A conversation with Pat Rockman and Stephen Batchelor (May, 2011)
Pat Rockman: I should probably tell you briefly about my background, would that be helpful?
Stephen Batchelor: Yes, indeed it would.
Pat: I’m a physician with a mental health practice and my training is in cognitive behavioural therapy and also in mindfulness-based CBT. I did a 10 month mindfulness program with Michael Stone, and went to India with Norman Feldman on a Buddhist pilgrimage. I’ve read your books Buddhism Without Beliefs and Living with the Devil in some depth. My earlier background is in Sufism. I’ve had many years of meditative practices and internal seeking.
What’s happening now is that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is entering the culture in a great wave and I’m pretty involved in that. I’m working right now with Tita Ang-Angco in setting up an organization that will offer clinical services and professional training. She’s very involved with social justice questions, so she wants to bring the work of mindfulness to marginalized populations.
There’s a divide between western Buddhist practitioners here, and people involved in mindfulness-based practices. The divisions aren’t inevitable, and don’t involve everyone, but sometimes there have been difficulties in seeing each other’s perspectives. There can be resistance, negative push back. I think people involved with the dharma don’t know enough about clinical work and make a lot of assumptions about it, and people doing clinical work don’t know enough about Buddhist practice. Everybody has their own ideas and opinions. I feel caught between these two worlds, occasionally fielding unwanted editorials in my attempts to bring them closer together.
I’m struggling with my place in this debate, who I study with, and how to pass on the work I do clinically. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because of your orientation towards secular Buddhism — I see a real connection there. We do this very intensive work with groups that run about 9 weeks, forming a sort of mini-sangha. We take the foundations of mindfulness but apply them in a very different way than traditional Buddhists. Cognitive behavioural therapy looks at the content of thinking, whereas the meditative practice looks at our relationship to experience. Both are involved with decentering and defusing. But CBT looks at the meaning we ascribe to thinking, and how that drives our feelings and behaviours. In meditation, we’re working with our relation to experience as it arises, trying not to be so gripped by it.
Stephen: I don’t have any active role in MBCT work, but I’m very enthusiastic about it. I was recently going over a book I wrote 20 years ago called The Awakening of the West, which is a historical study of Buddhism and its encounter with western culture, beginning with the Greeks and running through to the 1990s. The only thing that’s really occurred in the last 20 years that I would include in the revised edition of that book would be this tidal wave of interest in mindfulness practices within health systems right across the world. It’s unbelievable. If I’d been told that 20 years ago, I would have written the speaker off as a lunatic. Now we’ve come to accept it. Oxford University, one of the most prestigious universities in the world, is running a course on Buddhism, meditation and Cognitive behavioural therapy. And it’s attracting people in positions of considerable power in that world. I also find it extremely validating that the effects of mindfulness are being evaluated according to strict clinical methods and that they have proved to be sound. For me, that is a very important bridge between secular modernity and the traditions of the East[u1] .
I think it’s a wonderful affirmation of the effects of these practices that they’re being recognized in the eyes of a tradition that has no interest in Buddhism. I spend all my time teaching retreats around the world. 10% of the participants now come through mindfulness based therapy groups. No matter how much the clinicians or their clinical settings try to exclude Buddhism or religion from what they’re doing, people are not stupid. They just have to google the word “mindfulness” in order to find out that it belongs to a tradition. In some respects, mindfulness, as it’s managed to get into these fields, is a bit like a Trojan horse[u2] . In other words, it’s bringing with it a range of other stuff that’s not being declared, but it’s very easy to find out where it’s coming from.
Pat: Can I interrupt you for one second? I have a background in Buddhist practice, but when I’m teaching these groups I realize I have to be careful. Sometimes if I start to talk about the origins of the practice, people get freaked out. It depends on who the audience is. I have a problem with this because then I feel, as you say, that the origins are not being declared, and it seems somehow duplicitous.
Stephen: Not necessarily. I’ve not been in this situation so I can’t imagine what it’s like. The Oxford course has modules on Buddhist practice, psychology and history, it’s completely open about it. In the end, that’s the optimal way to do it. But given the constraints in various health care situations you’re not free to do that, as you mentioned. Some people are uncomfortable with it, I suspect Christian fundamentalist types, possibly others as well.
