Once again, I'm using the newspaper as my inspiration for blogging (I don't think that's too uncommon). According to today's NY Times, "mindfulness meditation" has become "perhaps the most popular new psychotherapy technique of the past decade."
"Mindfulness meditation" according to the article, "is rooted in the teachings of a fifth-century B.C. Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha. It is catching the attention of talk therapists of all stripes, including academic researchers, Freudian analysts in private practice and skeptics who see all the hallmarks of another fad."
The National Institutes of Health is reportedly financing more than 50 studies testing mindfulness techniques, up from 3 in 2000, to help relieve stress, soothe addictive cravings, improve attention, lift despair and reduce hot flashes. “The interest in this has just taken off,” said Zindel Segal, a psychologist at the Center of Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. “And I think a big part of it is that more and more therapists are practicing some form of contemplation themselves and want to bring that into therapy.”
The goal of mindfulness meditation is to foster an awareness of every sensation as it unfolds in the moment. As described in the article, the technique for mindfulness meditation is as follows:
"Sit in a comfortable position, eyes closed, preferably with the back upright and unsupported. Relax and take note of body sensations, sounds and moods. Notice them without judgment. Let the mind settle into the rhythm of breathing. If it wanders (and it will), gently redirect attention to the breath. Stay with it for at least 10 minutes."After mastering control of attention, some therapists say, a person can turn, mentally, to face a threatening or troubling thought and learn simply to endure the anger or sadness and let it pass, without lapsing into rumination or trying to change the feeling, a move that often backfires.
Some proponents say Buddha’s arrival in psychotherapy signals a broader opening in the culture at large — a way to access deeper healing, a hidden path revealed. If western medicine continues to embrace this holistic approach to healing, I think that's great, but I do want to point out, without being in any way pejorative toward mindfulness meditation, that it is not the same thing as the Zen practice of sitting meditation (zazen).
Subtle differences count for a lot in a subtle practice. In the Fukan-Zazengi (The Universal Guide to the Standard Method of Zazen), written in 1227 by Zen Master Dogen, we are told to "Sit up straight. Do not lean to the left, incline to the right, slouch forward, or lean backward. The ears must be aligned with the shoulders, and the nose aligned with the navel. Hold the tongue against the palate, keep the lips and teeth closed, and keep the eyes open. Breathe slowly through the nose."
In Zen, we put great emphasis on Dogen's explicit instructions for uprightness, even at the expense of comfort. We don't strive for discomfort, but comfort is not the goal. Sitting in zazen is not merely sitting in a comfortable position, but sitting upright, alert and aware.
The "still-still state" (gotsu-gotsu-chi) of Yakusan means "high and level," "lofty," or "motionless." The word is repeated for emphasis and originally suggested a table mountain (mesa), and hence something imposing and balanced.
"When the physical posture is already settled, make one complete exhalation," Dogen wrote. "Sitting immovably in the mountain-still state, think about this concrete state beyond thinking. How can the state beyond thinking be thought about? It is different from thinking."
In contrast to mindfulness meditation, in zazen we keep the eyes open, although the lids may droop and relax and the focus is kept soft - we don't stare at a fixed point but keep the focal length slightly beyond what is in front of us (the "thousand-foot stare"). In the Soto school of Zen, we sit facing the wall to reduce visual distractions. Closing the eyes, as is done in mindfulness meditation - as well as in Theravadan Buddhist vipassana (insight) meditation - sends a message to the brain that it's time to go to sleep, when in fact what we're doing is trying to wake up to our lives. Closing the eyes makes the consciousness dull and dreamy. The researchers and therapists may soon realize this and change this part of the technique.
In both zazen and mindfulness meditation, practitioners focus first on breathing, passively observing it. When a stray thought or emotion enters the mind, they allow it to pass and return attention to the breath, with the aim of achieving a focused awareness on what is happening moment to moment.
According to the Times, studies have found that meditation can help manage chronic pain. The findings are mixed on substance abuse. Two trials suggest that it can cut the rate of relapse in people who have had three or more bouts of depression. My fear here is that meditation "assignments" may start being handed out to patients like prescription drugs, with the misunderstanding that the effects can be quantified ("X number of weeks of meditation will make symptom Y go away"). Meditation, mindfulness or zazen, is not a cure-all. Worse, if one seeks huge, instantaneous changes, one will miss the more subtle changes that do occur. One will get discouraged, give up, and swear than no such changes could ever occur. As vipassana teacher Bhante Henepola Gunaratana says, "Patience is the key. Patience. If you learn nothing else from meditation, you will learn patience. Patience is essential for any profound change."