Does Secular Mindfulness Practice Foster Compassion?

This afternoon at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, I attended a double session titled Heartfulness as Mindfulness: Affectivity and Perspective in Abrahamic and Dharmic Traditions. The presenters spoke from several different faith traditions.

One of the things so refreshing about this panel was precisely that the speakers spoke from within their faith traditions. A large part of the Contemplative Studies movement is secular in its orientation. Practices are borrowed, largely from the Buddhist tradition, but removed from their Buddhist context. They are presented as individual practices for individual goals: to reduce stress, improve health and so forth.

Part of the thrust of the panel was to suggest that contemplative practices from the Buddhist and other traditions are not disconnected from values; they are communal – in the sense of being in the service of loving encounter. The speakers suggested that much is lost in divorcing the practices from their moorings.

I tend to agree. This panel, combined with the comments yesterday of the Dalai Lama, helped me understand my hesitance about the contemplative studies movement. Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather people engage in (secular) mindfulness practice than no practice at all. But I’m uncomfortable about limiting something with such great potential to an atomistic individual-centered activity. And I wonder at how effective practices removed from their context can be in fostering compassion (as opposed to improved memory, productivity, reduced stress, etc.).

[PS: for those who receive my postings by e-mail, sorry if you got an earlier incomplete version of this. I intended to hit “save” and I hit “publish” instead.]


2 thoughts on “Does Secular Mindfulness Practice Foster Compassion?

  1. This is one of my major irks. It used to be more of a push-pull, but it has evolved into an irk. Having Buddhist practices hijacked and neutralized into mindfulness feels to be more than a potential positive.

    I agree that some practice (secular mindfulness) may be better than none at all, but it seems that the focus or “reason” for the practices promoted is to benefit the individual. As one of my fellow Bright Dawn ministers, Morris Sekiyo Sullivan, wrote: “Do we contribute to turning a beautiful and comprehensive spiritual path into another commodity, another venue for consumerism, one that actually feeds the poison of greed rather than helping others transcend it?”

    And I will add that what I typically see is with the rush to promote and package Buddhist “mindfulness” as a technology, many people actually think that IS Buddhism. It’s a razor’s edge issue, in that teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh and H.H. The Dalai Lama … and even myself, when speaking on our radio show or blogging, expand the message to include those not identifying with a religious path, but in the process the message is diluted.

    The biggest tension for me is that in focusing on how these practices benefit the individual, it inherently misrepresents the tradition that the practices come from. It is not about perfecting and polishing the individual, but about meditating on the fact that there is no “me”, as a discrete being existing separate from all others.

    I’ll stop the rant now and also add this:

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