AKA Why Mindfulness Sucks by Derek Pyle
Those who promote mindfulness meditation as a mainstream cure all of life’s problems are doing us a disservice. The commodification of mindfulness, and the secularization of Buddhism, is actually just another form of socially colonizing and capitalizing on the exotic “East.” Contained within this trend appears a new age of spiritual charlatanism, perhaps akin to the Middle Ages corruption of the Church, when salvation was something you could buy, an accessory sold alongside yoga mats and tofu. But faced with critiquing an entire cultural movement in one short article, for now I focus my discussion on a recent talk that exemplifies some of the social issues inherent in the current obsession with mindfulness and meditation. I ask forgiveness for relying too heavily on generalities, because homogenized thinking is part of the problem, and yet an unavoidable fact of communication.
Let’s talk first about science. There is good science, and there is bad science. The latter is sloppy, misleading, and sometimes downright dumb. In 1987 Heidi Aspaturian interviewed Norman Davidson about his life in chemical biology, and at one point in the talk Davidson recalled a 1958 physics conference in Boulder, Colorado. During this conference, Davidson got to meet the brilliant physicist Leo Szilard, who was “kind of a senior statesman…I think Szilard knew that he had cancer, and he had no more than a few years to live. He was a person with a lot of intellectual courage who didn’t worry about conventions, and he knew he didn’t have time to waste.” During conference presentations, Davidson recalls, Szilard would find a seat in the front row:
But after three or four minutes, if it wasn’t exciting, Szilard would get up and walk out. He didn’t leave like some people do—wait till the room is dark, then hunker down and sort of sneak out. He just stood up and slowly walked out. And by god, he was never wrong. Every time he stayed, the lecture was good; every time he left, the next fifty-seven minutes were as bad as the first three. And I never had the guts to walk out when he did.
I have thought about this anecdote throughout the month, ever since I attended Barry Kerzin’s March 27th talk in the Nielson Browsing Room of Smith College, entitled “Meditation and Its Effect on the Brain.” I sat in the front row because I was excited for the talk, but I simply could not bear to stay for longer than ten minutes. Leaving was not a matter of guts, but one of survival. The talk was just awful. Even stranger was that the room was packed beyond capacity; as one friend put it, “Dude, there were old people sitting on the floor!” What kind of cultural transference is going on here, that people would sit and listen to such gibberish?
Living in Dharamshala, where the Tibetan government in exile resides, Dr. Kerzin was billed as “physician to high lamas, including the Dalai Lama.” With such credentials across spiritual and medical traditions, you would think he knows something important about brains and meditation. He has even been a subject of research—in recent years Dr. Kerzin participated in a study by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, which measured brain activity before, during, and after meditation. The study sample looked at monks who had a minimum of 10,000 hours of meditation practice; the upper end of the sample had 60,000 hours clocked. That’s a lot of freaking hours.
What Dr. Kerzin presented at Smith, however, was less than impressive. He began talking about the increasing popular interest in the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. He seemed to celebrate The Mindful Revolution proclaimed by Time magazine this February. Then he showed a slide of his own brain activity, reflecting the research of Dr. Davidson, correlating deep meditation with an impressive increase in gamma wave brain activity. Dr. Kerzin expressed how impressive this correlation is, but neglected to mention that no one actually knows what gamma waves do in the brain (as Dr. Davidson was quick to say when I saw him present on these studies last fall). Then Dr. Kerzin said that the chart he showed on the screen was not actually the real data, but rather his own hand-drawn picture. He also said that the actual graphs do not show such a drastic change in brain activity but… Why on earth would a doctor show a scribbled picture that is not actually representative of real data? It was as if Dr. Kerzin simply expected the audience to be wowed by some slight of hand. If he says this is fantastic, people should just believe it, like the time A. A. Allen helped a man re-grow his missing ribs in a grace-given revival tent moment.
