Blog and Interviews

What Can the Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga Teach the West?

I was going through my files recently and found this book review originally published in Anthropology of Consciousness in 2002. Seems as pertinent as ever, more than a decade later.

Being Arising: A Review of Going on Being by Mark Epstein and The Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga by Martin Levine.

By Jeremy P. Hunter, Ph.D.

The cultivation of human happiness has long captivated human imagination. The recent emergence of the Positive Psychology movement within mainstream Western psychology is only the latest iteration of this millennia-long search. Though we’ve been told of Plato’s assertion that “the unreflected life is not worth living,” what is less obvious is the means by which one engages in this reflection. In other words, as any positive psychologist will tell you, we are a society with few methods for cultivating “the good life.” In response to this dissatisfaction, a growing number of people have sought possible solutions in the positive psychological systems of South Asia.

Asian contemplative traditions are essentially psychologies concerned with the bottom line of personal existence, subjective experience. These inherently practical methods emerged out of a context where body and brain were never split; where philosophy didn’t stray too far from the concerns of daily life; and where systematic practices for change, rather than mere theoretical exercise, play a central role in the creation of virtue. The Asian explorers of the internal world focused directly on the quality of experience and developed methods of training attention to systematically transform it.

Since the exploratory dabblings of the 1960s counter-culture, Western understanding of these practices has ripened in the ensuing decades. As practitioners mature and skilled indigenous teachers emerge, the relevance of these “inner technologies” becomes more apparent. As a result, notions of practice have shifted from a fringe interest to a nearly mainstream position in the culture. To talk about meditating or doing yoga is far less likely to elicit a blank stare of quiet suspicion; to be “mindful” of something no longer sounds so weird. It could be that the same impulse that informs current interest in positive psychology has also has stimulated widespread enthusiasm in methods like mindfulness meditation and yoga. As the latest iteration of positive psychology blossoms into the culture, it was only a matter of time before these two impulses intersected. Two recent books Going on Being by Mark Epstein (whose original subtitle invoked Positive Psychology) and Marvin Levine’s The Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga provide a vision of how each system may learn and be strengthened by the other.

While the two volumes differ in style and tone, they share a common thread of being written by a Western professional who has immersed himself in Asian contemplative practice and grapples with how to best hybridize these two worlds. Levine, a well-respected cognitive psychologist, and Epstein, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, have produced works that draw upon the strengths that each system has to offer. They offer the possibility of a new type of science, where the strengths of a western scientific model meshes with the Asian concern for one’s interior life. (See also Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s The Embodied Mind.)

Levine’s book is the more straightforward of the two. It is intended as an introduction to the basic theories and practices of Buddhism and Yoga, both monumental topics in and of themselves, with an eye to practical application. (Among other things, there are sections that draw upon both classical texts and modern research on dealing effectively with anger or how to speak with empathic assertiveness as “right speech”.). For a reader interested in the basic ideas of both Yoga and Buddhism (which are not entirely analogous, but the author focuses on the helpful similarities), Levine’s book is a welcome companion. He walks through the core insights found in the Four Noble Truths, which are fundamentally empirical and not metaphysical in nature, and the Eightfold Path, characterized as a daily methodology for happiness. It is also helpful for those who might find Pali/Sanskrit terminology off-putting, since Levine offers clear definitions and also relates them back to English/Western referents and research findings. The book’s tone is of a genial uncle passing along wisdom gleaned from years of study and practice. Along the way, he splices in personal reflection and poetry which warms the text.

Epstein’s book, his third, is a more textured and layered work. The title comes from British child analyst D.W. Winnicott whose notion of “going on being” refers to the flow-like notion of being immersed in one’s own experience, also an essential concept in Buddhism. The book is a more personal narrative of the author’s journey to his own experience. His struggles and discoveries ground the teachings in a Western context, making the dharma more familiar and relevant than if they were gleaned from a foreign source. It becomes easier to see how the lessons of this positive psychology may be relevant to a modern, post-industrial lifestyle. Along the way, he gives a history of Buddhism’s contemporary flowering in the West, nuanced insights drawn from his clinical practice, and suggests where psychotherapy and Buddhism both coincide (both search for personal authenticity) and can learn from the other (Buddhism’s meditative methods offers a way out of the cycles of personal suffering). Epstein’s sensitive writing packs in many subtleties that require multiple readings to fully grasp.

Essentially both authors point to the fact that Western psychology, perhaps with the exception of Csikszentmihalyi, has yet to fully grapple with the insight brought forth by both objective neuroscience and the Asian contemplative traditions: the lack of a solid, fixed self. The difficult concept of “no-self” stands in contrast both to the nihilistic interpretation of the Existentialists and to the reification (some would say deification) of the self in mainstream psychology. A nihilistic self lacks meaning, while reified one lacks flexibility. With the latter, one is constantly accepting or rejecting things that “aren’t me,” in the meantime, life passes by. While in the former, the life that passes by possesses little significance.

