Is Mindfulness the same as Buddhism?

DSC_0049There’s been a lot of chatter on the internet these days about Mindfulness and Buddhism. In a nutshell, practitioners, writers, and philosophers of Buddhism have expressed concern about the potential misuse of Buddhist beliefs and concepts by mindfulness-based interventions or programs. There is much merit to these concerns although the discussions tend to become bogged down with a lot of arguments that missed the central point. There are important issues about Mindfulness and Buddhism as well as Mindfulness itself that anyone considering a program should take the time to investigate. Below are some of these issues that may be helpful to consider.

Are Mindfulness-Based Programs and Interventions the same as Buddhism?

The answer will vary depending on the framework we use to address it. At one level, mindfulness is a Buddhism-based concept so it is unavoidable that the core principles guiding any Mindfulness-Based Intervention or Program will reach into a Buddhist conceptualization of its meaning and practice. However, mindfulness has moved far enough away from Buddhist philosophy and has begun to draw from various fields of psychology such as Cognitive Theory, Positive Psychology, Motivational approaches, Organizational Psychology, that it can be said to be a new “wave” in the genre of psychological and organizational approaches.

If you are considering a mindfulness program, there are some underlying concepts and frameworks you may wish to know that will inform your decisions. In our course intakes, we are often asked if the program is Buddhist. We are also asked if there are aspects of the program that would interfere with the person’s religious views or practices. People also want to be assured that the program won’t impose values and beliefs on them that may not fit with their own values and beliefs. These are important questions and need to be addressed openly and all the more important with the debates going around on the Buddhist nature of mindfulness and the potential dangers of teaching it as a secular or psychological modality.

Is Mindfulness the same as Buddhism?

Not completely. We can organize mindfulness programs into two categories: Mindfulness-Informed (MI) and Mindfulness-Based (MB) approaches (edit: See Shapiro & Carlson’s book The Art and Science of Mindfulness). Mindfulness-Informed approaches will draw from Buddhist philosophy using concepts of impermanence, adaptive self (non self), and the reality of suffering. They can also introduce concepts of lovingkindness and compassion. MI approaches may not use meditation practices specifically. Typically, the professional is trained in Buddhist theory and/or practice and therefore understands how our attitude and interpretations of our difficulties leads to our sorrow and suffering. Mindfulness-Based approaches draw from Buddhist practices such as sitting and walking meditation, breath awareness, etc. and build from this a state of steadiness so that the issues that plague us can be faced in a skillful manner. (edit) Additionally, Mindfulness-Based approaches draw from current understanding of stress theory and other psychotherapeutic models. (edit end) The final intention of both MI and MB approaches is the same – the reduction of suffering. Neither approach requires nor relies on a belief in Buddhist religious concepts.

Are all Mindfulness Programs the same?

No. For clarity, I refer to interventions separately from programs. A Program is offered over a time period, typically 8-weeks and may or may have a psychological intent; it may be conducted individually or in a group. “Programs” may be offered for stress management, lifestyle changes, spiritual growth, personal wellness or development. An Intervention refers to the medical- or psychological-based intent of the approach; this may be delivered as a time-framed process in a group or individually. “Interventions” may be offered to deal with physical or psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, physical pain or injuries, etc. These typically require a registered health care professional to supervise or conduct the intervention. Research articles on mindfulness will refer to Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) or their specific label such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.

There are many, many MBIs! Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindful Self-Compassion, Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (for addictions), Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training, Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training, and so on. And of course, just to add to the confusion, each of these will be taught under different “company” names. The M4 Program we offer at the OMC is a psychologically-based MBI and designed as an intervention for psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, chronic illness etc.

Are Mindfulness Instructors or Teachers accredited, certified or trained professionally?

Not all are. Most professionals will have taken at the very least a 5-day intensive training in the specific area of interest. Some will have continued from this to take on-going training with specialists in their field. (edit) All MBI teachers are expected to have a personal meditative/contemplative practice to support their teaching skills and personal development. (edit end) Health Care Professionals who work in the Mindfulness-Informed approaches will likely have trained in their specific treatment modality (CBT, EFT, etc.) and also continued with a Buddhist or other contemplative practice tradition. Others will have obtained accreditation from specific organizations.  The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts offers a teacher certification program for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programs. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy accreditation is available from the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion offers teacher training in Mindful Self-Compassion. The University of California at San Diego is developing a Professional Training Institute that will allow teacher-development programs in several streams of Mindfulness-Based Interventions.

