I have wanted to write this post for a while, but have struggled to find the time (and the words) in the last few days. Today, however I came across this video on YouTube and it gave me some fascinating food for thought, and compelled me to finally write this post on an issue that I am gaining more and more interest in every day during my PhD.
Sam Harris (and many others in modern psychology) argue that mindfulness is in itself a very powerful tool, one that can be used to help individuals suffering from stress, depression, anxiety, and a variety of other mental health conditions and everyday situations, such as dealing with eating disorders, work stress, and difficulty in focusing and sustaining attention. Despite mindfulness being a relatively new topic of investigation, and the scarce and somewhat conflicting research that has been done on mindfulness to date, I tend to agree that mindfulness in itself can be a powerful tool when practiced correctly. However, I strongly believe that when mindfulness is practiced correctly, religion cannot (and should not) be fully ignored.
I have previously written briefly about the origins of mindfulness from Buddhist traditions, and the purpose of this post is not to discuss the origins of mindfulness further, nor to push Buddhism down the reader’s throat. In fact, those who know me know that I am an agnostic at best. However, as mindfulness is just one component of Buddhist meditations and traditions, it does make me wonder: 1) whether it can be practiced correctly without some understanding of Buddhism as a whole, and 2) whether incorporating other Buddhist traditions in your meditation practice would take the powerful tool which is mindfulness, and make it even more powerful.
To practice mindfulness and meditation, you do not need to be religious. There are many meditation practices out there, and some may not necessarily stem from Buddhism. Mindfulness meditation, however, is based primarily on a Buddhist concept, and Buddhism itself has given us the language to talk about mindfulness and meditation practice. This suggests that one cannot even talk about mindfulness without tapping into some Buddhist philosophies. Personally, I do not view Buddhism as a religion in my traditional understanding of that word. I see it as less of a religion, and more of a philosophy, and less of a philosophy than a collection of teachings and guidelines, the breaking of which will not land you in hell, while following them will not land you in heaven.
Modern mindfulness-based interventions are all designed specifically to improve some disorder or dysfunction, and have been packaged into standard group formats of a precise content, length, session duration, and home-based exercises (Malinowski, in press). In this sense, “modern mindfulness” tends to differ in some ways from the way it was practiced originally (as a way of living, rather than a short-term solution). Malinowski further argues that there may be a great potential in “enhancing” mindfulness meditation by integrating Buddhist concepts such as “non-duality” (removing the subject and object divide: e.g., meditator and his or her feelings and emotions), and incorporating them in mindfulness-based interventions. To put it simply, mindfulness might have a stronger impact on mental wellbeing when it is not taken completely out of its original context.
Indeed, I would argue that speaking the language of Buddhism, and understanding the overall Buddhist philosophy may contribute greatly to the power of mindfulness, whether you take on the religion as your own or simply incorporate some aspects of it in your meditation practice. Moreover, people of any religious background can practice mindfulness in this way. Completely forgetting where mindfulness comes from may truly limit its potential, and continue resulting in research with conflicting results and uncertain outcomes. Future research is greatly needed to compare different applications of mindfulness with and without an emphasis on Buddhist teachings and traditions, as well as isolating mindfulness from other mechanisms in mindfulness-based interventions, so that its standalone power can truly be investigated.
What are your thoughts? Should religion be excluded from mindfulness practice? Comment below to discuss!