The Mighty Avalanche of Hype (or Does Mindfulness Mean Anything?)

4514493182_b23f431199_zphoto by biblioteca general antonio machado (creative commons)

Really nice, succinct piece on the hype surrounding mindfulness on the 13.7 Cosmos and Culture section of the NPR website. It covers:

  • The issue of hype
  • the issue of non-objectivity (author is a meditator)
  • the problem of definition (which definition of mindfulness?)
  • the two kinds of critics, 1 – concern about the validity of research (at this point it’s really worth reading the article — there are some great, thoughtful, critical quotes about the science and the way it’s portrayed in the media)
  • the two kinds of critics, 2 – concern about authenticity of practice (more great quotes! Just go read the article, already!) and how Buddhist meditation has become watered down into “tepid self help”.
  • The uneasy compromise – it may not help in the way or to the depth that one would prefer, but some people find great benefit to mindful practice. So why not?

Solid piece of thoughtful, informed writing.

Ajahn Brahm on Lovingkindness

Ajahn_Brahmavamso_MahatheraI’ve recently been dipping into Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. As is typical of him, the treatment is mostly very down-to-earth and practical. (Another title: Who Ordered this Truckload of Dung?) Mostly, because parts of it are quite religious and technical.

His advice regarding lovingkindness (or metta) meditation, which can be quite challenging for many Westerners, falls squarely in the practical category. I’ve mostly encountered this practice taught by focusing on three subjects:

  1. A person you care for.
  2. A person you are neutral towards.
  3. A person you have difficulty with.

Many meditators have such difficulty with focusing on a person they dislike or feel conflicted about that it derails the whole process. Brahm has a different, very practical, approach:

“In metta meditation you focus your attention on the feeling of loving kindness, developing that delightful emotion until it fills the whole mind. The way this is achieved can be compared to the way you light a campfire. You start with paper or anything else that is easy to light. Then you add kindling, small twigs, or strips of wood. When the kindling is on fire you add thicker pieces of wood, and after some time the thick logs. Once the fire is roaring and very hot, you can even put on wet or sappy logs and they are soon alight.

Metta can accurately be compared with a warm and radiant fire burning in your heart. You cannot expect to light the fire of loving-kindness by starting with a difficult object, no more than you can expect to light a campfire by striking a match under a thick log. So do not begin metta meditation by spreading metta to yourself or to an enemy. Instead begin by spreading loving-kindness to something that is easy to ignite with loving-kindness.”

Note that he regards one’s self as a difficult subject for loving-kindness meditation. This is particularly true for Westerners.

Ajahn Brahm’s website includes, among other things, a list of his books and his bio.


Mindfulness: How is it Relevant to Psychotherapy?

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photo by Cam Miller (creative commons)

This post originally from Pasadena Therapist my old private practice blog:

A new vantage point. Why is mindfulness, as it has been conceived by Westerners, useful in psychotherapy? One compelling reason may be that it represents a new mode or vantage point, for most Western psychologists, from which to view their experience and the experience of their clients. Deikman (1982) addresses a clinically relevant point:

The distinction between awareness and the content of awareness tends to be ignored in Western psychology; its implications for our everyday life are not appreciated. Indeed most people have trouble recognizing the difference between awareness and content, which are part of everyday life…. Awareness is the ground of conscious life, the background or field in which all elements exist, different from thoughts, sensations, or images (p. 10).

Therapeutic application. Research seems to suggest that such views may be passed on to clients to good effect –- whether explicitly or implicitly, experientially or insightfully. Such a vantage point, which views thoughts, sensations, emotions as fleeting events having no inherent existence – makes room for acceptance. This acceptance may be directed toward unacceptable thoughts, impulses, or emotions.

Depressives and compulsives. Mindfulness, as presented here, emphasizes the present moment. From this perspective, the past and future are illusions. Dwelling in the past, as depressives often do, robs us of the present moment. Worrying about the future, as anxious, compulsive, and many other people in our hurried culture do, robs us of the present moment.

Applying a Buddhist point of view. Those caught up in repetitive ruminative thinking, or that dissociate, are barely aware of the present moment. They are, from this perspective, living in a world of delusions. They are incapacitating themselves from taking effective action in the present, where all problems are solved, if they are to be solved at all.

Language: Bane or boon? Hayes & Shenk (2004), developers of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), have written about both the immense power of human language and its ability to trap us in a world of abstractions that does not have any inherent existence, an idea that is not dissimilar from some Buddhist philosophy.

FAQ on mindfulness and psychotherapy here at KC Mindfulness.

Bhante Gunaratana

bhante g

Gunaratana wrote Mindfulness in Plain English (which is available both as a book from the usual vendors, and also as a free pdf file). The book is considered to be something of a classic, and is written in a clear, straightforward style. In any case, The Experience of Samadhi: An In-depth Exploration of Buddhist Meditation (here on Amazon, and also as a free pdf file) by Richard Shankman contains eight “interviews with contemporary teachers”, including one with Gunaratana.

The interviews alone make Shankman’s book worth the price of admission, highlighting a wide spectrum of opinions and approaches on meditation practice.

Here’s a quote from Gunarata’s interview. He’s speaking about the complementary use of concentration and mindfulness meditation:

With concentration, you can never practice straight away without any problem. You have sleepiness, restlessness, worry, and all the hindrances. They keep bombarding your mind all the time. In those times you use mindfulness to deal with these hindrances and then to proceed with concentration. And therefore anytime you practice concentration, you have to use mindfulness to deal with problems. You cannot simply focus your mind to get you through problems. You can’t do that.

