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Re-contextualising mindfulness: The ethical and spiritual dimensions of awareness



Introduction: Although mindfulness has been embraced by the West, this has mostly been a secular ‘de-contextualised’ form of mindfulness, dis-embedded from its original Buddhist nexus of beliefs/practices. This has arguably deprived the practice of its potential to effect more radical psychospiritual development. Methods: This presentation argues for the ‘re-contextualisation’ of mindfulness, drawing explicitly on Buddhist philosophy to enhance our appreciation of it, and offers a contribution to such re-contextualisation. Results: The presentation presents a novel (in the context of Western psychology) theoretical model of mindfulness, drawing on concepts in Theravada Buddhist literature. In particular, it suggests that Buddhism identifies three main ‘forms’ of mindfulness: sati (awareness of the present moment), appamada (awareness suffused with ethical care), and sampajañña (awareness suffused with a sense of spiritual development). Discussion: Although currently only sati has been recognised in the West, we have much to gain from also recognising the potential ethical and spiritual dimensions of mindfulness.
Re-contextualising mindfulness:
Ethical and spiritual
dimensions of awareness
Dr. Tim Lomas
University of East London
Theoretical presentation
The re-contextualisation of mindfulness
ATherevada Buddhist perspective
Three types of mindfulness?
Sati (awareness of the present moment)
Appamada (awareness suffused with ethical care)
Sampajañña (awareness suffused with spirituality)
Mindfulness de-contextualised
Surge of interest in mindfulness
Hundreds of empirical studies each year
Largely de-contextualised
Presented in secular / scientific format
This was arguably both…
Necessary: to appeal to secular Wester audiences
Useful: had a profound impact
Does this diminish its power?
The rush to define mindfulness within Western
psychology may wind up denaturing it in
fundamental ways’
There is ‘the potential for something priceless to
be lost’
Williams & Kabat-Zinn (2011, p. 4)
Many schools of thought
Circa first century BCE onwards
Buddhist communities who closely adhered to the Pāli canon
Circa first century CE onwards
adapting/developing teachings in new and innovative ways
Circa third century CE onwards
Further philosophical and ritualistic development
A Therevada persepctive
Urgyen Sangharakshita
Born Dennis Lingwood in London in 1925
Ordained in Therevada tradition (India, 1950)
Founded the (F)WBO in 1967 (recently renamed Triratna)
Syncretic, selective and non-exclusive approach
Multiple influences
Sarvāstivāda (emerged circa second century BCE)
Buddhaghosa (circa fifth century CE)
Basis: paṭiccasamuppāda
The law of conditionality
This being, that exists; through the arising of this, that arises. This
not being, that does not exist; through the ceasing of this, that
ceases’ (Majjhima Nikāya, 79).
Central to Buddhism
Meta law that underpins all other laws, such as the second Noble
truth (that suffering has a cause)
Pathway to liberation
‘Once we have understood and are fully convinced about the nature
of reality as paṭiccasamuppāda, we align ourselves with those
regularities or laws that lead us to liberation.
Sangharakshita and Subhuti (2013, p. 49)
Fivefold niyama
Exegesis/interpretation by Bodhidharma
‘Laws, conditions or constraints that govern processes or
phenomena’ (Keown, 2003)
Utu-niyāma:law of ‘the seasons’
Bīja-niyāma: law of seeds’
Citta-niyāma: law of ‘the mind’
Kamma-niyāma: law of ‘karma’
Dhamma-niyāma: law of ‘nature’
Satipaṭṭhāna sutta
‘Establishing present-moment recollection right where
you are, simply breathe in, simply aware, then breathe
out, simply aware’
Discourse on the establishment of mindfulness (MN 10)
Conceptual origin for mindfulness
The awareness that arises through paying attention on
purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to
the unfolding of experience moment by moment’ (Kabat-
Zinn, 2003, p.145)
Why ‘mindfulness’?
Selected by T. W. Rhys Davids (Gethin, 2011)
1881 publication of suttas, sati was rendered as ‘mental
activity’ (p.9) and even simply ‘thought’ (p.63)
Only with 1910 work that he settled on ‘mindfulness’
Means ‘remembrance/recollection’
Not historical/chronological memory per se
Remembering to focus on ‘what is otherwise too easily
forgotten: the present moment’ (Analayo, 2003, p.48)
Conceptualising sati
Western psychological perspective
‘Open monitoring’: an ‘open field capacity to detect
arising sensory, feeling and thought events within an
unrestricted ‘background’ of awareness, without a
grasping’ of these events in an explicitly selected
foreground or focus (Raffone & Srinivasan, 2010, p.2)
Buddhist perspective
Awareness of utu-niyāma (environmental causality)
Awareness of bija-niyāma (biological causality)
Awareness of citta-niyāma (psychological causality)
The value of sati
Basis for contemporary MBIs
Arguably mainly foster insight into citta-niyāma
E.g., MBCT (Teasdale et al., 2000)
Awareness of recurrent thought patterns
Learn to ‘de-centre’
‘Retraining awareness’: people may ‘more consciously
choose... thoughts, emotions and sensations... rather
than habitually reacting to them’ (Chambers et al, 2009)
Is anything missing?
What about ethics?
