Mindfulness in Its Original Religious Context: Buddhism & Psychotherapy

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Professor Mark Unno of the University of Oregon entitled, "Buddhism and Psychotherapy."  Dr. Unno has a unique perspective on the topic because he is both a Buddist scholar as well as an ordained Buddhist priest, serving in a historical/ literary capacity, as a teacher and lecturer, as well as in a counseling capacity.

He stated that the connections between Buddhism and Psychotherapy are widespread and varied.  His lecture began with the contemporary connection between the two: mindfulness. 

Dr. Unno said that mindfulness is booming.  He attributes this boom to the following:
- there is a perceived need for centering, awareness, and calming in our society
- we live in a complex and fast-paced  world
- developed technology, as well as access, exchange, and abundance of information has fragmented our world

He went on to give a little more background on the history of this phenomenon within the last century.  The "mindfulness movement" has evolved from several similar movements.  The catch phrase to discuss Asian religious practice in modern America was "zen" about 10-20 years ago.  Mindcure, another type of secular spirituality proceeded that.  According to Dr. Unno, this incorporated both physical and mental health in tasks such as walking in nature.  In the late 60s, "New Age Religion/ Philosophy" developed partly as a result of Asian religion's appeal to Americans in being "non-theistic."  These people desired enlightenment, ecstatic, and mystical experiences, but often used, as he said, "a little chemical help" to bypass the years of work.  All of these increased the interest in meditation practices that are popular in the West such as:
- yoga
- tai chi
- zen meditation
- traditional (or "talk") therapy

Dr. Unno suggested that these are "pitched and perceived" to be "scientific."  That is important to note when you consider that the Dali Lama describes Buddhism as "science of the mind," utilizing a scientific approach to operating in daily life.  Dr. Unno seemed hesitant to fully embrace mindfulness as it stands, partially because of its new role in popular culture.  His main issue came down to the fact that in traditional Buddhist practice, meditation/ zen/ mindfulness was only a piece of the puzzle.  The other part, arguably as important, is the traditional teaching of denouncing attachments to this world.  According to Dr. Unno, this corresponding teaching is not valued in our society and it has therefore is not promoted in popular culture. 

If mindfulness were truly placed in its original religious context, meditation practices as well as denunciation of attachments would go hand in hand.

He went on with his lecture, examining other aspects of the connection between Buddhism and Psychotherapy, but I thought this would be plenty to examine.

To an extent, I agree that understanding the values, traditions, and history from which a practice arises are important and useful.  I'm not fully convinced, however, that mindfulness and other meditation practices necessitate the full religious practice of Buddhism to be helpful and powerful for the participant.  This is not meant to be any disrespect to practicing Buddhists or Buddhist scholars.  Surely, practicing Buddhism is a wonderful option for those interested, getting the benefit of the traditions and history, as practicing Christians benefit from the traditions and history of Christianity.  However, just as a secular person could read the Judeo-Christian 10 Commandments and see parts that apply to all humans, such is the case with this sliver of Buddhism. 

This is not to say, however, that we couldn't all benefit from considering our attachment to the world around us.  Many religious practices encourage giving to the poor; giving up your possessions; being loving, kind, and generous to others; and living for a world beyond what we see.  There is value in this, but each person must decide what they embrace for themselves.

As a result of this lecture, although I am not a practicing Buddhist, I hope to incorporate more regarding various histories, traditions, and religious practices that can be associated with mindfulness.  I also intend to incorporate more on the topic of detachment and denunciation of attachments, even just for contemplation.

Image taken in New York City

What do you think about the role of religious context in mindfulness? If you have any comments, please leave them below or on the Facebook page.