In essence, both the meaningless and reified selves are obstacles to experiencing freedom. People talk about political freedom, economic freedom, social freedom, and sexual freedom, but perhaps the most essential freedom, the one that girds them all, goes unrecognized and uncultivated: psychological freedom–the freedom to choose one’s stance and one’s response. This is not the freedom from morality or social responsibility that might have initially attracted the counter-culture, but freedom from the psychic sources that cause suffering. It is also not B. F. Skinner’s idea of freedom, the freedom to be conditioned into any role, part or position, but rather a freedom from conditioning itself. The solution is a “middle path” between meaninglessness and meaning-construed-too-tightly. The self of “going on being” is not a fixed, hard identity but one grounded in reality, buoyed on a stream of experience, evolving and responding to life as it unfolds.

The path to this state of awareness emerges through the systematic training of attention to phenomena with clarity and cultivating an acceptance of the way things are, including one’s self. Again, this is not a defeatist, apathetic stance, but a matter-of-fact discernment of life as it is. Only by dealing with things as they are, can one hope to change them.

Nearly 100 years ago, William James, after hearing a Harvard lecture by Buddhist teacher Anagarika Dharmapala, predicted that “This is the psychology everybody will be studying twenty-five years from now.” However, that project was detoured through the land of the unconscious by way of a rat’s maze. Given that social science has often disregarded the science of the positive, perhaps taking to heart Freud’s remark, “the best psychoanalysis can do is to return the patient to the more normal level of human misery” a practical psychology of the positive now seems long overdue.

Anthropology of Consciousness
Volume 13, Issue 2, pages 61–63, September 2002

Getting Real About McMindfulness

“Who knows what Evil lurks in the hearts of men?” intoned a sinister voice in the radio drama The Shadow, whose crime-fighting title character possessed mysterious powers he learned in the Orient to cloud people’s minds. For some reason, this is what came to mind when I read the recent blog post “Beyond McMindfulness.” Careening from conspiratorial point to point, readers are told there’s an unseen dark force lurking out there hijacking sacred Asian practices in the name of profit and productivity, ready to enslave hapless innocents into lobotomized, routinized, soul-killing work. Beware when Pavlov seizes control of the meditation bell.

As I read through, I found myself agreeing with the authors in places. For example, for this “movement” to have legs mindfulness training and teachers must be high-quality and ethically sound. That much is clear. However, other times it was not at all clear what they are advocating. The piece made me very curious and at times disappointed. It seemed a missed opportunity to offer constructive suggestions to a burgeoning social force.

Because no concrete examples were cited, I’m curious to know where exactly all of these apparently nefarious deeds are actually happening? For example, “The booming popularity of the mindfulness movement has turned it into a lucrative cottage industry.” Lucrative? Really? Says who? Show me the data. Better yet, show me the money.

Though I’ve been teaching mindfulness to managers for over a decade, only recently have I seen interest in this sort of thing growing. The people I know doing this work make at best modest livings, usually supplementing their income with another form of work. Some even rely solely on donation, and don’t charge any money at all. They are skillful, decent people dedicated to helping people live better lives, and why should they not be able to earn a decent living doing it?

My curiosity gradually shifted to sadness when the views offered by the authors turned to the condescending. They fail to credit people’s innate intelligence to make sense and judge for themselves. Nor do they show faith that genuine teaching can hold its own against the bobble-headed imposters that will surely arise. Most of all they seem to lack faith in the transformative power of mindfulness itself. They don’t seem to believe that a person who practices to be more effective at work also experiences other powerful changes. In my experience, mindfulness training for managers never once resulted in producing “docile cows” content to chew corporate cud. In fact, it can often be the very opposite.

The executives I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years include talented men and women who make sure that water comes out of the faucet, the electricity is on, and someone’s grandma is cared for. There are those who manage cardiac wards, neonatal units for premature babies, quality control for major hospitals and one who builds probes for exploring outer space. They’re single mothers managing complex engineering programs on a shrinking budget, IT managers laboring to provide for three kids while trying to satisfy a tyrannical boss, stewards of family businesses shouldering the duty to maintain a treasured legacy, and first-generation immigrants who worked hard, found material success, and are wondering whether this is all there is. They are also people with mortgages to pay who are caught in broken organizations seeking better tools than a bottle of alcohol. One former student, an Iraq war vet struggling with debilitating PTSD found himself transformed by the practice and subsequently dedicated his life to researching and disseminating methods for trauma healing to fellow veterans.

