What's Wrong With Mindfulness : Review

In What's Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn't), a host of Zen authors critically interact with the current mindfulness movement in the West.  Having witnessed the rise and fall in the popularity of Zen practice, these authors are in a unique position to offer advice to leaders in the mindfulness movement.  Contributors to this book range from being extremely critical of the direction of mindfulness to more sympathetic outlooks.  Mindfulness instructors and practitioners as well as those engaged in Western Buddhism as a whole will benefit from reading this collection of essays. 

Overview: The book is divided into two large sections: Critical Concerns, a series of essays which addresses the problems Zen authors see with the mindfulness movement, and Creative Engagement, a series of essays which explore Zen perspectives on mindfulness meditation itself.

Part One:  In Part One, Critical Concerns, each contributor offers their unique critique of the state of the mindfulness movement in the West.  Recurring themes, as discussed in the Introduction, are the realities of secularization (pulling meditation from its monastic setting, complete with ritual, the sangha, study, etc.), instrumentalization (seeing meditation primarily as a means to a particular personal end), and deracination (extracting meditation from the wider religious context of Buddhism as a whole, including its ethical and philosophical dimensions).  

Of these three concerns, the most common critique from the book's contributors surrounds instrumentalization, or seeing meditation as simply the means to a personal end.  Mindfulness meditation has been hailed as a method for stress reduction, a way of focusing and paying attention, a way to regulate emotions, a treatment for physical illness, an aide in psychotherapy, a path for personal happiness, a means of increasing kindness and compassion, and a way of living more in the moment.  The problem is not that mindfulness meditation may, in fact, lead to these positive effects, but that meditation is often seen as simply a means to an end that the practitioner finds desirable.  This focus on positive effects has, in the view of several contributors, led to the commercialization of meditation, or what has been dubbed "McMindfulness."  The examples of mindfulness being used by businesses (specifically Google) in order to improve production, or even by the military to help soldiers' performance, are pointed to as ways in which mindfulness has been co-opted and used for ends that are far from the original intention within the Buddhist tradition.  

Many of these authors feel that the Buddhist ideals of non-striving, or realizing the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and impersonal nature of all things is being lost when the focus is placed in improving a particular element of a practitioner's life.  

Other concerns discussed in this section of the book include the seeming "buffet" of options on the meditation and spirituality market and mindfulness' place in this New Age market, the divorce of mindfulness from a complete way of life, ambiguity in the meaning of the term "mindfulness" in popular usage, and skepticism, or at least caution, about the supposed scientific studies surrounding the movement, especially as it relates to brain research.  

Part Two:  In Part Two, Creative Engagement, Zen practitioners give their perspectives on mindfulness meditation itself.  Several of the authors in this collection either practice both forms of meditation or have even been officially certified in both.  Focus is placed on how both forms of meditation can be complimentary to one another, although, for these authors, Zen is the primary practice.  This section can be thought of as "seeing mindfulness meditation through a Zen paradigm" in the sense that the Zen tradition colors the authors' understanding of mindfulness, not the other way around. 

Of particular interest in this section is an essay on the word sati, often translated as "mindfulness," and a conversation between a teacher and student who are both trained in Soto Zen and Vipassana.  

Reflections:  As with any collection of essays, there were some that I found valuable and some that I didn't.  As a whole, I thought the first section of the book, which focused on the perceived problems with the mindfulness movement, was more thorough and more interesting.  I think those involved in Western Buddhism will find this part of the book to be far more important than Part Two.  Conversations surrounding these authors' critiques could lead to real change within the mindfulness movement (assuming it is just one movement).   Essays within this collection that I found to be the most helpful were Mischief in the Marketplace for Mindfulness, Mindfulness Myths, One Body Whole Life, and Two Practices One Path.  

