Saturday, 30 October 2010

Chancellor Attacks Meditation!

The following is taken from an article by Ed Halliwell in yesterday's Guardian.

In his speech to the Tory party conference earlier this month, George Osborne took a dig at a range of contemplation suites", a reference to the relaxation area that was part of a refit at the Department for Children, Schools and Families under Ed Balls.
"Labour nonsense" – examples of "waste and bureaucracy" that are to be vigorously swept away. As well as "pointless quangos, poorly negotiated PFI deals and target chasing", the chancellor had a pop at "

The contemplation suite sally was an easy one to make, and somewhat lazy given the mounting evidence that contemplation training might be one of the best ways we have of protecting our world from future reckless consumption. The World Wildlife Fund has highlighted research that suggests cultivating mindfulness – long taught as a Buddhist meditation practice – can benefit the environment. Mindfulness is associated with a reduced desire for materialistic attainments and less materialistic values, while more mindful people engage in more positive environmental behaviours and have lower ecological prints. If we want to nurture behaviour that could prevent further financial crises and even save the planet,
maybe we need more contemplation spaces, not fewer?

Osborne's throwaway remark highlights a bigger issue – in a world that thinks the solution to every problem is found in action, more introspective approaches are viewed with suspicion, or even contempt, perhaps because their value is more difficult to quantify, linked to nebulous concepts such as "soul" or "mind". We might recognise that many troubles come from the unchecked pursuit of material goals, but we still want answers that fit the materialist schema.

In confronting this problem, no one has been more influential than Jon Kabat-Zinn. A molecular biologist who saw the potential for contemplative techniques to help patients cope with serious health conditions, Kabat-Zinn created the mindfulness-based stress reduction programme, which is now used all over the world to help people cope with everything from depression to cancer, as well as promoting human flourishing in workplaces, schools and community settings.

Though the techniques Kabat-Zinn taught came out of Buddhism, his genius was in realising that presenting them within a Buddhist framework would probably put most people off. Instead, he created a course that was not only secular, but followed a standardised format, making it amenable to scientific investigation. Using his own professional training, he kickstarted 30 years' worth of research, leading to an evidence base that is convincing influential players in healthcare, education and government that meditation is more than just religious fluff. In an interview with the LA Times this month, Kabat-Zinn said that while mindfulness is the heart of Buddhist meditation, "it has nothing to do with Buddhism". "Mindfulness is so powerful," he said, "that the fact that it comes out of Buddhism is irrelevant."

So where does this leave Buddhism? It's true that mindfulness is a hugely powerful tool. Reams of studies have shown that training in paying attention – on purpose, in the moment, and with non-judgemental awareness – helps people free themselves from patterns of stress, negative thinking and impulsive behaviour, not to mention enriching their experience of life. It's also true that practices that cultivate this kind of attention were practised long before there was such a thing as Buddhism, and its benefits have been extolled by wise people throughout human history. If a practice leads to awakening, who cares how you package it? The Buddha's concern was to teach relief from suffering, not the creation of a legacy, and the skilful means of this age may well not be the religious forms of the past.

But there is a balance to strike. While science is validating many Buddhist teachings, is it wholly necessary to re-invent the wheel? Is anyone surprised by studies that show being kind and attentive leads to happiness? And when there are traditions that have been teaching sophisticated means for developing these qualities for thousands of years, isn't it a shame if we have to dissociate from them in order to make their practices palatable?

In a potential baby-bath-water scenario, the risk is that by adapting practices such as mindfulness and contemplation for a materialistic world, their essence could become perverted to suit the materialistic worldview. Without a strong ethical context (in Buddhism, "right mindfulness" is only one element of the eight-fold path), motivation for practice could easily become small-minded. It then becomes all about getting people off sick benefits and back to work, rather than a genuine care for human flourishing. The spaciousness and the spirit could be lost.

That practices such as meditation are being opened up to people who, 10 years ago, would have neither been able nor wanted to access it is wonderful – and George Osborne's cheap shot is a reminder that we have a long way to go before the value of contemplation is widely and properly understood. But in tailoring our presentation of this ancient wisdom to suit the world we live in, we must be careful not to cut off its beating heart.

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