Pat: (laughing) We don’t have that many Christian fundamentalists here.
Stephen: Perhaps that was a bad example. But if you were doing a workshop in Georgia, Alabama, you would have to be careful if you dropped the B word. In many secular contexts, Buddhism is an acceptable term. But just imagine if you presented it as an Islamic tradition, some might find it inappropriate to bring Islamic teachings into health care. This demonstrates something very interesting about Buddhism. I can’t think of another of the world’s religions that can offer a methodology — and let’s face it, mindfulness is a very clear cut methodology — that has its home in what appears to be a religion, and yet is now being appropriated in another context by clinicians. I really think that says something rather important about the nature of Buddhism. And of course this feeds into my ideas, namely that there is something essentially secular about Buddhism in the first place. Part of the problem is the way Buddhism has come to be represented as a religion alongside Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. I think it certainly has become that for most Buddhists, but it betrays the origin of its own tradition in a rather problematic way. I argue in my books that Buddhism is not essentially a religion, but a culture of awakening that has much to say to non-religious people as a philosophy and psychology[u3] .
Pat: I agree with you obviously or I wouldn’t be calling you. (laughs)
Stephen: The practice of mindfulness as understood in Buddhism operates within a frame of reference that implies a certain moral position, a certain philosophical understanding of the person and the world. Most importantly, it can be seen as playing a role in the pursuit of a path leading to a set of goals which you could call awakening, enlightenment, wisdom or compassion[u4] . None of these would be regarded as the aims of someone doing mindfulness work in a clinical setting in order to treat relapses into depression, for example. That’s where the differences lie.
I do have a concern that mindfulness could be stripped of its context, and utilized for purely clinical ends, perhaps remodeled into what yoga has been become for many people, just another form of Keepfit. Though as you know from Michael Stone’s teachings, yoga is part of a rich and complex tradition that goes back hundreds of years. There is a danger that mindfulness might end up losing all moorings from its historical context. Though even if it does, that doesn’t mean that others won’t take it in another direction. We have no control over what’s going to happen. This is a cultural phenomenon that no single individual or group can direct. I see it as an opportunity to render or translate into more contemporary terms not just the nuts and bolts of doing mindfulness, but the framework of values and goals in which the practice of mindfulness traditionally takes place. It is a challenge to discover to what extent one can communicate these values purged of Buddhist religiosity[u5] . To try to come up with a more secular interpretation or account of Buddhist practice itself. I see this encounter as a spur and incitation towards a greater secularization of Buddhist language and thought. There need no longer be a split between clinicians and Buddhists. But this is a rather idealistic view, of course all one can do is one’s little bit, and see what happens.
Pat: I think you’re getting at the issue that I have about the work I’m doing because I come at it from both ends. I tend to bring in bits of that doublesided framework into the groups that I work with. MBCT and MBSR are different, I think MBCT has a much richer, deeper theoretical wrapper. When you’re talking about Buddhist values and goals, I think that unbeknownst to Zindel Segal, one of its foremost proponents, and someone I’ve done a lot of work with, the Buddhist piece is actually there. What we’re doing in MBCT is waking people up to looking at what’s going on in their thinking that is increasing their suffering. I think what starts to happen is that without it being declared, people do start to wake up and become more compassionate.
I think one of the other problems is that in the culture of the training of mindfulness, you can learn it quickly and start practicing. You can read a book and start right away. But if you don’t really know what you’re doing, it can become a kind of recipe, too easily dislocated from a rich and necessary context. Then what happens is that people come up against experiences that they don’t know what to do with. I have had clients referred to me from the dharma community that are actually quite ill, even though they’ve been using their meditation practice in an attempt to resolve mental health problems. What do you think about that?
Stephen: I think that’s an important point. Sometimes meditation is presented, perhaps naively, as a panacea for all problems. As a way to get to the root of one’s suffering. Now I can think of cases where people who have gone into meditation with very specific issues like depression, and have actually managed to resolve their issues without doing additional therapy. In fact, they might have already done a lot of therapy and found it unhelpful. On the other hand you find the opposite: people who have too much faith in Buddhism and Buddhist meditation in sorting out their problems, without recognizing the fact that there are certain kinds of issues better dealt with in other ways. Mindfulness is quite good at transforming the relationship to whatever is arising, but there could be unresolved issues from childhood that mindfulness might fend off without really dealing with. So in that regard, both views are valid.
