Mindfulness, A Culture of Awakening, Psychotherapy

Warning: Twisted academic tone, grab bag of ideas — really curious about mixing psychotherapy and Buddhist mindfulness practices?

A culture of awakening. Should psychotherapies that employ mindfulness techniques incorporate beliefs from which mindfulness practices arose? Some suggest that taken out of their cultural context mindfulness practices are diluted.

Batchelor (1997) has suggested Buddhism is a “culture of awakening”(p. 20). Increasing insight, awareness, and satisfying functioning in society have all been goals of psychotherapy.

Separating mindfulness from religion. In some way, Buddhism or dharma practice addresses all of these concerns. In this context, dharma refers to the realizations and practices espoused by the Buddha. A number of writers (Kabat-Zinn, 2000, 2003, 2005; Batchelor, 1997) employ the phrase ‘dharma practice’ as a way of attempting to separate mindfulness from its religious origins. Kabat-Zinn (2003) states: “The Buddha was not a Buddhist”(p. 66) and points out that he never appointed a successor, as he enjoined others to be “a lamp unto yourselves”(Smith & Novak, p. 24). The spirit of his teachings appears not to be compatible with ‘isms’.

Ethical propositions and a plan. But Buddhism provides more than a technique for increasing awareness. It offers propositions (not rules) and ethical precepts (not commandments) that the practitioner is encouraged to try out for themselves, or at least be aware of.

As a 2500-year-old ‘culture of awakening’, Buddhism is heir to a rich, complex, and sometimes confusing literature (Lopez, 2002). It presents ideas – developed over thousands of years, transmuted through numerous cultures – about the nature of suffering and the reduction of suffering.

This involves a specific plan that details specific emotions to cultivate (often through meditation) when another other emotions weigh heavily. In its combination of propositions, precepts, and practices Buddhism could, in some sense, serve as a model for interventions that attempt to incorporate beliefs, as does ACT explicitly, and MBSR does implicitly. Incorporating ideas from the cultures of origin involves some picking and choosing, and what remains is hardly ‘Buddhist’. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the image portrayed in the media of ‘Buddhist’ ideas being brought into the culture is quite silly.

The leap from East to West. Just as Buddhist ideas and practices were adopted and adapted by cultures throughout history, so are they being adopted and adapted to American culture. But the previous cultures were all Asian. The leap from East to West is a big one.

No single culture. To describe Buddhism as a single entity is somewhat misleading. Meditation may be a thread that runs through many of the monastic orders, but many of these orders have not had contact with one another for hundreds of years (Smith & Novak, 2003).

Terms such as Buddhist psychology, Buddhist philosophy, and even Buddhism itself represent a complex variety of traditions, encompassing many practices. In this light, the idea that there is a single concept of mindfulness emanating from Asia seems improbable, if not romantic.

And, by the way, mindfulness practices are not exclusively Buddhist, either.

Kalea Chapman, Psy.D.


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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

One thought on “Mindfulness, A Culture of Awakening, Psychotherapy”

  1. The Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy website says that the program teaches “how to sidestep mental habits such as rumination and self-blame.” Although the stated purpose of MBCT is preventing cases of depression, it seems reasonable to assume that, because it teaches people to deal with negative thinking, it will at least serve as a treatment for mild to moderate depression when used in combination with other treatment(s), especially for people who have experience with meditation. For example, the University of Kansas program Therapeutic Lifestyle Change, which is described by the researchers as a treatment for depression, includes “anti-ruminative behaviors” as one of its six “elements.”


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