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Meditation, Trauma and Suffering in Silence: Raising Questions about How Meditation is Taught and Practiced in Western Contexts in the Light of a Contemporary Trauma Resiliency Model



Although there are very few published studies on the issue, there is much anecdotal evidence that, despite all its undisputed benefits, meditation practice can have psychologically deleterious effects. In this paper I will describe a body-based model for understanding trauma, the Trauma Resiliency model, and suggest it might be a helpful tool in anticipating, preventing and/or mitigating these effects. I will argue that Buddhist traditions are replete with frameworks, tools and techniques for addressing some of the psychological pitfalls highlighted. However, some of these methods may have been ‘lost in translation’ as Buddhist meditation training has been adapted for a Western audience. I will make the case that, somewhat ironically, in operational terms some of the secular modalities for teaching mindfulness (such as MBSR) may be psychologically ‘safer’ than those offered in a (Western) Buddhist context. I will call for further inquiry about how to mitigate and protect against psychological harms in Buddhist meditation training.
Raising questions about how meditation is taught and practiced in
Western contexts in the light of a contemporary trauma resiliency
Author: Jane Compson, PhD. University of Washington at Tacoma.
Mailing address: 3306 N 25th St, Tacoma, WA 98406
Biographical Details: Jane Compson earned her PhD in Comparative Religion at
the University of Bristol in 1998. She worked as an instructor in Philosophy and
Religious Studies at the University of Central Florida from 2003-2012. In 2012 she
started her current position as Assistant Professor in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences
at the University of Washington at Tacoma, where she teaches classes in religious
studies, philosophy and ethics. She is a trained facilitator in Mindfulness Based Stress
Reduction and in 2012 received lay ordination as a Buddhist Chaplain from Roshi Joan
Halifax at the Upaya Zen Center.
Although there are very few published studies on the issue, there is much
anecdotal evidence that, despite all its undisputed benefits, meditation practice can have
psychologically deleterious effects. In this paper I will describe a body-based model for
understanding trauma, the Trauma Resiliency model, and suggest it might be a helpful
tool in anticipating, preventing and/or mitigating these effects. I will argue that Buddhist
traditions are replete with frameworks, tools and techniques for addressing some of the
psychological pitfalls highlighted. However, some of these methods may have been ‘lost
in translation’ as Buddhist meditation training has been adapted for a Western audience. I
will make the case that, somewhat ironically, in operational terms some of the secular
modalities for teaching mindfulness (such as MBSR) may be psychologically ‘safer’ than
those offered in a (Western) Buddhist context. I will call for further inquiry about how to
mitigate and protect against psychological harms in Buddhist meditation training.
There are thousands of studies demonstrating the benefits of meditation practices
in many domains, particularly for mindfulness meditation. It is clear that, taught and
practiced appropriately, mindfulness meditation practices are highly beneficial, whether
one’s goal is to be a better tennis player (Bernier et al 2009, Kee and Wang, 2008) or to
gain liberation from suffering. In contrast, it is very difficult to find scientific, academic
articles documenting any negative effects of meditation. One possibility is that there are
no negative effects. However, as somebody who has been in some way or another
engaging with Buddhist or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction communities for over
twenty years, I have heard enough anecdotal accounts to suggest that meditation can be
taught and practiced ‘badly’ - in other words, in ways that are deleterious to mental and
physical health. Many others in these communities also report hearing such accounts.
For example, neuroscience researcher Willoughby Britton has set up the Dark Night
Project’ where her team collect and analyze accounts of the various cognitive, affective,
perceptual and physical difficulties that can accompany meditation or other
contemplative practice. (Britton, n.d.).
In this paper I will first introduce a body-based intervention for coping with
trauma called the Trauma Resiliency Model, developed by Laurie Leitch, PhD, and
Elaine Miller-Karas, MSW, LCSW. I will use this model to highlight some of the
potential psychological distress that can accompany meditation practice, and suggest that
the understanding of the nervous system implicit in the TRM might help to explain,
mitigate and prevent some of these difficulties. I will then discuss some implications of
these suggestions in the light of how meditation is taught and practiced in the west. I will
argue that Buddhist traditions are replete with frameworks, tools and techniques for
addressing some of the psychological pitfalls highlighted. However, some of these
methods may have been ‘lost in translation’ as Buddhist meditation training has been
adapted for a Western audience. I will make the case that, somewhat ironically, in
operational terms some of the secular modalities for teaching mindfulness (such as
MBSR) may be psychologically ‘safer’ than those offered in a (Western) Buddhist
context. I will close by suggesting some ways in which teaching of Buddhist meditation
in certain Western contexts might be modified to minimize the risks of psychological
distress. These amount not to an innovation, but to a remembering (re-membering) of
teachings already in the Buddhist tradition which may have been overlooked or
dislocated as meditation teaching came to the West.
The Trauma Resiliency Model
The Trauma Resiliency Model® was developed by Elaine Miller-Karas, MSW,
LCSW and Laurie Leitch, Ph.D, who co-founded the Trauma Resource Institute in 2006.
The TRM is a skills-based peer and clinical intervention that builds resilience
capacity through application of self-regulation skills for individuals and groups. Several
adaptations of this intervention have been developed to meet the needs of different
populations such as children, warriors and veterans, and people suffering from eating
disorders and addictions. In its development it draws upon various therapeutic models or
theories, including Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing Model (Levine 2005), A. Jean
Ayres’s Sensory Integration Theory (Ayres, 1972) , and Eugene Gendlin’s concept of the
‘felt sense’ (Gendlin 1978). Space does not permit detailed explanation of these theories,
but they all share a focus on body-awareness. I have undertaken two training workshops
in TRM, and so am most familiar with this model, which will be my focus; however as
mentioned above, it is not the only model that advocates somatically-based techniques for
coping with trauma. This somatic focus is typical of recent ‘biological turn’ in the trauma
field which increasingly understands the affective and somatic dysregulation that can
accompany trauma as being attributable largely to subcortical processes and
mechanisms.i In other words, symptoms of trauma are the result of biological processes
in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) rather than evidence of ‘mental weakness’ or
cognitive pathologies, although patterns of dysregulation caused by trauma can indeed
result in physical or psychological illnesses. These models understand symptoms of
trauma as being more common and widespread than just experienced by those who have
undergone severely traumatic events resulting in clinical diagnosis of post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD). I will argue that this new understanding of trauma has interesting
implications for practitioners and teachers of Buddhist meditation. It helps to explain
why some meditators experience or can be vulnerable to dissociative episodes or other
pathologies. This model also suggests techniques that can help avoid such problems of
psychological disintegration.
To understand the TRM model, it helps to have a sense of different processes
underlying nervous system functioning. One set of processes, generally associated with
the upper brain stem and the base of the forebrain and limbic structures, is concerned
with basic survival, and is involved with instinctual behaviors such as feeding, fighting,
fleeing, freezing and reproduction. It operates on an instinctive, unconscious level
(although some of these factors are also subject to conscious control), and regulates the
autonomic functions of digestion, reproduction, circulation and breathing.
Another set of processes is associated with limbic system, which is also
sometimes described as the emotional brain. This includes the amygdala, which is
described by TRM trainers as the ‘smoke-detector’ of the brain, because it assigns
emotional valence to incoming sensory data and assesses those stimuli for threat. It is
also responsible for emotional attachment experiences. When the amygdala is activated,
promoting a state of fear, it inhibits social engagement and attachment. Conversely, a
sense of social connectedness and bonding can reduce amygdala activation (Davison and
Begley 2012, 69). The limbic system works with the ‘survival brain’ to create templates
for responses to stimuli. For example, a childhood experience of being stung by a bee
can be stored in the memory with negative associations such that any future encounters
with bees produce an aversive response. This can be a helpful and adaptive function in
the case of genuine dangers – however, it can be maladaptive. For example, suppose that
at the time of the bee-sting, the subject was standing near a flowering honeysuckle plant.
Part of the aversive bee-sting memory could be the smell of the honeysuckle – if this
smell is included in the memory template, then the person might experience a
maladaptive negative fear response in the future whenever she smells honeysuckle.
Structures predominantly associated with the limbic system and the ‘survival
brain’ are situated deep within the brain. The ‘newest’ part of our brain in evolutionary
terms is the neocortex, which is in the outer part of the brain. While other areas of the
brain show cortical architecture, the complexity of the neo-cortex surpasses these
phylogenetically older regions in morphological complexity and functional connections.
The neocortex is much more developed in primates, cetaceans and elephants, and in
humans, certain very specialized neocortical regions (e.g. the frontal poles) show
development that far surpasses the complexity of homologous regions in non-human
mammals. These higher cortical centers are associated with conscious awareness of the
environment, deliberative decision making, and certain aspects of self-awareness. In
evolutionary terms, the neocortex was the most recent part of the brain to be developed. It
is important to note that all three systems are not entirely discrete – they are linked.
However, each of these different systems have their own ways of functioning, which can
be, but are not always, mutually cooperative. For example, the neocortex, which is
associated with conscious thought, is susceptible to being disrupted by the activities of
the other two systems. Let’s return to the example of the person who was stung by a bee
in childhood who finds herself in a state of panic whenever she smells the scent of
honeysuckle. Her rational thought processes associated with her neo-cortex might
recognize the irrationality of this fear – she understands that often there are no bees in
sight, and that the scent itself cannot harm her. However, she is unable to override this
fear response with her reason. In other words, the influence of the survival and limbic
systems on her experience and behavior have overridden the reasoning functions of the
The Trauma Resiliency Model, inspired by Peter Levine’s somatic experiencing
concept, describes this kind of experience as being ‘bumped out of the resilient zone’.
