The spiritual aspects of mindfulness through an evidence-based lens

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!

john mcburney neurologist mindfulness

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.

Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart

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.

Into the Magic Shop James Doty review

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

16 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    There is some merit in studying such practices independently. If two very different approaches come to the same place, or roughly the same place, it is a powerful conformation of the phenomenon. It can also be a waste of time and effort. But jumping on another’s bandwagon can also mislead, taking you to places you can’t get to really. So, I do not eschew the desires of others to “start from scratch,” I just don’t have the energy to do it myself.

    Again, thanks for a great post.

    Like

    1. guybon says:

      What does it mean you don’t have the energy ?

      Like

  2. Soul Gifts says:

    Much food for thought here. There are more mysteries in the universe than the sum total of what we now know. These are interesting and exciting times in which we live. Thank you so much for the follow of my blog, Martina. I’m quite fond of the Irish. Some are even my best friends 🙂

    Like

  3. aprilbrown21 says:

    Wonderful post. Thanks!

    Like

  4. guybon says:

    They refer to the Far East. How about the Native Americans ? A big difference is in the Far east there is .a institutionalization of spirituality. And Christian spritituality ? Why did the christian spiritual teachings never catch on ? Apart from saints as founders and monks as followers. They where stuck away in monasteries and the people got priests, mass and superstition. Starting from the Catholic church.

    Myths are really spiritual teachings with occasionally some superstitious twist. unfortunately – at least today – they are seen as just stories and superstitious beliefs of days gone by. Ridiculised, demonised ..

    your either a witch or wizard – getting their powers from the devll – or a saint getting their powers from god. As I write this I am confronted. By realizing that my knowledge comes from various sources, all of them are incomplete. Personal experience, read, heard. Put together in my head. Some things are in all regions with a different twist. Seems like a good idea to clearing the wheat from the chaff.

    as for spiritual practice like mindfulness. If you go deep and divers you enter a samhain like place, where you have to learn to clear the wheat from the chaff. And to clear what is wheat. Psychosis lurks around the corner. The psychotic because of spiritual cause best need to learn that; The natural consequence is that they become shaman, healer, medium, if they succeed.

    Fore some the contemplative have and will lead to, yield isolation, condemnation the others fall in liberation. I remember a story from a thousand and one nights about exactly that.

    Prison is like a deprivation setting as in Harlow’s experiment. They are varied of course in how they got their. For some people life start as deprivation and some go bad others zero and there are that get out. often having to not just throw of that deprived skin but also confronted with predjudice. A black man president of the USA. A few hundred year ago all blacks in the USA where slaves. And the people with predjudice, hatred, intolerance. Like all victimizer they are victims them selfs. before, during and after until release.

    Been there. When I’m hurt it fruits anger, lies that I know are lies, blaming others, calling names. being eaten by it like Prometheus or Loki. But truth sets free. Stepping in the lion’s den finding it’s hearth,it’s root by seeing truthful. Being released I feel sweet like there’s honey or a bee’s nest in my chest. More like a butterfly’s nest. Completing – which lies in the future, if I know what’s good for me – will I be any different than virginal – regardless of sex.

    Knowing is not having. Thinking about is not experiencing. Many a times I start something and do not get further than a few pages, or strides, days, or I turn a new leave. This weekend I cameback from 17 days of walking toward the Pyrenees. More than a thousand KM away from home. That’s Antwerp.

    A spiritual journey. Experiencing forgeting, seemingly, the spiritual. Not being in the moment. Going for the geographical remote. Not wanting to stray. What might lay there besides the obvious I do not know. Something stay like a mountain others are as transient as the wind. No step is ever repeated. It is always a different river that crosses a different river and land always to some degree on new soil.

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  5. guybon says:

    Concerning mindfulness abuse: It is also mentioned in the Ayurveda somewhere. We have a framework through which we receive ,respond, spond with the world. The Japanese in general command, have been commanded by there elite to be stoicismic. Zen is stoicismic mindfulness.
    You can use mindfulness to enjoy life more. Or find out how we are put
    together. Or become better at something like sport, or art… To calmer and more open, more fitting take things in. to be in the flow,. recognize the flow. recognize we are conditioned,
    Society has harmful conditionings, and following them you get no opposition. But doing the opposite and you get an opposition.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A very insightful post. I have read a great deal and been practicing mindfulness for a number of years now, and I do not exaggerate when I say it has changed my life. As a person who has in the past suffered from anxiety and depression it has provided me with the best tools I have ever owned, and keeps me from going over the edge. What you say about how you twin this practice with compassion toward others is critical. The best book I have read that captures this beautifully and practically is ‘Mindful Compassion – Using the Power of Mindfulness and Compassion to Transform Our Lives’ by Paul Gilbert and Choden. This book is a beautiful collaboration combining fundamental principles and practices of Buddhist mindfulness, with a clear-sighted psychological perspective on why our minds work in the way they do, and accessible exercises helping to train our minds to be kinder to ourselves, and ultimately to all other humans we engage with. What a beautiful world indeed it would be if we could all master these skills! I look forward to reading more about your thoughts and discoveries about mindfulness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much for the suggestion, I will make sure to explore this book. It is indeed life changing for a lot of people. I wouldn’t go so far myself, but it has certainly opened a whole new level for me

      Liked by 1 person

  7. PathofTruth says:

    Very nice article, and easy to read.

    Like

  8. Ehren Steed says:

    Awesome post, so much amazing content! I would be honoured if you checked out site as am very passionate about the potential of man and the power we hold unbeknown to us it seems. I have been studying Quantum theory and I believe the mix of science and spirituality is going to be the key to creating the future that each of us wants to see. To hear your opinions after reading some of your posts would be awesome.
    Love and light

    Ehren
    United Universally

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Iris Lowe says:

    I really enjoyed this post, and I think you hit the hammer on the nail in a few places. In particular your point about how you can’t do a random control trial of everything. Yes evidence is important, but a lot of important things are hard to study empirically (at least by current methods). What I like about mindfulness is it helps me get in touch with my own embodied experience. I guess this is kind of evidence too.

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