One aspect of the training/accreditation question is to consider whether the facilitator or instructor is accredited in their own field of expertise. All health care professionals have a regulatory organization which certifies their training; mindfulness can be viewed as a therapeutic intervention that they provide as a trained health care professional. Other professionals such as educators, coaches, and spiritual care professionals,  will have professional organization that verify their credentials as a trained professional.

Do all Mindfulness-Based Programs have the same positive effect?

It depends. Research shows that MBIs have a positive impact for many issues. Whether an individual experiences the expected positive change depends on the “good fit” between the individual and the program. If the issue is depression, then a “stress” program may not do the job. If there are issues of anxiety that are not disclosed at the intake (yes, there should be an intake!), then this can have an impact on their experience of the program. What can increase the probability of a “good fit” is asking lots of questions at the information session or the intake appointment. The most frequent issues that derail the program for participants are as follows:

  • Realizing that there is a certain amount of sharing that happens in the course
  • Finding out it is not like a school course where we get all the answers from the teachers
  • Not realizing how much time the practices take
  • Wanting a “quick fix”
  • Needing certainty that the practices will work
  • Wanting to “get rid” of the problem

These are all important questions to consider and to ask if you are thinking of taking a Mindfulness-Based Program. It is about your health and well-being. Be proactive. Understand the scope and limits of MBIs. Most of all, know the people offering the programs.

Taking an MBSR/MBCT course?

This was posted earlier and it may be useful to review if you’re thinking of taking an MBSR or MBCT course.

Five Things you want to practice to get the most out of the course.  And, of course, to get the most out of this one, wild, and precious life!

Magic and the Theory of Everything

When we first begin to practice being mindful, it can be confusing about the intent of the practice.  Participants in our courses often ask if not being “dragged away by our feelings” means we are not supposed to feel anything.  They wonder if being mindful means giving up all the things that bring them joy.  Understandably, these discussions become a confusing mass of questions and sometimes defensive statements about our “right” to have what we believe we are entitled to.

It may help to consider these points:

(1) The theory of mindfulness is not the Theory of Everything.  Mindfulness does not claim to explain our lives or put our experiences into a neat package.  In fact, it may do the opposite.  The primary tenet of taking a mindful stance or attitude to our experience is to be open to uncertainty.  It requires us to let go of our firm belief that we actually can know all that is happening to us.  Although it is natural to want to know why our past was the way it was or how to affect our future, the practice of mindfulness is not going to provide that; it has no power over past or future.  It can, however, provide us with a window in the current flow of experiences to make different choices despite our past and independent of the imagined future.

(2) Old habits die hard.  Mindfulness is an anchor point to keep our habitual reactivities from running – may be even ruining – our lives.  A mental state that is flipping around trying to get the most information or indulge in well-practiced reactivities is not gathering useful information or engaging in beneficial actions.  When we work on noticing that we are avoiding the uncomfortable experience in this moment by some means of distraction (food, tv, over-activity), we begin to develop the capacity to stay with the real experience.  This is a good time to point out that there is no problem with enjoying a good meal, watching tv or being active.  The difficulty is when we use these activities to escape from something that needs our attention.  (Imagine being glued to the tv while a pot boils over in the kitchen.)

(3) There is no magic.  Just paying attention to what is unfolding and assuming that our lives will change is magical thinking.  It assumes that no real effort is necessary to develop healthier perspectives on the joys and sorrows of our life.  When we pay attention, we open ourselves to the possibility of learning more about who we are.  Truly experiencing our anger (rather than acting on it reactively) teaches us about who we become when we feel threatened.  Being available for our depression alerts us to our modes of dealing with situations that trigger helplessness.  Welcoming our excitement or enthusiasm for a new project or relationship cultivates courage to be willing to take on a challenge.  This is important information that helps us become wiser about who we want to become as human beings, people who want to give and receive compassion and care.