The ‘resilient zone’ is a state in which we are calm, the functions of brain and body are
integrated, and we have optimal capacity for flexible and adaptive responses to our
environment. When we are in the resilient zone, the neocortex is ‘online’ – we have
increased mental clarity, and our body’s functions (such as digestion) are working
efficiently. Elsewhere, Siegel describes this state as ‘neural integration’, or ‘the linkage
of anatomically or functionally differentiated neural regions into an interconnection of
widely distributed areas of the brain and body’ (Siegel, 2007, 41). This state is ‘at the
heart of relational well-being.’ (ibid) In this state of relative coherence and integration,
we are relaxed and inclined towards social engagement. Our sympathetic and
parasympathetic nervous system are ebbing and flowing within a normal range – in other
words, there are times when our sympathetic response can be more active, giving us an
increased sense of energy or alertness, and times when the parasympathetic response is
more engaged, creating an increased sense of relaxation or sleepiness. Such fluctuation is
perfectly normal and consistent with being in the ‘resilient zone’ as long as it supports
integrative functioning. However, a traumatic event or memory can cause us to be
‘bumped out’ of this resilient zone into a state of imbalance, where either the sympathetic
or the parasympathetic responses of the autonomic nervous system become hyper-
activated. In the case of over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system, symptoms
such as hyper-vigilance, mania, anxiety, panic, insomnia, and rage are probable. In the
case of hypo-arousal, the parasympathetic response is over-activated, resulting in states
such as depression, numbness, listlessness and hypersomnia. In both states, the functions
of the brain associated with the neocortex, such as the ability to socialize and the
tendency to socially engage, are inhibited.
It is important to note that everybody experiences events that can be potentially
traumatic and can be ‘bumped out of the resilient zone’ at some point in their lives.
People naturally have variations in the ‘bandwidth’ of their resilient zone – what is
traumatic for one person may be not troubling at all for another. No matter what the
traumatic stimulus, healthy subjects will return to the resilient zone. Some people,
though, may experience an event or accumulation of events that are sufficiently traumatic
that their ability to return to this state of balance is severely disrupted, to the extent that
they may be in a near constant state of nervous system dysregulation, inhibiting normal
Perhaps one of the most important things to be aware of is the power of the flight,
fight or freeze response of the survival brain to, as it were, ‘trump’ or override the
activities of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the most recently evolved part of the brain that
supports regulation of our thoughts, actions and emotion. (Arnsten, 2009) The prefrontal
cortex is also associated with ‘attuning to others, modulating fear, responding flexibly, …
exhibiting insight and empathy … [and] being in touch with intuition and morality’ and
also has an integrative role – long strands of prefrontal neurons link differentiated areas
of the brain and body’. (Siegel 2007, 27). Acute and even mild uncontrollable stress
dramatically and rapidly reduces the functionality of the PFC, leaving the emotions and
behavior under the control of the more primitive, amygdala-driven brain circuits: ‘during
stress, orchestration of the brain’s response patterns switches from slow, thoughtful PFC
regulation to the reflexive and rapid emotional responses of the amygdala and related
subcortical structures.’ (Arnsten, 2009, 411). Indeed, this can create a ‘vicious cycle’
stress not only inhibits the regulating effects of the PFC, but also stimulates the activating
of the amygdala, strengthening fear-conditioning. This, then, is the first key point; acute
or even mild stress can put the regulating functions of the PFC relatively ‘offline’. For
this reason, advocates of the TRM and similar models argue for the relative
ineffectiveness of ‘talk therapies’ for people who are in active stress – asking somebody
to ‘rationalize’ or ‘think through’ their response when they are in such a state is asking
them to do something of which they are, at least temporarily, neurologically incapable.
The skills of the Trauma Resiliency Model are designed to help people return
from states of nervous system dysregulation to the relative comfort of the resilient zone.
The model consists of nine skills (including some of the methods of Somatic
Experiencing®) which the subject learns and practices under the guidance of the
practitioner. The first six skills are calledself-helpskills because once they are learned,
the subject can implement them by him or herself in order to calm down. These skills
include the basic three of Tracking, Resourcing, Grounding and Gesturing’, ‘Help Now
and ‘Shift and Stay’. Space does not permit detailed explanation of these skills. Let it
suffice here to say that they focus on the realm of body sensation, using the skills of
tracking’ through ‘resourcing’ to encourage the subject to focus on neutral or pleasant
body sensations, so as to deactivate sensations connected to distress. ‘Tracking’ describes
the skill of being able to be aware of the actual felt sensations in the body, something
akin to what in Buddhist terms would be described as mindfulness of the body. With the
skill of ‘resourcing’, positive thoughts or emotions are cultivated, with the focus on how
they manifest in somatic awareness: the theory here is that these positive thoughts help to
calm and stabilize the nervous system, returning it to a more integrated state. ‘Grounding’
is the technique of bringing one’s attention to the sensations of contact of the body with
whatever it is resting on (the ground, a chair, etc.). The basic skills of ‘tracking’,
resourcing’ and ‘grounding’ come first in the TRM process, because they provide a way
of assessing whether the subject is able and willing to pay attention to their bodies on a
sensory level, and because they provide a way to access sensations of well-being. Once
the subject has learned the first six skills, they are able to practice them whenever they
feel they are moving into a state of overwhelm or dysregulation of the nervous system.
Such self-regulation skills, once learned, do not require a therapist.
TRM also assumes the premise that traumatic memories can be ‘stuck’ or
‘blocked’ in the nervous system. When we are in ‘fight or flight’ mode, we sometimes do
not have the opportunity to discharge this energy either through ‘fighting’ or fleeing. The
theory behind the TRM model hypothesizes that this energy needs to be ‘discharged’ to
release the traumatic memory. This is achieved by ‘pendulating’ between the traumatic
memory and awareness of the positive emotional states, ultimately releasing the traumatic
energy by accessing it from within the resilient zone then imagining a completion of
thwarted or blocked defensive response. The pendulation process entails encouraging the
subject to move between accessing the traumatic memories in ‘small doses’ – in other
words, to the point where he or she is able to notice the beginnings of the dysregulating
effects associated with these memories, but without getting to the point of becoming
overwhelmed by them. To keep this exposure manageable, the subject is encouraged to
turn their attention back to the neutral and/or positive physical sensations associated with
‘grounding’ and ‘resourcing’. The term ‘pendulation’ is used because the attention
swings between exploration of the traumatic memory, and calming focus on positive or
neutral stimuli. This stage of the practice is often accompanied by movements or signs of
release, such as taking a deeper breath or releasing muscle tension. These are understood
to be a good sign, representing a releasing or unblocking of stored energy, a completion
of the defensive response that was thwarted in the original event. The role of the TRM
practitioner is especially important in this stage of the process, as they observe the subject
for signs of sympathetic nervous system hyperactivation, and prompt the subject when to
pendulate back to focusing on calming stimuli before they move into a state of being
overwhelmed by the traumatic memory. In the TRM model, this is called ‘titration’ and it
is important because it prevents the subject from being catapulted back into the full
trauma of the original event. Whereas the first six skills focus on calming and restoring
balance in the nervous system, the seventh, eighth and ninth skills (pendulation, titration
and completing survival responses) focus more specifically on addressing previously
experienced trauma. Because accessing such traumatic memories can so easily lead to a
sense of dysregulation and distress, it is highly recommended that this part of the process
is done with a therapist or practitioner, not alone.
There are three key points about the Trauma Resiliency Model to highlight before
applying it to the context of meditation. The first is the TRM contention that the nervous
system ‘speaks the language of sensation’, as opposed to the language of words or
thoughts. This builds on the idea that words and thoughts are associated with the
activities of neocortex, whereas the limbic systems ‘speaks the language of emotion’ and
the ‘survival’ brain responds to sensation. When we are stressed or traumatized, it is the
two latter aspects of brain function that are most active, and therefore attempts to
moderate them should be in the form of sensation or emotion-based practices. For
example, the practice of ‘grounding’ brings the subject’s attention to emotionally-neutral
physical sensations in the body, whereas ‘resourcing’ evokes positive emotions and,
importantly, focuses attention on the way that these are felt in terms of sensation in the
body. Just as when we recall a dangerous or stressful situation, our body may tense up
and respond as if we were still in that danger, so when we focus on a neutral or positive
emotion, the body responds accordingly. If, through the process of ‘resource
intensification’ we strengthen that stimulus and effect, then we are encouraging the
activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, counteracting the stress response.
TRM trainers consistently prompt the client or subject to return to this focus on the body,
rather than on any ‘stories’ or ‘narratives’ about their experience, because sensation
rather than thought is the key portal for accessing the autonomic nervous system. A
second, related point, is that some research has suggested that mindfulness training
increases activity in the PFC and reduces activity in the (right) amygdala, and that such
changes are associated with an increase in subjective sense of well-being and measures of
psychological and physical health (Creswell et al, 2007; Lutz et al, 2007, Taren et al
2013). This suggests that regulating and calming effects of mindfulness seem to be
associated with the activities of the PFC. However when we are in a state of
dysregulation, or outside of ‘the resilient zone’, the activities of the PFC are relatively
inaccessible to us. This raises the question of whether we are truly capable of being
mindful when we are in such a state. If not, then I think this has important implications
for the way that mindfulness meditation is taught and practiced a point that I will take
up in the next section.
