An in depth look at the definitions, appropriations, and benefits of mindfulness
By Mitch Hill (2009)
Recently an acquaintance sent me the following message and invited me to share my views about the potential role of mindfulness for contributing to world peace.
I was just talking about peace with a friend…who believes the best way to world peace is through mindfulness... and he thinks that the best way to get the world to more mindfulness is to show its worth through successful studies and also that it's actually of business value, a very intriguing concept, don't you think?
Here, in this essay, are the thoughts that this communication stimulated in me.
From the brief information I’ve received, it is not clear what my acquaintance’s friend means by mindfulness. I infer that he has probably been influenced by one or more of the currently popular appropriations of the Buddhist concept and practice of mindfulness (sati in Pali). Right mindfulness (samma sati) is the seventh principle of the eightfold noble path. It is generally discussed in relation to present-moment awareness of the body, the feelings, the mind itself, and of how this phenomenological awareness relates to the basic Buddhist teachings (dhamma). In the Buddhist approach to awakening to our full potential, mindfulness is not taken as a separate, self-sufficient practice. Rather, it has traditionally been seen as “the pivotal factor of the path” (Saddhatissa, 1971, p. 54). The Sattipatthanasutta is the classic work in the Pali canon in which the Buddha’s instructions to monks on the practice of mindfulness are laid out. Insight meditation (vipassana) is the formal, contemplative practice associated with mindfulness.
Contemporary Appropriations of Mindfulness
Many contemporary teachers of Buddhism, meditation, stress reduction, and holistic health care have appropriated mindfulness and shown its relevance to the improvement of human life. Numerous books, tapes and workshops are available, and scientific research is being conducted. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s well-documented pain-reduction work has been influential in some progressive medical circles and has helped many people cope better with chronic pain. In Washington state, Lucy Leu and her colleagues with Freedom Project (http://www.freedom-project.org/) have introduced mindfulness training, along with Rosenberg’s model of nonviolent communication, to prisoners in the criminal justice system and to those recently released from prison. A warden of India’s largest prison also introduced vipassana to selected groups of prisoners, and observers have noted salutary effects, as movingly documented in the film, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana. Some Buddhist teachers such as Dr. Thynn Thynn, originally from Burma, have been presenting an approach to mindfulness that does not require a formal sitting practice but that emphasizes “looking directly within and practicing mindfulness in everyday life” (Thynn, 1995, p. 8).
My Experience with Mindfulness
Having studied Buddhist philosophy over the past four decades and having practiced Buddhist meditation, first zazen and then vipassana, for several years, I am personally familiar with and appreciative of the value of mindfulness as both a formal, contemplative, sitting practice and as an asset in daily life. I have been on two silent meditation retreats, including a vipassana retreat, in which mindfulness was central. I’ve also explored several somatic practices, such as hatha yoga, qigong, taiji, and eutony, in which mindfulness is a key element. Mindfulness has been of value to me personally, and I am grateful to the teachers, books, and lineages that have made this practice accessible in our culture.
Research on the Benefits of Mindfulness
Numerous scientific studies have been conducted on the benefits of mindfulness practice. In one meta-analysis (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Wallach, 20004), researchers reviewed 64 studies about health benefits and stress reduction correlated with mindfulness. They found that only 20 of these studies met their research criteria for relevance and quality. Across these 20 studies, they found consistent effect sizes of about 0.5, which indicates a sturdy correlation of physical and mental well-being benefits from regular mindfulness practice. In another meta-analysis, Baer (2003) observed that “the empirical literature on the effects of mindfulness training contains many methodological weaknesses, but it suggests that mindfulness interventions may lead to reductions in a variety of problematic conditions, including pain, stress, anxiety, depressive relapse, and disordered eating” (p. 126).