Overall, I think the major trends within the mindfulness movement which are pointed out in these essays are accurate.  Mindfulness has become significantly unbundled from a Buddhist framework, probably moreso than any other form of spiritual practice has been uprooted from its religious context in history, and this is probably the biggest concern for those who approach the practice from a Buddhist understanding.  

Personal Takeaways:  I do not actively practice mindfulness meditation, although I sometimes go for "mindfulness walks" in which I feel I can cultivate the state of mind associated with vipassana meditation (i.e. creating an inner observer and simply watching physical and mental phenomena rise and fall).  My form of meditation – Centering Prayer – is much closer to Soto Zen practice than it is to mindfulness.  

One of the biggest takeaways for me comes from the forceful critique of using meditation for some perceived higher personal end (i.e. to have less stress, to be able to concentrate more, etc.).  Meditation, and in my case Centering Prayer, is more about changing the way you see things than changing the things themselves.  Maybe it is inevitable that people will come to meditation practices looking for a way to benefit their lives.  We are driven in large part by self-interest.  The paradox is that the more you deepen your practice, the less it becomes about you. 

One other takeaway I had was a connection with a line in the book's first essay.  When discussing the dangers of having beginners to the practice with no long-term training become instructors over others, Marc Poirier warns that students "may experience insights or rushes of psychological turmoil that an inexperienced instructor may be ill-equipped to address or perhaps even recognize."  As I've written about before in Centering Prayer, TM, and Emotional Struggle, I rarely see those from the TM movement, or Zen/Mindfulness movements talk about the emotional turmoil that can result from these practices.  It was just mentioned in passing here, but it caught my attention as a point of contact.  

This book will appeal mainly to leaders in the mindfulness movement, and it will be interesting to see the reaction from popular teachers.  It is sure to provoke plenty of discussion.  

Katsuki Sekida's Four Types of Samadhi: #4 Neither Man nor Circumstances are Deprived

So far we've looked at three types of samadhi, or states of mind developed through Zen.  Sekida's fourth type of samadhi is "neither man nor circumstances are deprived."

(1) Man is deprived; circumstances are not deprived.
(2) Circumstances are deprived; man is not deprived.
(3) Both man and circumstances are deprived. 
(4) Neither man nor circumstances are deprived.  

As we have seen, "man," as Sekida defines it, is "that certain self-ruling power (which) dominates the mind. This spiritual power is the ultimate thing we can reach in the innermost part of our existence."  This "man" is what is developed through zazen meditation.  

In the first form of samadhi, "man" is absent (although he is ready to make his appearance when needed), and one is wholly absorbed is outward events.  This state of samadhi is the surgeon immersed in his operation, the basketball player immersed in the game, the pianist immersed in the performance.  As far as I can tell, it is what Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi calls "flow."

In the second form of samadhi, experienced during zen meditation, "man" is present, but circumstances are not.  The picture is of one completely absorbed in inward meditation as practiced in the zen tradition.

In the third form of samadhi, one enters into an even deeper state of meditation in which all self-reflective consciousness (i.e. "I know I'm meditating") ceases.  This is a rare state according to Sekida, and seems to be simply an intensification of the second form of samadhi.

Finally, we come to Sekida's fourth form of samadhi, in which both man and circumstances are present.  Here's how he speaks of this type samadhi:

"This category, 'neither man nor circumstances are deprived,' is the condition attained in the Zen student's maturity. He goes into the actual world of routine and lets his mind work with no hindrance, never losing the 'man' he has established in his absolute samadhi. If we accept that there is an object in Zen practice, then it is this freedom of mind in actual living.

To put it another way: when you are mature in practicing absolute samadhi, returning to ordinary daily life you spontaneously combine in yourself the first and third categories. You are active in positive samadhi and at the same time you are firmly rooted in jishu-zammai – the self-mastery of absolute samadhi. This is 'neither man nor circumstances are deprived,' the highest condition of Zen maturity. True positive samadhi achieved through Zen practice ultimately resolved into this fourth category.