The third point is that TRM is an interactive activity. The trainer is carefully
observing the body language and expressions of the subject, as well as being mindful of
their own empathetic responses as experienced in their own bodies. The trainer ‘reads’
the subject, looking for gestures, eye-movements, expressions and patterns of breathing,
and also ‘reads’ the empathetic resonance that they are experiencing during the
encounter. He or she is trained to notice signs that suggest activation of the sympathetic
nervous system (for example, clenched fists, pallor, shallow breathing) and the
parasympathetic nervous system (for example, sighing, crying, expansive gestures).
They will take these physical signs as clues to the subject’s level of stress-arousal and as
cues to direct the session. For example, a releasing sigh is often a sign of the
parasympathetic system being in operation. The trainer may encourage the subject to sigh
again, and to focus on the physical resonance of that sigh in the rest of the body, thus
effectively intensifying the relaxation response. Conversely, if the subject sees signs of
sympathetic activation, then they may take that as the cue to pendulate back to grounding
or resourcing, so as to not overwhelm the nervous system to the extent that it is bumped
out of the resilient zone. Ultimately the goal is for the subject to revisit a traumatic event
and ‘discharge’ the stored tension by completing a defensive response; however, this
revisiting must be done while the nervous system is in the resilient zone, giving the
memory of the event the opportunity to be uncoupled from the physiological stress
response. This is crucial, because if this recollection is accompanied by the usual
physiological or psychological dysregulation, the coupling between the event and the
traumatized response is only reinforced. The ability to be aware of one’s responses is
associated with the activities of the neocortex – since this activity is compromised when
one is stressed, then it is difficult for a person to regulate and track their own responses.
One can easily become ‘lost’ or overwhelmed by the memory of the traumatic event. This
is why it is very important that another person ‘tracks’ and pays attention to signs of
stress escalation, prompting deactivating activities where relevant. With training or
practice, a person can learn to recognize signs of sympathetic nervous system
hyperactivation in themselves: however, to begin with, at least, it is helpful to have a
guide who can recognize the signs before one is already in a state of dysregulation. This
is particularly important when revisiting a previously experienced trauma.
Can meditation ever be ‘bad’ for you?
In the previous section, I provided an overview of Trauma Resiliency Model and
a sketch of the understanding of neuroscience that underlies it. In this section I will
consider some questions about mindfulness meditation training in the light of this model.
I will argue that this model sounds a cautionary note about how meditation is taught and
practiced. In particular, I will investigate a critique of the instruction often encountered in
this context to ‘just be with whatever is happening at the present moment’, a critique that
is implied by the underlying principles of the Trauma Resiliency Model.
Finally, I will offer some brief thoughts about the extensive discussions among
scholars and practitioners of mindfulness about the most appropriate definition and
understanding of the term, both theoretically and operationally. I will focus briefly on
one area of this discussion about the relationship between the so-called ‘secularized’ form
of mindfulness training developed by Jon-Kabat Zinn called Mindfulness Based Stress
Reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness training within an explicitly Buddhist context. I will
suggest that theoretical accounts of mindfulness from Buddhist sources do indeed point to
the inadequacy or incompleteness of some common operational descriptions of
mindfulness. I will argue that if some of the fuller understandings of mindfulness found
in the context of Buddhist traditions are operationalized, then this might help to avoid
some of the potentially harmful (i.e. traumatizing) consequences that we have explored.
The presence of these comprehensive theoretical accounts of mindfulness in Buddhist
traditions, though, does not guarantee that they are put into practice. I will argue that in
practice some of the contemporary forms in which mindfulness training is offered in
Buddhist contexts leave practitioners particularly vulnerable to traumatic activation. In
particular, intensive, silent meditation retreats, especially those with a relatively low
teacher-to-student ratio, may leave meditators at risk for traumatic activation, manifesting
in forms of emotional distress such as panic, anxiety, rage and insomnia. I will argue that,
ironically, some of the secular modalities for mindfulness training (such as MBSR) offer
‘safer’ environments for practice.
Some contemporary meditation teachers have addressed this issue. For example,
in his article ‘Getting Stuck in the Present Moment’, US Zen teacher Flint Sparks
discusses some of his experiences in this context. He writes of his early experiences as a
beginning student and explains that, while many students were finding the practices very
helpful, others were in difficulty:
All too often … aside from continuing to witness our thoughts, feelings,
memories, and bodily sensations, we weren’t shown ways to work with what
arose in meditation. The traditional instruction to ‘just sit with it’ didn’t seem to
be enough to undo trauma or to relieve the painful imprint of abusive histories.
Although we could occasionally achieve periods of emotional relief through
meditation practice, we often continued to suffer in our mindfully cultivated
silence and stillness. (Sparks 2011, 2)
The implication here is that ‘just sitting with it’ is an incomplete instruction
students need to be taught how to cope with some of the mental and physical phenomena
that may arise from this experiencing. Sparks provides a case study to illustrate his point:
One day, a fellow Zen student named Jim tearfully confided in me that he was
struggling with feelings of terror and resentment as he sat in the meditation hall.
The silence and cool detachment of the spiritual community’s life reminded him
of his abusive father’s silent disdain at his not being the son he wanted. Having
never been able to please his father, Jim now felt that he was reliving the sense of
failure and humiliation from his childhood. His relationship with his teacher, a
formal man who adhered to the traditional constructs of the monastic setting, did
little to help matters. While mindfulness practice had given Jim the capacity to
witness his thoughts and feelings, no one was there to help him with what he was
uncovering. In fact, his desire to satisfy the training demands of his teacher
deepened his pattern of suffocating compliance to authority. He’d achieved a
good deal of insight through dedicated mindful practice, but had no experience of
healing intimacy. (Ibid)
This ‘suffocating compliance to authority’ that Sparks mentions here is
significant; if mindfulness is taught in the context of a ‘spiritual tradition’, then this may
have a more normative or prescriptive ‘weight’ than if it were offered in purely secular
contexts. Another contemporary meditation teacher, Lorin Roche, writes about the
taboo against honesty in meditation’. He describes how in physical activities such as
running or weightlifting there is an abundance of information about training at the
appropriate level and avoiding ‘overuse’ injuries. Such transparency, however, is not so
apparent in mental training activities such as meditation. He attributes this partly to a
respect for the authority of a system: ‘Maybe it is because yoga and meditation come
from Hinduism, and Yoga is ‘by definition’ a perfect system, therefore if you get hurt, it's
your bad karma. You must have been thinking impure thoughts. Perhaps you were
criticizing the teacher in your mind, or not being respectful to the guru.’ (Roche 2011)
Formal studies into ‘meditation-induced’ physical or psychological injuries are
currently hard to find (although Willoughby Britton and her colleagues are conducting
research in this field). However a brief search of the internet yields countless personal
accounts from people claiming to have experienced mental or emotional breakdowns that
they attribute to intensive spells of meditation, particularly, it seems, beginners who
embark on very intensive silent multi-day retreats (such as S.N. Goenka retreats). Such
episodes of mental distress can range from intense panic and reactivated trauma to a
sense of dissociation or what is known as depersonalization. Academic and experienced
Buddhist meditator David Treleaven writes of his experience of ‘contemplative
dissociation’. He uses this term to describe a sense of ‘a disconnection between thoughts,
emotions, and physical sensations exacerbated by contemplative practice’. Drawing on
the same contemporary trauma theories that inform the Trauma Resiliency Model,
Treleaven attributes this disconnection to a state of ‘freeze’ that, to use the language of
TRM, bumps one out of the ‘resilient zone’:
sustained attention on the body can lead to a dissociative, or freeze, response. In
re-contacting an original wound, the brain can mistakenly perceive an event as
reoccurring in the present moment, leading to a cycle of contraction that can, in
my own experience, persist for years. With the best of intentions, we touch our
wounds with awareness, yet may overwhelm the nervous system in the process.
(Treleaven, 2).
Such a hypothesis is supported by neurologist Robert Scaer who introduces the
concept of a ‘dissociation capsule’. In his article ‘The Precarious Present’ he writes about
the common experience of our awareness of the present moment being interrupted by
intrusive thoughts and memories. He describes as ‘woefully incomplete’ the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) definition of trauma as a response of ‘intense fear,
hopelessness or horror’ to witnessing or experiencing ‘actual or threatened death or
serious injury . . . to self or others’ (Scaer 2006). Such a definition is incomplete, in his
view, because it is not the content of the traumatic event that matters so much as the
subject’s response to it in light of their prior history of trauma: ‘What makes a negative
life event traumatizing isn't the life-threatening nature of the event, but rather the degree
of helplessness it engenders and one's history of prior trauma.’ (Ibid.) A stimulus that
may be psychologically and emotionally innocuous to one person could send another into
a state of utter panic if it were to trigger certain traumatic memories. Scaer argues that in
such instances, the ‘survival brain’ initiates a fight, flight or freeze response as if the
body were still in mortal danger. Recall the example in the first section of this paper
about the person who was stung by a bee and now, associating that experience with the
smell of honeysuckle, is thrown into a state of nervous system dysregulation by renewed
exposure to the scent. In such an instance, the conscious awareness of the sensations of
the here and now – the present moment – has been interrupted by not only intrusive
thoughts, but an emotional reactivity that disrupts the coherent functioning of nervous
system the bumping it out of the ‘resilient zone’. This is what Scaer means by the
‘precariousness’ of the present moment:
If our ‘nows’ are perpetually interrupted by intrusive memories, we're essentially
stuck in a time warp formed by those stored perceptions. We can't problem-solve,
we can't experience a daffodil or a sunset, we can't relate to other people, resolve
old conflicts, or form new attachments. Only in the here and now can we directly
experience, and move ahead with, our lives. The present is indeed a precious
commodity. (Scaer 2006)
Such states are ‘dissociative’ because memories of the past are interrupting the
present moment. Even if the conscious, rational mind (associated with the activities of the
neocortex) may recognize the irrationality of the response, the powerful messages of the
‘survival brain’ mean that the nervous system is responding as if the threat is still present.
