Paying Attention to the Contents of Mindfulness: Meditation within the Context of Secular Ethics
Brendan Ozawa-de Silva, Life University
Mindfulness, often described as "moment-by-moment awareness," is popularly taught as involving a change in the practitioner's relationship to their thoughts, rather than a change in the content of the practitioner's thoughts. Understood in this way, mindfulness might appear to be relatively unrelated to cultural context. In actuality, however, both traditional Buddhist forms of mindfulness practice and many secular contemporary forms of mindfulness practice understand mindfulness as retention of a familiarized mental object, which can and often does include virtuous thoughts, and therefore emphasize both the content and process of mindfulness. The
Four Foundations of Mindfulness, for example, a fundamental Buddhist practice, involves becoming more and more mindful of specific aspects of one's body, mind, and experience, such as one's mortality, in order to live in better accord with reality and thereby achieve greater wellbeing. Many of the beneficial aspects of contemporary mindfulness practices may result not merely from more refined "moment-by-moment awareness," but from the insights that are achieved through increased awareness and the content of what the practitioner retains in mind. By focusing on only a limited portion of what mindfulness means in its indigenous traditions, such as Buddhism, such modern presentations of mindfulness can obscure the close relationships between
mindfulness practices and their cultural, normative context, and may even limit the full effectiveness of mindfulness practice. Some contemporary secular practices, however, employ mindfulness in an explicitly normative way. Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), developed at Emory, and Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT), developed at Stanford, employ mindfulness along normative lines to help the practitioner bring about specific changes, such as a decrease in excessive self-centered thinking and an increase in other-orientation. These meditation practices are also explicitly relational, whereas most other mindfulness practices, by focusing so heavily on the self's relationship to thoughts as thoughts, tend to be more nonrelational and individual-centered. Emerging data suggests that other-oriented meditation styles
lead to more other-oriented and social behavior as opposed to non-relational styles of mindfulness. Maintaining the links between mindfulness and normative values in meditation practices may help us retain the full strength of these practices as tools for promoting flourishing, happiness and well-being, while not endangering their secular character in contemporary use. Moreover, without attention to culture, we will remain unaware of the culturally-embedded notions of flourishing and happiness that influence contemporary mindfulness-based practices and which may differ in significant ways from traditional Buddhist contexts. This would limit the adoption and secularization of mindfulness practices.