How can mindfulness be secular, Buddhist or Christian? Richard Burnett has written an excellent, well-researched, erudite and thought-provoking thesis called ‘Mindfulness in schools: learning lessons from the adults – secular and Buddhist (see link below). Within his thesis are important ideas that enable us to begin to answer the question above.
Firstly, mindfulness can be used in different settings because it is a universal human capacity for awareness and attention in the present-moment and must be distinguished from the meditative or mindful awareness practices that lead to this mode of awareness. In an important note on page 6 of his thesis Burnett says, ‘There is nothing ‘Buddhist’ about being mindful and paying attention to the present moment. Kabat-Zinn compares this to calling gravity ‘British’ because it was discovered by Newton.’
Secondly, it has a historical presence in Buddhism and Christianity, and in secular psychology there has also been a long focus on awareness and attention and the regulation of emotions. In other words people came across the capacity for mindfulness within different contexts, originally these contexts were religious. The other key idea, then, is to understand the context.
Richard Burnett is someone who has looked at this question of context within the setting of introducing mindfulness into schools (http://mindfulnessinschools.org/).
Thirdly, in counselling there is an important emphasis on client autonomy, respecting a person’s world view, experience and ethical values. That means boundaries are important. What is the context in which the client lives? An atheist might want to engage with a purely secular mindfulness.
This question of boundaries and client autonomy arises in mindfulness because it is a universal human capacity, and therefore appears in different contexts. These forms must be well defined and clearly articulated, although there is shared territory between the forms as well as distinctives. But a secular mindfulness course must not be ‘Buddhism by the back door.’ (p.32)
The key question is I guess: how do we ensure secular mindfulness is secular, Buddhist mindfulness is Buddhist and Christian mindfulness is Christian, for those to whom it matters? Someone looking at life through a secular lens for example.
Burnett argues, quite rightly that mindfulness in schools does not have the same objective as clinical psychology, because ‘in a classroom context we are not treating specific pathologies.’ (p. 24). Nor can it be introduced as a spiritual practice ‘as a classroom is not the place for religious instruction.’ (p.24) It can be used more generally to promote the key attitudes found in the National Framework for religious education of ‘self-awareness, respect for all, open-mindedness and appreciation and wonder.’ (p.27)
It then requires what has been called an ‘informational context’ (Feldman); or a ‘framework of understanding’ (Teasdale) or what Kabat-Zinn calls ‘scaffolding’. (p.28) Buddhist mindfulness is set within an ancient and complex scaffolding. (p.28) Helpfully, Burnettt argues that ‘The scaffolding in clinical mindfulness may be much smaller, but is very well constructed and arguably more effective in the treatment of specific conditions.’ (p.29) Mindfulness within Buddhism is set within religious or spiritual scaffolding, within clinical mindfulness it is secular (generally), although there are psychologists reframing Buddhism as a wise and ancient psychology and bringing in Buddhist insights that are psychological.
Burnett quotes from Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of clinical mindfulness, as saying that mindfulness ‘may have to give up being Buddhism in any formal religious sense.’ (p.31)
This clear boundary around clinical mindfulness to ensure it is secular is important as Burnett outlines in a quote from Michael Chaskalson, (one of the key figures in mindfulness he has interviewed): ‘If you don’t establish clear boundaries you will exclude some people. There will be practising Christians for example, or dedicated Dawkins style atheists coming on courses and I don’t want to exclude them from conversation.’ (p.31)
So within schools Burnett argues that mindfulness should not be Buddhist (almost certainly). (p.31) If you are doing a Religious Studies A-level in Buddhism you would refer to the Buddhist scaffolding. But when taught as a practice it should be within scaffolding that is clearly secular. In that context what it can address, as a backbone for the engagement, is what Mark Williams calls ‘universal vulnerabilities.’ Although specific vulnerabilities identified in the context of schools such as ‘anxiety of exams,’ peer pressure, or mood swings, could be indicated to pupils. (p.33)
Burnett argues that mindfulness, especially in schools, brings with it ‘a sense of possibility.’ ( p.33). Burnett highlights these other possibilities, pointing out that there are a broad ‘range of potential applications’, including functional, therapeutic, to more spiritual applications when the context is appropriate. (p.33)
What I have been trying to develop, through ‘A Book of Sparks: a Study in Christian MindFullness’ and other writings, is a Christian scaffolding, drawing on biblical and historical roots for the development of mindfulness within the Christian tradition, as well as looking at the benefits of engaging with it today.
Within this setting I believe it has spiritual as well as therapeutic benefits, because of the overlaps, and shared territory, and because we are ’embodied’ people. The evidence-based research within clinical psychology suggests that it would also be appropriate to point Christians, under the holistic guidance of doctors and therapists, to secular clinical mindfulness which might address ‘specific’ vulnerabilities they might be living with. For Christians are not immune from the universal and specific vulnerabilities that afflict all human beings.