A man may practice zazen and make certain progress in absolute samadhi and be successful in establishing the 'man' within himself. Then a new problem will arise, that of how he can exercise this man in his actual life in the busy world. When sitting on a cushion doing zazen he can attain samadhi and experience the man, and can realize that the man is really his absolute self. But when he comes out into his daily routine and eats, talks, and is active in his business, he often finds he has lost the inner man. He wonders how he can manage to maintain the man in himself in his daily life...

In short, the student who is puzzled how to retain the inner man in his daily life – who wonders how he can embody Mu in himself in his actual life – is striving for the condition in which both the inner man and the outward concerns – man and circumstances – are not deprived but are freely in action. In the first category man was inactive; in the fourth category man has returned to the front line. One who has attained maturity in Zen can behave freely and does not violate the sacred law: both man and circumstances are in vigorous activity and there is no hindrance. Only maturity in Zen will secure this condition – the ultimate aim of Zen practice."

This feeling that one is absorbed in the content of daily life, and is, at the same time, being directed by the "inner man" is, according to Sekida, the aim of Zen practice.

The way he describes this form of samadhi is very similar to the language of working with an "Inner Observer" or "doubled awareness" in other traditions.  This reality has been described as being aware of the contents of consciousness and the field of consciousness at the same time.  In Centering Prayer, it might be spoken of as being fully present to God and the present moment circumstance at the same time.  Drawing parallels between traditions is sometimes dangerous and fails to respect the uniqueness of each tradition, but the parallel here jumps out at me.  As I mentioned in the first post of this series, when describing types of samadhi, Sekida almost seems to be describing my own experience of Centering Prayer, just with different terminology.

This will be the last post of this series.  I highly recommend Sekida's Zen Training as an accessible introduction to Zen.  It's important to note that it is an introduction from only one persons's perspective; and different authors from the Zen tradition often describe it in very different ways. 


Katsuki Sekida's Four Types of Samadhi: #3 Both Man and Circumstances are Deprived

Sekida's third type of samadhi, or mental state, associated with Zen is "Both man and circumstances are deprived."

(1) Man is deprived; circumstances are not deprived.
(2) Circumstances are deprived; man is not deprived.
(3) Both man and circumstances are deprived.
(4) Neither man nor circumstances are deprived.

This type of samadhi, achieved during Zen meditation, is an intensification and deepening of State #2.  The difference, according to Sekida, is that the "self-reflecting action of consciousness" is lessened, even to a point where it disappears altogether.  

Here's how he describes "Both man and circumstances are deprived":

"The third category is "Both man and circumstances are deprived."  A discussion of this category must be preceded by an explanation of self-consciousness.  I have said that consciousness functions in two ways, outwardly and inwardly.  There is another important action exercised by consciousness: one that reflects upon its own thought.  This kind of reflection must be distinguished from general introspection, which deals with character or behavior.  When we think, 'It is fine today.' we are noting the weather, but we are not noting that we are thinking about the weather.  The thought about the weather may last only a fraction of a second, and unless our next action of consciousness reflects upon it and recognizes it, our thought about the weather is allowed to pass away unnoticed.  Self-consciousness appears when you notice your thought, which immediately precedes your noticing it, and you then recognize the thought as your own.  

If we do not perform this noticing action we do not become aware of our thinking, and we will never know that we have been conscious at all.  We may call this action of noticing our own thoughts "the reflecting action of consciousness" to distinguish it from general introspection...