It is to be noted that both meta-analyses cited above refer to health and well-being benefits derived from mindfulness practice rather than to social benefits. Whereas research at the individual level regarding the benefits of mindfulness is difficult enough to conduct well, the methodological difficulties would be greatly compounded at the social level. When we talk about world peace, of course, we are leaping to the social level on a global scale. Writing about the status of research on meditation, including mindfulness meditation, Stock (2006) observed, “we have yet to determine its effect on individuals’ predilection for aggression, violence, socially deviant behavior, and the destruction of the environment” (p. 1763). Similarly, Nelson (2007) stated, “there does not appear to be any published empirical research relating inner peace to global attitudes” (p. 1). He conducted a study to explore the relationship between those two variables and found, “correlations between feelings and global attitudes were not significant” (p.1). Likewise, Puopolo (2007) found in a study of individuals who identified themselves as having achieved inner peace that they did not show attitudes of significant engagement with community and world peace issues.
Some studies have been conducted to determine the effects of offering mindfulness training to prisoners” (Kishore, Verma, & Dahr, 1996; Murphy, 1995; Parks et al., 2003; Samuelson, Carmody, Kabat-Zinn, & Bratt, 2007). Using varied research instruments, as well as differing approaches to mindfulness, these studies found, to varying degrees, “evidence of reduced hostile and aggressive attitudes and behaviors for participating inmates” (Samuelson, Carmody, Kabat-Zinn, & Bratt, 2007, p. 263). These results are promising. However, the studies were done with literally captive audiences in the total institutions of prisons and were authorized by those who ran the prisons. Therefore, the studies did not provide evidence of the potential effectiveness of mindfulness training for transforming situations where malevolent social dominators in power may be mobilizing masses of authoritarian followers for the enactment of war, genocide, and oppression. Clearly, there is a need for more research to inquire into the potential contributions of mindfulness practice for peace-building purposes.
How Relevant Is Mindfulness to World Peace?
As a peace and nonviolence educator, I am acutely aware that the simple phrase “world peace,” so easy to say and to daydream about wishfully, refers to a utopian vision that is, alas, highly unlikely to be realized in the foreseeable future. Violence and warfare are such complex, multifaceted, widespread phenomena. How could mindfulness or any other proposed panacea, however beneficial, singly be “the best way to world peace?” So much violence and warfare are enacted daily in the world, and I will not venture to survey their incidence here.
However, I will mention one tragic situation, one of many that are occurring as I write this essay. I am referring to the violence being inflicted mercilessly in Burma (Myanmar) against the Buddhist monks, peaceful practitioners of mindfulness par excellence, and against the populace there who have been demonstrating for freedom and human rights in protest against their country’s ruthless, military dictatorship. Coincidentally, while writing up to this point, I took a break from working on this essay to see whether anything needing attention had come to my e-mail inbox. I received a disheartening report about the abysmal violence in Burma today. What I read deeply saddens and horrifies me, yet it is tragically relevant to what I would like to say about the well-intentioned belief of the man who believes that “the best way to world peace is through mindfulness.” The following is, word-for-word, the message that I received at about 10 p. m. on October 2, 2007. Be prepared; it’s brutal news.
We saw on BBC world, saying that 200 monks were arrested. The true picture is far worse!!!!!!!!!
For one instance, the monastery at an obscure neighborhood of Yangon, called Ngwe Kyar Yan (on Wei-za-yan-tar Road , Yangon ) had been raided early this morning.
A troop of lone-tein (riot police comprised of paid thugs) protected by the military trucks, raided the monastery with 200 studying monks. They systematically ordered all the monks to line up and banged and crushed each one's head against the brick wall of the monastery. One by one, the peaceful, non- resisting monks fell to the ground, screaming in pain. Then, they tore off the red robes and threw them all in the military trucks (like rice bags) and took the bodies away.
The head monk of the monastery was tied up in the middle of the monastery, tortured, bludgeoned, and later died the same day, today. Tens of thousands of people gathered outside the monastery, warded off by troops with bayoneted rifles, unable to help their helpless monks being slaughtered inside the monastery. Their every try to forge ahead was met with the bayonets.
When all is done, only 10 out of 200 remained alive, hiding in the monastery. Blood stained everywhere on the walls and floors of the monastery.
Please tell your audience of the full extent of the fate of the monks, please, please!!!!!!!!!!!!
