mindfulness: taming the monkey

By Marcia Montenegro (page 1 of 2)

First published in Midwest Christian Outreach Journal, Volume 20, No. 1, Fall, 2014

Note: Although some Buddhist concepts are explained here, the thrust of the article is to describe the Western take on Buddhism via the New Age and the secular culture, and how some of its practices and concepts, especially Mindfulness, have migrated to the West, particularly the United States. In order to make a distinction between a generic understanding of the term "mindfulness" and the term used for the practice based on Buddhism, Mindfulness in this article will be spelled with a capital M.

"We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness." 1

"Developing wisdom is a process of bringing our minds into accordance with the way things really are. Through this process we gradually remove the incorrect perceptions of reality we have had since the beginningless time." 2

"Be lamps unto yourselves." 3

Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept and practice. Yet we now find Mindfulness taught and practiced in schools, businesses, hospitals, and prisons. People as diverse as educators, health workers, psychologists, corporation honchos, and clergyman advocate it. Its popularity is increasing with rapid-fire speed. Therefore, Christians need to know what it is, how it is being promoted, and if there is any conflict with the Christian faith.

The Meaning of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a meditative practice and an outlook on life and reality that ideally results from the type of meditation designed to cultivate the Buddhist concept of detachment. (Detachment for the Westerner usually implies not caring or indifference; whereas, according to Buddhist teaching, it is learning to disconnect from desire [grasping at this world] and false views of reality which keep one in the cycle of rebirth).

Mindfulness is often defined as a moment-by-moment nonjudgmental awareness of the present. Why is detachment necessary and what does that mean? To understand, we should know these essentials of Buddhism:
1. Life in this world is suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by desire for and attachment to this world, which will bring further rebirth into this world.
3. The remedy for suffering is to cultivate detachment and thereby reach enlightenment and thus escape rebirth.
4. The final goal is nirvana, a state of release from the cycle of rebirth and suffering. Nirvana means "to extinguish."

The world, as it is perceived in Buddhist thinking, is not substantively real. The individual self has no permanent reality (it is called the no-self, anatman or anatta), and what one recognizes as the individual self is based on faulty perceptions (this is sometimes called the "conventional self"). Feelings, thoughts, physical sensations, and sense of identity, according to this view, have fooled us into thinking we exist as an individual. Continuing to believe this keeps us trapped in this life and the cycle of rebirth.

Desire, which is a grasping at or attachment to this world, is the cause of suffering, and so detachment must be cultivated, mainly through Mindfulness. Moreover, since the mind is part of this nominal reality, thoughts are in the way of realizing the true nature of reality and self. Mindfulness, as a meditation practice, is the tool by which one sees beyond or in between thoughts as a process of awakening to truth. The promotion of Mindfulness often includes the commonly heard maxim, "Be in the present," since the goal includes detaching from past and future.

Practicing Mindfulness as moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness supposedly prepares one for a breakthrough in perception, an awakening to reality, which is formlessness (sunyata, usually translated as "emptiness"). Mindfulness is particularly emphasized in Zen Buddhism and, aside from TM (Transcendental Meditation), is the Eastern meditation practice that has most deeply penetrated the West.

Mindfulness meditation is a technique of sitting still (though there is also a walking meditation), observing the breath, being aware solely of the present moment, and learning to let thoughts pass by without entertaining them. Because there is no permanent content to the present moment since it comes and goes, eventually a state of no-thinking is reached. The goal is to divorce the mind and thinking process from one's observation so that the meditator realizes that he is not his thoughts, eventually understanding that the "I" observing the thoughts (called the Witness) is not the conventional self, but rather the universal or Buddha self (terms vary). This Buddha self is the Buddha nature of the universe, which is the only permanent reality.

For many years, this writer attempted to incorporate Mindfulness into her life prior to becoming a Christian, and can attest to its power in altering one's worldview and conforming thinking to Buddhist concepts.

The Chattering Monkey

How can an anti-individualistic worldview worm its way into a highly individualized culture as exists in the United States? This can happen slowly through meditation, which conditions the mind through employment of certain terminologies and familiar terms, but which have been redefined with Buddhist concepts.

