The New York Times recently published an excellent guide to meditation—a worthy contribution to the ever-expanding literature on the topic, a literature that feeds an appetite bordering on obsession about an issue that shows no signs of becoming sated anytime soon.
The benefits of meditation are almost too numerous to list, and make the current interest in mindfulness understandable. It’s hard to argue with a practice that can “reduce stress, increase calmness and clarity and promote happiness” (New York Times). Add to it that mindfulness “can effectively treat everything from depression to autoimmune disease to post-traumatic stress disorder” (Huffington Post) and we seem to have a medical miracle, a modern day equivalent to Hamlin’s Wizard Oil, which promised to cure everything from constipation to liver disease to stomach disorders to baldness.
This is not to denigrate or disparage the real value of mindfulness. Mindfulness is an ”evidence-based practice,” meaning that sufficient studies utilizing accepted research procedures have demonstrated its effectiveness. Therapists who fail to investigate the practice to determine its potential assist their clients might well be accused of malpractice. But what distinguishes philosophical practitioners from other counselors is that while psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and clinical social workers are all satisfied with the simple proof that mindfulness can assist their clients in several specific areas and leave the issue at that, recommending the practice when it seems appropriate to the client’s symptom, philosophers, who since the profession started have always asked the pesky question “why?” dig deeper on this issue as well.
The PP is more likely than any other counselor or therapist to be familiar with the history of meditation, knowledgeable about the religious traditions in which it developed, and well-read in the original sources. In addition to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever you go, there you are,” he or she is likely to have read the Satipatthana Sutta, the 2,500 year old text where the Buddha described the practice of mindfulness meditation. If all this additional information served no practical purpose, if it only added to the philosopher’s sum total of knowledge and had no therapeutic implications for the client, then while we might not begrudge the PP the acquisition of this additional information, we would not necessarily laud the effort required to achieve it, nor praise the profession that encouraged such probing.
But in fact the therapist’s knowledge of the history of meditation does play a role in the proper application of the practice. Mindfulness meditation did not emerge as a self-standing undertaking but was linked to a specific metaphysical doctrine. The Buddha recommended meditation to help us realize the illusory nature of the self. By focusing on the breath, one comes to comprehend the transient nature of the thoughts that arise during meditation and, ultimately, the unstable, illusory nature of the self that generates such thoughts.
Hence, the PP is likely to connect the practice of MM with the Dalia Lama’s claim that if we want to be happy, we should contribute to the happiness of another, not attempt to shore up an essentially illusory entity as the self. By contrast, a mindfulness practice that is founded solely for the purpose of enhancing my status and well-being risks doing precisely this, missing the entire purpose for which the practice of meditation developed.