Deconstructing Mindfulness: Embracing a Complex Simplicity

David L. Collins
University of Texas at Austin

DECONSTRUCTING MINDFULNESS: EMBRACING A COMPLEX SIMPLICITY

I’ve been a student of meditative techniques and contemplative traditions for a while. I
have a decades-long personal practice and academic degrees in both religious studies and
psychology. And I have mixed feelings about the kind of attention mindfulness is currently
receiving and the ways it’s often conceptualized today in the West. On one hand, the
fact meditative practices and contemplative experiences are getting increased study I feel
is deeply beneficial and long overdue. On another, with only slight exaggeration, I’m
worried many of today’s biomedical and psychological researchers think they know what
they’re doing.

To explain what I mean in saying that, I’d like to sketch a brief history of the modern
West’s construction of mindfulness and note along the way an example of something
it leaves out. Mindfulness and meditation techniques have been around for millennia,
but socio-political factors have shaped our contemporary understandings of what those
practices entail. The word “mindfulness” itself has a somewhat debated history. And after
outlining some of the history that’s involved, I’d like to offer some personal reflections on
the breadth, and the depth, of the experiential practices that actually underlie meditative
and contemplative practices. In the end I wish to underscore how important it is that we
stay humble and open-minded about what we think mindfulness is.

There’s been an exponential increase in the studies of mindfulness and meditation in
recent years. PubMed, an online search engine for biomedical research, doesn’t list any
for 1968. For 1970 it lists six. And for 2018 it lists more than 1400. Starting in 1970, of
the six studies PubMed lists for that year, four were on Transcendental Meditation. The
relative bump in publications during the following ten years were also mostly TM studies.
The TM organization is effectively a modernized and streamlined form of Vedanta
Hinduism. In that style of meditation, the practitioner looks to attend, in a simple and
intimate way, to a single, repeated one- or two-syllable mantra. A TM mantra is sort of
like a thought that’s not to be thought about, and attending to its repeated and more or
less effortless occurrence in the mind has the effect of quieting and displacing other, more
discursive thoughts. That practice can shift our relationship with ordinary thinking and
usher us toward a manner of awareness that is simpler and more fundamental than our
habitually constructed thoughts. And, along with the intimacy with our experience that’s
afforded to us when we attentively quiet our minds, for most people TM is very relaxing.
When promoting its technique through the 1960s and ‘70s, the TM organization
emphasized the benefits of its practice with regards to “stress relief.” Stress was getting a
fair amount of attention at the time through work like that of the endocrinologist, Hans
Selye. My hunch is that by using the vocabulary of stress research, TM found a way to
present karma theory in the language of a non-spiritual, Western, scientific discourse:
karma, in its classical Indian understanding, is any action we carry out in a contrived or
less than fully natural manner which then ends up having a deleterious or “stressful” effect
on our lives.

TM was popular. 1968, incidentally, was the year that the Beatles went to Rishikesh
to practice TM with the Maharishi. In 1975, Harvard physician Herbert Benson
published The Relaxation Response, a best-selling book based on his study of Transcendental
Meditation. Benson was looking to further popularize and secularize meditation practice.
Some additional meditation programs built on TM’s success and adapted themselves to
modern Western society in analogous ways, often embracing a similar focus on relaxation
and stress relief. One that became particularly influential was the program designed by
Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Kabat-Zinn was originally trained as a biologist. He became employed by the University
of Massachusetts Medical School, where in 1979 he was asked to develop a program
to help patients with pain management. As a key part of the program he put together,
Kabat-Zinn incorporated meditation techniques that he’d learned in retreats he had
participated in with several American Buddhist organizations—especially the Insight
Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

Kabat-Zinn set up what he initially called the “Stress Reduction and Relaxation
Program” (now known as the “Stress Reduction Clinic”), and he called the techniques
which comprised the heart of his program, “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
(MBSR).” As the name suggests, a main focus of MBSR is the development of
“mindfulness.” Here is how Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness:
moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention
in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, as non-reactively, and as
openheartedly as possible.

Thousands of research studies have been conducted on meditation based on the
understanding of mindfulness that is promoted in Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR. And researchers
have created a number of questionnaires intended to measure mindfulness as it’s
presented in MBSR. (Anne Murphy’s 2016 paper, “Mindfulness-Based Therapy in
Modern Psychology,” lists ten such questionnaires. 2 )
Such investigators generally agree that mindfulness practices are beneficial, but there are
debates around such things as what the instruments developed to measure it are actually
tapping into, what the primary facets or effective components of mindfulness really are,
and whether mindfulness is more of a transiently elicited state, an enduring developed
trait, or both.