Indeed, elsewhere, Scaer hypothesizes that ‘trauma could be a corruption of perception of
time and of memory.’ (Scaer 2006, italics original). In addition to intrusive thoughts, such
dissociative capsules may well manifest in physical terms as tightness of the chest,
sweating palms, chronic pain, indigestion, and so on.
Scaer’s hypothesis seems supported by the understanding of trauma we have
already explored. If it is indeed correct then this has important implications for teaching
and practicing meditation. There is no use in ‘just sitting with whatever is happening’ if
‘whatever is happening’ is a hijack by the survival brain activated by a traumatic
dissociative capsule. This ‘hijack’ results in the dysregulation of the nervous system and
makes the regulating and calming effects of activities of the neocortex relatively
inaccessible. All of us experience intrusions of mind-chatter, but what if they are more
insidious in terms of their effect on our nervous system regulation than the name
suggests? This is a question that Scaer raises in connection with psychotherapy clients,
but it seems very pertinent to meditation practitioners, too:
When we catch ourselves in this state of nonpresence, we're likely to chalk it up
to ‘mind chatter.’ When a client reports these repetitive intrusions, we may
wonder about a tendency toward obsessiveness or the possibility of depression
and/or anxiety. While all of these interpretations may have some validity, I
believe that much more is at stake. I propose that in many of these moments of
body-mind intrusion, our brain is trying to protect us from mortal danger arising
from memories of old, unresolved threats. In short, we're in survival mode. (Scaer
In such a mode, if the dysregulation is strong enough, we are incapable of
orienting to the present moment, or truly ‘being with whatever is happening’. Indeed, we
lose the capacity to relate to others, resolve problems, or develop mental training skills. It
might be helpful here to invoke the analogy of surfing. When our nervous systems are in
a state of regulation, all three parts of the brain (i.e. the ‘survival brain’, the limbic
system, and the cortex) are in a state of relative balance and we are in the ‘resilient zone’.
In this state, we are able to keep an intentional awareness of our experience and maintain
a state of emotional equanimity, responding but not reacting to intrusive thoughts, just as
a surfer makes micro-adjustments to the movements of her board in response to the
waves and maintains her balance. However, if the waves are too turbulent for the
abilities of the surfer, then she will fall off the board, and no amount of advice about how
to keep her balance will assist her once she has fallen into the water. When the nervous
system is dysregulated by a sufficiently big ‘wave’ of a traumatic memory, then the
functions of our prefrontal cortex, including the ability to have intentional awareness,
become less accessible to us because we are under the influence of the urgent messages
of the limbic and reptilian systems. We are overwhelmed or ‘flooded’, subsumed by the
wave and not ‘riding’ on it. Since neurological research on mindfulness suggests that it is
a primarily neocortical function (see, for example, Siegel 2007, 191) our ability to be
‘mindful’ of such experiences is compromised.
Of course, when we are in such emotional distress we are usually aware of it in
some sense, but this is not the same as being in a state of mindful awareness. Siegel
explains the difference in terms of intention. Mindful awareness, he argues, includes
reflective qualities of receptivity, self-observation, and reflexivity’ which are cultivated
deliberately. In contrast, we are ‘lost’ in memories or ‘leftover issues’ when we have lost
this receptivity and reflexivity, giving our experience ‘an exogenous feel to it, of the past
imprisoning the person in the present.’ (Siegel 2007, 133).
David Treleaven explicitly connects this phenomenon to the context of meditation
and ‘contemplative dissociation’:
This is the terrain where contemplative dissociation occurs: By mindfully
connecting to their bodies, meditators are left to navigate an inner-world they
may, for good reason, have left behind. Returning attention to the breath or body
may thus be counter-productive for some meditators. Although many regulate
activation levels by discharging bounded energy – a process akin to slowly letting
air out of a balloon – individuals who cannot are at risk. (Treleaven, 2010, 4-5).
TRM and the philosophy of Somatic Experiencing which partly inspired it place
much emphasis on the importance of ‘titrating’ exposure to traumatic memories so as not
to end up in a state of ‘flooding’ or nervous system dysregulation. Unless it is
accompanied by more detailed instructions, the advice to ‘just be with whatever is
happening’ gives no guidance as to appropriate ‘dosage’ of a stimulus so that the nervous
system is not overwhelmed by the contact with a ‘trauma capsule’.
Let us return to the analogy of the surfboard. Research indicates that mindfulness
training seems to increase activity in the prefrontal cortex leading to a ‘delicious cycle’
effect of emotional regulation and increased well-being (Siegel 2007, Arnsten, 2009). It
seems that mindfulness, therefore, can be an effective ‘surfboard’ with which to ride the
waves of experience. However, to ride the waves the surfer must first of all have a
surfboard – based on the understanding of trauma I have assumed by the TRM, when one
is sufficiently dysregulated, then the ‘surfboad’ of mindfulness is not accessible. To be
sure, according to the TRM method, it is mindful awareness of the body (tracking and
grounding) that leads to down-regulation and a de-escalation of the stress-response.
However, once we are lost in turbulent waters outside the resilient zone then ‘self-rescue’
may be difficult, and we may need some assistance from an experienced guide who can
help us back into shallower, calmer waters where we can clamber back on the board.
With practice, we can learn to recognize our own physiological or psychological signs of
hyper-activation and dysregulation, to understand our limits and to know which waves
are manageable. It may be that others around us have much better balance, and ride
rougher waters with much greater facility; it is not the size of the waves per se that
matters but our individual ability to ride them. It may also be that we can teach ourselves
how to surf, and even that we can do so by heading straight for the big waves, but the
odds here are against us.
Suffering in Silence
The neurobiological understanding TRM brings to the treatment of trauma poses,
I think, very significant questions about best practices for teachers and practitioners on
intensive silent meditation retreats. It is common practice on such retreats for
participants to operate in ‘noble silence’. Retreatants are asked to refrain from talking or
using other forms of communication (unless in group or one-to-one meetings with their
teachers), and from reading, writing or using electronic devices such as cell-phones or
laptops for the duration of the retreat. This is intended to support the cultivation of
concentration and to limit distractions from the practice. The Insight Meditation Society,
for example, describes ‘noble silence’ as a ‘powerful tool’ which ‘greatly enhances the
deepening of concentration and awareness. Noble silence also fosters a sense of safety
and spiritual refuge, even in a course filled with up to 100 participants.’ (Insight
Meditation Society, 2013).
Many people benefit greatly from this practice, and no doubt in many cases it
does help to foster a sense of safety and refuge. However, what about the person who has
‘fallen off their surfboard’ and is no longer in the resilient zone? Perceived social
isolation raises cortisol and other stress hormones (Davidson and Begley, 2012, 115)
whilst a sense of social connectedness can reduce activation of the amygdala (ibid, 72).
Remember that in states of dysregulation, the rationalizing functions of the PFC are
relatively inhibited - although the retreatant might know, rationally, that they are not
being socially rejected by others, this message may be drowned out by the more urgent
and distressing messages of the limbic and survival brain. Practices intended to engender
a sense of safety and security may be having the opposite effect by promoting messages
of social isolation and compounding the stress response. What if, as Treleaven puts it,
‘By limiting social interaction, encouraging uninterrupted practice, and subtly inhibiting
physical expression by focusing on stillness and silence, concentration is enhanced at the
cost of receiving social safety cues’ (2010, 22)? Can concentration, a PFC function,
really be said to be enhanced in such circumstances?
Most responsible retreat centers pre-screen potential retreatants for psychological
pathologies that may contraindicate embarking on a silent retreat. However, advocates of
the TRM and other similar modalities argue that ‘sub-clinical’ levels of traumatic
activation are much more widespread than are suggested by the narrow definitions of the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, 2013) – any of us are
liable to encounter a dissociative capsule and find the ‘present moment’ inaccessible to
us. According to the TRM, in such a context, just about the worst thing we should do is
‘sit with whatever is happening’ if what is happening is an episode of traumatic activation
this will only make the dysregulation worse.