Now, when one is in absolute samadhi in its most profound phase, no reflecting action of consciousness appears.  This is Rinzai's third category, "Both man and circumstances are deprived."  In a more shallow phase of samadhi, a reflecting action of consciousness occasionally breaks in and makes us aware of our samadhi.  Such reflection comes and goes momentarily, and each time momentarily interrupts the samadhi to a slight degree.  The deeper the samadhi becomes, the less frequent becomes the appearance of the reflecting action of consciousness.  Ultimately the time comes when no reflection appears at all.  One comes to notice nothing, feel nothing, hear nothing, see nothing.  This state of mind is called "nothing."  But it is not vacant emptiness.  Rather is it the purest condition of your existence.  It is not reflected, and nothing is directly known of it.  This nothingness is "Both man and circumstances are deprived," the condition Hakuin Zenji called "the Great Death."  The experience of this Great Death is no doubt not common in the ordinary practice of zazen among most Zen students.  Nevertheless, if you want to attain genuine enlightenment and emancipation, you must go completely through this condition, because enlightenment can be achieved only after once shaking off our old habitual way of consciousness."

In this third type of samadhi, all disappears, even one's awareness that they are experiencing samadhi.  


Katsuki Sekida's Four Types of Samadhi: #2 Circumstances are Deprived; Man is Not Deprived

Continuing the Samadhi series, Katsuki Sekida's second form of samadhi is "Circumstances are deprived; man is not deprived."

(1) Man is deprived; circumstances are not deprived.
(2) Circumstances are deprived; man is not deprived.
(3) Both man and circumstances are deprived.
(4) Neither man nor circumstances are deprived.

In Sekida's first form of samadhi, one is totally absorbed in outward circumstances.  In Sekida's second form of samadhi, the situation is reversed.  Outward circumstances disappear and one becomes absorbed in the "inner man."

"The second category ... denotes inward attention.  When we work on Mu or practice shikantaza, we concentrate inwardly and there develops a samadhi in which a certain self-ruling spiritual power dominates the mind.  This spiritual power is the ultimate thing that we can reach in the innermost part of our existence.  We do not introspect it, because subjectivity does not reflect itself, just as the eye does not see itself, but we are this ultimate thing itself.  It contains in itself all sources of emotion and reasoning power, and it is a fact we directly realize in ourselves.

Rinzai Zenji calls this ultimate thing 'man.'  When this 'man' rules within us in profound samadhi, circumstances are forgotten.  No outward concern appears.  This state of mind is 'Circumstances are deprived, man is not deprived.'  It is an inward samadhi and it is what I have called absolute samadhi, because it forms the foundation of all zazen practice.  It contrasts with the outwardly directed samadhi described in the first category, which I call positive samadhi.  Positive samadhi is a samadhi in the world of conscious activity.  Absolute samadhi is a samadhi that transcends consciousness.  When we simply use the term samadhi by itself we generally refer to this absolute samadhi."

As a practitioner of Centering Prayer, the similarities here are obvious.  When Sekida says things like "a self-ruling spiritual power dominates the mind," that it is "the ultimate thing that we can reach in the innermost part of our existence," and "it contains in itself all sources of emotion and reasoning power," he is essentially describing the Centering Prayer experience without using the word God.  The major difference is that in Sekida's description, this self-ruling power, what he calls "man," is you ("we are this ultimate thing itself").  Most who practice Centering Prayer would conceptualize this differently, interpreting this power as something outside of themselves, although even this gets hazy as the experience is often described as "the presence of God at the deepest level of your being."

Sekida's description of the second form of samadhi is the closest I have found to describing the experience of Centering Prayer, but from the perspective of a different religious tradition.  In his discussion here, we're almost speaking the same language.  

Katsuki Sekida's Four Types of Samadhi: #1 Man is Deprived; Circumstances are Not Deprived

In Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, Katsuki Sekida discusses four categories of "samadhi."  Samadhi is one of those terms that gets used in different ways by different authors, and this often creates difficulty when discussing the concept.  In the modern Christian contemplative tradition, True Self / False Self language shares this problem.  Sekida uses the term in a very general way in which it may simply be taken to mean "mental absorption."  He then delineates between types of mental absorptions, or "types of samadhi."  

I find huge overlap in Sekida's descriptions and what I have experienced in my own practice of Centering Prayer.  More than any other Zen author, I feel like his language really speaks to my own, non-officially-Zen, experience.  

