© 2019 Igor MASLENNIKOV
2019 — №1 (17)
Maslennikov, I. I. (2019) Meditacija v zdravoohranenii: kontury praktik [Healing power of meditation: contours of practices]. (Peer review of: Isceljajushhaja sila meditacii [The healing power of meditation]. 2nd extended edition. Moscow, 2017.). Medicinskaja antropologija i biojetika [Medical anthropology and bioethics]. 2019, 1 (17)
Keywords: meditation, secular meditation, mindfulness, spirituality, Western Buddhism
Abstract: The text reviews the second Russian edition of the book The Healing Power of Meditation — so far rare Russian-language evidence of meditation practice being embedded in health care and wellness. The essays discuss certain philosophical basics of secular meditation, touch upon “spirituality as new religiosity” problem, describe contemplative practices in multiple professional secular groups. All of the anthology’s authors are practicing meditators, monastic or secular.
Igor Maslennikov is a post-graduate student at the Center of Medical Anthropology, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow).
ISCELJAJUSHHAJA SILA MEDITACII: vedushhie jeksperty v oblasti buddizma, mediciny i psihologii issledujut pol’zu sozercatel’noj praktiki dlja zdorov’ja [The Healing Power of Meditation: Leading Experts on Buddhism, Psychology, and Medicine Explore the Health Benefits of Contemplative Practice]. Edited by Andy Fraser. Translated A. Nikulina, E. Nikischikhina. Revised 2nd edition. Moscow: Ganga, 2017. 368 pp. ISBN 9785990742765: review
Since in the late 1970s “meditation” became the non-suspicious “mindfulness”, this practice has been increasingly important in the Western societies. E. g., the turnover of U. S. meditation industry, one of the biggest today, counts several billion dollars. American corporations not only arrange courses for their employees but develop and conduct their own ones (Howe 2017; Bush 2014). Positions like “Chief Mindfulness Officer” or “Spiritual Director” are becoming common in private companies. Meditation is often taught to relieve people not of the Sansaric whirling of birth and death but from financial troubles, stress, psychological disorders, and strained personal relations.
At the same time, meditation is getting increasingly more trust from public institutions. In the UK, meditation is being taught to 6 000 teenage school children (Rhodes 2015), while National Health Service and National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recently approved mindfulness as a standard type of psychotherapy (NHS 2018).
The anthology The Healing Power of Meditation puts under scrutiny the curing potential of secular contemplative practices, their applications in public institutions, as well as them being studied scientifically. Communities practicing meditation are presented comprehensively in the book: these are not exclusively religious centers but also groups practicing in hospitals, hospices, prisons, psychological centers, military facilities, schools, etc.
The book befalls to popular science and popular spirituality literary genres. Its chapters include explanations of contemplative experiences on the border of science, medicine, common sense, and spiritual adventure; e. g., one author calls curiosity, kindness, and preparedness for difficulties essential qualities of a meditation instructor. He adds that a good instructor creates an atmosphere specifically fostering mindfulness (p. 238).
Spirituality but not Religiosity?
Secular meditation is an important practice, rapidly spreading throughout the Western world. Most exercises related to it are built upon the basis of Buddhist, or, more rarely, Hinduist system. At the same time, many of the emerging secular contemplative courses withdraw from their religious roots, to a greater or lesser extent. The important question remains: is religious framing necessary for meditation practice? Or, can it be exclusively secular? Some studies have revealed meditation’s additional efficiency when it utilizes spiritual symbols and techniques; secular meditation for its part may be more universal and approachable for the general public (Wachholtz & Austin 2013). The Healing Power of Meditation anthology brings up many arguments that sound interesting in the discussion on “spirituality as new religiosity” (Rutkevich 2014).
On the one hand, even certain religious agents speak in favor of spirituality’s self-sufficiency: the Tibetan nun Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche insists that religion and spirituality are the elements without which many contemporary people can get along (p. 64). According to her, the historical Buddha himself would not object to such an approach. She radically separates contemplative practice from “spirituality” itself, associating the latter with only pretense, constraint, and self-reflection (p. 72). The Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama XIV, also supports emergence of new secular meditation forms. When, back in the 1990s, he was asked about the apparent dangers of secularization of spiritual practices, the Dalai Lama XIV replied briefly: this planet is inhabited by four billion people, with only one billion of them Buddhists; however, all four billion people experience suffering (p. 190).