Another on-going debate is over whether or not mindfulness is “Buddhist.” As ever-
increasing use is made of MBSR and related techniques (collectively labeled “MBIs”–
Mindfulness-Based Interventions), conversations have begun taking place between MBSR
researchers, academic scholars of Buddhism, and Buddhist practitioners. A nice example
is the 2011 issue of the journal, Contemporary Buddhism. 3 The issue is devoted to the topic
of mindfulness, and includes articles by individuals such as the research psychologist Ruth
Baer, the religious studies Buddhism scholar Rupert Gethin, and the Theravadin Buddhist
monk Bhikkhu Bodhi. It also includes a reflection piece by Kabat-Zinn.
Kabat-Zinn acknowledges that he downplayed the Buddhist roots of his mindfulness
technique in the early going. He didn’t want patients’ potential qualms about adopting a
“religious” practice to get in the way of its benefits (not to mention the possible objections
of hospital administrators). But he has also frequently made statements which indicate
that he understands mindfulness to be an essential heart of Buddhism. He notes, too,
that his understanding of mindfulness, while most strongly shaped by the teachings of
vipassana (i.e., insight meditation, especially as originally practiced in Southeast Asia),
has also been influenced by readings and some personal practice in Zen (namely, Phillip
Kapleau and Thich Nhat Hanh) and Tibetan Buddhism (Chogyam Trungpa).
I don’t have space to provide a detailed account of the history of the sources and currents
which have informed Kabat-Zinn style “mindfulness,” but here are pertinent highlights:
1. Kabat-Zinn looked to secularize a Buddhist practice...
2. based especially on his understanding of an Americanized version of vipassana
taught by the Western teachers in the Insight Meditation Society—including Jack
Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg—whose own understandings
of meditation were strongly shaped by...
3. the style of insight practice advocated in the 20th century in Burma by the
layman U Ba Khin (d. 1971) and the monk Mahasi Sayadaw (d. 1982), whose
approaches to teaching Buddhism were influenced by...
4. a 19th century Burmese Buddhist reform movement, exemplified preeminently
by the monk Ledi Sayadaw (d. 1923), expressly interested in promoting a form of
meditation practice accessible to everyone in the country, and not just monks.
Ledi Sayadaw’s efforts in the nineteenth century had come in response to British
colonialism. The effects of Britain’s colonization of his country included the loss in direct
support for Buddhism by Burma’s deposed king, who had been the beloved titular head
of Burma’s Buddhist society, along with a de facto relativization of spiritual practice
overall, through the introduction to that part of the world of additional numbers of
Christian missionaries.

And when Ledi Sayadaw and other Burmese Buddhist reformists taught and promoted
meditation, they consciously emphasized vipassana / insight techniques, and they de-
emphasized samatha / calming-and-concentration techniques. They felt the latter
practices were not absolutely necessary for a fruitful spiritual practice and that they
included features too difficult for many persons in lay life to achieve, namely, the practice
of jhāna.

The jhānas are states of concentrated absorption. And they’re fairly remarkable. In
the basic approach of a vipassana practice, you look to appreciate, matter-of-factly
and deeply, the contingent, generated status of thoughts and conscious experiencings,
through noting, for instance, their inherent transiency. Thoughts come and go. Sensations
come and go. And, ultimately, our own sense of ourselves as any enduring, substantive,
“something” also comes and goes.

Getting out from under the illusive presumption that we are some sort of never-changing
stuff, and instead allowing an embrace with the living truth that our very waking sense
of “me” is itself a generated process and event, that’s the intent of vipassana practice.
That is what Buddhist “insight” entails. And that’s what the previous hundred years of
Burmese Buddhist teaching has primarily focused on.
Jhāna practice is a bit different, however. Where vipassana insight is effectively a
deconstruction—in that it works to help us appreciate the constructed, “this comes from
somewhere,” nature of all phenomenal experiences—jhāna practice is in significant ways
constructive. The jhānas are generated modes of rather markedly altered consciousness.
They include an element of quite vivid synesthesia, and they unfold in a set sequence. I
practiced jhānas fairly intensively for several years, and, while space doesn’t allow for an
extended description, here’s a nutshell account of the first four so-called “form jhānas”:
You begin by adopting a set meditation object, a fixed thing to focus on, like the breath as
it occurs in a particular location, such as just outside the nostrils. You attend to that and
to nothing else, in session after session of seated meditation, as well as during breaks and
also during any walking meditations between sittings. And you do that for days. You may
then eventually begin to get a kind of focal synesthesia to occur—your mind begins to
“see” the breath. For most persons the image that arises appears as something bright or
white, like a pearl, or a ball of cotton, or a light, just outside the nose.

