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Maureen Cooper

Are we headed for slot-machine dharma?

It seems that everywhere you look now someone is telling us how to apply meditation to all and any aspects of our lives—work, parenting, health, education, politics, eating........The development of mindfulness training—which is based on Buddhist meditation but can be taught and practiced without any reference to religion in any form—has seen this trend take off in a big way. Now compassion training is following a slower and more cautious but equally impressive upward curve. Scientists are producing fascinating research results, which confirm what Buddhism has taught for the last 2,500 years—that mindfulness and compassion training have innumerable benefits both for the people who engage with it and for those they live and work with. Psychologists and therapists are coming to see that including mindfulness and compassion techniques in their approaches to patient support produces more sustainable results. Not only ground-breaking hi-tech companies such as Google, Paypal, Twitter, Facebook and Apple are seeing the benefits of mindfulness and compassion training for their staff but more mainstream companies like General Mills are setting up in-house programmes for staff.


So, what are Buddhists to make of all this?

Well, my reference is HH Dalai Lama who lays out his vision for ‘Buddhism without religion’ in two key books, Ethics for the New Millennium and Beyond Religion. For a world religious leader his take is extraordinarily compassionate and generous. Making a distinction between the basic spirituality of our innate human nature, with a natural disposition towards compassion and kindness, and our religion-based spirituality, based on beliefs acquired during our upbringing and cultural conditioning, he points that that of the seven billion people on the planet only one billion shows any interest in the second kind of spirituality, whereas everyone is in urgent need of support for the first kind. He claims that Buddhist study and practice can be separated into what he calls, ‘Buddhist business’, which is the approach suitable for people who wish to make Buddhism their spiritual path and general guidance on meditation and compassion, which can be of benefit to everyone—whether they are interested in religion or not.

Based on this approach, I offer workshops and trainings offering guidance on mindfulness, meditation and compassion to people in the workplace. It never fails to amaze and move me how much people crave this kind of guidance and support and how deeply these techniques work for people with no religious background or interest.

Of course, there are numerous dangers here. The kind of training out there varies greatly in quality and authenticity and too many people holding them have very little practice experience themselves. When you take away the religious context and offer these techniques on the open market, so to speak, people will tend to pick the parts they want and leave out things that are harder to adapt to a secular audience. There is a tendency to dismiss the roots of these practices as just being mystical stuff more suitable for dreamers and old hippies, and to want to create something newer and more relevant for today’s needs. Even the experts—the psychologists and the scientists—can have a sense of ownership that they feel gives them license to merge the original practices with their current theories. Even this can work, as the series of Mind and Life conferences illustrate, but only with dialogue and mutual respect between disciplines.

So here’s the key. As Buddhists we cannot retire to an ivory tower of pure, unsullied Dharma from the heights of which we look down on all this activity with a weary sigh and slightly smug air of self-righteousness. The Buddha did not teach for a select few but for everyone who wanted to hear. In our modern world the way people want to hear, and what they can do with what they hear, has changed dramatically but this is still the dharma doing its thing and touching people. If those of us who have been lucky enough to receive teachings and training from qualified Buddhist teachers can enter the dialogue with all those who are interested in applying the practices of meditation and compassion in their lives then we can help prevent the Dharma being used like a slot-machine solution to our problems and help this new phase of ‘secular dharma’ to be of benefit in the greatest possible way.



0 # Meditation 4Ever 2013-06-25 14:35
Thought provoking post.
But I have a nit to pick with the idea that "Scientists are producing fascinating research results, which confirm what Buddhism has taught for the last 2,500 years." Most of what scientists have shown is that there are interesting things going on but it is too early to say for sure what it means.

Secondly, they are no where near proving, nor are any significant researchers talking about it, that enlightenment is a tangible, measurable state of being. Very few if any scientists would accept many if not most of the traditional claims of the signs of enlightenment that come with.

But I guess this is another way of saying that as good as the science is for bringing contemplative practice in secular society, there is a general dumbing down of Buddhist ideas of the full potential of human existence into something we can do today to feel better.

Anyway, good post!
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+2 # maureen cooper 2013-06-27 18:27
Thanks for your comment Meditation 4Ever
You've given me a chance to clarify a couple of things.
I agree that the science is showing that there is a lot going on that is interesting but we do not fully know what it means as yet. I think I am influenced by things that Richard Davidson has said about changing our brain in order to support the training of our minds......but even he says there is still a long way to go. I guess it would be more accurate to say the 'indications' are there.

As for your point about proving enlightenment as a tangible state—I certainly am not expecting any researcher to attempt this and would even be slightly suspicious of anyone who did. Enlightenment is beyond the ordinary mind and so now could it be 'measured'?

