Over the past 4 days I have been attending the International Conference on Mindfulness Asia Pacific. There have been some amazing presenters, and some very dry papers, as well as some questionable ones, but overall it has been a fantastic experience. One of the presentations I didn’t mean to stay for, but then decided to (a very happy mistake I must say) was entitled, “Is mindfulness secular or religious, and does it matter?” presented by Jane Compson from the University of Washington in Tacoma, USA. She was a great presenter, and also clarified something for me that I knew I agreed with, but hadn’t quite figured out how to verbalize.
As the people that have worked with me know, I try to present my classes and instruction in a very secular way so as to make it feel more accessible for people. I have always felt that Mindfulness, when framed around the teachings of the Buddha, can exclude those that believe people teaching Mindfulness are trying to convert everyone to Buddhism, or those that have very deep beliefs in a certain religious discipline that may have differences/clashes with Buddhism.
On the other hand, I am also concerned about the teachers of mindfulness that come to the practice through a completely Western approach and never examine or acknowledge the origins of the practices that we are teaching. Or those that take a 4 hour workshop in Mindfulness Meditation and feel qualified to teach others. This turns mindfulness into “McMindfulness” (next book in my library will be one of that exact title by Ronald E Purser that was just recently released).
Jane Compson spoke to both of these concerns. She pointed out that the Buddha who taught these practices 25000 years ago was not actually a Buddhist. She also pointed out that “Buddhism” was not a term until the early 1800’s. Not to mention the fact that Buddhism itself has many different approaches, and many people that practice Buddhism actually do not consider it to be a “religion”. When questioned about what type of Buddhism the Dalai Lama practices, he answered, “Life is my practice and Kindness is my religion.” The Buddha himself said to the people he was teaching not to take him at his word, but instead go out and practice and see what is true.
Jane did point to the fact that giving respect to the place that our practices in Mindfulness teaching come from is not an attempt at converting everyone, it just acknowledges the long history of what we are teaching, giving it weight and validity. She did caution that Mindfulness teachers do need to have a good personal practice before they can teach, we as teachers need to embody what we are teaching, otherwise it really does become “McMindfulness”.
Finally, she introduced the word “post-secular” where we are learning from many different disciplines, instead of imposing a purely secular, or purely religious framework. This is evolving into a “second generation mindfulness” one that involves the inclusion of ethics of practice, which will inform the training of teachers and the dissemination of this practice in the future.
I can see already that in my future teachings I will be less concerned about using terms that stem out of the teachings of the Buddha when they may actually be more accurate, remembering that the use of language is actually quite a powerful tool in teaching. Language and words are dependent on our attachments to them, what we define as religion or as secularism, or at this point how we go about using a post-secular approach to teaching.