I’m getting to that age when it’s sometimes hard to remember the word I want to use. It’s right there on the tip of my tongue, but won’t appear on my command. But I have a more pressing problem. There is a word I want to use and I can’t find it because I am not sure it exists. I’m hoping you can help.
Let me explain. I belong to a small social enterprise set up to offer training and support for mindfulness. Among our values are the promotion of inclusion, equality and involvement. Part of our aspiration for inclusion means that we work only in secular settings and we include no religious content in our courses. If you are not familiar with some of the tensions within mindfulness you may understandably wonder why this matters.
Read almost any description of mindfulness and you will come across some reference to its roots in Buddhism. Madeline Bunting’s article in the Guardian this morning is no exception:
Mindfulness is derived from Buddhist meditation, which at its heart is revolutionary in its emphasis on compassion and non-harm. It is profoundly counter-cultural in its asceticism. But this derivative has been meticulously framed as secular by a generation of scientists.
They identified that the Buddha's insights into the behaviour of the human mind was resonating with breakthroughs in psychology and neuroscience. Delinked from Buddhist ethics, mindfulness could become a form of performance enhancement – some of the enthusiasm coming from the corporate sectors and military leads it dangerously in this direction. That is a real risk.
There are two issues in these statements that invite challenge. Firstly, the notion that mindfulness is derived from Buddhist meditation is like saying that we know that theft and murder are wrong because we learned that from the Ten Commandments. Buddhism does not own mindfulness anymore than Christianity owns morals (although Buddhism has been largely responsible for codyfing the practice). Mindfulness is an innate human quality, something so simple and ubiquitous that when many people first experience a taught mindfulness practice they say things such as, ‘Ah, now I see what you mean, I feel like this when I dance/garden/walk in the mountains.’
Secondly, Bunting states a false dichotomy between Buddhist ethics and a materialistic approach. I assume what she means by ‘Buddhist ethics’ is the Noble Eightfold Path, but she seems to suggest that if we teach mindfulness divorced from this code we risk having no more than materialistic motivations.
This is where my semantic dilemma arises. It is common to refer to mindfulness teaching not based within Buddhism as ‘secular’. Yet this is to do such teaching a great disservice, as the word ‘secular’, while defined as being disconnected or neutral to religious or spiritual matters is normally heard as being materialistic. The term ‘pluralist’ it is a better alternative but while it is defined as a tolerance of different practices, religions and cultures it may be heard as value neutral.
It’s probably time in my hunt for a suitable word to share with you what I wish the missing word to mean, or as the confused old lady played by Thora Hird in the Alan Bennet’s play, ‘Waiting for the Telegram’ was advised when she could not recall a word, - “Talk around it, dear!’ It should be a word that encapsulates the notion that while our mindfulness practice can demonstrate material and physical advantages (improved health and well being and increased creativity, focus and performance, e.g.) it may also offer spiritual benefits that are not necessarily allied to any particular religious or philosophical beliefs. By spiritual benefits I mean our awakening and response to our natural environment and a growing sense of connection and responsibility for our fellow creatures. I want a word that conveys to people who choose our courses that there is no hidden agenda, no underlying motive to persuade or convince them of any particular religious or philosophical approach. We want them to bring their worldview to their experience and note how enhancing their innate mindfulness through practice may interact with that worldview, perhaps clarifying or confirming, possibly challenging. We want them to become increasingly mindful. In other words, we want them simply to notice and be accepting of their experience and to take a wise and compassionate stance towards it. The most confounding aspect of mindfulness is its simplicity.
So, do you have a suggestion for le mot juste?