Still, most of the anthology’s authors draw upon the Tibetan Buddhist system – although the book includes references to Theravada tradition, Zen Buddhism, and other systems. The anthology’s editor is a former editor of a Buddhist magazine. The creator of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program (MBSR), from which stem many secular meditation methods, the American Jon Kabat-Zinn says that meditation practitioners do not necessarily have to delve into its religious and philosophical sources. However, the instructors must, to a certain extent, study and familiarize themselves with these sources, according to Kabat-Zinn (p. 199).
Varieties of Meditation Applications
The anthology consists of four parts. The authors of the first part are representatives of the Tibetan clergy, a lay teacher and a nun. Sogyal Rinpoche presents in the first chapter general information on meditation’s goals, techniques, and benefits. The key idea of the second chapter, authored by Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, is the possibility to practice meditation with no reliance on spiritual or religious institutions and practices.
The topic of the book’s second part is contemplative science. The French psychiatrist Frederic Rosenfeld relates a brief history of meditation research by the Western science. Key studies and institutions are mentioned, including the U. S.-developed program Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, and Mind and Life Institute, the latter was co-founded by the Dalai Lama XIV and has been bringing together Buddhist monastics, neuroscientists, physicists, psychologists, etc. Importantly, the psychiatrist Rosenfeld dispels the myth surrounding meditation’s medicinal benefits. Indeed, many studies have proven such benefits – from blood pressure normalization to light positive effect in Parkinson’s disease (e. g., see review: Wachholtz & Austin 2013). However, in meditation practice the priority is traditionally distinctly placed not on the medicinal benefits aspect but on the aspect of spiritual acceptance of one’s situation: we meditate not in order to feel better (p. 84). Otherwise, meditation does not work. These words are essential because praising various “guaranteed” physical advantages of meditation training has established itself as part of its promotion in mass media and on the Internet.
Doctor of Biology Clifford Saron gives an outlook of the Shamatha Project – one of the biggest meditation studies, conducted in 2007 (chapter four). Saron, who led the project, elaborates on the qualitative experiment with a control group: the technique’s positive effects were elicited on the level of the human body’s chemistry, psyche, behavior brain functioning.
In the next, fifth, chapter psychologist and neuroscientist Erika Rosenberg gives an accessible explanation of meditation effects in stress condition. Next, neuroscientist Sara Lazar reviews her own and her colleagues’ studies of meditation impact on neural structure and cerebral chemistry (chapter six).
The topic of the book’s third part is mindfulness in healthcare. Chapter seven, authored by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is one of the book’s key texts. The author touches upon important parallels between the Western and Eastern philosophies and epistemologies. Kabat-Zinn substantiates the vast and liberal application of contemplative practices in today’s world, including in separation from their religious roots. MBSR program was originally developed for clinical use, in particular for those patients who fall into gaps of the healthcare system, i. e. for the people whom neither doctors nor psychologists are able to help.
In this context, the researcher reflects on the bridges between Buddhist teaching and medicine. He, however, is against diminishing meditation down to a mental technique or method: if, having heard the word “mindfulness”, we do not simultaneously hear it as “heartfulness”, then we do not, in fact, understand the word’s meaning (p. 176). A mere sequence of attention’s concentration and dispersion cannot define meditation. Kabat-Zinn in fact uses “mindfulness” as a generic definition encompassing “Dharma” in its entirety, in its most universal and nondual essense, in other words, as a synonym for any correct spiritual teaching (p. 186). In the frameworks of MBSR program, “mindfulness” denotes all eight factors of the Eightfold Noble Path enunciated by the historical Buddha (right view, intention, speech, actions, way of life, efforts, mindfulness and concentration; p. 182).
Kabat-Zinn also clarifies the semantic confusion surrounding meditation, mentioning some of the typical problems the Western people stumble upon in contemplative practices; e. g., acutely critical perception of ourselves and detachment from the body experiences.
In the next, eighth, chapter, psychiatrist Edel Maex suggests meditation instructions in depressive spectrum disorders. In the subsequent chapter nine, psychotherapist Lucio Bizzini, touching upon an adjacent topic, discusses his mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program, developed specifically for depression treatment.
Chapter ten, by the clinical psychologist Ursula Bates, is one of the strongest and most touching ones in the anthology. The text includes important descriptions of the contemplative practice of patients and personnel of one of the Irish state hospices. The institution, called Blackrock, serves on a budget basis 250 thousand people in Northern Dublin and is available to people from any social, cultural or religious group. Bates talks about successes of the adapted meditation program without disguising typical problems, e. g., people’s general unpreparedness for meditation, their ambivalent or unclear motivation. I think that these issues are directly related to the discussion on spirituality and religiosity, mentioned above.
