In general, I look with some skepticism on the generic interest in “mindfulness” that appears to be sweeping the United States right now. It’s not that Buddhism per se is being promoted as a committed lifestyle, but rather that the inherent benefits of Buddhist practice are being harvested for general use. As a person who practices mindfulness in the context of actually being Buddhist (whatever “being” means on any given day means to my monkey mind), I have mixed feelings about the sudden popularity of this brand of mindfulness.
Nonetheless, the fact that there are very real psychological and neurological changes that have now been somewhat quantified in terms of their ability to reduce suffering gives me great hope for the potential of humanity, if a greater number took advantage of these techniques. For this reason, I must ultimately come down in general support of this growing fascination with pseudo-Buddhism. At best, it may result in an increase of interest in more spiritually connected Buddhist practice. At worst, a lot of people can be relieved of some of their suffering in this world. It’s win-win.
The instructor was Donald Sloane, LCSW. He is a long-time practitioner from St Louis, who considers himself both Buddhist and Jewish. According to his bio in the course book, he is a lay ordained Chan Buddhist teacher and has taken precepts and vows from the Linji tradition. He is also a licensed social worker with a treatment emphasis on cognitive-behavioral therapy.
In terms of the neurology of mindfulness, I found the discussion on the various aspects of the limbic system (a.k.a., the fight or flight mechanism) to be particularly interesting. In the past, some people have felt that merely taking one’s mind off of one’s problems improves well-being. One brain imaging study, however, compared a group of people who were engaging in a mindfulness task to a group of people who were performing a distraction task. The results showed that the reactivity of the amygdala (which is responsible for producing excitable, anger and fear) decreased in the mindfulness group, but not in the distraction task group. That is, mindfulness practice reduced the activity in the part of the brain that produces extreme negative emotions. The distraction task did not.
In an interesting discussion of the prefrontal cortex, I learned that greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain results in increased feelings of wellbeing. When the right prefrontal cortex is more active than the left, a person tends toward depression and sadness. What can help to shunt high levels of activity in the right prefrontal cortex to the left prefrontal cortex? Compassion practice, like Tonglen, for example. Pema would be pleased.
This class also reinforced some conclusions I have been coming to lately as the result of studying quantum physics. The more we understand about the underlying workings of the world, the more it appears to align with what Buddhists have asserted all along. One of Mr. Sloane’s slides is an example of this convergence: “Western Psychology has been looking for the self; What we mean by the self her is for there to be some single entity that coordinated what is going on in the mind-body; So far, the researchers all appear to agree: THERE IS NO SELF” (The capitalization is his).
I recommend this course for Average Buddhists who are involved in patient care of any kind. It is designed in particular for psychologists and social workers, but I found it to be very applicable to my work as a speech-language pathologist. If you haven’t got the enthusiasm for studying brain science, there is still a useful take home message. The impact of all of this meditation and practice that we do is real. They are capable of making actual physical changes in the material world of our bodies that helps to relieve the suffering of those engaging in them. That is enough for most of us to know.