Within this research I am keen to work collaboratively with other Christians who are interested in mindfulness, both psychologically and theologically. I am grateful for the collaborative partnerships that are beginning. Space doesn’t permit a description of the scaffolding that makes mindfulness Christian, I have done that elsewhere, but I do believe that for Christians, as well, as they rediscover their contemplative roots, it has a very real ‘sense of possibility.’
If you want to create a roadmap to help people understand mindfulness within Western psychology you need to start with the pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction treatment (MBSR). This is just a map to get you started.
MBSR treatment was developed in a behavioural medicine setting for people suffering with stress-related conditions and chronic pain (Baer & Krietemeyer, 2006). MBSR is built around an eight-week course (Kabat-Zinn, 2008). Course providers and clients must practice the meditations (Kabat-Zinn, 2008). During the eight weeks the clients are introduced to formal meditative techniques which they have to practise for forty-five minutes each day (Kabat-Zinn, 2008).
These include paying attention to one’s breathing, and Kabat-Zinn suggests this is the most important meditative practice that people take away with them (2008). Mindfulness of breathing is used in “the sitting meditation, the body scan, the yoga, and the walking meditation, which are all formal meditation practices” (Kabat-Zinn,2008, p. 57). One of the primary occurrences during meditation is the unending flow of our thoughts. As we pay attention to our breathing, “we see that we live immersed in a seemingly never-ending stream of thoughts” (Kabat-Zinn, 2008, p. 67). A key insight for clients within MBSR is the realisation that they are not their thoughts (Kabat-Zinn, 2008). During meditation, the clients “intentionally practice letting go of each thought that attracts our attention” (Kabat-Zinn, 2008, p. 68). After defining mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn outlines seven attitudinal factors that are at the heart of MBSR mindfulness practice: “non-judging, patience, a beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting go” (2008, p. 32).
There are many illnesses treated by mindfulness within MBSR. These come under the general categories of stress, pain and illness (Kabat-Zinn, 2008). Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR treatment is a paradigm shift – one that recognizes that “we can no longer think about health as being solely a characteristic of the body or the mind because body and mind are interconnected” (Kabat-Zinn, 2008, p. 151). The popular name for what Kabat-Zinn calls the “full catastrophe” of life is stress (2008).
Stress acts on different levels and so can be analysed biopsychosocially (Kabat-Zinn, 2008). Kabat-Zinn underlines that “it is not the potential stressor itself but how you perceive it and then how you handle it that will determine whether or not it will lead to stress” (2008, p. 237). This insight developed by earlier work on stress is accessible through the practice of mindfulness – suggesting that mindfulness practice helps with many conditions by changing our perspective.
Kabat-Zinn’s work is research-based. In his book Full catastrophe living he quotes research supportive of his mindfulness-based approach MBSR (2008). Generally MBSR groups are made up of participants with a wide range of disorders, but it has also been applied to specific disorders, including cancer, heart disease and relationship work with couples (Baer & Krietemeyer, 2006). A randomized controlled trial (RCT) was carried out with cancer patients (Speca, Carlson, Goodey & Angen, 2000, quoted in Speca, Carlson, Mackenzie & Angen, 2006, p. 254). Speca et al state that “participants in the intervention group had significantly less overall mood disturbance, tension, depression, anger…fewer symptoms of stress compared with those still waiting for the program” (2006, p.
254). Other research also shows promising benefits, but further research needs to be done (Speca et al, 2006). There is also empirical support for MBSR in worksite programmes including an RCT by the West Virginia University Wellness programme between 1994 and 1996 which showed that significant health and stress reduction benefits were obtained (Williams, 1996).
There is a very helpful book by Michael Chaskalson called The Mindful Workplace if you want to explore that dimension more closely.
Here are some important books:
Baer, R. A., (2006). Mindfulness-based treatment approaches. Burlington: Academic Press.
Baer, R. A., & Krietemeyer, J. (2006). Overview of mindfulness and acceptance-based treatment approaches. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches (pp. 3–27). Burlington: Academic Press.
Brantley, J. (2007). Calming your anxious mind. California: Harbinger Publications Inc.
Chaskalson, (2011). The Mindful Workplace. Wiley-Blackwell.
Dahl, J., & Lundgren, T. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) in the treatment of chronic pain. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches (pp. 285–305). Burlington: Academic Press.
Hayes, S.C. (2005) Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland: Harbinger Publications Inc.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2008). Full catastrophe living. London: Piatkus Books.
Lynch, T. R., & Bronner, L. L. (2006). Mindfulness and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT): application with depressed older adults with personality disorders. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches (pp. 217–236). Burlington: Academic Press.
Roth, B.,& Calle-Messa, L. (2006). Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) with Spanish and English-speaking inner-city medical patients. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches (pp. 263–284). Burlington: Academic Press.
Segal, Z., Williams, M., & Teasdale, J., (2002). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. London, The Guilford Press.
Speca, M., Carlson, L.E., Mackenzie, M.J., & Angen, M. (2006). Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) as an intervention for cancer patients. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches (pp. 239-261). Burlington: Academic Press.