The next slide was a graph depicting a study about the effects of meditation for treating depression. Or at least, that is what Dr. Kerzin said the graph was about. With the gift of seeing, however, it was clear that the graph referenced the difference between anti-depressants, untreated depression, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. That is not the same as meditation, and is definitely not what Tibetan monks do during their 10,000 hours. Citing the graph, Dr. Kerzin said “meditation is pretty good, anti-depressants are not so good” because while both have an 80% effectiveness according to this graph, anti-depressants have nasty side effects whereas meditation has none (according to Dr. Kerzin). Dr. Kerzin failed to explain, however, the puzzling meaning of the x- and y-axes. While the x-axis had an unknown kind of units in increments of 100 (likely referring to some timeframe), the y-axis was labeled the “Projected Survival Rate.” If this means what it sounds like, the graph suggested that only 20% of people who have depression but receive either anti-depressants or mindfulness-based therapy are going to kill themselves, whereas 80% of untreated depressive will not “survive.” This seems like a weird idea. Since Dr. Kerzin made no reference to the implications of this label on the y-axis, however, it was up to the audience to project the meaning. With his next slide, Dr. Kerzin told us that meditation helps to reduce the suffering related to everything that ails you, from headaches to child abuse. It was as if the guy from Shamwow had shaved his head, donned robes, and taken Quaaludes—this mellow monk was definitely selling a bill of goods. I decided to leave.
Epistemologically, I am opposed to this kind of bad science, but I also took issue with the talk on religious grounds. As a longtime practitioner within what could now be called the Western Thervadin Buddhist tradition, I am opposed to the mainstream exploitation of mindfulness and meditation (the so-called Revolution proclaimed by Time), primarily because I feel it to be deceptive. It is misleading to discuss brain activity of monastics who have meditated for upwards of 10,000 hours and use that as proof of why it makes a difference whether Jane the soccer mom follows her breath for 30 minutes every week. Even more deceptive is the push to present mindfulness as a simple, secular practice, one that will cure everything ailing you. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote in the foreword to Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma:
The age of technology would like also to produce a spiritual gadgetry—a new, improved spirituality guaranteed to bring quick results. Charlatans manufacture their versions of the Dharma, advertising miraculous, easy ways, rather than the steady and demanding personal journey which has always been essential to genuine spiritual practice.
Trungpa’s sentiment may strike some as elitist, but the path of spiritual practice is hard work, and no path will work for everyone. There are no magic bullets, only products that get sold as such. The other aspect of this deceptiveness—and I speak not so much about Dr. Kerzin’s talk now, but to the notion of a Mindful Revolution—is the purposeful secularization of mindfulness. Likely teachers such as Jack Kornfield in the 1970s, and now Jon Kabat-Zinn (of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction superstardom), had noble intentions in the push to remove mindfulness meditation practices from their Buddhist contexts, so as to make the teachings more “accessible” to a progressive culture wary of religion and tradition. Included in this distillation process is the boldfaced lie that Buddhism is not a religion, despite the fact that it has all the same socio-political-cultural elements of all other world religions (the traditional Buddhist monastery, for example, serves as a place for community gatherings, weddings, holiday celebrations, caretaking for the sick, sermons, and on occasion, meditation). Proponents of the secularization of Buddhist practice claim that their way is not religious, because their teachings simply reflect the truth about human nature (the Sanskrit word “Dharma” refers to the Buddha’s teachings but also more broadly means “Truth”). Therefore it is fine to just take the “essence” of meditation, so the reasoning goes, and throw away all the other cultural trappings—but anyone familiar with the problems of cultural appropriation can tell that Western meditation and mindfulness reeks. Seen from a different angle, however, this claim about truth may actually be an even stronger form of evangelicalism: if the Buddha did not teach religion because he merely represented pure Truth, to deviate from Buddha’s teachings is to deviate from the Truth. This is like saying, “Believe whatever you want about Christ, it doesn’t change the fact that He is the Son of God.” For meditation teachers to pretend like mindfulness is not religious is a covert way of pushing a religious agenda.
Related to this deception is the implication that mindfulness meditation should and will work for everyone. If the Buddha’s way is representative of some objective “Truth” then his teachings are universal. In this line of thinking, it does not matter who you learn mindfulness practice from, because mindfulness itself exists as some sort of Platonic form. Learn mindfulness from a Wal-Mart magazine, from a burned out hippie, from a dude who took a 10-week facilitators course, it works if you work it. Kind of like accepting Jesus into your heart; it’s that easy.
We arrive now at the part of the essay where I claim that my path is the one honest path, and then either (a) sell it to you, or (b) sell it to myself, by explaining that my path is so special, you can’t have it. But alas, I am not here to sell anything. I don’t think that meditation is the answer. Life is difficult, and there are a lot of ways people find to navigate it; individual ways work well or not depending on the individual (and some ways, like snorting copious amounts of coke, work poorly for just about everyone). Whether meditation will work “well” for you I just wish that its mainstream representatives were more honest in their presentation. Because like Leo Szilard, I feel that life is short (as Tibetan Buddhists might say, precious and impermanent), and those who would waste our time—or worse, lead us astray—are doing a disservice.