That appearance, what I’m calling here a focal synesthesia, in the Buddhist texts is
termed a patibhaga-nimitta, which means “a counterpart sign.” (Modern teachers often
refer to it simply as “the nimitta,” i.e., “the sign,” although nimitta in Buddhism actually
refers to any phenomenal appearance; in effect, everything we see or sense is a nimitta,
like a Kantian “phenomenon,” while “the counterpart sign” refers specifically to that
synesthetic representation the mind ultimately makes of your jhāna meditation object.)
It’s kind of like a vivid echo, or like one piece of a dream representation; it may look like,
say, a pearl, but you know what it is. You know it’s your breath.

When I give talks on meditation, I sense some persons kind of tune out when I start
talking about the jhānas. It’s as though it’s something too removed from their personal
experience, and too far from what they think meditation is about for themselves. But stay
with me. The points I want to make in referring to the jhānas are meaningful for anyone,
regardless of whether you ever actually experience jhāna.

Once there is a constant, unwavering nimitta, you then have in effect a kind of
biofeedback arrangement. Where in biofeedback you can, for instance, increase your level
of relaxation by making a tone that’s tied to your EEG patterns become stronger, in a
similar way, when you have a constant nimitta you can make the concentration on your
breath all the more unbroken and one-pointed by making the nimitta become brighter,
more vivid, or larger.
And when you’ve got it like that and can maintain it, effectively just sitting there with
your mental gaze fixed on a continuous nimitta, that constitutes the first jhāna. And when
you’re in that state, there’s invariably a pronounced, rapturous joy. It feels wonderful.
After that first jhāna there are three additional so-called form jhānas. Very briefly:
* In the second jhāna, the sense of separation between you-as-observer and
the nimitta-as-a-thing-observed comes to be, as it were, “too much” and too
complicated. A further relaxation then occurs where the sense of separation
dissipates, and there’s effectively only the nimitta. Then everything is, say,
“whiteness.” And the feeling remains pervaded by a rapturous joyousness.
* In the third jhāna, that rapture comes to be felt as too much—perhaps too
sweet, or just too agitated—and it falls away. What’s left is a distinctive experience
of quiet and peaceful pleasantness.
* And in the fourth jhāna, even “pleasantness” comes to be as it were too much
and too agitated. It slips away, as well, and what’s left is just a sense of a palpable
and pervasive equanimity.

When you have the jhānas occurring distinctly, there’s no mistaking them. If an orgasm
is like a momentary cymbal crash, the jhānas are like the sound of a bell, and that sound
can go on for an hour. Jhāna absorptions are wonderful. They are restorative. And they
offer an humblingly powerful perspective on what our minds are capable of. But, for most
folks, they’re hard to get to happen. Most people I know who experience the jhānas have
needed to go on several intensive retreats before they experienced them. In my own case,
I’d been meditating rather seriously for several decades before my first jhāna retreat, and
it still took four days of doing pretty much nothing but concentrating on my breath, all
day every day, before I got a counterpart sign to form and I then entered the first jhāna.
And it took me several more retreats over the next couple of years before I could also
experience the jhānas at home, outside of a retreat setting.

So that’s a reason Ledi Sayadaw and the champions of the lay Burmese meditation
movement did not emphasize jhānas. They wanted to promote practices that everyone
could do and that everyone could experience benefits from right away.
(There’s also another reason. In short: There are debates within South Asian Buddhism—
as well as among academic scholars of Buddhism—about the place of the jhānas. Some
feel that they’re centrally important, that they are a key innovation of the Buddha himself,
and that the realization of final, liberative, vipassana insight only occurs with the jhānas
as its foundation. Such persons are sometimes referred to as “wet insight” advocates.
Others feel that the jhānas can actually be dispensed with, that they represent potential
distractions from the core work of vipassana insight, and that they were originally a
Hindu technique the Buddha effectively accepted into his practice community simply
because they were already part of the contemplative landscape of his time. They’re
known as promoters of a “dry insight” approach.)