Grab Bag of Guided Meditations

Truly this an impressive How to Meditate: Links for Guided Meditation Practice from Contemplative Mind in Life. The meditations are led by a few different groups, many loosely affiliated with the Vipassana tradition that spawned today’s mindfulness movement (as one critique put it, “Mindfulness Lite”) First, the meditators that came back from Asia in the 60s. These are the current popularizers of mindfulness you are likely aware of (Sharon Salzburg, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Joseph Goldstein, etc.) and also some of their instructors (S. N. Goenka, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, etc.). There are also meditations by those more aligned with academic research and health and wellness concerns (UC San Diego Center for Integrative Medicine, Diana Winston at Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, Secular Humanist Contemplative Group at Harvard, Zindel Siegel of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy). There are one or two that don’t really fit into these camps (Shinzen Young is one).

What won’t you find here? There’s not much Zen, but beyond that there’s not much in the way of the next generation. This is pretty much a baby boomer’s list – a very specific group that has done much to make popular and make secular. Just an observation. Definitely worth checking out.

Two Guided Mindfulness Meditations from Sam Harris

Harris also has a fairly thorough, if fairly typical, overview of Vipassana meditation (the link is below). The two guided meditations are in the Vipassana (mindfulness) style, and appropriately, Sam focusses on the the arising and passing away of the self. While that may sound a little odd to some, he seems to be a very down to earth guy.

The meditations can be found here: The Mirror of Mindfulness.

I wrote an article on meditation two years ago, and since then many readers have asked for further guidance on how to practice. As I said in my original post, I generally recommend a method called vipassana in which one cultivates a form of attention widely known as “mindfulness.” There is nothing spooky or irrational about mindfulness, and the literature on its psychological benefits is now substantial. Mindfulness is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Developing this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness. I will cover the relevant philosophy and science in my next book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, but in the meantime, I have produced two guided meditations (9 minutes and 26 minutes) for those of you who would like to get started with the practice. Please feel free to share them.

Free eBook on Mindfulness

This a collection of posts about mindfulness from my other blog, Pasadena Therapist, which I compiled into an eBook. Perhaps you’ll find it of interest. Here’s the link and the topics.



1. 11 Misconceptions About Mindfulness Meditation

2. Am I Meditating Correctly?

3. Your Phone Vs. Your Heart

4. From “Search Inside Yourself” by C. Meng-Tan – Anger and Goodness

5. Neurons That Fire Together, Wire Together

6. Mapping the Mindful Brain

7. Your Brain on Meditation: The Role of the Posterior Cingulate

8. Using Mindfulness Meditation for ADHD

9. Additional Resources and Cited Sources



“You might be tempted to avoid the messiness of daily living for the tranquility of stillness and peacefulness. This of course would be an attachment to stillness, and like any strong attachment, it leads to delusion. It arrests development and short-circuits the cultivation of wisdom.” ― Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

Pretty Brain Blobs and a Facebook Antidote?

Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain. Since we are in an age where anything related to the brain generates instant credibility (and conforms to the rule of Blobology), I attach this. It’s published by the Harvard Business Review. Article focusses on two areas of the brain, one (anterior cingulate cortex) associated with emotional regulation, and another (hippocampus), associated with memory, emotion, resilience.

More interesting, is the work done by Judson Brewer at Yale. His research has focussed on something he calls the Default Mode Network. Basically this is the part of the brain that is active when we are doing nothing. And he has correlated that part of the brain’s activity with greater levels of unhappiness. He wanders a little farther, hinting that selfishness is part of what fuels unhappiness. Here’s a (pretty long) quote from an interview Brewer did at Buddhist Geeks.

 And we were a little surprised when we analyzed the data. We didn’t see much activity in the brain like increased activity in experienced meditators but we saw some specific brain regions that had deactivation patterns.  And when we looked more closely at this, it was fascinating.

We were pleasantly surprised to see that two of the main brain regions that were deactivated, and on whole there were only four or five that survived statistical thresholds, but two of those were part of the default mode network. And the default mode network is particularly interesting because it’s all about me….

And so this default mode network, it’s called the default mode network because it was discovered to be active when people were just laying still and they were doing this “controlled” task of don’t do anything in particular. Well guess what we don’t do in particular when we’re not doing anything in particular. What we’re doing is we’re thinking about ourselves, all the time.

….this actually is present about 50% of our waking lives. So there’s a study in Harvard that’s well-known now done by Matt Killingsworth where they probed people throughout the day and they found that 50% of the time people’s minds were wandering.

And typically when they were wandering they weren’t very happy. And typically it’s this self-referential stuff.  There was a more recent study that just came out this year in the proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences where somebody actually gave people a choice of monetary reward or to disclose about themselves. Guess what they chose?  [laughter]

Yes. They would rather talk about themselves than earn money. And in fact when they imaged people that were doing this, their self-referential default mode network was activated and also the reward centers of the brain, the nucleus accumbens was activated.

So it’s rewarding to talk about yourself which is probably why Facebook is worth $100 billion or $50 billion or whatever it’s worth now. It’s worth all this money because it provides 1. You get to talk about yourself. What am I doing? Here’s pictures of me. There’s this and that. It also provides gossip and gossip is sticky. What are other people doing?

And it also does this in an intermittent reinforcement fashion which is the most reinforcing type of learning. So it happens at random times. You don’t know. It’s not on a regular schedule.  So all of that is many tangents away from the original question which is why are interested in the default mode network and why we’re so excited to see deactivation in the default mode network in experienced meditators.

So, maybe there is hope for freedom from Facebook, after all.

“Restore your attention or bring it to a new level by dramatically slowing down whatever you’re doing.” ― Sharon Salzberg, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation