Meditation- it is not what you think

Mary Kate Long

Buddha statueIn the last post, Jonathan Morgan took on a recent NY Times Magazine article from popular science journalist, Dan Hurley. Hurley aimed to bring up a few studies that offer a different perspective on the benefits of mindfulness meditation practices – namely, that mindfulness might actually have some negative effects because too much focus reduces the time your brain needs to relax in order to be creative. Jonathan’s critique is right on – meditation isn’t only about focus, there’s a lot of other stuff going on too. When Hurley takes mindfulness out of the religious context it emerged from, something important gets lost. Jonathan challenges us to pause over what happens when we remove “an idea or religious practice from its native ecosystem” and asks, “At what point does it become something entirely different?”

While Jonathan identifies the concept of compassion as lacking in Hurley’s article, that’s not the whole story either, nor is compassion necessarily a primary aspect of mindfulness meditation as a religious practice. So, how is mindfulness, as a religious practice in a religious context, different from what Hurley says it is? And why is what Hurley is doing problematic?

For starters, the mindfulness meditation practices now found at meditation centers across the world exploded out of the vipassanā tradition in Burma, starting at the turn of the twentieth century. There’s an excellent new book that documents this exciting process by exploring the life of one of vipassanā’s earliest and most popular teachers, the Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw. My main objection to Hurley’s work is that he conflates his rendition of meditation as focus with Buddhist meditation practices like vipassanā that are situated within particular contexts of Buddhist teaching and practice.

Hurley participates in a long tradition of writers who “put a Buddha on it.” Opening his article by alluding to the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment might catch the interest of readers, but it also primes readers to take Hurley at his word that he is talking about Buddhism. But Hurley isn’t actually talking about meditation as a Buddhist practice at all. The problem is that he continues to assume that he is talking about Buddhism and makes a lot of missteps in the process.

By continually alluding to the Buddha, Hurley over simplifies a diverse array of Buddhist mental practices into one kind of activity. Along the way, he also reproduces the misleading opposition of “Eastern mysticism” and “Western rationalism,” an opposition that is both pejorative—classing non-Western ways of thinking as non-rational—and more importantly, presents a misleading, if not false, representation of what Buddhist practices of meditation involve and what they help practitioners achieve.

Judging by the title of Hurley’s newest book, Smarter: the New Science of Building Brain Power, it’s easy to guess that Hurley is interested in meditation for its capacity to make practitioners smarter, better, faster, stronger. The unexpected thing is, that’s what a lot of Burmese practitioners expect too! The motivation to meditate often comes from practitioners’ testimony concerning improvements in job performance, family life, academic success, financial gain and political power. However, the difference between what Hurley assumes about Buddhism and vipassanā as a Burmese Buddhist practice lies in the way that Hurley sees meditation as a tool that gets switched on and off. Perhaps this is true of the mindfulness practices featured in the studies Hurley examines, but it’s not true of Burmese vipassanā practice and the way it is situated in a particular understanding of the way the world works.

Instead of an intense focus on discovering “inner truths,” vipassanā practices a new way of seeing the world. It’s a system for identifying the intricate connections between objects and concepts and evaluating conceptual claims to truth, much like the Western European philosophical tradition of logic. Vipassanā fundamentally transforms the way perception happens, and consequently, transforms even the way a mind wanders. In fact, for experienced practitioners, the mental state of open awareness that arises in vipassanā practice might even be more like what Hurley calls “spacing out” than concentrated focus. Finally, vipassanā meditation is, for Burmese Buddhists, a practice situated within a worldview structured by laws of cause and effect, or karma. Meditation practice accrues merit, so it’s not building brain power that yields better test results and smarter decisions – it’s more like performing a good deed that may yield a positive return at some point in the future.

I agree with Jonathan that mindfulness, a practice that emerged from a Burmese Buddhist tradition still practiced today and more popular than ever, is misunderstood. More importantly, false representations of mindfulness and Buddhism have negative effects on popular understandings of Buddhist countries and communities worldwide and are driven by implicit judgments that demean non-Western theories of knowledge. Next time you’re tempted to “put a Buddha on it,” do your homework first. Why bother building brain power if you’re going to use it to burn bridges?

Mary Kate Long studies Buddhism and political theory at Boston University.

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