The Mindfulness Controversy of Buddhism vs Psychology

Young man meditating outdoors.

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In recent years, many practicing psychotherapists have adopted the Buddhist practice of mindfulness as part of their therapeutic toolkit. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), for example, are being used to treat conditions such as ADHD, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. The results have been enormously encouraging.

Yet, the use of mindfulness as therapy, as well as using mindfulness to reduce workplace stress, is not without detractors. Some Buddhist teachers are concerned that mindfulness can be misused. 

The Mindfulness Controversy

In Buddhism, mindfulness is a direct, whole-body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. This awareness includes awareness of one's body, of sensations, of mental states, and of everything both within and without oneself. In the context of Buddhism, mindfulness is one of eight "folds" of the Eightfold Path, which is the framework of all Buddhist practices.

People sometimes use the word "mindfulness" as a synonym for "meditation," but that's not exactly right. There are mindfulness meditations, but mindfulness is something that can be practiced as a day-to-day activity as well. Not all Buddhist meditation is mindfulness meditation.

Within the context of Buddhist practice, all parts of the Path support and affect all other parts of the Path. From a Buddhist perspective, when mindfulness is practiced in isolation of the rest of the Path it becomes something different from Buddhist mindfulness.

Some Buddhist meditation teachers have voiced concerns that mindfulness meditation isolated from its traditional guiding context of the Path could be more unpredictable and possibly dangerous. For example, uncoupled from the other parts of the Path that teach us to release greed and anger and develop loving kindness, compassion, and empathy, mindfulness could reinforce negative qualities instead of positive ones.

Before we go any further, let's be clear that the difficult episodes are most likely to happen to someone doing a lot of meditating, such as people visiting meditation retreats for several days' duration. Someone doing mindfulness exercises for ten to 20 minutes a day should be fine.

The Dark Side

Although meditation has been marketed to the West as a stress-reduction technique, that was never its purpose in eastern spiritual practices. From its beginnings in the Vedic tradition of India, people meditated to realize insight or wisdom, not to relax. The spiritual-meditative journey is not always a blissful one. I suspect most of us with long experience in a traditional meditation practice have been through some raw and edgy experiences with it, but this is part of the spiritual "process."

Occasionally, someone will have a meditation experience that is disturbing or frightening, even nightmarish. People have taken to calling these episodes a "dark night of the soul," borrowing a phrase from the Christian mystic Saint John of the Cross. To a mystic, a "dark night" is not necessarily bad. In fact, it can be an essential part of his or her particular spiritual journey. But for someone meditating to relieve stress or depression, it could be genuinely damaging.

The old meditation practices are very powerful. They can reach deeply into one's psyche and find dark and ugly places we didn't know were there. If not done properly, meditation can also induce hallucinations that usually are of no spiritual value. They are just your brain's synapses misfiring. These effects have been described in commentaries by meditation masters for millennia, and they are known of within the long-established Buddhist meditation traditions.

But mindfulness as therapy is still pretty new. There is concern that glib articles and pricey seminars pushing mindfulness therapies are not preparing counselors and therapists for all possible effects of meditation. It's also the case that there are a lot of badly-trained meditation teachers out there giving really bad advice. And vast numbers of people are learning to meditate from books, videos, and the internet, practicing meditation entirely on their own.

Should we be concerned?

Avoiding the Rocks and Reefs

My first Zen teacher had a policy of discouraging people who appeared to be struggling with psychological issues from taking part in intensive meditation retreats. He occasionally advised people to spend some time in psychotherapy before throwing themselves into full-scale Zen training. I think this was wise.

People with recent, extreme emotional trauma might find cultivating awareness of body, senses, and mental states too raw and too intense.

If you are not interested in spiritual practice and you're meditating for mental health reasons, maintaining mindful awareness for just five to ten minutes a day is beneficial, and safe, for nearly everybody. If that goes well, you might push it up to 20 minutes a day. Don't push it beyond that if you aren't being guided by a therapist or dharma teacher. 

If you have a solo meditation practice for spiritual reasons, I strongly suggest checking in with a dharma teacher occasionally. A not-too-intensive weekend retreat once or twice a year with a real, in-resident meditation master might be just the thing to keep you from falling down a mystical rabbit hole. It happens.