Yes, there is a mindfulness revolution going on and it is sorely needed, and it cannot remain confined to the Buddhist corner of the room because the world desperately needs what it offers. Decades ago, social theorist Peter Drucker recognized a gross imbalance modern Western societies had fallen into. Namely, taking too much to heart Descartes’ assertion “I think therefore I am” and defining education largely as a matter of cultivating rationality and emphasizing conceptual abstraction. The cultivation of conceptual thought has reaped the amazing benefits of science and technology, but it has done so at the enormous cost of alienating ourselves from our own experience and environment. For example, we live numbly oblivious to the ecology that supports life on earth.

What was left out of this rationalist paradigm was the parallel cultivation of refined perception and disciplined emotion, which Drucker saw as essential components of an effective and educated person. He also understood that society needed a return to spiritual values like compassion to fully realize the promise of material development. A hundred years before, William James declared the ability to control attention was the root of judgment, character and self-mastery and that the education that would provide it was “par excellence.” A century before James, Scottish philosopher Adam Smith suggested cultivating an “Impartial Spectator” to foster moral action. We should also include St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises of discernment as well. Though it possesses a vast and evolved treasury of practices, Buddhism doesn’t hold the copyright on the basic human birthright to cultivate attention, compassion and open awareness.

However, without practical methods, indeed like those offered by Buddhism we remain an attention-illiterate society. The proliferation of “Mindfulness-based-fill-in-the-blank” is a badly needed corrective for institutions formed under an incomplete set of assumptions. We need an upgrade and we need it fast. And yes, we do need a growing body of empirical research into how effective mindfulness is in all kinds of secular settings.

The mindfulness train has left the station. It will continue to seep into organizational life because the demands of organizations require its transformative, connecting power to remain relevant. The challenge for us, as the authors rightly point out, is to insure that what is offered as “mindfulness” is high quality. Done well, its result is greater awareness, compassion and understanding of interconnectedness. Participation must also be freely chosen. Compulsory or coerced corporate mindfulness is diametrically opposite to its potential for cultivating freedom.

Furthermore, we need to develop robust institutions that powerfully convey the core of these teachings for a population comfortable with their faith commitments (or lack thereof) and aren’t interested in Buddhism. Mindful magazine is leading the way in providing thoughtful content for a growing community of people wanting to incorporate mindfulness in their lives. We need skilled, ethical teachers to draw out people’s inherent mindfulness. The Certification in Mindfulness Facilitation program at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center is a solid template to follow, and a variety of other programs are also breaking new ground in mindfulness teacher training. The academic programs of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society are helping scholars incorporate contemplative awareness in their teaching. The work of the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute is cultivating a new generation of scientists who can blend rigorous contemplative practice with equally rigorous scientific inquiry.

If mindfulness and its attendant virtues are going to have a beneficial effect on our society and be more than a passing and trivial fad, we need lots of people keeping an open mind and an eye on the real needs of real people in pain. What we don’t need is incoherent foaming about how the sky is falling or the imagined malevolent forces lurking in the shadows.

LATimes: Mindfulness as a Management Skill?

Earlier this year the LATimes published a fantastic article by Robin Rauzi about applying  mindfulness to business.  It was one of the most thoughtful pieces of the genre so far.  I was happy to be featured, but happier to see that people realize the mindfulness is more than just reducing stress, but integral to how knowledge workers can effectively function.

You can download the text of the article:

LA Times Tapping Into the Power of Mindfulness:

Mindfulness and Leadership?

How can mindfulness create more effective leaders?

Michael Chaskalson and I explore the relationship between facing adaptive challenges and cultivating greater attention and awareness in our recently published chapter “Making the Mindful Leader: Cultivating Skills for Facing Adaptive Challenges”  in the new Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Leadership, Change &OD. edited by Prof. Jonathan Passmore.

The final copy is available for sale here.

Here’s a link to a late-stage draft:  MakingTheMindfulLeader_Draft

Is Mindfulness Good for Business?

The new magazine Mindful is hot off the presses. The mission of the magazine is to support the growing community of interest around mindfulness and it’s application to daily life. The magazine represents a significant step in the mainstreaming of mindfulness practice.

I am very delighted to have contributed an article for the premiere issue that explores the still-developing intersection between mindfulness and business.  Happily, there have been a number of enthusiastic articles appearing recently in the mainstream financial press which have highlighted the growing application of mindfulness in the workplace (in the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times for starters).

We felt it was now time to push the conversation forward by asking some tough, self-critical questions, examining the assumptions that drive integrating work and mindfulness.  The result is the article which asks, “Is Mindfulness Good for Business?”

If you’d like to check it out, here it is:

Mindful Magazine: Is Mindfulness Good for Business?

While you’re at it, please consider supporting Mindful.