My Doctor Says Mindfulness Isn’t Buddhist

BD writes: “Help! My psychologist insists that I use mindfulness to treat my PTSD and he claims it isn’t Buddhist. He says it’s just teaching us to be mindful of our surroundings; however, the exercises he gives me are all mindfulness meditation techniques! What am I supposed to believe?”

What should you believe? That your psychologist is confused.

And for good reason. Many of these professionals jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon while it was still being touted as the greatest thing to treat anxiety since Xanax but are now confronting updated science which is not quite so glowing and Christian clients who aren’t comfortable with its Buddhist roots.

Like most fads, the mindfulness bandwagon hit a few ruts in the road known as “the facts,” such as where mindfulness really comes from and why most of the science conducted to date has been found lacking. These facts are why it’s safe to say that any psychologist who tells you that the mindfulness he/she is recommending is not Buddhist, but then instructs you to use mindfulness meditation techniques such as Body Scan Meditation or Breathing Space Meditation, is using the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. This is NOT the same as “just being mindful of your surroundings” – not by a long shot.

For example, just being mindful of where you are, the chair you’re sitting on, the position of your body, how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, is not a Buddhist meditation technique. It’s just making yourself aware of where you are and what you’re doing and thinking at the moment. This is more like a “take a deep breath” or a “step back” moment.

However, this exercise becomes a mindfulness meditation technique based in Buddhism when it instructs you to let go of the contents of the mind and bring your attention to a single point of focus on the breath. This is known as Breathing Space meditation, which is designed to “expand awareness,” and is one of several types of meditation employed in today’s mindfulness fad.

As you can see, these are two very different exercises.

But don’t be too hard on your doctor. As I explain in my new book, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, the roots of the modern mindfulness movement have been shrouded in a very deliberate fog since the very beginning. The inventor of modern-day mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a biomedical scientist and practicing Buddhist, spent years trying to cover up the Buddhist roots of the practice he invented which is known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for fear of being branded as “New Age.”

“To my mind, this was a constant and serious risk that would have undermined our attempts to present it [MBSR] as commonsensical, evidence-based, and ordinary . . . . This was something of an ongoing challenge, given that the entire curriculum is based on relatively (for novices) intensive training and practice of meditation and yoga, and meditation and yoga pretty much defined one element of the New Age,” he wrote.

Your doctor is probably not aware of the fact that the concept of MBSR came to Kabat-Zinn in a vision during a vipassana retreat. After the retreat, he said that he had “a better sense of what my karmic assignment might be . . .” which led to the development of the modern-day version of mindfulness.

He admitted to deliberately using the umbrella term of “mindfulness” as a kind of “place-holder for the entire dharma . . . as a potentially skillful means for bringing the streams of alive, embodied dharma understanding and of clinical medicine together.”

From what I have read about Kabat-Zinn, his goal has always been to blend science and Buddhism. It was not to deceive or to make money. Although he has done both of these things, this does not appear to have ever been his motive.

Even though he gradually began to reveal the Buddhist roots of his mindfulness program in the 90’s, he still insists that MBSR instructors be personally grounded in the Buddhadharma but that they bring “only the essence” of these roots into the classroom. So it’s still being covered up to a certain extent.

Between this deliberate obfuscation surrounding the modern origins of the MBSR practice that many are employing, and the overly-optimistic science that has flooded the airwaves, it’s not hard to understand why some practitioners would be confused.

Some are even still insisting that the practice of mindfulness is not spiritual, but that’s not based on fact either. As I cite in my book, research suggests that even though mindfulness is often practiced in a secular manner, individuals report spiritual benefits from their practice. “On the whole, research suggests that mindfulness and spirituality are overlapping but distinct constructs, that they likely interact and contribute to one another’s development, and that both are important mechanisms through which MBIs [mindfulness-based interventions] exert benefits.”

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the mindfulness movement which is why both practitioners and their patients need to stay abreast of the latest findings and adjust their therapy accordingly.


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