I have no doubt that there are many highly-trained meditation teachers in retreat
centers who have the skills and attunement to recognize and assist retreatants who find
themselves in such a state of activation. However, I would also suggest that some of the
structural constraints such as the large ratio of students to teachers may make it
difficult for such people to be identified if they do not come forward and ask for help. In
addition, ‘coming forward’ in such a setting may be difficult for a person who is already
distressed and may feel tacit pressure to ‘just notice whatever is happening’ or to ‘fold
difficulties into your practice’. This is assuming that the person has not dissociated
entirely, in which case they may be using the practice to avoid or compartmentalize
difficult experiences. Since self-awareness is one of the PFC functions that may be
compromised by the nervous system activation, it may be difficult for people in this state
even to recognize it. One of the benefits of the TRM model is that in addition to training
people in mindful awareness of body sensation through the skill of ‘tracking’, it also
educates people to recognize the physiological signs of dysregulation, and offers
techniques to regulate and moderate sympathetic nervous system activation through the
skills of resourcing, titration and pendulation. It has specific, targeted instructions that
support the balance of mind conducive to the development of mindfulness and
concentration skills, guiding people in exactly what to look for in terms of physiological
signs. More nebulous instructions such as ‘sit with whatever is happening’, or ‘be aware
of your experience in the present moment’ may not only be less supportive of de-
escalating stress responses, but may actively worsen them. They are, in other words, a
rather blunt instrument.
Some thoughts about the discussion on mindfulness.
So far I have raised questions about the psychological ‘safety’ of intensive, silent
meditation retreats in the light of the understanding of trauma presented in the Trauma
Resiliency Model. In this section I will briefly touch upon recent discussions about
understandings of mindfulness in secular contexts compared to Buddhist ones and will
argue that, ironically, some of the secular models for teaching mindfulness might be more
conducive to supporting the cultivation of mindful awareness than the intensive, silent
retreat modality insofar as they lessen the risk of traumatic activation.
Consider the following popular secular definition of mindfulness: ‘Broadly
conceptualized, mindfulness has been described as a kind of non-elaborative, non-
judgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling or sensation that
arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.’ (Bishop et al, 2004,
232). Another oft-cited operational definition is provided by the founder of the
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, Jon-Kabat-Zinn:
‘Paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the
unfolding of experience moment to moment.’ (Kabat Zinn 1994, 4)
Separately, Buddhist scholars Dreyfus and Gethin (2011) argue that such
definitions do not do justice to the presentation of the mindfulness construct in Buddhist
traditions. Both argue that such definitions are too ‘minimalist’. Decontextualizing the
construct impoverishes and narrows its import.
Dreyfus argues that in the Buddhist analysis, mindfulness does not have to be
entirely rooted in the present but implies steady, unwavering attention on a mental object
whether it is in the present moment or not. Mindfulness also has an evaluative
component, distinguishing wholesome from unwholesome states – in other words, it is
not accurately characterized as ‘non-judgmental’. (Dreyfus, 2011).
Part of the difficulty here is that the English term ‘judgmental’ can have different
connotations. In its popular use it can carry certain negative overtones of being negatively
critical or non-accepting. It can also have a more neutral sense of simply ‘relating to
judgment’ where judgment is understood as ‘the process of forming an opinion or
evaluation by discerning and comparing’ (Merriam Webster, 2013). Insofar as the first
sense implies a certain level of aversion or non-acceptance, it is inconsistent with
mindfulness. Olendzki’s Abhidhammic analysis of the construct of mindfulness helps to
elucidate this. According to the Abhidhamma, whenever mindfulness arises it necessarily
does so with eighteen other ‘wholesome’ mental factors which include non-greed, non-
hatred and equanimity (Olendzki, 2011). All nineteen of these universal wholesome
factors are exclusive of unwholesome mind states, including greed, hatred, delusion and
restlessness. Olendzki suggests that modern definitions of mindfulness as ‘non-
judgmental’ are getting at this sense that ‘mindful attention neither favours nor opposes
the object, but rather it expresses an attitude of equanimity.’ (2011, 61). The
Abhidhamma also makes clear that mindful attention is quite different from ordinary
attention. Ordinary attention (manasikara) is one of the seven universal mental factors
that are present in all moments of consciousness and it is ethically variable – in other
words, it is neither inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but can be coopted in the service of either
wholesome (kusala) or unwholesome (akusala) states of mind. What determines whether
a mind state is wholesome or unwholesome is the arising of other mental factors along
with the seven universals. For example, we can have attention on our bodies, for
example, when in the middle of a paroxysm of rage or hatred. In this state, various
unwholesome mental factors such as greed, hatred, delusion and restlessness are co-
arising with attention. In such a state we might well have awareness that we are angry. To
the extent that our minds are actively under the influence of the unwholesome mental
factors that contribute to anger, then we are not mindfully aware of the experience. This
is not mindful attention because, as we have seen, according to the Abhidhamma a
mindful mind state cannot co-exist with unwholesome factors. Wholesome and
unwholesome states are mutually exclusive. Mindful attention necessarily implies skilful
mind states: mindfulness is not just heightened attention, but it is attention that has
become confident, benevolent, balanced and fundamentally wholesome’ (Olendzki, 64).
The body-awareness practices described above derive from the classic model of
mindfulness meditation in the sacred canon of Theravada Buddhism. This describes
mindfulness in terms of four foundations, and is found in the Satipaṭṭhāna and
Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Suttas of the Pali Canon. The first foundation of mindfulness is
mindfulness of the body. It is fairly straightforward to understand the concept of having
benevolent and balanced attention towards sensations in the body. However, the issue
becomes more complicated when one considers the second, third and fourth foundations
of mindfulness. The second foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of pleasant,
unpleasant and neutral feelings. The third is mindfulness of mind states, including
negative mind states such as lust, anger and delusion. The fourth is mindfulness of
dhammas such as the five hindrances and the five aggregates (Anālayo 2003). If,
according to the Abhidhamma, mindfulness cannot co-arise with unwholesome mind
states, then how can it be possible to be mindful of a lustful mind, for example, or a mind
in the grip of the hindrance of aversion? Olendzki explains that mindfulness has a
transformative effect. When one brings the mental factor of mindfulness to an
unwholesome mental factor such as anger, the anger is displaced as an attitude driving
the mind, and becomes instead a mental object ‘only an echo from the preceding mind
moments’ which has lost its emotional charge. Mindfulness has effectively replaced
anger as the predominant mental attitude: ‘Mindfulness of unwholesome states is
transformative precisely because the unwholesome quality of awareness has been
replaced with a wholesome attitude.’ (Olendzki 65).
The nuances of this analysis reinforce the inadequacy of an instruction to ‘just pay
attention to whatever is happening in your experience’. Mindfulness is more than ‘just
noticing’ – it is an awareness accompanied by at least eighteen other wholesome mental
factors including non-greed, non-hatred and equanimity. It could be described as ‘non-
judgmental’ in that it is not accompanied by aversive attitudes. However, if ‘judgment’ is
understood in the sense of making an evaluative discernment or assessment, then it seems
fair to say that mindfulness is judgmental insofar as it entails discerning the qualities of
certain feelings as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, for example.
In support of such an analysis, Gethin argues that the contemporary definitions of
mindfulness mentioned earlier are ‘minimalist’ and inadequately reflect the fuller import
of the term in the context of the Buddhist tradition. Citing the Pali Canon, he argues
mindfulness implies the ability to remember what we are supposed to be doing, and
recognize when emotions, thoughts or sensations interfere with this:
The suggestion seems to be that if we have mindfulness then we will remember
what it is that we should be doing in a given moment (watching the breath, say, or
paying attention to posture), and thus when perceptions, feelings, states of mind
and emotions that might interfere with this arise, we will have the presence of
mind not to let them overcome our minds and take hold. (Gethin, 2011, 272).
Both these accounts of mindfulness are consistent with the techniques of
‘tracking’ and ‘grounding’ in the TRM – the subject is invited to notice the sensations in
his or her body and learn to evaluate whether they are ‘activating’ or ‘calming’. When
they are recognized as causing stress activation, then the practice is to turn the attention
to a physiological focus that is more calming, and less distressing. To relate this to the
concept of the different parts of the brain, it may be that mindfulness can help us to stay
within the resilient zone where the prefrontal cortex is fully online, and helps to protect
us from ‘hijacks’ from the limbic and survival brains. It is interesting that the focus in
TRM is on sensations in the body, because the classic Buddhist instruction about
mindfulness, the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, clearly instructs the practitioner to begin their
mindfulness practice with the body. Another interesting comparison is that mindfulness
of the body is not limited to one’s own body, but can include mindfulness of other
people’s bodies, too. (Anālyo 2003).
Gethin also finds the ‘secular’ definitions above to be ‘minimalist’ because they
tend to focus only on the skill of mindfulness, ignoring the fact that mindfulness is part of
a matrix, just one of seven factors of awakening. Three of these factors are relaxation or
tranquility (passadhi), concentration (samādhi) and equanimity (upekkha). These factors
can co-arise with mindfulness and suggest that a pre- and co-condition for mindfulness is
calm, expressed in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta as the ‘overcoming of one’s longing for and
discontent for the world’:
That watching the body as body with mindfulness should involve overcoming
one’s longing for and discontent with the world might suggest that mindfulness is
envisaged as something rather more sustained and developed than mere bare
attention or present moment non-judgmental observation; it suggests that a
prerequisite for true mindfulness is watching from the vantage point of a
relatively still and peaceful state of mind. (Gethin, 2011, 273)
This idea that mindfulness requires a foundation of calm mind also lends support
to the view that teaching mindfulness should entail more than ‘sitting with whatever is
happening’. It suggests that ‘bare attention or ‘present moment non-judgmental
observation’ is an advanced practice that should be preceded by the establishment of a
calm state or, to use TRM terminology, a nervous system that is in the resilient zone. It
also suggests, per Dreyfus, that mindful awareness is not ‘non-judgmental’, because
faculties of discernment are engaged to distinguish wholesome from unwholesome states.