Mindfulness is not just a tool to get out of a sticky spot in our lives.  It is a commitment to live wisely and compassionately.  To do that, we make the effort to discipline our minds, restrain our compulsions, and open ourselves to the exciting uncertainty that every moment brings.

Resilience: Recovery & Sustainability

Resilience is defined as the successful adaptation to adversity.  It is also considered the outcome of a successful adaptation to adversity.  Bouncing back that leads to healthier end states and the ability to continue forward through adversity marks a healthy individual.  Our biological, genetic, psychological, and social environment puts us at risk for various illnesses or injury.  Moving from risk to resilience means we recover from what is thrown at us.  Researcher Masten calls it “ordinary magic.”  It doesn’t mean we don’t suffer from the consequences of the event; it does mean we gain from the experience of it.  Following recovery, we increase future recoveries by sustaining our quality of life, nurturing our capacity to meet adversity, and balance positive and negative emotional states.

We differ in our ability to dig deep under duress.  It helps to build up our capacity to recover and sustain that recovery.  Here are some resilience resources we should consider cultivating:

Regular physical exercise
Positive emotional resources
Optimism/hope/sense of competence
Improved cognitive functioning/ learning & memory skills
Community relationships: family, friends, colleagues
Close social ties
Green space and involvement in activities outdoors
Volunteerism
Satisfying work life

List adapted from Alex Zautra et al., Resilience: A New Definition of Health for People and Communities in the Handbook of Adult Resilience, eds. Reich, Zautra, & Hall, 2010: Guilford Press

With the increasing sunshine and warmth, let’s get out there and practice!

5 things to practice during a mindfulness course

Here are five things you may want to practice as you go through a Mindfulness-Based intervention (MBSR, MBCT, MB-anything):

1 – Practice!  Try your best to do the “homework”.  We play around with the word, calling it “homework” may lead to feelings of being back in school.  So we call it “home practice”, “gifts”, “suggestions”, and so on.  But let’s get real – it’s work you have to do away from the clinic.  So the first thing to do as practice is to notice what happens when this work is called what it is.  This is a great chance to practice seeing things for what they are and watching our habitual reactivities arise.

2 – Old understandings.  We have a wisdom that we’ve cultivated over time.  These are mental models of how we understand the world and its impact on us.  It’s normal to try and fit this new information into those models.  At the same time, we run the risk of missing out on learning how to develop a new model of the world.  Try to come at the material in the course as if you’re a young child at your first practice (soccer, football, music, dance).  See if you can just do the steps and routines without pulling back into the old understandings – which may actually just be old stories of how you want the world the work.

3 – Where’s the Buddha?  More and more of our participants are coming to the clinic with an awareness that mindfulness is based in Buddhism.  This is terrific because it means there’s an educated consumerism growing.  Like buying a car, it’s important to know what you’re getting!  You may feel surprised or even disappointed however when there’s no talk about Buddhas, Buddhism or spirituality in the program.  Often people will leave the course because they wanted “something more spiritual” than “learning how to meditate.”  Although there’s nothing wrong with wanting something different, take a look at what’s motivating your desire.  Even in the most dedicated of Buddhist centers, all practice begins with meditation.  And, practice is only ever about knowing ourselves.

4 – No Heroes.  The facilitators can seem like they are the experts.  Certainly they have a level of training and psychological understanding of how the process of mindfulness unfolds.  You, on the other hand, are the real expert in knowing what you’re feeling in each moment!  You might say, we’re the screen and you’re the film.  This is a chance to know You. 

5 – Listen deeply.  Every course has a different format.  If yours includes sharing your experience, don’t stop listening when the awareness shifts to someone else.  The interaction between the facilitators and participant has a richness that is applicable to everyone, not just the participant in the dialogue.  Listen deeply to what is being shared.  It helps to cultivate openness to the perspective of others.  It also gives us insight to our knee jerk tendency and a chance to practice generosity when our hot buttons are pushed.

Enjoy your practicing!

Practice for the week

Being in the present moment can be an opportunity to be skillful in our relationships.

It can also be an opportunity to deny, deflect, disengage.

Being skillful about being skillful is quite a challenge!

Thought for the week

Nothing changes if nothing changes


Don’t be surprised by this.

Be curious!