process they are purifying and perfecting the platform for wisdom and liberation. The hindrances can be summarized as CRASH: craving, restlessness-and-worry, aversion, sloth-and-torpor, and hurry-for-results. All of which can create doubts about the practice.

Stage 6: Creating Ethical and Wholesome Lifestyle (Dhammas).

Contemplation and mindfulness of each factor can create joy by cultivating loving kindness and compassion towards yourself and others. The morality factors are crucial as you start walking on this path because they create expectations or intentions of ethical behavior that do not harm others. Some modern Buddhist scholars, such as Robert Thurman, think of Buddhism as a practice in ethics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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