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Embodying Engagement

by Vishvapani

in the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has adapted Buddhist mindfulness practices for use in
the US healthcare system, and developed a training for patients called Mindfulness Based
Stress Management, or MBSR. Kabat-Zinn is a long-term practitioner of ‘vipassana’ with
the Insight Meditation Society, but he does not call himself a Buddhist. Nonetheless,
MBSR is perhaps the most significant way in which Buddhist practices are being applied
in mainstream western society.
Kabat-Zinn started the MBSR programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical
School when he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic in 1979. The clinic has recently
become the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society (CFM), which
offers training, conferences and resources for a burgeoning network of hospitals and
practitioners while 13,000 people have taken eight-week MBSR course at the CFM itself.
MBSR has been adapted to address chronic pain, anxiety, eating disorders and other
conditions and it has prompted other institutions and individual practitioners to offer a
burgeoning range of mindfulness programmes not only in healthcare, but also in
educational, sporting and corporate across the US.
MBSR is taught through a carefully structured eight-week course for groups of up to
thirty that meet once a week to learn and practice techniques that develop mindful
awareness. These include breathing meditation, a forty-five minute body scan (in which
attention is taken sequentially through the parts of the body), simple hatha yoga
exercises, and mindfulness of simple activities such as walking and eating. Other
important elements are homework assignments, in which participants are asked to
practice meditation and other activities each day, keeping a diary of their experience, and
an all-day mindfulness session.

Participants typically embark on an MBSR course because they have a physical or mental
problem. Some have chronic conditions which mainstream medicine has been unable to
cure, leaving them with pain or impaired functioning while others experience anxiety,
stress or depression. MBSR addresses the mental aspect of both physical and
psychological suffering by training participants in responding differently to their
experience. Asking participants to become more aware of their body and breath through
meditation and gentle movement takes their attention away from unproductive thoughts,
while awareness of the body tends to promote relaxation and connection with emotional
experience. What makes MBSR more than a relaxation technique is its training in a
‘mindful’ attitude that is cultivated through noticing physical sensations and gently
keeping the mind settled on them.

Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as ‘a particular way of paying attention: on purpose, in
the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’ He adds that the attitude cultivated through
mindful awareness and meditation includes patience, ‘beginner’s mind’, trust, non-
striving, acceptance and letting go. In this way, mindfulness of the breath and body
models a more desirable response to experience in general and students learn to adopt
mindful attitudes in the whole of their lives. Especially important is the element of non-
judgmental acceptance of experience:
‘Mindfulness is cultivated by assuming the stance of an impartial witness to your
experience. To do this requires that you become aware of the constant stream of judging
and reacting to inner and outer experiences that we are normally caught up in, and learn
to step back.’

An aspect of this process that is especially valuable for people whose thought patterns
lead them into depression, or who respond to stress with an ‘automatic reaction triggered
out of unawareness,’ is learning not to identify with thoughts.
‘Rather than regarding thoughts as necessarily true or as an aspect of the self, patients
switched to a perspective within which negative thoughts and feelings could be seen as
passing events in the mind that were neither necessarily valid reflections of reality nor
central aspects of the self.

The notion of the decentered self mirrors concepts in cognitive therapy, but it is also a re-
expression of the Buddhist teaching of anatta/anatman. In the spirit of this Buddhist
context, Kabat-Zinn thinks that MBSR’s implications in students lives extend well
beyond the treatment of pathology:

‘What we really offer people is a sense that there is a way of being, a way of looking at
problems … that can make life more joyful and rich … and also a sense of being
somehow in control. We call this way of being the way of awareness or the way of

MBSR instructors also seek to embody mindful responses to problems in the way they
deal with issues raised by students. They, too, adopt a stance of ‘non-judgmental enquiry’
and ‘curiosity’ rather than rushing to offer solutions. The mindful ways of being taught
by MBSR is not only a solutions to particular difficulties; they are a more desirable way
of living for all.

4. Is it Buddhism? And is it Engaged?

As this paper is written for a gathering of Engaged Buddhists, it seems fitting to ask of
Kabat-Zinn and Glassman’s work, ‘Is it Buddhism?’ and ‘Is it engaged?’ Having come to
prominence as a healthcare practitioner, Kabat-Zinn’s work is necessarily secular and he
emphasises the universal character of mindfulness, while Glassman, for all his status
within Rinzai Zen, has an ambivalent relationship with traditional Zen. But if Glassman
and Kabat-Zinn are themselves reluctant to accept the label ‘Buddhist’, does their work
nonetheless express Buddhist values?

In the case of MBSR, my reservation is that its concern with mindfulness leaves out other
qualities that are valued within Buddhism. Kabat-Zinn stresses the adoption of attitudes
such as patience and trust, he has little to say about affective qualities such as loving
kindness (metta/maitri), the ethical precepts (sila/shila) or generosity (dana). The
cultivation of wisdom (panna/prajna) perhaps lies beyond the scope of MBSR, but where
Kabat-Zinn approaches this quality he speaks simply of extending mindfulness to include
the whole of life. To offset this criticism we should note that Kabat-Zinn’s prioritization
of mindfulness reflects a similar emphasis among his Buddhist teachers, and also that
Kabat-Zinn never set out to share Buddhist teachings and practices as such, but only to
offer mindfulness as a clinical treatment.

Glassman, too, stresses only a particular version of Buddhist qualities. His emphases
grow from Zen and behind his teaching of bearing witness with its implication of not
taking sides is a Zen-derived non-dual philosophy in which subject and object, cause and
effect are considered not-different. Critics of this view argue that it leaves no place for
ethical judgments. Much more could be said on this subject, but I will simply note here
that Glassman’s version of Buddhism is by no means everyone’s version.

As for engagement, both MBSR and the ZPO projects clearly grow from sensitivity to
human suffering, but they emphasise the attitudes and qualities with which one perceives
suffering rather than an enquiry, such as that undertaken by Dr Ambedkar, into ‘the
systemic causes of suffering.’ This does not mean that the work of Glassman or Kabat-
Zinn is not socially engaged, just that it limits the sphere of that engagement.

5. Conclusion: Pragmatic Re-expression

These reservations about Kabat-Zinn and Glassman’s work point to a tendency in both to
emphasise personal experience avoid conceptual clarity. They are wary of ideas about
experience, including Buddhist ones. In this respect, they operate in the tradition of
American pragmatism, which locates the value of concepts and beliefs in their capacity to
affect how we live and act. In his book, One Dharma, Joseph Goldstein identifies a
modern expression of pragmatism in what he calls ‘the emerging western Buddhism’,
which is developing as western Buddhist teachers and practitioners make their own sense
of the Buddhist teachings, drawing on various strands of the tradition according to the
‘pragmatic’ needs that emerge through their practice.

In this spirit MBSR and bearing witness are pragmatic attempts to formulate what works
in finding an effective response to suffering. If Victorian sympathizers of Buddhism were
alienated by the absence of activism, Glassman and Kabat-Zinn have found a way to
combine the two, albeit at the cost of conceptual and even ethical clarity and of leaving
out some important Buddhist teachings. Their work shows how Buddhist teachings can
have a transforming effect on a large scale if they are presented in universally accessible

The key in both cases is the value they place on embodying attitudes such as mindful
awareness and bearing witness. This is a useful reminder to other socially engaged
Buddhists that it can mean more than just performing social work. Buddhism locates the
source of social and political suffering in the minds of human beings, so the solution also
lies in our minds. Glassman and Kabat-Zinn teach Buddhists who want to change ...

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