And while Ledi Sayadaw and the leaders of the Burmese reform did not emphasize
jhānas, they knew about them and they sometimes spoke of them. There is, though, little
to no mention of the jhānas in today’s modernized Western “mindfulness” movement–
most current psychology researchers are not acquainted with them. They’ve been left out.
Another thing most researchers are not aware of is that the word “mindfulness” is a bit
of a mistranslation of the original word it’s intended to represent. “Mindfulness” in the
original Buddhist Pāli is sati; in Sanskrit it’s smrti. A more straightforward meaning of sati
is “remembering.” (Hinduism, incidentally, uses Smrti to refer to the category of spiritual
texts that are “remembered.”)

And the South Asian Buddhists use sati today for a whole range of forms of attention.
It’s important, for instance, to have sati when you’re driving, so that you don’t have an
accident. And remembering moral principles and calling to mind Buddhist prescriptions
for wholesome choices and life-decisions are also understood to be sati.
Within meditation practices, specifically, sati can mean remembering categories for
recognizing the sorts of hindrances and wholesome factors of experience that can come
up during meditation; sati helps you recognize such things. Buddhist sati, in other words,
functions as a kind of informed attention.

Overall, I think a useful translation for sati is “remembering the present.” (A nice book
on mindfulness practices in South Asia written by anthropologist Julia Cassaniti in 2017
has precisely that as its title. 4 ) There can be different applications and emphases, but by
and large “remembering the present” carries both the suggestion that it is our here-and-
now present experiencing that is of central significance, as well the Old School Buddhist
understanding of meditation as ultimately an informed and active appreciation of the
constructed nature of our thoughts and perceptions.

For that reason, although today’s Theravadin Buddhists and vipassana practitioners will
endorse Kabat-Zinn and MBSR’s attention to “the present moment,” they will often
feel that the emphases on “non-judgmentalism” and “non-reactivity” don’t immediately
reflect their own practice style. Kabat-Zinn will suggest that those parts of his definition
of mindfulness don’t actually come so much from Theravada, but more from his
understandings of Zen or of types of Tibetan practice. His “mindfulness meditation,”
in short, is a kind of amalgam. It’s an adaptation. And his promotion of it has been,
explicitly, a packaging of meditation for our time and for our culture; to some audiences
he’s emphasized its secular, non-religious character; and to others he’s highlighted its
direct connections with the essence of Buddhism.

Buddhism, for its part, has itself always been adaptive. There are many forms and many
expressions. And, as mentioned, even within today’s Theravada, there are different
opinions over such things as the role and importance of jhāna.
And we actually shouldn’t expect it to be otherwise. The Buddha was born into a
particular spiritual culture, one that already had many contemplative techniques and
practices. He taught for 45 years, adapting his own presentation at times, depending on
his audience. His teachings were passed down orally for several centuries, with different
Buddhist communities emphasizing different practices, and remembering some of the
teachings in different ways, and organizing them on the basis of differing analyses. And
of course Buddhism has evolved, across centuries and across cultures, into the forms of
Mahayana and Tantra, within China, Korea, Japan, Tibet and Mongolia; and now in
Europe and the United States.

So it makes all the sense in the world that we deconstruct mindfulness, by which I mean
that we understand it to have a history, a “side view.” It’s not a given or an absolute.
It comes from somewhere. Mindfulness has been constructed. Mindfulness has been
promoted. (And in recent years mindfulness has come to be criticized for ways it’s not
just promoted, but marketed; see for instance Ron Purser and David Loy’s “Beyond
McMindfulness.” 5 )
But, for me, an especially salient aspect of mindfulness—constructed as it is by history
and by current needs and interests—is that it is in itself a form of deconstruction. That is
to say, a pivotally significant feature of mindfulness is that it is a practice that helps us to
see how we see things. It is in the end a looking at how we look at things.
I’ll save for another time a discussion of how mindfulness practice can also go a long
way in helping us appreciate how our constructed categories of “secular” and “religious”
are just that, constructed categories. They’re stories. A reason Kabat-Zinn could present
mindfulness as one or the other, depending on his audience, is because those ideas, those
categories for interpreting life’s meaning and purpose, are concepts that come as it were
“later than” mindfulness. Mindfulness is a form of honesty. It’s a touching of the earth.
Mindfulness is the sort of experiential practice that ultimately comes before our ideas of
what is “secular” and what is “religious.”