Translating this once more in the terms of the TRM, a case could be made that thoughts
or memories that lead to dysregulation could be understood as unwholesome because
they lead to distress, whilst the opposite is true for calming thoughts. The TRM modality
trains the practitioner to recognize correlates of unskillful mind states as they are
experienced in the body, the arena for the first foundation of mindfulness. Meditation
practices intended to generate positive affect, such as loving kindness or compassion
meditations could be framed in terms of ‘resourcing’ – they keep the attention on
thought, memories or intentions that lead to a sense of social connectedness, inter- and
intrapersonal resonance, and thus to down-regulating, calming sensations. In other words,
operationally, TRM supports mindfulness training in a manner consistent with Buddhist
accounts of mindfulness.
Is MBSR operationally more sensitive to context than some Buddhist
meditation regimes?
Buddhist scholars such as Gethin, Dreyfus and Olendzki provide excellent
arguments to suggest that definitions of mindfulness used in the secular realm may
indeed be too ‘minimalist’, impoverishing the concept of its full resonance by
decontextualizing it. However, operationally, some of the secular techniques and
modalities for teaching mindfulness may actually be more effective at realizing that state
than trainings in overtly Buddhist contexts such as intensive silent retreats, particularly
for beginners. In relation to his MBSR program, Jon Kabat-Zinn responds to critiques of
his definitions of mindfulness by Gethin et al by arguing that they are operational
definitions, and are not intended to be comprehensive, theoretical ones. He goes on to
elaborate that by ‘non-judgmental’ he means refraining from entering into cognitive
analysis of our thoughts and sensations, but instead noticing simply if they are pleasant,
painful or neutral (the second foundation of mindfulness). Operationally this emphasis is
meant as an antidote to our tendency (in the West, at least) to be hyper-cognitive:
Mindfulness practice is ultimately not merely a matter of the intellect or cognition or
scholarship, but of direct authentic full-spectrum first-person experience, nurtured,
catalysed, reinforced and guided by the second-person perspective of a well-trained and
highly experienced and empathic teacher.’ (Kabat Zinn 2011, 292)
As Kabat-Zinn unpacks his operational definition of mindfulness, he demonstrates
a tacit understanding of the potential dysregulating effects of being aware of the ‘full-
spectrum’ of experience because he emphasizes the crucial importance of this being
supported through the guidance of a skilled teacher. Later in the same article he
elaborates that cultivating familiarity with actual experience as it is happening is a
‘radical act’ which requires a great deal of support:
Huge amounts of guidance are necessary to keep the person engaged in such a
practice, even for the briefest of moments at first, and this is why mindfulness-
based interventions such as MBSR are delivered in a group setting as ‘courses’
over an extended period of time, for the purpose of letting just such a learning
curve and a deepening of stability and insight develop in a context of total support
which is none other than sangha.
(Kabat-Zinn, 2011, 297).
It is clear from this description that MBSR training recognizes the vital
importance both of ‘titrating’ familiarity with ‘full-spectrum experience’ and of doing so
in the context of social support. An example of this titration comes in the context of the
one-day retreat that is a part of the eight-week MBSR program. This retreat happens
between weeks six and seven of the course, is typically about eight hours long and is
conducted for the most part in noble silence. Exposure to the silent portion of the retreat
is very carefully titrated. The fact that this practice might cause anxiety is normalized,
and the availability of teacher support is carefully emphasized. The retreat comes near the
end of the course when students have already been developing skills in emotional self-
regulation. At the end of the silent period, the reintroduction of speaking is also titrated,
with students working in pairs to quietly debrief each other before the group reconvenes
to ‘debrief’ together. All these steps work to mimimize the risks of triggering social
isolation and concomitant distress. It is typical of the titration of potentially challenging
experiences that is built into the structure of MBSR training.
Regarding the issue of authority, Kabat-Zinn explains that quite intentionally, too,
MBSR was designed to be non-authoritarian and non-hierarchical thus avoiding some of
the potential traumatic ‘triggers’ of authoritarian, hierarchical dynamics, exemplified by
the case study of ‘Jim’ earlier in this paper.
Another significant point is that MBSR training is systematized, with would-be
teachers undertaking a particular curriculum and fulfilling a minimum requirement of
mindfulness practice experience before they can be sanctioned as MBSR teachers. This
helps to protect future students from poorly-trained facilitators. No doubt there are many
excellent, highly-trained teachers who run intensive Buddhist meditation retreats, but one
does not know whether they have any formal training in recognizing and responding to
signs of traumatic activation. Other factors such as the number of students or the noble
silence constraints might make it easier for such signs to be missed. MBSR teachers may
also not have been given this kind of explicit training. However, as I have suggested
above, the MBSR curriculum has various elements built into it, such as ‘titrating’
exposure to silence, strong peer and teacher social support, and a non-authoritarian
dynamic. Such features help to minimize and manage traumatic activation. To the extent
that teachers are faithful to the MBSR curriculum, these safeguards are activated.
So far in this section I have merely touched upon a very complex and involved
discussion about the concept and contextualization of mindfulness. This topic deserves
much deeper investigation to do it justice. In the light of the understanding of trauma as
presented by the TRM and similar models I have tried to raise the following question:
might MBSR training be psychologically ‘safer’ than training in an intensive Buddhist
silent meditation retreat and, in this sense at least, operationally closer to the Buddhist
goal of alleviating suffering?
Anticipated objections and the need for further discussion
An anticipated objection to this question might be that the comparison is unfair – I
have compared a specific secular modality (MBSR) with an unspecified and nebulous
‘Buddhist silent meditation retreat’. Until I find a specific point of comparison, am I
committing the ‘straw man’ fallacy? There are, after all, thousands of different Buddhist
schools and teachers offering meditation retreats. Many of them have strong support
systems and practices that are carefully situated within the context of specific teachings
that support meditation practice. This criticism is valid, but I suggest that there are
various reasons why my arguments in this paper nevertheless have value.
Firstly, it is precisely this plethora of choices of Buddhist meditation retreats and
trainings that poses a problem. While it may be true that there are many well-guided and
supported Buddhist training modalities, it takes some familiarity with Buddhist teachings
and traditions to be able to identify them. It also takes some recognition of the ‘dark side’
of meditation practice to make an informed decision about what kind of psychological
distress might accompany such training and to choose one that anticipates and offers
appropriate support when such difficulties arise. By ‘appropriate’ support here, I mean
support that takes into account the neurobiological underpinnings of traumatic activation
and deactivation, whether that is expressed in contemporary secular language, or in
Buddhist-tradition-specific terminology. How is a person unfamiliar with either of these
contexts who wishes to ‘learn how to meditate’ to make an informed decision?
Secondly, and related to this first point, I argue that it is important to take into
account the effects of decontextualizing practices from their historical, social and
philosophical roots. Buddhist traditions contain many tremendously detailed and
systematized instructions for mental development. Prior to the last couple of centuries,
somebody undertaking this training would be doing so within a monastic context, with a
supportive social network of teachers and fellow practitioners who presumably shared a
similar worldview, shored up by a shared and developing understanding of the doctrines
and philosophies offered by their particular tradition. They would be under the personal
tutelage of an experienced teacher who would be familiar with their particular character
and guide them in their meditation practice accordingly. As the dhamma has moved West
over the last couple of centuries, it has manifested in myriad ways, reflecting many
historical contingencies that radically remove it from its original contexts. For example,
urban meditation retreat centres (which began in the west in the 1950s) offered
meditation training to people en masse, rather than under individual tutelage. The
availability of information now is such that a person completely new to any Eastern
philosophies can have access to very esoteric practices which may well be divorced from
their intellectual and social context. A change in context can change the meaning and
significance of a practice. For example, spending a week in ‘noble silence’ in a
contemporary US retreat center might well have a very different resonance – and
different challenges than undertaking this practice in a monastic community in first
century India. The specific and context-dependent nature of these challenges cannot, of
course, have been anticipated when the practices were originally developed. In deciding
which practices to undertake, one necessarily needs a framework or a context to provide
criteria for making these decisions.
My third point is that contemporary understandings of the neurobiology of
psychological trauma, such as the TRM model, offer evaluative criteria which may help
to mitigate some of the difficulties associated with this decontextualizing. One important
criterion is whether or not the practice is likely to cause harm. The TRM model offers a
lens for evaluating this. Similarly, one of the advantages of ‘secularized’ training like
MBSR training is that one needs very little specialized knowledge of the field to
understand what one is getting into. Potential risks and benefits of the training are laid
out at the very outset. Even though MBSR is often criticized for being decontextualized
from its Buddhist roots, in its transparency and in its sensitivity to the neurobiological
underpinnings of trauma implicit in its curriculum, it models an approach that many
contemporary Western Buddhist trainings may benefit from adopting. The narratives of
scientific research and ‘stress reduction’ may be more accessible to Western practitioners
than decontextualized Buddhist philosophies and practices. Buddhist traditions contain
profound, detailed and highly nuanced understandings of human psychology. My point is
not to question this, but rather to ask how these can be operationalized in contemporary
Western contexts in ways that help to mitigate or prevent ‘dark night’ episodes of
traumatic activation and other forms of psychological distress. In his critique of MBSR
and MBCT definitions of mindfulness as ‘minimalist’, Gethin draws on Theravadin
exegetical literature to argue that mindfulness (sati) implies more than just bare attention
but includes some kind of orienting qualities: ‘the traditional Buddhist account of
mindfulness plays on aspects of remembering, recalling and presence of mind that can
seem underplayed or even lost in the context of MBSR and MBCT’ (Gethin, 2011, 275).
