I’ve spoken about mindfulness to numerous psychiatrists, those that I’ve worked with and experts from various out-postings of the Western world. Completely unprompted, they all converge on one point:
We should pay more attention to what the Eastern philosophy already knows about the body and mind.
As Western doctors, we are trained in the evidence-based tradition. We hate nonsense treatments that are painfully common. Glucosamine. Cough remedies. None of them are better than placebo.
Then there is a rake of stuff that isn’t useless per se, but useless because it is irrelevant:”X reduces the risk of Y 10 times”… but they never tell you that it reduces risk from 0.001% to 0.01%. I call all of this snake oil, and I am passionate about doing what I can to protect the audience.
I am conflicted however: it seems that it’s impossible to address certain issues using an evidence-based approach. There is simply no way to do a randomised-controlled trial on certain things.
Whenever some esoteric group get something right, I tell myself that even a broken clock is right twice a day and if predictions are general enough, they cannot be proven wrong, a bit like a horoscope.
However, all of these renowned people trained in the evidence-based tradition are saying that much of these robust observational findings by Buddhists tend to get confirmed by our methods, such as fMRI, now, hundreds of years later. What a seductive proposition!
Dr John McBurney spoke to me about this in detail:
“I recently attended the International Symposium of Contemplative Studies ran in conjunction with the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. This is an outgrowth of the dialogues between the Dalai Lama and the neuroscience community that began in 1987 and resulted in a satellite meeting at the annual Society of Neuroscience meeting in 2005 entitled “The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation”. Out of these interactions an entire field of neuroscience has emerged: contemplative neuroscience.
What bothers me the most about the popularisation of mindfulness is that it is seen as an end instead of a means. This has the potential to deepen our self-absorption and even to become an exercise in narcissism.
Mindfulness is both fully embodied and relational. In other words mindfulness is a fundamental practice for getting in touch with our true selves. That true self or true nature is fully embodied.
In other words, it doesn’t just exist in our conscious thinking minds; it encompasses our full being including our somatic awareness, gut, heart and breath. But this must also extend beyond our bodies to others to achieve its full significance. In this way what arises out of mindfulness is what matters the most. This is the relational part. So mindfulness fully realised is not just within us, but also between us.
The Dalai Lama says that if everyone in the world meditated, there would be no more war. The reason for that is the fundamental goodness of human nature. Human infants are born genuinely helpless. Most people have a fundamentally positive attachment experience – or they don’t survive.
This is reminiscent of Harlow’s experiments in which baby monkeys were deprived of maternal interaction and were either developmentally devastated or died. So without the interaction with the mother the baby is like the seed that does not germinate..
So when we “get out of our own way” as Judson Brewer talks about in his TED talk, what emerges is our nature that is inherently good and compassionate, seeking to address suffering in ourselves and other people.
To my mind, mindfulness is the first step in realising that nature. It is a necessary, but non-sufficient condition. Mindfulness is a start, but ultimately it comes down to what we do with it. Some people have severe, traumatic attachment experiences, in some ways like Harlow’s monkeys.
This results in severe disruption in personality development. They may have borderline features and don’t have a strong sense of self or feeling of right or wrong, but for most of us this thankfully doesn’t apply. For most of us, all we need to do is to get out of our own way to realise the beauty of our own nature.
There is a lot of discussion about the popularisation of mindfulness and the misdirection that the general public is getting. It is possible for it to become too simplified, so that it becomes harmful. For example, Shinto Buddhism was misused in Imperial Japan and atrocities were committed because of that or in our times lets look at the ethical dilemma posed by the mindful sniper. It’s not just practice that makes perfect.
It is perfect practice makes perfect. It is really a value judgment that comes out of mindfulness. Which is reflected in our relationship with others and the world. It this way mindfulness becomes mindfulness in the service of others through compassion which in a way is a superpower. Just look at this article from CNN posted a few days ago.
One of the people I’ve crossed paths with is James Doty. Now, he is a professor of neurosurgery in Stanford. He is an amazing human being. He and I were residents together and became good friends. He went on to accomplish great things.
He says that he was misapplying the mindfulness skills that he was taught as a child. He learnt to concentrate in a very profound way. Back when we were residents he struck me as an uncompromisingly focused person, at times arrogant, and always hilarious. But as he now admits he hadn’t had his bowl filled with compassion.
He was very mindful and amazingly effective. Since then he has gone on to do truly amazing things that were directly born out of his becoming mindfully compassionate. He has done philanthropic work on the back of CyberKnife success. He founded a journal club at Stanford where they would read the latest studies in contemplative neuroscience and wondered if the Dalai Lama would find this interesting.
He was able to network through to Thupten Jinpa, Dalai Lampa’s English translator, and as he describes in his bestseller (Into the Magic Shop) soon found himself meeting with the Dalai Lama! Out if this The Center for Compassion And Altruism Research And Education (CCARE) was started at Stanford University. His memoir, Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart, is a tremendous resource in that it is both a first person account and sort of a manual on how to develop mindfulness and compassion.
Mindfulness is but the vessel in which the full contents of our consciousness is held.”
You may also like my recent interview with Dr McBurney: A downward facing doc explains the brain wiring behind mindfulness