To become truly fit, however, we’d need to take time out of our daily routine and go to the gym or follow a regular program of exercise. This is like setting time aside for formal meditation practice, which greatly accelerates the development of mindfulness. However, it’s harder to do regularly because it requires more commitment and usually brings us into contact with uncomfortable contents of the mind that we prefer to push out of awareness.
Deciding what to recommend to a given client is often guesswork. Too light a dose of mindfulness practices and he or she won’t experience much benefit, and give up; too heavy and he or she may feel overwhelmed, and give up. In addition, while research generally shows that practice effects are dose related, we know little about whether the type of practice—formal or informal—makes a difference. Clearly, we’ll need to know more if we’re going to make these practices accessible to a full range of clients.
Then there’s the related challenge of fine-tuning practices to make them optimally engaging and effective. For example, in concentration practice, we can choose to focus on subtle objects of attention, such as the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nostrils, or more vivid, coarse objects, such as the sensations of the soles of the feet touching the ground when walking. When the mind is friskier and more distracted, coarse objects are easier to follow, and thus may make the practice more appealing. But we don’t seem to develop refined concentration with such objects, which is why few people go to heavy metal concerts to meditate—it’s easy to attend to the music, but not so easy to really notice what’s happening in the mind. We’re just beginning to understand more about which objects of attention are best suited to which mind states.
Related to this is the role of retreats in treatment. Intensive retreats, while potentially transformative, can be disastrous for the wrong person. In the mid-1970s, I worked at a psychiatric treatment facility near the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. In those early days, meditation teachers didn’t screen for psychological stability before allowing people to enroll in intensive retreats, and we treated quite a few meditators after they’d suffered a psychotic breakdown. Meditation centers have now developed guidelines to screen potential attendees, but evaluating who among our clients is most suited for such practice, beyond being cautious with fragile or rigid personality types, remains virgin territory.
“When the iron bird flies . . .”
Padmasambhava, the 8th-century lama who brought tantric Buddhism to Tibet, made the prediction some 1,400 years ago that, “When the iron bird flies . . . , the Dharma will come to the land of the Red Man.” Some people think that the advent of ancient Buddhist understandings and practices being taken up enthusiastically in the West is the fulfillment of his vision. This meeting of East and West is proving to be a two-way street, where Buddhist practices are affecting Western traditions, while Western views are affecting Buddhist practice.
When he speaks to scientists, the Dalai Lama is fond of saying that if science discovers something that challenges basic Buddhist tenets, “We’ll just have to change Buddhism.” In addition to distinguishing his teachings from those of more doctrinaire religious traditions, his statement raises the question of whether Buddhism is changing as it comes to the West. Historically, as it moved from India to China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, and elsewhere, Buddhist teachings took on aspects of the host culture. The same thing seems to be happening here, now that the iron bird is flying regularly. This transformation is taking two obvious forms. First, aspects of traditional Buddhist teaching that, at least to date, don’t appear compatible with modern scientific views are being deemphasized in the West. So it’s not unusual to find devoted meditators here dismiss concrete, literal understandings of karma and reincarnation. Second, and perhaps more importantly, as it takes root in Western psychotherapy, Buddhism is taking on a relational dimension.
Originally refined by monks, nuns, and hermits in Asian cultures, Buddhist traditions have historically deemphasized the nuances of interpersonal interactions. While these traditions stress the importance of generosity, compassion, and goodwill, they haven’t provided detailed maps for working out romantic, work, or family relationships. Developing the ability to explore these complex relational labyrinths in words and images has been a great contribution of Western cultures, particularly their psychotherapeutic and artistic traditions.
Recent books on relational meditation practices, such as Gregory Kramer’s Insight Dialogue, and the work of Janet Surrey, Judy Jordan, and others in integrating mindfulness into Relational Cultural Theory, all represent new developments for both Buddhism and Western psychology. This particular integration of West and East seems to be a valuable adjunct to both traditions, and as such, will probably grow in its influence. We might even think of this as the beginning of a new integrated wisdom tradition.
Is This Really a Good Marriage?
The influence of Buddhist teachings on psychotherapeutic thought and practice is, of course, at the heart of the explosion of interest in mindfulness and psychotherapy. While the movement has been embraced by many, it’s also raised eyebrows. I regularly hear concerns about the introduction of Buddhist ideas and methods in psychotherapeutic practice.
As a practical matter, it’s important to consider whether to discuss with clients the Buddhist origin of these practices. When I present workshops in certain parts of the United States, clinicians regularly ask how they can introduce their religious clients to these Buddhist techniques, fearing that they’ll reject anything that comes from another spiritual belief system and is called meditation. Indeed, many religious people do best with practices drawn from their own tradition. For them, we might offer centering prayer techniques from medieval Catholic monastic traditions, or suggest modern adaptations of Kabbalistic Jewish or Sufi Muslim practices.