'Arrested' is not enough expression. They have been bludgeoned to death!!!!!!
In the preceding message, we are confronted with an account, which was confirmed by a news report (Spiegel On Line International, 2007), of what happened when murderous thugs, authorized by a dictatorial regime being challenged by a popular, spiritually inspired uprising of people aspiring to human rights, got their violent hands on nonviolent Buddhist monks. It may be difficult to think after reading such an awful account, but it is important to face and reflect on the implications of such gruesome realities. The story of the massacre of the monks leads, all too painfully, into my discussion of the limitations to the notion that world peace could realistically be best achieved through the spreading of the practice of mindfulness, accompanied by research about its usefulness and its adoption by business people seeking, above all, to promote their organizations’ success.
Burma is one of the countries of the world where mindfulness has been entwined for centuries with its cultural and spiritual traditions. Monks have been popularly honored and revered there as the exemplars and teachers of mindfulness and the other aspects of the Buddhist path. However, the deep roots of Buddhism and its teachings of mindfulness in this culture have not prevented the violent abuses enacted by the military despots in their 45-year reign of terror. It has not prevented their current retaliatory savagery against the monks and people of the country, nor has the monks’ utter commitment to nonviolence, as both a way of life and a political strategy, protected them from the most horrific of fates possible, excruciating torture and murder at the hands of fellow humans. This grievous example from a culture and society where mindfulness could have made major impacts leads to disquieting doubts about the belief that “the best way to world peace is through mindfulness.” Furthermore, the demonstrating monks themselves held banners that appealed to human potentials other than the bare witnessing involved in mindfulness. Their banners read, “love and kindness must win over everything” (Deats, 2007).
In the real world in which we live, not all people have a contemplative disposition or the self-discipline to practice mindfulness meditation regularly. Likewise, not all people have an introspective nature that would lead them to learn about and adopt moment-to-moment mindfulness in daily life. Those who do practice mindfulness may well become more peaceful people in their hearts, minds, and dealings with others. Some of the non-practitioners who come into contact with them may appreciate and benefit from the more peaceful ways of the mindfulness practitioners. However, there are others, such as the dictators, soldiers, and thugs of Burma, who were all too ready to give and follow the cruel commands to murder the nonviolent monks who practiced mindfulness by crushing their skulls, within which were housed their peace-aspiring, compassionate, well-trained, learned minds. In this horrific case, the worst of humanity destroyed the best in the most bestial manner. The tyrants and murderers undoubtedly rationalized their actions (Orizio, 2003; Tavris & Aronson, 2007) and held their victims in contempt. Bullies, thugs, and assailants despise their victims, all the more so when the victims pose no threat, just as the unarmed, non-resisting monks posed no threat.
The military rulers of Burma and the armed enforcers of their tyrannical will have no more interest in becoming peaceful in thought, word, and deed through mindfulness than do the social dominators and their authoritarian followers elsewhere, such as in the right-wing United States executive branch of government at the present time, in the political leadership of the People’s Republic of China, and in the executive suites of the predatory, multinational corporations that have profited monetarily from the building by slave labor of a natural gas pipeline through Burma (Goodman, 2007).
It can be a fatal mistake to underestimate the ruthlessness of the authoritarian dominators and their followers. Altemeyer, a social psychologist and researcher, based the following statements about dominators on data carefully gathered through experimental simulations and surveys.
Dominance is the first order of business with them in a relationship…and vulnerable minorities provide easy targets for exerting power, for being mean, for domination. It’s an open question whether the aggression mainly serves a desire to dominate, or if the domination mainly serves a desire to hurt others” (Altemeyer, 2006, p. 170).
The Buddhist monks, who practice mindfulness and nonviolence, have, alas, been “easy targets for exerting power,” malevolent power in the current social context in Burma. It remains to be seen whether the monks’ courageous, ethical leadership of the most recent upsurge of the democracy movement in Burma will lead to the ultimate removal of the military dictatorship and the restoration of democracy and human rights there. However, the monks’ martyrdom exemplifies the tragic reality that mindfulness may bring peace and nonviolence to those who are disposed to choose this way of life but does not offer them any protection from those disposed to violence and oppression. The preceding sentence may appear to be a needless truism in the eyes of some readers who are aware of the extent of inhumane depravity in the world. Nonetheless, it is a sobering reminder for those of us who comfort ourselves with the illusory belief that behaving virtuously affords us some sort of karmic or divine protection from evildoers.
