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 1 – Historical Perspective

We welcome Christina Feldman (pictured) in the first of a four part OMC blog series to be released over the coming weeks. In this series, Christina provides an extraordinarily thoughtful historical perspective on the mainstreaming of Buddhism in the West in the last forty years. She goes on to draw out some lessons for mindfulness and mindfulness-based programmes. She considers ethics, compassion, embodiment, unity and division, training, money and research. The blog posts are largely a transcript of her keynote at the Bangor Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice Conference.

I want to talk about the Long View.  It is said that all we are now, in this moment, is the result of all that we have been.  And all that we will be tomorrow, or even in the next moment, will be the result of all that we are now.  This is true of us individually and it is true of us collectively as a community occupying a central role in how mindfulness will develop over the coming years.  Each of us has a story. Mindfulness also has a story and I would like to begin my presentation with telling, at least a version of, the story of mindfulness as it began to develop in our culture.  We are all part of that story. Every story has a beginning.  Some 40 years ago a relatively small group of westerners began to return to the West after years of studying and practicing meditative pathways in Asia.  We began to teach.  It is not as if meditation was something new in western culture or contemplative traditions yet the mid 1970’s saw a radical change in how ancient meditative pathways could be accessed.  The pathway of awakening was taken out of the monasteries, stripped of religiosity and ritual and made accessible.  We had retreats, open to all, that offered people contemplative training in the classroom of their lives, emphasising the immediacy of awakening.  We had pathways that could be cultivated in the midst of our communities, our relationships, our work. We had means of translating an ancient teaching into our moment-to-moment experience.  We had ways to begin to understand distress and struggle, their causes and the means to their end. We were presented with a teaching that had at its heart a profound transformation of heart and mind, yet was dynamically engaged with life.

What has come to be called the insight meditation or vipassana tradition, that rests upon the development of mindfulness, in reality carries the imprints of many ancient lineages, practices and teachings.  In time these imprints have also permeated contemporary mindfulness in ways that are not always obvious to us.  Equally, it is perhaps not so evident, that all of us here, endeavouring to do our best to teach pathways of transformation, are part of a long contemplative tradition.

What are those imprints, what have we learned, what are we continuing to learn?  From the Tibetan community, in which some of us lived for a number of years, we learnt to place compassion as the motivation at the heart of all that we do.  Living in a community of refugees we came to know a group of people who had the courage and resilience to meet extreme suffering without despair, hatred and blame, but with an unshakable compassion.  Each person carried their own story of loss, separation from loved ones, violence, oppression yet their hearts were intact.  From the teaching we were exposed to, we learnt that compassion – the committed intention to ease suffering – was the highest motivation in any life, the deepest intention in any life of serving others.

We learnt that suffering could be turned towards rather than fled from, suffering could be understood rather than rejected and that compassion was not an emotion but an embodied way of engaging with a world we cannot always control.  Compassion, we came to understand, was the most noble and dignified way of being in this world where suffering and distress can feel bottomless.  Equally we learnt that compassion was a seed of potentiality that lives in every human heart.

Compassion has always been central to any path of waking up. The deep commitment to serve, the intention to understand and ease distress, is as relevant to the contemporary teaching of mindfulness today as it was 2500 years ago.  As the Buddha put it – out of compassion we practice, out of compassion we teach, out of compassion we serve.  It is an intention and a commitment too important to forget. It is an imprint increasingly valued in contemporary mindfulness, understanding compassion is a behavioural gesture of the mind/ heart that can be cultivated as much as mindfulness can be cultivated. We learn to embrace the afflictions and adversities in our own minds and lives with compassion rather than with shame or judgment, we learn to turn outwardly and embrace the affliction and pain of another with a heart that can tremble with empathy and respond with immediacy. We learn the fearlessness of compassion, that allows us to meet distress with a responsiveness of care rather than with the patterns of fear and aversion that bind us to distress and helplessness.

From the Burmese lineage of U Ba Khin, carried forward through Goenka, we learnt first of the primary place that understanding somatic experience has in psychological transformation.  We learnt about the body scan and what it meant to establish mindfulness in the body and in present moment experience.  We learnt that the most significant lessons of transformation that are brought to understanding our world of experience and world of distress are learnt primarily with the body.  The lessons of impermanence, instability and unpredictability revealed in the life of the body can be met, not with fear and aversion but with mindfulness and equanimity.  We learnt experientially about systematically training the mind in non-reactivity through bringing sustained attention to the life of the body with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. Through mindfulness of the body we learnt it is possible to come closer to the beginnings of our psychological and emotional constructions, to simplify and to know the body as the body, feeling as feeling, mind as mind rather than being entangled in the narrative and reactions to experience. Learning to distinguish the difference between felt experience and our narrative about that experience was a powerful lesson.

From the lineage of Mahasi Sayadaw we learnt to develop an inner literacy that had a vocabulary for the stream of psychological and physiological events of the moment.  We learnt the ways in which mindfulness slowed down the processes of mind so they could be seen without being identified with. We learnt of the ways that our capacity to meet each present moment of experience with skilful attention was a powerful way to protect the mind from the surges of impulse and habit that lead us to dissociate from the moment as it is.  We learnt that an attitude of kind befriending could be cultivated in all moments of aversion. We discovered the ways in which the mind and all its processes could be turned into an object of mindfulness, held within sustained attention and investigated.

From Munindra we learnt about mindfulness in the marketplace – how to bring mindfulness into every moment as an embodied way of being.  The simplicity of his person and way of teaching stressed that if understanding, compassion and change could not be found in the lived experience of our lives, it would not be found at all.  Munindra embodied the core teaching of the Buddha that life was our classroom of awakening and that there was no curriculum apart from learning to live a life wakefully, wholeheartedly, with patience, kindness and perseverance.  Buying a cabbage in the market, with mindfulness and care, was to him, as important as an hour spent in meditation with one’s eyes closed.  Through his teaching and way of being we learnt something profound about the art of being present, something greater and broader than a technique or practice, but a way of being in the midst of a chaotic world without being overwhelmed.

From the Zen tradition the lessons of perseverance, humour, spaciousness and developing a malleable, responsive mind that could question all views were woven into people’s practice.  The lessons of continuing to show up, to be undeterred gave a strength and courage that was inwardly generated, to the practice and to life. Soeng Sa Nim (pictured) who taught many western teachers and students, directly spoke to the possibility of not taking it all so personally, that it really is not all about me.  The possibility of seeing the transparency of our constructions, beliefs and fabrications delivered a powerful message of liberating the mind from distress and its causes.

The story of mindfulness does of course have a much earlier beginning, 2600 years ago the Buddha placed mindfulness as the cornerstone of waking up and transforming our mind, our societies, our communities.  Mindfulness is presented as a/the basic tool of meditative development, not an end in itself, but a means of establishing a calm, receptive, intentional way of being – the climate of mind most acutely receptive to understanding.  The discourse on the four ways of establishing mindfulness is the discourse that has probably most directly affected mindfulness-based approaches today.  It is a discourse that describes the establishing of mindfulness in body, feeling, mind and mental process as a direct way of liberating the mind from distress and discontent, through understanding.

Christina Feldman

Christina will examine the current state of the Mindfulness field in Part 2 – Contemporary Mindfulness in the next part of this OMC blog series.

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 post 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: Crimson Canopy, Ian Sane