I am advocating for remembering and recalling the importance of context when Buddhist
teachings are operationalized into meditation instructions in Western Buddhist frames of
reference. When dislocated from their original contexts, these ancient techniques may
carry new or unanticipated risks. How do we re-member teachings or practices that may
have been dislocated? How do we re-envision ways of supporting these practices in new
contexts? Listening to the insights of new modalities such as the Trauma Resiliency
Model may be one way, but no doubt there are many others. In raising these points I hope
to encourage conversation about skilful ways of doing this.
I would like to offer thanks to the following people who provided good advice and very
helpful comments and suggestions on early drafts of this article: Ven. Barry Kerzin,
M.D., Laurie Leitch, Ph.D, Elaine Miller-Karas, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., Lynette Monteiro,
Ph.D., C.Psych., Garrett Riggs, M.D., Ph.D., Jay Schneller, Ph.D.
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i For an interesting article about a contemporary application of this kind of therapy see Interlandi 2014.
... The Community Resiliency Model (CRM)® is a public health intervention to teach communities how to both apply the tracking skill internally to themselves and to guide others to connect with the resiliency designed within their nervous systems by placing attention inside the body on sensations and noticing the differences between sensations of distress (e.g., constricted breath, tense muscles, pain, numbness, jittery, rapid heartbeat) and sensations of well-being (e.g., a deeper breath, relaxed muscles, grounded, calmness, flow, a regular heartbeat). Tracking, or interoception, is also generally described as mindfulness of the body (Compson, 2014). ...
... CRM is part of a significant paradigm shift to move away from understanding mindfulness as a practice to cope individually in silence with trauma and stress as if suffering is "self-imposed through a lack of emotional self-regulation" (Clarke and Yellow Bird, 2021, p. 142). Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD, is internationally recognized for founding the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) clinic in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts, which has had a significant impact on how Western medicine has shaped the mindfulness movement in the United States (Kabat-Zinn, 2013;Compson, 2014;Treleaven, 2018;Clarke and Yellow Bird, 2021). Kabat-Zinn's operational definition of the essence of mindfulness is the most cited definition of mindfulness, "the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience, which includes sensations, cognitions, and emotions, moment by moment" (Zabat-Zinn, 2003). ...
... For example, right mindfulness, called Pāli sammā-sati, is the seventh element of the Noble Eightfold Path from Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions. There are four foundations of applied mindfulness in contemplation of the body, feeling, state of mind, and phenomena toward relieving all sentient beings from suffering (Bodhi, 2000;Compson, 2014). Additionally, it is essential to recognize that there are many contemplative traditions for healing among Indigenous peoples worldwide. ...
Objective: Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Continuums of Care (COCs) are responsible for providing entry to integrated healthcare for unhoused people toward housing stability. A client’s safety is a crucial variable to receive services. A comprehensive safety strategy understands the importance of relationship quality for clients and their multidisciplinary healthcare teams (MHT) to prevent safety incidents. Greater depth of knowledge on participant experiences informs the development of a process model for implementing the Community Resiliency Model (CRM) for crisis prevention response to decrease health disparities among unhoused Indigenous peoples in Albuquerque. Methods: This qualitative key informant study applied an ecological lens on Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) and 24 participant interview content analysis. Participants include unhoused people who self-identified with Native American, about accessing and receiving homeless services and members of their MHT across COC agencies. Findings: Participants shared a congruent understanding of the interpersonal, multidisciplinary, and organizational resilience factors for crisis stabilization and prevention. Integrated healthcare providers identified cohesion when an MHT has the organizational supports needed to consistently provided compassionate care and relevant recovery options. Interpersonal resilience emerged as the sense of belonging experienced in a compassionate and accepting relationship. Relational courage is a key facilitator of interpersonal resilience when an integrated healthcare provider can clarify with a client what is the most important and brings purpose or meaning. Participants emphasized multilevel factors for the cultivation of hope in recovery at the heart of crisis prevention. Discussion: The findings provide a rationale for a paradigm shift to resilience for housing stability. CRM wellness skills can enhance growth-fostering connection and cultural relevance for safety planning. Significantly, cohesion enhances the capacity of an MHT to support a client’s success in recovery. Cohesion correlates with integrated healthcare providers in their OK Zones. Ethical distress escalated crises and contributed to barriers preventing safety incidents. The implications for integrated healthcare and housing policy are to increase multilevel support for organizations to provide workforce training, implementation support, and solutions to sustain MHT cohesion and maintain intra-organizational systems. Cohesion is a key variable to enhance the capacity for a comprehensive safety strategy to be successful.
... One possible explanation for this is due to the trauma that trans youth have experienced. For people who have experienced trauma, it can be scary or even distressing to go too deep into meditation too quickly (Brach, 2004;Compson, 2014). Rather, focusing on connection with the body is an approach that offers the most effective benefits of meditation without the potential distress (Compson, 2014). ...
... For people who have experienced trauma, it can be scary or even distressing to go too deep into meditation too quickly (Brach, 2004;Compson, 2014). Rather, focusing on connection with the body is an approach that offers the most effective benefits of meditation without the potential distress (Compson, 2014). Similar to other literature, focus group participants directly said the guided meditation exercises focused within the body are what they appreciated most and what they would want more of in future programs. ...
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Objectives This study explores the openness of transgender and gender diverse youth and young adults (TGDY) to mindfulness meditation programs in order to create culturally informed interventions to benefit this population.Method Two focus groups were conducted with a total of ten TGDY ages 14–24 years old at a transgender youth health center in a large metropolitan city in the USA. A 10-min guided mindfulness meditation was included for participants to experience and voice reactions to. The State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) was utilized to measure the quantitative impact of the meditation on participants’ anxiety and thematic analysis for the qualitative data.ResultsReflexive Thematic Analysis on qualitative focus group data revealed the following four themes: Active in Self-care, Silent Meditation Is “Not for Me,” Guided Mindfulness Calms and Connects, and Program Ideas for Future. STAI results indicated a statistically significant reduction in anxiety following participation in the group meditation.Conclusions Participants were open to mindfulness as an additional method of self-care, and they emphasized future programs should include sensory stimulation, a pressure-free environment accepting of active minds and bodies, and a transgender instructor if possible. Meditation and mindfulness have the potential to be a very powerful healing modality for TGDY in clinical and therapeutic care.PreregistrationThis study is not preregistered.
... Similarly, traditional meditation tends to not be effective in treating PTSD. Studies suggest that it may worsen PTSD if the individual cannot control their ruminations of the traumatic events [37]. ...
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Ever since World War II, forced migrations have increased exponentially, shaping our world, economies, and political discussions. When the United Nations formed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1950, it could not predict the escalation of forced migration from civil unrest, personal persecution, war, and recently, climate crises. As forced migrations increase, we must understand the emotional trauma involved, and how to mitigate it. This study examined how providers of refugee services understand, assess, and treat trauma in the forced migration population. This paper is based on qualitative data collected from social work providers who work with forced migrants. Transcribed interviews were analyzed through content analysis regarding assessment and treatment approaches. The findings show that the lack of trauma-informed care was prevalent among the participants. This was reflected in the participants’ experiences. Three main themes emerged: (1) trauma was misdiagnosed; (2) few were trained in evidence-based practices to manage trauma; and (3) providers felt isolated in their work as if working in silos. These themes and their implications are discussed.
... Buddhist practitioner and scholar Jane Compson advocates for Dharma Teachers to have a greater awareness and capacity to respond to trauma and that meditation retreats be structured in such a way that traumatized individuals will not be retraumatized from the rigors of the retreat (Compson 2014). Peter Levine and others from the trauma modality Somatic Experiencing® (SE) have made tentative suggestions as to how SE could complement meditation practice by helping meditators resolve trauma that comes up in the course of their meditation practice (Payne, Levine and Crane-Godreau 2015). ...
Conference Paper
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A small but growing number of trauma clinicians are integrating Buddhist practices into their clinical work and a small but growing number of Buddhist writer and teachers are integrating trauma therapy into their work. But the overall theory and practice between the two "traditions" still remains siloed off from each other. Great mutual benefit could be gained by an in-depth comparison and functional correlation between theory and practice of both traditions. This paper argues that a high level of functional correlation exists between the theory and practice of vipassana mediation as taught by S.N. Goenka and Somatic Experiencing® developed by Peter Levine. They appear to be different maps providing different angles on the same territory of theory and practice. In particular that the cause of suffering/posttraumatic-stress is the inability to decouple physical sensation from reactive emotion; and that developing awareness and equanimity towards intense physical sensation is the way to bring about that decoupling resulting in an organic unwinding of suffering/post-traumatic-stress. Because of this high functional correlation, the theory, practice, and leadership training of both traditions would benefit from mutual influence. In addition, because of the high level of functional correlation between these two specific traditions, more comparison of theory and practice should be done between the broader traditions of Buddhist meditation and trauma therapy for further potential correlation. 2
... 174-175). In these studies, on meditation, on the one hand, meditation and mindfulness are fed from Buddhist literature (Kuan, 2012;Compson, 2014). On the other hand, medicine, psychology, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, neurology, cognitive informatics, and human-computer interaction are analyzed in terms of theoretical and methodological frameworks of analysis formed in broad and comprehensive disciplines. ...
