Is Mindfulness the same as Buddhism?

DSC_0049There’s been a lot of chatter on the internet these days about Mindfulness and Buddhism. In a nutshell, practitioners, writers, and philosophers of Buddhism have expressed concern about the potential misuse of Buddhist beliefs and concepts by mindfulness-based interventions or programs. There is much merit to these concerns although the discussions tend to become bogged down with a lot of arguments that missed the central point. There are important issues about Mindfulness and Buddhism as well as Mindfulness itself that anyone considering a program should take the time to investigate. Below are some of these issues that may be helpful to consider.

Are Mindfulness-Based Programs and Interventions the same as Buddhism?

The answer will vary depending on the framework we use to address it. At one level, mindfulness is a Buddhism-based concept so it is unavoidable that the core principles guiding any Mindfulness-Based Intervention or Program will reach into a Buddhist conceptualization of its meaning and practice. However, mindfulness has moved far enough away from Buddhist philosophy and has begun to draw from various fields of psychology such as Cognitive Theory, Positive Psychology, Motivational approaches, Organizational Psychology, that it can be said to be a new “wave” in the genre of psychological and organizational approaches.

If you are considering a mindfulness program, there are some underlying concepts and frameworks you may wish to know that will inform your decisions. In our course intakes, we are often asked if the program is Buddhist. We are also asked if there are aspects of the program that would interfere with the person’s religious views or practices. People also want to be assured that the program won’t impose values and beliefs on them that may not fit with their own values and beliefs. These are important questions and need to be addressed openly and all the more important with the debates going around on the Buddhist nature of mindfulness and the potential dangers of teaching it as a secular or psychological modality.

Is Mindfulness the same as Buddhism?

Not completely. We can organize mindfulness programs into two categories: Mindfulness-Informed (MI) and Mindfulness-Based (MB) approaches (edit: See Shapiro & Carlson’s book The Art and Science of Mindfulness). Mindfulness-Informed approaches will draw from Buddhist philosophy using concepts of impermanence, adaptive self (non self), and the reality of suffering. They can also introduce concepts of lovingkindness and compassion. MI approaches may not use meditation practices specifically. Typically, the professional is trained in Buddhist theory and/or practice and therefore understands how our attitude and interpretations of our difficulties leads to our sorrow and suffering. Mindfulness-Based approaches draw from Buddhist practices such as sitting and walking meditation, breath awareness, etc. and build from this a state of steadiness so that the issues that plague us can be faced in a skillful manner. (edit) Additionally, Mindfulness-Based approaches draw from current understanding of stress theory and other psychotherapeutic models. (edit end) The final intention of both MI and MB approaches is the same – the reduction of suffering. Neither approach requires nor relies on a belief in Buddhist religious concepts.

Are all Mindfulness Programs the same?

No. For clarity, I refer to interventions separately from programs. A Program is offered over a time period, typically 8-weeks and may or may have a psychological intent; it may be conducted individually or in a group. “Programs” may be offered for stress management, lifestyle changes, spiritual growth, personal wellness or development. An Intervention refers to the medical- or psychological-based intent of the approach; this may be delivered as a time-framed process in a group or individually. “Interventions” may be offered to deal with physical or psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, physical pain or injuries, etc. These typically require a registered health care professional to supervise or conduct the intervention. Research articles on mindfulness will refer to Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) or their specific label such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.

There are many, many MBIs! Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindful Self-Compassion, Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (for addictions), Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training, Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training, and so on. And of course, just to add to the confusion, each of these will be taught under different “company” names. The M4 Program we offer at the OMC is a psychologically-based MBI and designed as an intervention for psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, chronic illness etc.

Are Mindfulness Instructors or Teachers accredited, certified or trained professionally?

Not all are. Most professionals will have taken at the very least a 5-day intensive training in the specific area of interest. Some will have continued from this to take on-going training with specialists in their field. (edit) All MBI teachers are expected to have a personal meditative/contemplative practice to support their teaching skills and personal development. (edit end) Health Care Professionals who work in the Mindfulness-Informed approaches will likely have trained in their specific treatment modality (CBT, EFT, etc.) and also continued with a Buddhist or other contemplative practice tradition. Others will have obtained accreditation from specific organizations.  The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts offers a teacher certification program for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programs. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy accreditation is available from the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion offers teacher training in Mindful Self-Compassion. The University of California at San Diego is developing a Professional Training Institute that will allow teacher-development programs in several streams of Mindfulness-Based Interventions.

One aspect of the training/accreditation question is to consider whether the facilitator or instructor is accredited in their own field of expertise. All health care professionals have a regulatory organization which certifies their training; mindfulness can be viewed as a therapeutic intervention that they provide as a trained health care professional. Other professionals such as educators, coaches, and spiritual care professionals,  will have professional organization that verify their credentials as a trained professional.

Do all Mindfulness-Based Programs have the same positive effect?

It depends. Research shows that MBIs have a positive impact for many issues. Whether an individual experiences the expected positive change depends on the “good fit” between the individual and the program. If the issue is depression, then a “stress” program may not do the job. If there are issues of anxiety that are not disclosed at the intake (yes, there should be an intake!), then this can have an impact on their experience of the program. What can increase the probability of a “good fit” is asking lots of questions at the information session or the intake appointment. The most frequent issues that derail the program for participants are as follows:

  • Realizing that there is a certain amount of sharing that happens in the course
  • Finding out it is not like a school course where we get all the answers from the teachers
  • Not realizing how much time the practices take
  • Wanting a “quick fix”
  • Needing certainty that the practices will work
  • Wanting to “get rid” of the problem

These are all important questions to consider and to ask if you are thinking of taking a Mindfulness-Based Program. It is about your health and well-being. Be proactive. Understand the scope and limits of MBIs. Most of all, know the people offering the programs.

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