The topic of the book’s fourth part is meditation and spiritual work. Cathy Blanc, a doctor, discusses the introduction of contemplative practices in the French healthcare system (chapter eleven). In 2007, Blanc for the first time led her course on compassionate meditative presence in a Marseille nurse school. The students were taught meditation and were explained foundational definitions, auxiliary in the contemplative experience: the Buddhist concepts of impermanence, absence of a static “I”, life’s imperfect nature, accessibility and certainty of liberation experience, etc. These were explained via analogous concepts from the Western philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, as well as instructors’ common sense and life experience. When Blanc and her colleagues conduct meditation, they call this “making a pause” (p. 286). I consider this a witty pointing out of the Western culture’s strict orientation towards productivity, from which one needs to distance oneself in order to obtain contemplative experience.
According to Blanc, in the XXI century, medical education cannot be complete without directly experiencing the nature of one’s mind and ephemerality of suffering. The researcher puts forward the justified question of the inappropriateness of training medical personnel exclusively on a materialistic basis. Conveyance of only information and technical skills inevitably leads to exhaustion and emotional incapacity to take care of oneself or others. According to Blanc’s experience, a key factor here is the ability to fearlessly perceive patients’ emotions without being overwhelmed by them – preserving one’s individuality but not becoming detached (p. 295).
In the book’s final, twelfth, chapter psychotherapist Rosamund Oliver discusses the attempts to teach meditation in the UK prisons, elderly homes, and hospices, including the London St. Joseph’s Hospice, where Cicely Saunders developed the foundation of the modern palliative care. In the late 1970s, meditation practice seemed so ambiguous to the general public that several euphemisms came to be used: while in America Jon Kabat-Zinn chose the word “mindfulness” (Kabat-Zinn 2011), Oliver called the practice “stress management”.
Dark Aspects of Mindfulness
The book’s content is not uniform: it includes explanation of certain philosophical basics of meditation, as well as emotional and accessible instructions on the technique itself, and important medical and anthropological data on secular meditation expansion in the West, in particular in the medical sphere. (It is curious that the words “medicine” and “meditation” stem from one Proto-Indo-European root “med”, which means “to take necessary measures”.)
The anthology’s peculiar feature and advantage is that it was written exclusively by practitioners of meditation. The explanations of subtle mental processes are not excessively technical; it also recognizes and encourages observance of “the secret of personality” (see: Pomerants 2017). E.g., chapter ten, about meditation in a state-run Irish hospice, mentions two men: one of them was formally psychologically predisposed to practice meditation but refuted such exercises; the second man suffered from social anxiety and alienation but learned meditation and until his very death performed exercises on accepting his situation via meditatively examining his body and breath, via the practice of loving-kindness, etc. In meditation, people resort to their visceral potential, argues this chapter’s author, a clinical psychologist (p. 253).
The anthology, unfortunately, says almost nothing on possible adversities that may be caused by unskilled contemplative exercises. According to the U. S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the biggest harm from complementary types of healing, meditation included, are unsubstantiated claims of their benefits and understating their possible adverse effects. As a result, patients in vulnerable conditions can be misled (cited after: Van Dam et al. 2018). Today an open discussion on possible harm from incorrect meditation practice is happening in mass media more than it does in the scientific world (e. g., Foster 2016).
In the United States, under 25 % of clinical trials with the use of meditation evaluate possible adverse effects from unskilled teaching of meditation practice. Such a strategy may underestimate the frequency of actual adverse effects manifold: these could include psychosis, mania, depersonalization, anxiety, panic, a comeback of traumatic memories, and other forms of clinical deterioration (Van Dam et al. 2018: 12).
Another problem ignored by the book is an obvious drift of secular meditation towards commercialization. Is this an inevitable compromise with post-industrial society, or a negative trend that should be straightened out? This issue is becoming the topic for a growing discussion in Europe and the U. S. – both in scientific (Pellissier 2016) and the public sphere (Goldberg 2015) – but the book disregards it.
Worth mentioning are also flaws in the Russian translation. […] They reduce the passion and clarity of the book’s message.
The anthology still can be of interest both to the general public and medical anthropologists – as, so far, a rare Russian-language evidence of the connections between meditation and health care.
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