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Self-transcendence has been associated with lower levels of psychopathology. Most studies of self-transcendence have focused on samples of Western participants, and used scales addressing such concepts as self-awareness and feelings of oneness with the larger universe. However, a common Eastern notion of transcendence—perception of ongoing relationships with ancestors—has not been studied. We conducted a cross-cultural investigation of the association between self-transcendence, perceived degree of relationship to ancestors and depression and anxiety in the United States (N = 1499), China (N = 3,150), and India (N = 863). Degrees of perceived relationship to ancestors differed across countries, with the highest rates in India and China, and lowest rates in the United States. Self-transcendence was negatively associated with risks for depression and anxiety in the United States. In India, self-transcendence was also negatively associated with risks for depression and anxiety, and a strong perceived relationship with ancestors had further protective benefit. In China, those with a high level of perceived relationship to ancestors and a high level of self-transcendence exhibited lower levels of psychopathology. Results suggest that measures of relationship to ancestors might be included in future cross-cultural studies of transcendence.
Young adults experiencing homelessness (YAEH) are at elevated risk for violence victimization and perpetration. However, there are no evidence-based violence prevention interventions for homeless populations. This study is an evaluation of a novel mindfulness-based peer-leader intervention designed to reduce violence and improve mindfulness in YAEH. A social network of YAEH receiving services at a drop-in agency was recruited in Summer 2018 (n = 106) and peer-leaders identified at baseline (n = 12). Peer leaders were trained in mindfulness and yoga skills during a 1-day intensive workshop and seven 1-h weekly follow-up workshops and encouraged to share their knowledge with in-network peers. Postintervention data were collected 2 and 3 months after baseline. Two one-way repeated-measures analyses of variance (ANOVAs) tested differences in means for mindfulness and fighting. ANOVA models showed significant increases in group mean mindfulness F(2, 110) = 3.42, p < 0.05 and significant decreases in group mean violent behavior F(2, 112) = 5.23, p < 0.01 at the network level. Findings indicate a network-based, peer-leader model can be effective for influencing complex, socially conditioned attitudes and behaviors among YAEH. Additional advantages of the peer-leader model include relatively few direct-service person-hours required from providers and convenience to participants able practice skills in their relevant social contexts.
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The two studies included herein discuss mindfulness and acceptance in sport performance. Based on exploratory interviews with elite swimmers, Study 1 showed that optimal performance, or “flow,” states reveal similar characteristics to mindfulness and acceptance states. In flow experiences, the elite swimmers described that they had been particularly mindful of their bodily sensations and accepted them. In Study 2, mindfulness and acceptance were integrated into a psychological skills training program for seven young elite golfers. The program, based on mindfulness and acceptance, contributed to performance enhancement in competition. Participants improved the efficacy of their routines by seeking more relevant internal and external information. The results of both studies corroborated those of previous studies dealing with mindfulness and acceptance in sport. Together, these studies enhance the applicability and efficacy of these approaches with athletic clientele.
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Mindfulness, a psychological process reflecting attention and awareness to what is happening in the present moment, has been associated with increased well-being and decreased depression and anxiety in both healthy and patient populations. However, little research has explored underlying neural pathways. Recent work suggests that mindfulness (and mindfulness training interventions) may foster neuroplastic changes in cortico-limbic circuits responsible for stress and emotion regulation. Building on this work, we hypothesized that higher levels of dispositional mindfulness would be associated with decreased grey matter volume in the amgydala. In the present study, a self-report measure of dispositional mindfulness and structural MRI images were obtained from 155 healthy community adults. Volumetric analyses showed that higher dispositional mindfulness is associated with decreased grey matter volume in the right amygdala, and exploratory analyses revealed that higher dispositional mindfulness is also associated with decreased grey matter volume in the left caudate. Moreover, secondary analyses indicate that these amygdala and caudate volume associations persist after controlling for relevant demographic and individual difference factors (i.e., age, total grey matter volume, neuroticism, depression). Such volumetric differences may help explain why mindful individuals have reduced stress reactivity, and suggest new candidate structural neurobiological pathways linking mindfulness with mental and physical health outcomes.
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The author recounts some of the early history of what is now known as MBSR, and its relationship to mainstream medicine and the science of the mind/body connection and health. He stresses the importance that MBSR and other mindfulness-based interventions be grounded in a universal dharma understanding that is congruent with Buddhadharma but not constrained by its historical, cultural and religious manifestations associated with its counties of origin and their unique traditions. He locates these developments within an historic confluence of two very different epistemologies encountering each other for the first time, that of science and that of the meditative traditions. The author addresses the ethical ground of MBSR, as well as questions of lineage and of skillful ‘languaging’ and other means for maximizing the possibility that the value of cultivating mindfulness in the largest sense can be heard and embraced and cultivated in commonsensical and universal ways in secular settings. He directly addresses mindfulness-based instructors on the subject of embodying and drawing forth the essence of the dharma without depending on the vocabulary, texts, and teaching forms of traditional Buddhist environments, even though they are important to know to one degree or another as part of one's own development. The author's perspective is grounded in what the Zen tradition refers to as the one thousand year view. Although it is not stated explicitly in this text, he sees the current interest in mindfulness and its applications as signaling a multi-dimensional emergence of great transformative and liberative promise, one which, if cared for and tended, may give rise to a flourishing on this planet akin to a second, and this time global, Renaissance, for the benefit of all sentient beings and our world.
Der amerikanische Psychotherapeut Eugene T. Gendlin stellte in Untersuchungen fest, dass Menschen, die gut mit Krisen und Problemen umgehen können, offenbar über eine andere Art der Selbstwahrnehmung verfügen: Sie beziehen körperliche Empfindungen ein und äußern sich nicht nur theoretisch oder abstrakt über ihre Lage. Von dieser Beobachtung ausgehend, entwickelt Gendlin eine Methode, solche Art der Selbstwahrnehmung zu lehren: Focusing. In seinem Buch stellt er die Technik des Focusing vor und erläutert zugleich, wei diese zur Selbsthilfe bei der Lösung persönlicher Probleme eingesetzt werden kann.
The overall goal of this essay is to explore the initial findings of neuroscientific research on meditation; in doing so, the essay also suggests potential avenues of further inquiry. The essay consists of three sections that, while integral to the essay as a whole, may also be read independently. The first section, "Defining Meditation," notes the need for a more precise understanding of meditation as a scientific explanandum. Arguing for the importance of distinguishing the particularities of various traditions, the section presents the theory of meditation from the paradigmatic perspective of Buddhism, and it discusses the difficulties encountered when working with such theories. The section includes an overview of three practices that have been the subject of research, and it ends with a strategy for developing a questionnaire to more precisely define a practice under examination. The second section, "the Intersection of Neuroscience and Meditation," explores some scientific motivations for the neuroscientific examination of meditation in terms of its potential impact on the brain and body of long-term practitioners. After an overview of the mechanisms of mind-body interaction, this section addresses the use of first-person expertise, especially in relation to the potential for research on the neural counterpart of subjective experience. In general terms, the section thus
Mindfulness is examined using the Abhidhamma system of classification of phenomena (dharmas) as found in the Pali work Abhidhammattha-sa[ndot]gaha. In this model the mental factors constituting the aggregate of formations (sa[ndot]khāra) are grouped so as to describe a layered approach to the practice of mental development. Thus all mental states involve a certain set of mental factors, while others are added as the training of the mind takes place. Both unwholesome and wholesome configurations also occur, and mindfulness turns out to be a rather advanced state of wholesome constructed experience. Wisdom, the prime transformative factor in Buddhist thought and practice, arises only under special conditions. This system is then contrasted with the different parsing of phenomena presented in the Sanskrit Abhidharmakośa, where both mindfulness and wisdom are counted among the universal factors, which provides a basis for an innatist model of development; this is then critiqued from a constructivist perspective.
The Buddhist technical term was first translated as ‘mindfulness’ by T.W. Rhys Davids in 1881. Since then various authors, including Rhys Davids, have attempted definitions of what precisely is meant by mindfulness. Initially these were based on readings and interpretations of ancient Buddhist texts. Beginning in the 1950s some definitions of mindfulness became more informed by the actual practice of meditation. In particular, Nyanaponika's definition appears to have had significant influence on the definition of mindfulness adopted by those who developed MBSR and MBCT. Turning to the various aspects of mindfulness brought out in traditional Theravāda definitions, several of those highlighted are not initially apparent in the definitions current in the context of MBSR and MBCT. Moreover, the MBSR and MBCT notion of mindfulness as ‘non-judgmental’ needs careful consideration from a traditional Buddhist perspective. Nevertheless, the difference in emphasis apparent in the theoretical definitions of mindfulness may not be so significant in the actual clinical application of mindfulness techniques.