To separate enlightenment from contemplative practice in secular society does not have to be a dumbing down, does it?
isn't this an example of what Dalai Lama calls 'Buddhist business' as opposed to people trying to learn to work with their minds and to become more kind? It does not have to just be about feeling better but about training our minds and hearts in meditation and compassion is order to live a more constructive life and to try to benefit others. We can do this to a certain level even if we do not know anything about enlightenment.

Thank you so much for your comments and this discussion.
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0 # Robert N-Taylor 2013-06-26 03:55
Dear Maureen - an excellent post and thank you - you are yet another voice questioning the value of the secular inclusion of meditative techniques in psychotherapeut ic practice. Though at first such practice would seem almost obviously beneficial it is important for practising buddhists to search in their own experience for words of wisdom and to comment accordingly. An approach like this is fraught with many dangers, not least for those entering such practices without the firm and deeply compassionate anchor of the "first training" arm of buddhism - the training in morality - which is fundamentally based on a buddhist sangha oriented environment where the practitioners of the second and third trainings are steeped not just in the contemplative 'arts' of samath and vipassana but in the rigorous and profound aqpplication of loving kindness in it's fullest buddhist format. Leaders of courses in 'mindfulness' may be insufficiently attuned to the very frequent difficulties that will come from the application of meditative techniques (such psychological difficulties are an almost necessary part of the full application of a buddhist approach to life) We may be chucking the baby out with the bath water here and must seriously question why this should be. Once again - thank you - in metta Robert
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+2 # maureen cooper 2013-06-27 18:39
Hello Robert
Thanks for your comment on my blog. It was interesting to read what you say.
In my opinion there is value in the secular application of meditation and compassion techniques—but I agree that we need to proceed with caution. That's why I make the point that Buddhists need to part of the conversation that is happening and where it is not happening in sufficient depth, then to provoke it.
Your point about ethics is important and one I have heard come up from time to time. Have you looked into the two book by the Dalai Lama that are mentioned in the blog? He lays out a way of sharing the Buddhist practices of meditation and compassion, along with an understanding of interdependence , in a secular context with a view to creating an ethical framework that can hold people of all religions, or those with no interest in religion at all. As I understand it, this is to help provide a way of learning about and practicing ethics without religion.
I am in favour of Buddhism holding its own authenticity and at the same time sharing what can be shared for the good of all.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to say more about this topic
Best wishes to you
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0 # Stephanie 2013-06-30 18:21
Love this post Maureen....

Working in education I've met young people who are very interested and eager to learn more about their own minds and the "meaning of life" in general and it's so interesting to be part of their exploration. It seems the challenge is really taking the fundamental elements of Buddhism (say the 4 seals) and then finding a way to talk about them and relate them very directly in a very real way to lives of people. Firstly stressing the point that Buddhism is not blind faith but says, just try it out yourself and see. So if a student says, I don't accept that everything is impermanent or made of compounded phenomena, then ask them to logically take you through something which supports that argument.

In fact this is all pedagogically sound stuff as it develops skills of argument needed in many subject areas at school.

It seems to me, logic, and relating all the Buddhist sounding words to very ordinary, normal everyday things that people can relate to and then examine could be a good way to make the teachings very accessible and applicable to people whether they claim to be Buddhists or not. In fact, if after such a process they are accepting of the 4 seals then according the Dzongsar Khyentse they are more Buddhists than those of us who have never studied them, critically looked at them and applied them to our own lives. :)
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0 # maureen cooper 2013-07-01 17:59
Hello Stephanie

Really glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for your comment. I like the logical way you lay things out and agree that it makes perfect sense and is a good way to 'train the mind' which is what Buddhism
is all about anyway, isn't it?
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0 # Thoma Clotz 2013-10-25 19:06
As Always Maureen, thank you for your wonderful post.
I though, for those who may actually like to have a quick look at the actual "...fascinating research results" (en.wikipedia.org/.../... would be of benefit.
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0 # Thoma Clotz 2013-10-25 19:47
For whatever reason the above hyper link to Wikipedia came up wrong,I'll try again with this (without the parentheses) to see if it works ;-): en.wikipedia.org/.../...
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0 # martin delaney 2013-11-02 18:11
very Interesting Dilemma,, being a student of Rinpoche for 16 years, It often appeared to me that listening to the teachings was like listening to a poem.I needed someone to unpack the poem, and this is what I got from studying mindfulness, compassion and insight from the perspective of western psychology. Also as a therapist i have seen how it allows me to adopt mindfulness and compassion in a secular way in order to relieve the suffering of clients. BUT!! there remains the challenge, of this approach becoming another commercialized commodity. The answer I believe is that practitioners of this secular approach, must not only have a daily practice, but also have integrated the practices into their own lives
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