Mindfulness: beyond the science

by Ed Halliwell, Guardian.co.uk, 7 September 2010

Scientific studies show the effects of mindfulness, but can they do justice to the transformation felt by many who practise it?

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/sep/07/mindfulness-buddhism-religion-science

London, UK -- Each month, a digest of the latest research on mindfulness meditation lands in my inbox.

The volume of studies has mushroomed in recent years – the most recent round-up (pdf) alone cites 35 new papers detailing effects on people with conditions such as heart disease and borderline personality disorder, the results of an innovative new mindfulness curriculum for schools, and the impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction courses on the structure of the brain (it seems to reduce density in the amygdala).

If practising mindfulness can help people – and it appears to – then all this evidence can only be a good thing. Whereas for years meditation's public image was stuck in the 1960s, tainted with hippie self-indulgence or new-age flakiness, now it's being taken seriously by everyone from top academics to US congressman and government departments.

But while it's the gold standard for evidence in our culture, can scientific data tell the whole story? In our book The Mindful Manifesto, Jonty Heaversedge and I describe how mindfulness is now being presented as a secular healing tool, but we also felt it important to acknowledge how for thousands of years it has been linked with spiritual training.

Scientific studies might show that mindfulness improves well-being in material terms, but can they do justice to the inner transformation that occurs for many people who practise it? Isn't something lost by presenting its effects purely as a physical or mental health benefit? Indeed, by setting up mindfulness as something that produces guaranteed results, isn't there a danger of distorting one of its key messages – that striving for a concrete future is antithetical to the practice, which is about staying with the uncertain present?

My first experience of mindfulness came through the Buddhist tradition. I was deeply depressed and anxious, partly because my life did not reflect my inner values. Stuck in a rut of fast-paced hedonism, I had been insufficiently reflective to notice the dissonance, and when the bubble finally burst, I was thrust into a psychic whirlwind of suddenly expressed emotions. I found all this turmoil hard to contain, especially as I felt that my life needed to change quite profoundly. Several people suggested that it might be good to learn meditation, as a way of handling the panic.

However, I actually got to the cushion because I was yearning for a spiritual path. I had picked up a bunch of books on Buddhism, and the teachings resonated with me. The first two noble truths – that there was suffering, and that attachment was its primary cause – was demonstrable in my experience, and the promise of working towards a way out of this pain was attractive. I didn't connect with the idea of an anthropomorphic creator God, but I did have a strong sense that there was more to existence than was immediately apparent, and liked the idea of a practical mode of inquiry which would allow me to investigate my hunches, without requiring me to "believe" on faith alone.

My depression lifted, and I'm sure that learning the metacognitive skills that come with mindfulness has – as the research suggests – afforded me some resilience. But I also think I've become more content because meditation has enriched my life through opening me up to a sense of deepened meaning, and the cultivation of a way of being that is based on more than just soothing my amygdala.

Buddhism has given me no certainties – if anything, the more I practise, the more my fixed beliefs loosen. There has been a subtle shift in my perception – I view experience differently to the way I did 10 years ago, one year ago, even last week. I am ever more aware that what I perceive now cannot be the whole truth because my perception itself is constantly in flux.

Mindfulness can be a great boon – indeed, a premise of The Mindful Manifesto is that widespread meditation practice could make a real difference to the problems of our age. But while some people may be drawn to practise through the scientific promise of betterment, they may end up finding that once they've got started, the path is far more interesting than that.

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: editor@buddhistchannel.tv. Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/norbuchatbot. Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: editor@buddhistchannel.tv