What makes some disposed to choose a spiritual path of mindfulness and compassion? What predisposes others to lives of cruelty, domination, and violence? These are important questions that would require careful exposition and the consideration of different perspectives to be answered fully. For the purpose of this essay, I would like to emphasize that the capacity to practice mindfulness depends, in part, on the neurobiological basis for genuine self-witnessing, for equanimous acceptance of what is discovered, and for feeling empathy and compassion for self and others. Depending on developmental influences in the earliest stages of life, people vary greatly in this capacity. Those who experienced secure attachment early in life due to a nurturing, attuned, nonviolent, primary caregiver are more likely to feel empathy and compassion and to act altruistically and nonviolently because this is what they have learned from the very beginnings of their lives (Gerhardt, 2004; Gillath, Shaver, & Mikulincer, 2006; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005; Oliner & Oliner, 1988; Sunderland, 2006). Richly developed neuronal networks in the affect-regulating areas of the brain mediate their pro-social feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. By contrast, recent neurobiological research has found that those adults who had suffered severe trauma as infants and toddlers, trauma due to emotional and physical neglect and/or abuse, and who have not benefited from healing relationships during critical windows of opportunity in their subsequent development, have suffered brain damage due to the neuro-toxic effects of abnormally high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, resulting in the destruction of billions of neurons in the very areas of the brain that make affect regulation, self-witnessing, mindfulness, empathy, and compassion possible (Perry, 1997; Perry & Szalavitz, 2006; Schore, 2003a&b; Teicher, 2002). The adversely affected brain areas include the following: • The orbitofrontal cortex, which becomes functional at the age of 10 to 12 months, matures during toddlerhood, and is critical to empathic understanding the emotional experience of others, self-awareness, the development of moral behavior, and much else (Schore, 200 a & b; Siegel & Hartzell, 2004); • The hippocampus, which becomes functional in the second and third years of life and mediates explicit memory, evaluates situations and can act as a brake on the amygdala’s threat-alarm system, integrates traumatic memories into verbal memory, and is involved in a sense of self through narrative awareness of one’s life story organized into categories of past, present, and future (Teicher, 2002); • The corpus collosum, the bands of nerve fibers that connect the left and right hemispheres and make the integration of hemispheric functioning possible; • The cerebellar vermis and GABA fibers that have a calming influence on excitement in the limbic brain; • The insula and the mirror neurons that are essential to sympathy and empathy (deMause, 2007).
What does this neurobiological information have to do with the question pertaining to whether mindfulness may be the best pathway to world peace? It indicates that mindfulness requires an underlying, intact, highly functioning neurobiological basis, whose foundations are laid down in the brain in the earliest periods of life through nurturing relationships and that can be further enhanced and refined through later positive relationships as well as through mindfulness practice itself. Lacking those foundations, or subsequent reparative relationships, people will be unlikely to be inclined toward mindfulness, empathy, and compassion, and may, to the contrary, be liable to destructive, unconsciously driven attitudes and actions.
Consider the following. Stevenson (1998) reviewed the life stories of 14 twentieth century dictators. In every case, she found evidence of severe, repeated humiliations and abuse in their developmental histories. They became ruthless social dominators, to use the term developed by Altemeyer (2006) in his empirical research. Orizio (2003) interviewed seven former dictators and found that they all viewed themselves as self-sacrificing servants of their nations, despite their having presided over torture, murder, the suppression of democracy, stealing, looting, and genocide. They showed no evidence of mindfulness, appropriate guilt and remorse, or moral awareness of the egregiousness of their crimes against humanity. Their brains, due to severe, early traumatic injuries, lacked the circuitry that could make such awareness and feelings possible. In his analysis of the lives of despotic leaders, deMause (2002) made observations similar to Stevenson’s, and he documented that traumatizing abuse and neglect have been widespread in historical modes of childrearing up to very recently. Such developmental trauma leads to the formation in early childhood of people who are liable in later life to become authoritarian followers (Altemeyer), all-too-ready to obey the cruel commands of the despotic social dominators. Milburn and Conrad (1996) found that the more punitively people had been raised, the more punitive were their political attitudes, including support for war as an instrument of national policy, xenophobia, capital punishment, and harsh punishment of offenders, although not of white-collar criminals in positions of corporate and governmental power.
By contrast, Oliner and Oliner (1988), through careful, quantitative and qualitative, empirical research conducted 40 years after the end of World War II, discovered that a sample of the one-half of one-percent of the Christian adults in Nazi-controlled Europe who risked their own lives to be rescuers of Jews came from families in which they were raised nonviolently and non-punitively, with kindness, reason, care, and empathy. These families of origin provided exceptions to the harsh, punitive childrearing practices that were the norm at the time (deMause, 2002; Miller, 1983) in Germany and Austria. Having received compassion in their developmental histories, the rescuers extended this compassion to fellow humans in need, although those they rescued were from a stigmatized, persecuted minority group.
Mindfulness has been demonstrated through experience and research to be a salutary practice that brings well-being benefits to its practitioners. It may often contribute to the cultivation of more peaceful attitudes, feelings, and behaviors in those human beings with the disposition and capacity to engage in it. The spreading of the practice of mindfulness may lay the groundwork for more collectively peaceful conditions. Its greater integration into cultures may even be a necessary precondition, but not a sufficient one, for world peace. From the evidence discussed above, another necessary, although not sufficient, precursor to world peace is the reduction and, as much as possible, elimination of violence, trauma, abuse, and neglect of infants, toddlers, and children, along with nurturance, kindness, reason, and appropriate boundary-setting guidance in attentive childrearing.
Some cross-cultural studies support this premise. Barry (2007) analyzed data related to five formative experiences from a worldwide sample of 48 diverse societies. Using three statistical procedures—correlation coefficient, partial correlation, and multiple regression—he found that “frequent violent crimes are most highly correlated with a formative experience during late childhood, frequent corporal punishment of boys” (p. 80). Furthermore, he concluded that, “absence of corporal punishment is especially associated with infrequent violent crimes. A beneficial evolution of civilization is indicated be recent abolition of corporal punishment and of other abusive treatment of children in 20 contemporary nations” (p. 81).
DeMeo (1998) conducted meta-analyses of Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, involving 50 variables and 1,170 cultures, and of Textor’s A Cross-Cultural Summary, involving 63 variables and 400 cultures. Demeo found 95% correlations that “antisocial violence and destructive aggression were rooted in specific, culturally determined infant and childhood traumas, adolescent sex repressions, and socioeconomic processes and institutions which worked to significantly subordinate children to adults, females to males, and ordinary people to class- or caste-structured hierarchies” (p. 389).
Similarly, Prescott (1975) studied 49 cultures with regard to two key variables. He found that those cultures that raised children in nurturing, physically affectionate ways and that were also permissive toward appropriate, adolescent sexual play had a 98% probability of being nonviolent with regard to very low levels of warfare and social violence. To the contrary, those cultures that inflicted pain and violence as a normative aspect of childrearing had high levels of warfare and social violence.