Sekida's categories of samadhi are:

1. Man is deprived; circumstances are not deprived.
2. Circumstances are deprived; man is not deprived.
3. Both man and circumstances are deprived.
4. Neither man nor circumstances are deprived.

I'll take each of the categories in separate posts.  A preliminary note – when Sekida uses the word "man" here, he is talking about what he calls "a certain self-ruling spiritual power (which) dominates the mind."  This "man" is developed through Zen practice and thus is difficult to understand for those who haven't had the experience.  Here's how Sekida describes the first category of samadhi: "Man is deprived; circumstances are not deprived":  

"The first category 'Man is deprived; circumstances are not deprived' denotes a situation in which one's mind is absorbed in outward circumstances.  A famous surgeon was once performing an operation that required great concentration.  While he was working there was a sudden earthquake.  The shocks were so severe that most of the attendants involuntarily ran out of the room for safety.  But the surgeon was so absorbed in the operation that he did not feel the shocks at all.  After the operation was over he was told of the earthquake, and this was the first he knew of it.  He had been completely absorbed in his work, in a kind of samadhi.

We experience this kind of samadhi when we are watching a football game, reading, writing, thinking, fishing, looking at pictures, talking about the weather, or even stretching out a hand to open the door – in the moment of sitting down or stepping forward.  In fact, we are at every moment absorbed in that moment's action or thought.  There are various degrees of absorption, various periods of duration, and differences between voluntary and involuntary attention: the differences, for example, between our watching a football game (involuntary attention) and the surgeon performing the operation (voluntary attention).  But we are almost always experiencing a minor or major condition of momentary samadhi, so to speak.  When we are in this sort of samadhi we are quite forgetful of ourselves.  We are not self-conscious about our behavior, emotions, or thought.  The inner man is forgotten and outer circumstances occupy our whole attention.  To put it another way: inward concern is absent; outward concern dominates...

Now, it is important to recognize the difference between true samadhi with self-mastery and the false kind of samadhi without it.  In the first, even when the inner man is forgotten, he is not forsaken.  The firmly established man is getting along well within, ready to make his appearance at any time.  False samadhi lacks this self-mastery from the outset.  There can be fighting samadhi, stealing samadhi, hating samadhi, jealousy samadhi, worrying, dreading, upsetting samadhi, but all without the guidance of self-mastery.  These are not true samadhi as it is understood in Zen...

Not losing self-mastery but at the same time being involved in external conditions is the real meaning of 'Man is deprived; circumstances are not deprived.'  In this state the inner man is simply inactive."

So, according to Sekida, full absorption in what one is doing, when the inner man is "ready to make his appearance at any time," is this first kind of samadhi.  Another way you could put it is that this kind of samadhi is absorption in the task at hand as directed by the "inner man" achieved through Zen practice.  

This full absorption in the task at hand is, it seems to me, what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "Flow."



Zen, Satori, and Mescaline

I lied.  I'm not done with Huxley yet.

Currently I am developing the Zazen page for the site and have been re-reading a lot of Zen authors.  One particular author, D.T. Suzuki, is especially interested in the experience of Satori, which is sometimes referred to as "non-dual awareness."  For Suzuki, the eventual experience of Satori is the only reason for practicing Zen.  If one was assured they would never attain this experience, Suzuki would probably tell them not to bother with Zen.  

"Satori may be defined as an intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradistinction to the analytical or logical understanding of it.  Practically, it means the unfolding of a new world hitherto unperceived in the confusion of a dualistically-trained mind.  Or we may say that with satori our entire surroundings are viewed from quite an unexpected angle of perception.  Whatever this is, the world for those who have gained a satori is no more the old world as it used to be; even with all its flowering streams and burning fires, it is never the same once again.  Logically stated, all its opposites and contradictions are united and harmonized into a consistent organic whole.  This is a mystery and a miracle, but according to the Zen masters such is being performed every day.  Satori can thus be had only through our once personally experiencing it.  

