Appropriate Appropriation


The commonest criticisms levelled at secular teachings of mindfulness are not coming from the sceptical side of the scientific community but rather from the traditional cultures out of which mindfulness practise evolved; east asian buddhism and it’s western variants. Some buddhists feel that mindfulness, taken out of its religious context, is a watered down and ineffectual version of the one taught by the Buddha. For example, a critic of modern approaches to mindfulness had this to say…

‘…the rush to secularize and commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique may be leading to an unfortunate denaturing of this ancient practice, which was intended for far more than relieving a headache, reducing blood pressure, or helping executives become better focused and more productive.’ David Loy/Ron Purser, Huffington Post, 2011.

Mindfulness or sati as it is called in the original Pali language of early buddhism, was always part of a wider system that also incorporated other types of training which worked together to help bring about nirvana or awakening. Modern/secular mindfulness is often taught not as a religious practise but as part of a self-help or therapeutic approach to well being. This, to some practitioners of the Buddha’s teachings, is a diminishment of the practise and cause for  concern. The worry being that mindfulness on its own, un anchored from the dhamma, might even have harmful effects rather than wholesome or positive ones.

Buddhists might think that they are the first to have one of their core tenets appropriated from under their noses but we might cast our minds back over a century ago and look at the beginnings of psychoanalysis in late 19th century Vienna. Sigmund Freud grew up in the city which was predominantly catholic and although born into a jewish family, he must have been aware of the sacraments of the church and in particular that of penance and the sinners’ confessional. For over a thousand years catholics had received absolution from their sins via this sacrament and although it was primarily a religious endeavour i.e keeping the soul free from sin, there were obvious benefits to the freedom of conscience it bestowed on the practitioner. Freud, who had a keen interest in religions, cannot have failed to see the similarities between this and his emerging method of talk therapy.

So, where the link between secular mindfulness practise and buddhist meditation is  obvious, the link between psychotherapy and catholic absolution is less direct. What we do see is a similarity that illustrates how religion in the past often provided for its followers many practises that have now been secularised. As catholic scholar Paul Wilkes noted on this topic,

‘Psychoanalysis seeks to unearth the disorder caused by layers of repression. Confession seeks another truth — the truth of our inherent worth and goodness, our basic purity of soul, which has been not so much repressed as wasted, compromised, rationalized away with what we might call sin — acts and attitudes that are out of keeping with what is best in us.’ Huffington Post. 2012.

Interestingly, a recent study(1.) on the effectiveness of a wide range of psychoanalytical methodologies, came the the conclusion that the most powerful aspect of any pschotherapy, be it gestalt, Rogerian or Freudian, was the sense that the client was being listened to by another person (…let alone God!). If this was also a latent benefit of confession, then it added to the well being of those that chose to take the sacrament.

In a way the secularisation of mindfulness is working in a similar way. Modern practitioners, unaware of the buddhist applications of mindfulness as a path towards awakening, are still seeing the benefits that this practise brings to their lives.

Psychotherapy Theory Research & Practice (Impact Factor: 3.01). 03/2005; 42(1):37-51. DOI: 10.1037/0033-3204.42.1.37

Jay Roche


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