And it almost goes without saying, and yet very much needs to be said, “mindfulness”
is by no means exclusively Buddhist. I referred earlier to TM and Vedanta Hinduism.
And there are, and always have been, Western forms of meditation and contemplative
practice, too. Notwithstanding the significant ties between Buddhist teachings and, for
instance, MBSR, it’s a mistake for present discussions of mindfulness to place the focus so
exclusively on Buddhism. Christian Centering Prayer and Orthodox Hesychasm, Jewish
Kabbalistic and Hasidic techniques, Sufi dhikr and meditative movement, those can all
rightly be understood as mindfulness practices, as well.
Mindfulness is an exercise in intimacy and open-mindedness. To really embrace
mindfulness is to allow ourselves to be embraced, namely, by life in this moment. There
is nothing more basic, there’s nothing more simple, and in the end there is nothing more
wonderful.

But, as the discussion here also suggests, remembering ourselves to such basic and
meaningful simplicity can end up being fairly complicated in some ways. We make mental
models of ourselves and of our lives, and we make mental models of things like “religion”
and “science” and “mindfulness.” And, quite tragically, we can easily become over-
confident of our models. We can come to be over-sure that we know what we’re doing.
I’ll close by relating a story that helps me remember that I don’t know everything.
Following an intensive 10-day jhāna retreat some years ago, for a period of about five
weeks, I was meditating during dreamless sleep. I was experiencing the jhānas in my sleep.
I’d previously had the experience of meditating in my dreams, too, and when that would
happen I typically became lucid within the dream. But this was different. This wasn’t
occurring during dreams, where of course there’s some degree of consciousness. This was
while I was asleep and not dreaming. But still I knew it was taking place. And there were
two ways I knew it. For one, while the jhānas, as I mentioned, unfold in a set sequence,
I would sometimes wake up at night in the middle of that sequence. The jhānas had
effectively started “without” me. Some part of me knew how to do them, and it also knew
how to do sleep simultaneously.

The other way I knew the jhānas were occurring in my sleep I don’t have words for. I just
knew. Some part of me that’s before words knew I was asleep and knew I was meditating.
Something knew I was generating those states. Something knew that those experiential
events came from somewhere.
And when I woke up, I knew that that too—my sense of myself as a waking, thinking
person—is also something that’s generated. My sense of the waking “me” is not in fact
where things begin. That, too, is an event. That, too, is a process. That, too, comes from
somewhere.
And I don’t know how that happens. Just like I don’t know how I do sleep, and I don’t
know how I do meditation during sleep, neither do I know how I do my waking sense of
myself.
Mindfulness practice is deeply beneficial. And a key benefit such practice affords us is to
help us to appreciate the matter-of-fact miracle that our thoughts themselves come from
somewhere. Thinking and conceptualization are constructions. They are our provisional
stories of what is what. So are our very ideas of ourselves.
In the end, a particularly beneficial effect of mindfulness practice is the way it can help us
to remember that we don’t know everything.
The 10th century Chinese Zen student Fayan was on his pilgrimage. During a rainstorm he put
up at the temple of a Zen priest named Dizang. The next morning, as he was getting ready to
leave and continue his pilgrimage, Dizang asked him, “What’s the purpose of pilgrimage?”
Fayan paused and answered, “I don’t know.”
Dizang said, “Not knowing is closest to it.”
Fayan had an awakening.
(cf. The Book of Equanimity, koan case 20)

——————————————————————————————
Author: David L. Collins, PhD
Title: University of Texas at Austin Staff
Affiliation: University of Texas
Twitter: @bodhidave3
Notes
————————————
1
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through
Mindfulness (New York: Hyperion, 2005), 108.
2
Anne Murphy, “Mindfulness-Based Therapy in Modern Psychology:
Convergence and Divergence from Early Buddhist Thought,” Contemporary Buddhism 17,
no. 2 (2016): 275–325. 3 Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 1 (2011).
4
Julia L. Cassaniti, Remembering the Present: Mindfulness in Buddhist Asia (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 2017).
5
Ron Purser and David Loy, “Beyond McMindfulness,” Huffington Post, July 7, 2013. 71

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