The Long View – perils and possibilities

The Long View – perils and possibilities

What can mindfulness learn from the mainstreaming of Buddhism in the West? Part 2 – Contemporary Mindfulness

In Part 2 of a four part OMC blog special, Christina Feldman examines contemporary mindfulness from its beginnings in the 1970s and the advances made over the last 40 years in the field.

You can read Part 1 – History of Mindfulness here

Beginning with Jon Kabat-Zinn  in the 1970s mindfulness began to meet science.  Jon’s  realization that these ancient and classical teachings could be placed under a microscope, examined, translated into a format that could be applied to the world of physical and psychological distress has indelibly changed our cultural understanding of distress and health.  Jon’s brilliant capacity to present mindfulness in a language and format appropriate to our culture has in very real ways contributed to the wellbeing and healing of tens of thousands of people. There is a thirst in our culture to live a more wakeful, compassionate and insightful life. The accessibility and simplicity of mindfulness as we know it today, allows people to be a conscious participant in their own healing and well being.

Beginning with Jon, continuing with Mark Williams, John Teasdale and Zindel Segal and many others, many of you here and too many to thank individually, science has brought a rigour to the world of mindfulness – it can be scrutinised, not only its theory but how it works can be researched and  understood, the effects on people’s wellbeing can be measured.  Just as many western psychological approaches are increasingly incorporating mindfulness, so too have teachers of traditional mindfulness in meditative settings been challenged to clarify their own understanding of what this word mindfulness actually means. Probing the word mindfulness we discover how difficult it is to produce an adequate working definition.

What is clear in the early teachings is that mindfulness is a spectrum word that includes being able to hold an object in sustained attention.  The capacity to do this protects the mind from the governance of impulse and habit, allows discernment of what is helpful and what is unhelpful to arise, allows us to investigate what is present and to reframe our views.  On the basis of this we learn to walk new pathways psychologically and emotionally that are rooted in a present moment responsiveness resting upon an attitude of care.

8 week programmes were devised, tailored for people with chronic pain, depression and the abundance of applications that have been born of those 8 week programmes. Rigorous training centres for training teachers have been established. It is another step in the translations of these ancient teaching as they shift from culture to culture. This is an ongoing exploration in which many people here are playing a significant role.

All that we are now is a result of all that we were, all that we will be tomorrow will be the result of all that we are now.  What are the perils and what are the possibilities? There are many parallels between the naturalization of meditation into our world and the spread and growth of mindfulness based applications.  In the early days meditation gained a popularity, long lost in Asia, books proliferated, retreat centres were built, journalists smuggled themselves into retreats, it became rather trendy to meditate. Nirvana became the name of a rock group and samsara the name of a perfume.  Many people felt daunted by a path that would be life long and short cuts were sought for.  There was a proliferation of techniques to alter the mind, sometimes just a newly disguised strategy to find a quick solution for inner discontent. The fast track to awakening was presented as a real possibility.  Meditation was at times presented as an answer to all of life’s afflictions.   People with sometimes very little understanding of the teaching presented themselves as experts, there was no system of accreditation of competency guidelines. It seemed a lot of people were searching for ways to understand themselves, to bring alienation and distress to an end and to find ways of befriending their minds.  Does any of this ring any bells for you in seeing how mindfulness is developing in our culture?

Meditation seemed filled with promise, its perceived promise also held the seeds of its implosion.  In establishing this ancient teaching in the west, meditation was abstracted from a path of awakening that included every aspect of our lives and gained primacy. The foundations of ethics, compassion and generosity were at times given only a cursory acknowledgment.  Retreats became the primary container for developing meditative skill, easily forgotten that this is a training for our lives. Meditation became equated with techniques rather than a pathway of understanding that invited us often to change our lives and our ways of relating to the world.  Meditation became something you do, not necessarily something embodied in every moment of experience.  Sometimes just as I have reservations about the word sati being translated as mindfulness and becoming one dimensional rather than a ground for understanding, so too I deeply regret the word bhavana (from the pali of the early texts) being translated as meditation rather than its more accurate translation of cultivation, or bringing into being.

The last forty years has seen some maturing of meditative traditions.  We learned to be more honest with ourselves and the meeting with science and western psychological teaching encourages that honesty.  We established agreed upon internationally recognised ethical guidelines.  We have learnt the importance of paying attention to diversity and inclusivity. We have learnt to offer much more rigorous training programmes for new teachers.

Forty years ago some of us asked the question – in establishing this teaching in this culture – what is it important to retain and what is it important to relinquish?  Today we asking those same questions.  I believe the mindfulness community is asked to examine the very same questions in its own development.  What is important to keep and develop, what is important to let go of in the service of making this pathway culturally appropriate? My sense has always been that teaching is a great privilege, it also comes with great responsibility.  Both meditation and contemporary mindfulness have plenty of sceptics.  This is a good thing.  Sceptics encourage us to place what we do under the microscope of investigation.  To question what we are teaching, to be honest about its possibilities and outcomes and to continue to learn. The future of this teaching that holds so much promise, truly does lie in our hands.  The great explosion of mindfulness in our culture may also hold the seeds of its own implosion.

Learning to live a more wakeful life, to be increasingly emotionally intelligent, to reclaim our capacity to be a participant in our own healing and freedom are the great gifts that lie at the heart of this teaching.  Learning what it means to be an embodied human being, where compassion, intentionality, dignity and responsiveness pervade our thoughts.  Relearning the timeless lessons of what leads to distress and what leads to the end of distress through the willingness to turn toward our lives, our minds, bodies and hearts.  Changing the shape of our own minds we can contribute to changing our society and world, through the understanding, wakefulness and compassion we develop within.  This pathway holds great promise for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of our society.  For that promise to be fulfilled we also need to embrace the perils.

The perils, challenges and lessons to be learned for the field of mindfulness in the future will be discussed in Parts 3 and 4 of this four part blog post.

Christina Feldman is an Insight Meditation Society guiding teacher and co-founder of Gaia House in England. She has been teaching insight meditation since 1976 and has recently been involved in the dialogue between cognitive therapies and Buddhist practice. Her books include Compassion, Woman Awake, Silence and The Buddhist Path to Simplicity.

This blog is a transcript of Christina Feldman’s keynote at the 2015 Bangor Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice Conference and is republished with Rebecca Crane and Christina Feldman’s permission. You can watch a video of Christina’s keynote here.


Oxford Mindfulness Centre

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC) is an internationally recognised centre of excellence at the University of Oxford, and has been at the forefront of research and development in the field of mindfulness. The OMC works to advance the understanding of evidence-based mindfulness through research, publication, training and dissemination. Our world leading research investigates the mechanisms, efficacy, effectiveness, cost effectiveness and implementation of mindfulness. We offer a wide range of training, education, and clinical services, all taught by leading experts and teachers in the field, who are training the next generation of MBCT researchers, teachers and trainers. We actively engage in collaborative partnership to shape the field and influence policy nationally and internationally. Through the charitable work of the OMC, we are improving the accessibility of MBCT for those most in need.

Photo: Red tree, Andrew