Mainstream makes me cranky


Despite a devoted mindfulness practice, a “Meditation’s gone viral,” column in my local paper rankled my equanimity. It was all about how mindfulness meditation has gone mainstream. I teach several meditation techniques. Unlike most classes where the teacher has a book or brain full of correct answers to relevant questions, my students generate most of the data to be studied. I teach them how to habituate awareness of theirs and other people’s data and to develop a response of non-suffering.

I spent many years studying the Sutras to be ordained as Buddhist clergy, and a couple more being certified in Neuro-linguistic programming (the de-programming method that liberated even debunker, Jon Ronson from his pet neurosis.) I’ve taken enough classes in behavioral, moral and neural psychology to back what I preach with plenty of scientific study, and am always improving ways to share with the uninitiated or to deepen a seasoned meditator’s practice. So, a few years back when I found mindfulness was starting to go mainstream, I should have been pleased. Right?

What I felt, though, was pressure. I suddenly felt compelled to distinguish my 2500 year old dharma of discernment from the repurposed dharma of today's radical acceptance. It has taken me decades to feel truly qualified to help people take the scary journey to the center of self, to inventory and distinguish their own sources of suffering from the behaviors and thoughts that generate peace. So, I squirmed at the idea that anyone could emerge from an eight-week stress reduction course confident enough to teach it. My concern is that without balance and investigation of the ethical and contemplative elements of practice, folks will practice a more surficial mindfulness mediation, and be more likely to abandon the practice if an hour a week sitting on a cushion doesn’t provide the instant coping skills that they have been promised.

Something else bothered me. A while back, I attended a panel discussion where psychotherapists explained how they used meditation in their therapy. I had coached several counselors, and thought that a private therapy session was a fine way to bring meditation practice to people who need it. During this panel discussion a student asked one of the therapists how, as people of science, they reconciled teaching a religious ritual in their practice. One panelist hemmed and hawed. Then, dismissing 2500 years of doctrine and ritual written and practiced by monks in every corner of the globe, she gave him the impression mindfulness meditation wasn’t so much a Buddhist practice as its own secular thing. I bristled at this misinformation. On behalf of my once and future bodhisattvas, I felt a little betrayed.

BUT, I’m concerned when folks try to explain the Buddhist religion as a meditative practice to relieve anxiety. In the west, this ancient, non-secular path to self-mastery, self-forgetting and enlightenment has sometimes been distilled to aspiration to nothing greater than stress reduction. Put bluntly, it has become a hip "spiritual" way to more painlessly pursue our true religion, materialism.

Now, here I must confess some hypocrisy. Desperate for them to meditate with me, I had often shared with my atheist kids this same distortion of the truth. And to be completely honest, earlier in my Dharma studies my own teenage mind (well into age 35) fought the idea of form and emptiness being interchangeable. The devotional and ethical elements of practice, the chanting, bowing and bowl ringing came hard to me. Not because I don’t enjoy a certain amount of pomp and ritual. I do. It was because, since it clearly states “your mind is the Buddha, the Buddha is your mind,” Buddhism wasn’t supposed to look like other religions. Eventually, the robe made me less self-conscious, and I embraced the formality and precision of the service. This slowing down carefully adopt disciplines is a vital part of developing awareness and surrendering self.

I frequently must correct people’s assumption that I chose Buddhism because I was born with a benevolent or placid heart. I wasn’t. I have always lived with difficult personalities, not the least of which has been my own. Keeping my emotional side of the street clean is a survival skill. Teaching is how I maintain that skill. So, the popularization of my religion’s core teaching leaves me standing like a cartoon character with an eye-lidless Bodhidharma on one shoulder shouting, “beware doctrinaire approaches!” and a less grumpy conscience on my other shoulder warning that mainstream corrupts absolutely. (watch the documentary, Merchants of Cool.)

Luckily, the Buddha taught skillful means, dedicating an entire sutra to the idea that if you can’t sell it your way, sell it another way, but sell it. Oh, plenty of teachers are very careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. They know that the term mindfulness is an insufficient western place holder for the deep and difficult disciplines described when we say dhyana or Jhana. But, some teachers will risk losing a couple of lookie-loo practitioners when providing the liturgical, historic and devotional context for the training.

The Buddha embodied compassion. But, he never said, “you’re beautiful, baby, don’t ever change.” His disciples didn’t just sit under trees blissing out on that hip new Deer Park meditation. They practiced long and hard to awaken to the fact that radical equanimity is a more effective tool than harsh judgment in transforming habits of fear, anger, craving, sloth, agitation and doubt into habits of generosity, morality, patience, vigor, meditation and wisdom. Discernment was key to replacing the habits of suffering with those of non-suffering. Enlightenment is simple, not easy.

Many of us struggle to bring loving attention to what is, even for a few minutes a day. As to any discipline, we come begrudgingly at first, and then start limbering up. Results compel us to return because the alternative to non-suffering is …well, suffering. I refer to some of my guided meditations as “attention workouts” because like muscles, anyone with even the tiniest attention span can develop and strengthen it. At the gym people don’t generally expect to be handed a magic pill that will turn them into Olympiads after one or two workouts. They know (from experience) that sitting with a bag of chips, reading a book about strength won’t make them stronger. They join the gym because they know that any of us can and will change only when we show up, sweat, rinse and repeat.

Understand that I am not opposed to scholars, scientists, psychologists and grad students teaching meditation. I only propose that the possible skipping of vital steps on the path to liberation has teh very real potential for disillusionment and quitting. But, like I teach my students, I will pay close attention to anxiety and projection, find the sensory origin, follow the thread to a belief, then see if it is useful or not. If it is not, I can transform it through repeated practice.

My transformed belief is that popularizing a powerful therapeutic tool, even one with a rich, canonical history, could be a useful thing. And if, as my vows proclaim, I am committed to liberating all beings, I’ll just have to shut up, don my swimming costume and occasionally dive in to the mainstream. You'll know me right away. I will be the curmudgeon spouting the theological origins and the ethical requirements of the practice.

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