Therefore, those concerned with contributing toward the achievement of world peace, in addition to promoting mindfulness, would do well to concern themselves with the early developmental roots of the capacity for compassion, altruism, empathy, and peaceful dispositions. This would involve mindful, compassionate, nonviolent childrearing practices. In order to promote such childrearing, effective parenting classes are needed as an important part of the curriculum in schools. Neighborhood parenting-support centers are also needed. We need to eliminate, not just egregious abuse and neglect of children, but also normative, cultural practices that traumatize them. Such practices include corporal punishment (Milburn & Conrad, 1996) and routine circumcision (Fleiss, 1997). Because children’s imaginations are so permeable to influences from media images in the early years when the distinction between reality and fantasy is not firm, children need to be sheltered from violent media (Grossman & DeGaetano, 1999) and given, instead, stories and images of loving kindness and moral heroism. Social policy needs to support families so that both mothers and fathers can give their children the care they need, especially at the beginnings of life. The United States, alas, has the weakest maternity and paternity leave policy of any industrialized nation. Slovenia, by contrast, gives mothers of newborns at least 52 weeks of fully paid leave, and 66 countries give time off for dads of newborns, too (National Geographic, 2007). Boys need to be shown tenderness from the very start of life and should be socialized to be mindful and expressive of their feelings, including the vulnerable ones, so that masculinity is no longer identified with a tough façade and the readiness to behave violently (Miedzian, 1991). Schools, at all levels, need to provide students with principled, experimental practice in refusing to obey malevolent authority (McCarthy, 2002). The foregoing are just a few of the many cultural developments that are needed to raise young generations who will be more able to build peace than were their parents and forebears.
Moreover, other significant structural and cultural changes are needed if anything approaching world peace is ever to be achieved. The growing gap between rich and poor is untenable. By 1998, the 400 richest individuals in the world controlled as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity, amounting to over 3 billion people (Berman, 2006). This is just one graphic example of the “structural violence” (Galtung, 1969) that causes about 18 million deaths a year (Gilligan, 1996,1997). Some highly organized groups of people in positions of power profit from structural violence, as well as from global violence, and their stake in the suffering of others needs to be understood, exposed, and opposed (Pilisuk & Rountree, 2007). Adequately addressing the subject of structural violence goes beyond the scope of this essay. However, it is far too important a contributing factor to war and social violence not to be mentioned as a reminder that the individual practice of mindfulness alone will not suffice to build world peace unless structural peace and social justice replace structural violence.
Similarly, the subject of “cultural violence” (Galtung, 1990) is equally vast and is being acknowledged here because of its insidious significance. Cultural violence provides the ideological justification for direct and structural violence. Cultural violence may be perpetuated through collectively held beliefs, histories, idiomatic expressions, negative stereotypes of out-groups, myths, fundamentalist approaches to religion, symbols, songs, art, stories, and movies. Mindfulness alone cannot counteract the negative effects of cultural violence. Critical cultural analysis is also needed, along with the building of a culture that supports peace building in all realms of existence. Practitioners of spiritual paths need to find ways to make real the promise of the banners held by the Burmese Buddhist monks who affirmed their faith that “love and kindness must win over everything.”
This essay was stimulated by consideration of someone’s expressed belief that “the best way to world peace is through mindfulness.” I defined the concept of mindfulness, related it to its Buddhist roots, referred to contemporary appropriations of mindfulness, and cited scientific research on the subject. While I am appreciative, both experientially and theoretically, of mindfulness for personal and spiritual cultivation, I do not believe that it can alone bear the weight of transforming this violent globe into a sphere of peace. The tragic, current situation in Burma was cited to highlight the limitations of mindfulness as a peace-building pathway, without denying that mindfulness can play a valuable role. The significance of raising children in nurturing, nonviolent ways was emphasized because that can provide the developmental foundations for mindfulness, empathy, and compassion. Social policies and cultural changes to support such childrearing were also addressed. The need for eliminating both structural and cultural violence was affirmed. Ultimately, I hope that this essay illuminates the complexity of issues of peace building and that it stimulates further inquiry into and practical application of ways for transforming violent cultures into more peaceful ones.
I pause for a moment, becoming mindfully aware of the precious cycle of breath entering through my nostrils, physically sensing the pleasant waves of the expanding and contracting movements of breathing throughout my torso. Our fleeting lives depend upon the relative purity of the air that envelops us and enters and leaves us, moment by moment. We depend equally on one another for physical and emotional support and for embracing love, kindness, and compassion, as well as for eschewing violence. May we build peace on earth through all the creative means at our disposal, despite the obstacles and the odds against this quixotic, utopian venture! May we cultivate peace in our hearts, minds, relations, societies, and cultures!
(Note to the Reader: Please scroll down to the next four pages for the references for this essay.)
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