Is Mindfulness Spiritual?

A lot of psychologists and other proponents of mindfulness insist that this practice is not spiritual, that it can be divorced from its Buddhist roots, but is this really possible?

In this YouTube interview, the pioneer of western mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, was asked this question directly and had a surprisingly difficult time answering it.

The interviewer began with the question: “Is mindfulness in the western sense an offshoot of Buddhism?”

Kabat-Zinn responded by saying that the Buddha was not a Buddhist. What he didn’t bother to explain is that this is a play on words which refers to a popular saying among Buddhists, “Don’t be a Buddhist – be a Buddha.”

He then describes the Buddha as being akin to a scientist whose development of mindfulness became like “lab tools” that can now be used by scientists. And yes, by the way, a religion grew up around it, Kabat-Zinn says, as if Buddhism was a kind of afterthought.

“Although spoken of as being the heart of Buddhist meditation, [mindfulness] is about paying attention, about awareness. How Buddhist is that?” Kabat-Zinn argues.

Unfortunately, he neglects to address the fact that the method people are taught to “pay attention” and “be aware” in the way specific to mindfulness is achieved by employing Buddhist meditation techniques. This raises the question – if mindfulness isn’t Buddhist, why do we need Buddhist meditation techniques to accomplish it?

He goes on to argue that mindfulness is “about loving kindness. How Buddhist is that?”

Again, he doesn’t explain the vast difference between the Christian and Buddhist idea of “love”. For example, Christian agape love is personal, individual and free-willed. The Buddhist teaches karuna, an impersonal feeling of compassion.

A good example of how different are these two kinds of love is found in the Buddhist story of the saint who gave his cloak to a beggar. The Christian gives his cloak to the beggar because of Christ’s love for the beggar. The Buddhist gives his cloak to the beggar because it’s the enlightened thing to do. In other words, the Buddhist’s concern is not for the welfare of the beggar, as is the Christian, but for the liberation of the giver from the burden of self.

At this point, the interviewer asks the question in a more pointed way. “Is mindfulness a spiritual practice?”

Again, Kabat-Zinn struggles to answer. “That depends on what you mean by the word spiritual. I tend to stay away from the word spiritual as if it had some kind of toxic outpouring . . .” he says and everyone on the panel laughs knowingly.

“My working definition of spiritual is what it means for us to be truly human. Is giving birth spiritual? Is chopping vegetables spiritual? From that point of view, what isn’t spiritual?”

In other words, it’s not spiritual if you’re using Kabat-Zinn’s personal definition of spiritual. However, if you’re using the standard definition of the word, which most people would use, it means “relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”

According to the definition of spiritual, giving birth and chopping vegetables are not spiritual activities. They may have a spiritual component, but these activities relate to, or affect, the body or material things. Mindfulness, on the other hand, affects the human spirit or soul and is a purely spiritual activity. Although there could be a physical component to it, it is essentially a spiritual activity.

The second definition of spiritual is: “of or relating to religion or religious belief.” In his writings, Kabat-Zinn admits that he used the umbrella term of mindfulness as a kind of “place-holder for the entire dharma . . .” For those who aren’t familiar with the word, the dharma is “the teaching or religion of the Buddha.” This means that if mindfulness is a word used to refer to the religion of the Buddha, then mindfulness fits the definition of spiritual.

However, it’s not surprising to find Kabat-Zinn playing fast and loose with language in order to sell mindfulness to the American public. As my book, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness details, by his own admission, he “bent over backward” to keep the Buddhist roots of mindfulness hidden for fear of being pegged as “New Age”

Although he overcame much of his hesitancy years ago, he is apparently still experiencing some reservations about exposing mindfulness for what it is – a Buddhist spiritual practice.

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