Its semblance or analogy in a more or less feeble and fragmentary way is gained when a difficult mathematical problem is solved or when a great discovery is made, or when a sudden means of escape is realized in the midst of most desperate complications; in short, when one exclaims 'Eureka!  Eureka!'"

– D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddism

The experience, sometimes called Satori, sometimes called Kensho, sometimes called "Enlightenment," comes suddenly and completely.  Zen is sometimes referred to as the path of "sudden Enlightenment" as opposed to other schools of Buddhism in which Enlightenment (whatever we mean by that term) comes gradually.  Thus one may practice Zen for years and years without truly understanding the goal, until one day it miraculously appears, as, again, Suzuki conveys:

"The coming of satori is not like the rising of the sun gradually bringing things to light, but it is like the freezing of water, which takes place abruptly.  There is no middle or twilight condition before the mind is opened to the truth, in which there prevails a sort of neutral zone, or a state of intellectual indifference.  As we have already observed in several instances of satori, the transition from ignorance to enlightenment is so abrupt, the common cur, as it were, suddenly turns into a golden-haried lion."

There is debate about whether the state spoken of above can (or should) be induced by the use of certain chemicals.  The current debate is mainly over a chemical called psilocybin (see the two part podcast by Buddhist Geeks Meditation on Mushrooms and Psilocybin: A Crash Course in Mindfulness for more).  In the past, Aldous Huxley famously documented his experience on mescaline.  He believed that certain chemicals, mescaline being one of them, could induce states of consciousness that the mystics experience.  Here he describes looking at a vase of flowers while on the drug:

"The other world to which mescaline admitted me was not the world of visions; it existed out there, in what I could see with my eyes open.  The great change was in the realm of objective fact.  What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant.

I took my pill at eleven.  An hour and a half later, I was sitting in my study, looking intently at a small glass vase.  The vase contained only three flowers – a fullblown Belle of Portugal rose, shell pink with a hint at every petal's base of a hotter, flamier hue; a large magenta and cream-colored carnation; and, pale purple at the end of its broken stalk, the bold heraldic blossom of an iris.  Fortuitous and provisional, the little nosegay broke all the rules of traditional good taste.  At breakfast that morning I had been struck by the lively dissonance of its colors.  But that was no longer the point.  I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement.  I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.  

'Is it agreeable?' somebody asked.  (During this part of the experiement, all conversations were recorded on a dictating machine, and it has been possible for me to refresh my memory of what was said.)

'Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,' I answered.  'It just is.'

Istigkeit – wasn't that the word Meister Eckhart like to use?  'Is-ness.'  The Being of Platonic philosophy – except that Plato seems to have made the enormous, the grotesque mistake of separating Being from becoming and identifying it with the mathematical abstraction of the Idea.  He could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what the rose and iris and carnation signified was nothing more, nothing less, than what they were – a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.

I continued to look at the flowers, and in their living light I seemed to detect the qualitative equivalent of breathing – but of a breathing without returns to a starting point, with no recurrent ebbs but only a repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning.  Words like 'grace' and 'transfiguration' came to my mind, and this, of course, was what, among other things, they stood for.  My eyes traveled from the rose to the carnation, and from that feathery incandescence to the smooth scrolls of sentient amethyst which were the iris.  The Beatific Vision, Sat Chit Ananda, Being-Awareness-Bliss – for the first time I understood..."

– Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception

Being-Awareness-Bliss.  That sounds nice.  It's unclear whether we can identify Huxley's experience with Satori, but the descriptions are clearly in the same ballpark.  

Some authors like D.T. Suzuki place a ton of emphasis on Satori.  Other famous Zen authors including Philip Kapleau and Shunryu Suzuki have a place for Satori in their thought, but don't put nearly the same emphasis on its attainment.  

But it is interesting to read accounts from people who have had this experience, or something like it.