Influences the experiences that one has in meditation
Lack: arguably renders negative affect more likely
What about spirituality
Influences the extent/reach of development
Lack: neuters the potential of meditation practice
Other ‘types’ of awareness in the canon
Appamada (awareness suffused with ethical care)
Sampajañña (awareness suffused with spirituality)
Another ‘type’ of mindfulness/awareness
Not ‘distinct’ from sati, but a quality that may augment it
Introduces an ethical dimension to mindfulness
Awareness of one’s actions in light of ethical guidelines
Range of translations
Vigilant care (Soeng, 2006)
Moral watchfulness (Rao, 2007)
Awareness… with regard to the sphere of qualities of
good conduct (Old Commentary of the Dhammapada)
Ethics in Buddhism
Various sets of precepts/guidelines
Noble eight-fold path
3 aspects concerned with morality (sīla): right speech, right
action, and right livelihood
Pañca-sīla (Five precepts)
Absintence from: harming living beings, taking the not given,
misconduct concerning sense pleasures, false speech), and
unmindful states related to consumption of alcohol or drugs
Pāṭimokkha (Monastic Disciplinary Code)
Why do ethics matter?
Benefits the actor, not only others/society
Kamma-niyāma: law of ‘karma
The law of karma states that anu volitional action rooted in
non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion (or in positive
terms: generosity, love/compassion, and wisdom) gives rise
to virtuous or positive imprints in the mind that would
subsequently result in experiences of happiness and
pleasure.’ Conversely, ‘any ethical action rooted in greed,
hatred or delusion gives rise to their opposite non-
virtuous/negative mental imprints that later result in
experiences of suffering and displeasure’
Kang (2009, p.73)
Another ‘type’ of mindfulness/awareness
Not ‘distinct’ from sati, but a quality that may augment it
Introduces an spiritual dimension to mindfulness
Awareness of one’s actions in light of spiritual possibilities
‘Clear comprehension’ (Bodhi, 2011)
Shantideva: ‘Samprajanya comes and, once come, does not
go again, if smṛti [sati] stands guard at the door of the mind’
Samprajanya = a ‘more spontaneous and effortless state of
watchfulness of the body and mind’ (Maharaj, 2013, p.67)
Spirituality in Buddhism
Sampajañña = awareness of dhamma niyāma
Appreciate that people have potential to become Buddhas
Evaluate one’s actions in terms of progress on a path
One can still be spiritual with sati mindfulness
Sampajañña = spiritual development a conscious, explicit
and overriding priority in their life
Stages of spiritual development
Many different models
Bucknell (1984): 6 different lists just in Tipiṭaka
Sarvāstivāda 5 path schema
1) Integration
1) ‘Cultivating ever-more skilful actions of body, speech and mind’
2) Skilful intention
1) ‘Systematic cultivation of skilful intentions and actions’
3) Spiritual death
1) Insight into anicca (impermanence), anattā (insubstantiality), and
dukkha (suffering), especially with respect to self
4) Spiritual re-birth
1) Enter ‘deeper’ sense of self (co-terminous with dhamma niyāma
5) Enlightenment
Sangharakshita and Subhuti (2013, p.133)
Value of re-contextualising mindfulness
Introduce ethical and spiritual dimension to MBIs
Potential for more powerful impact on wellbeing
This is just one perspective here (others are available…!)
Be careful about imposing on anyone (e.g., not everyone
is comfortable with spirituality)
Offer as an ‘invitation’ where appropriate
Thank you for listening!
Any questions?
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Full-text available
This paper comments on an article by Monteiro, Musten, and Compson (Mindfulness 6: 1-13, 2015) and a series of replies that explored the issue of ethics training for participants in contemporary mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs). The perceived need for explicit ethical training stems from concerns about potentially harmful or misguided applications of secular MBIs, particularly in settings whose activities may be inconsistent with the ethics of the Buddhist traditions from which mindfulness training originates. Much of the discussion in the target article and replies focused on whether ethical foundations of mindfulness in MBIs should remain implicit or should be taught from a Buddhist perspective. The present commentary argues that psychological science provides well developed alternatives for researchers and clinicians interested in secular approaches to ethics-related issues in MBIs. The experimental psychology literature provides a strong foundation for working with personally meaningful, prosocial values in MBIs. Positive psychology provides a complementary perspective on moral virtues and character strengths that have been widely recognized across cultures. Organizational psychology and related disciplines provide empirically based perspectives on the ethical implications of mindfulness training in the workplace. An approach to ethical issues in MBIs that is firmly grounded in psychological science and suitable for secular settings is recommended.
British Buddhism presents a useful insight into contemporary British Buddhist practice. It provides a survey of the seven largest Buddhist traditions in the United Kingdom, including the Forest Sangha (Theravada) and the Samatha Trust (Theravada), the Serene Reflection Meditation tradition (Soto Zen) and Soka Gakkai (both originally Japanese), the Tibetan Karma Kagyu and New Kadampa traditions and Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. Based on extensive fieldwork, this fascinating book determines how and to what extent British Buddhist groups are changing from their Asian roots, and whether any forms of British Buddhism are beginning to emerge. Despite the popularity of Buddhism in Britain, there has so far been no study documenting the full range of teachings and practice. This is an original study that fills this gap and serves as an important reference point for further studies in this increasingly popular field.