You might notice the term monkey mind popping up here and there. In promoting Mindfulness, the thinking mind is targeted as a chattering monkey. Thoughts are the chatter, and meditation is to tame and silence this monkey mind, so that it can become what is called Buddha mind. As one source puts it:

Often in meditation, that monkey mind doesn't transform into a peaceable primate, but continues to scurry about, distracting attention. Indeed, it is common for thoughts to appear to increase in intensity during concentrated meditation practice. This is either because whilst in the confines of the practice the monkey mind reacts with increased activity, or because in focused meditation thoughts are 'lit up' and are noticed more than they normally are. 4

Thoughts are treated as an independent activity, divorced from one's true self, the Buddha self. The temporal world, including the mind, is part of an alleged rising and falling which is not substantively real. One must transcend this rising and falling through meditation practice. (Rising and falling is a term describing the Buddhist view that we are caught in the web of thinking and feeling which reinforces our identification with our mind and self, thereby continuing a false perception of reality)

Meditation trains the person to watch thoughts so that the meditator does not attach to the thoughts and follow them. Eventually, the space between thoughts widens until there are no thoughts and "No Mind" is reached. The site continues:

Buddha Mind is our real nature, the unconditioned 'Mind' - and words are metaphors here, remember - that lies beneath the conditioned monkey mind that is interdependent with the world with which it interacts. 5

Phrases based in Buddhist thinking include:
Rising and falling
Being not doing
Monkey mind
Chattering mind

These terms and others are appearing more frequently in literature and other media, including Smartphone apps that give advice on reducing stress. This subtle denigration of thinking portrays the mind as the problem and thoughts as a source of confusion. Moreover, when such terms become more familiar and popular, the concepts attached to them also tend to become more widely accepted over time. There is a prevailing assumption that we cannot truly function or have any peace unless we practice this type of meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is therefore the Buddhist way to tame the so-called chattering mind and uncover the silent Buddha mind underneath all the rising and falling. It was not designed for stress reduction or to be a trendy dabbling for harried Westerners. Whatever perceived benefits may accrue from Mindfulness, it is not spiritually neutral.

The Secularization of Mindfulness

Several people have pushed Mindfulness as a concept and practice in the United States. They can't deny its religious basis yet they present it as a secular method. One of the most influential, Zen Buddhist Jon Kabat-Zinn (b. 1944), whose PhD is in Molecular Biology, runs the Center for Mindfulness (formerly the Stress Reduction Clinic), which he founded in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn's stress reduction and Mindfulness program, MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), has spread to over 200 hospitals and medical centers around the country. One news article reports:

Kabat-Zinn is reluctant to use the word "spiritual" to describe the approach to healthy living that he promotes, characterizing it instead as being "grounded in common sense."

"I don't have to use the word 'spiritual,'" he said. "Part of it is the power of silence and stillness. And part of that power is the power of healing that happens when you move from the domain of doing to being. It's transformative." 6

In a self-contradictory statement, he said:

"Mindfulness, the heart of Buddhist meditation, is at the core of being able to live life as if it really matters. It has nothing to do with Buddhism. It has to do with freedom." 7

So Mindfulness is "the heart of Buddhist meditation" but "has nothing to do with Buddhism." Kabat-Zinn himself is no secular person. He was a student of Zen Master Seung Sahn and is a founding member of the Cambridge Zen Center.

Another influential non-secular person in Mindfulness is Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926), a Zen Buddhist monk from Vietnam, who lectures around the country as a Mindfulness enthusiast and whose books promoting Mindfulness have enjoyed great success in the West.

Zen Buddhist Peter Senge (considered by many to be the successor to influential management guru Peter Drucker) incorporates Zen Buddhist concepts such as being "trapped in structures," "trapped in the theater of our thoughts" in his popular book, The Fifth Discipline. Additionally, he recommends "some form of meditation" such as "contemplative prayer" or a method to quiet "the conscious mind," as well as "regular meditative practice." 8

Senge is a familiar figure on the New Age landscape as well, appearing in several interviews on New Age websites, including the website of New Age philosopher Andrew Cohen.

Additionally, Buddhist terms loaded with spiritual meaning are being used as though they have only a secular meaning. The word "compassion" is being joined with the term "Mindfulness" to promote Mindfulness in schools and elsewhere. Buddhist teachers make frequent use of the word "compassion" (this is very common with the Dalai Lama), but the problem is that non-Buddhists do not know all the implications of this term.

Compassion in Buddhism is not simply having empathy or care for people. Compassion includes the Buddhist view that all non-human beings (called sentient beings) are in need of rebirth as humans, because only humans can attain enlightenment. Since rebirth can bring a human into a non-human state,9 the Buddhist must spread Buddhist teachings as well as work at his own enlightenment in order to help advance Buddhist truths so that all can eventually be liberated from the cycle of rebirth. In Buddhism, Buddhist enlightenment is the only way for such liberation. Compassion in Buddhist thinking, therefore, is a religious term, not a secular one, especially when used in the context of Mindfulness.


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