We often think of influence as a one way process, imagining the west is going to learn from Buddhist meditation practice. I think we need to look at it the other way around too. Namely, that Buddhists are going to have to rethink what they understand about meditation and the practice of mindfulness. They’ve been teaching the same models for hundreds of years. Now that mindfulness has achieved measurable effects, Buddhists need to ask: what’s going on here? How is this practice working in our terms, as opposed to the terms of the clinical psychologist? What is it saying about something we might not have noticed about the implications of Buddhist psychology, for example? Hopefully this kind of interaction will produce a dialogue in which both sides will be changed. Or will be forced to rethink some of their assumptions. One of the positive elements of this issue is that neither side can rest complacent in their assumptions, and if they do, that’s just dogmatism. Buddhists can be very dogmatic.
Pat: Do you think the entry of mindfulness-based work into clinical practices could be named applied dharma?
Stephen: That’s how I would see it. Again I would come back to my Trojan horse metaphor because the dharma is finding its way into our society in all manners of avenues. And what the consequences of allowing mindfulness into the health system are, is unpredictable, both individually, and in terms of our broader understanding of what Buddhism is all about. We don’t know how it’s going to play out at all. Applied dharma is a good way of putting it.
Pat: What do you feel is the role of faith in a culture of awakening?
Stephen: Well I probably wouldn’t use the word faith for a start because it is so freighted with baggage. In Pali the word is sada, which I would translate as confidence or trust. It’s often translated as faith, which is just a habit, there’s no necessity to render that word in English as faith, it’s just been done that way traditionally. But if you look at how it’s been used, it has to do with a quality of self confidence and trust, which again would be concepts not out of place in any sort of therapeutic process. There has to be a confidence in your own ability to work through your difficulties, otherwise you wouldn’t be undertaking the training or therapy in the first place. And there’s an element of trust in the people or person who is guiding you through this. But in a deeper sense, trust and confidence is what powers and motivates and drives you towards overcoming your limitations and pursuing a path of inquiry and reflection and meditation. You have confidence in your ability to come to a greater understanding, greater wisdom and compassion.
The Buddha called sada one of the five powers in the practice. Faith too easily implies a submission to an authority or to the truth of some doctrine, and I don’t think the word sada connotes that. There are two germane examples. Have you heard about the questions of King Melinda? It’s a dialogue between a Buddhist monk and an Indo-Greek king. In this Pali text, the monk describes sada by telling a story. There are a group of people standing on a river bank, too afraid to cross over. Then a courageous person arrives and makes the leap. This action gives them the confidence that they too can cross the river. I don’t think you’d call that faith, it’s really about the quality of self-confidence that you can do it.
The other way that the word sada is used is also quite different from the usual definitions of faith. The monk then compares sada to something like a water purifying tablet. He calls it a magical gem. When you put it into muddy water, it dispels the dirt from the water. In the same way, sada has a quality of mental clarity and purity. I think this image is pointing to your own innate clarity of mind, or at least, the potential clarity of mind, so that you can direct your life, rather than always being prompted and taken over by your attachments and fears. If you think of sada in those terms, I don’t think you can translate it as faith.
Pat: When you use the image of the water purifying tablet cleaning the water, the word sada really signifies a process, more than a faith or even confidence.
Stephen: But it does imply a certain trust in the process, some confidence that it’s actually going to work. It’s like entering therapy, it’s a huge unknown, and you don’t know where it’s going to go. You just have to put your trust or confidence in yourself and the therapist and the therapeutic method. You just have to jump in and see what happens. The difference is that in traditional Buddhism, you would have confidence in something far greater than no longer relapsing into depression. You would put your confidence into your capacity to live your life in a full and flourishing way, so that it engages all of you rather than one pathological bit.
Pat: But you know what? That’s what I actually see happening in these groups.
Stephen: Well that’s a wonderful thing. You see, mindfulness is already one of the five powers the Buddha speaks of. They are: confidence, mindfulness, intelligence (panna, often mistranslated as wisdom), concentration (samadhi) and effort (strength, perseverance). I think they’re actually cited in Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutra, oddly enough. The Buddha saw these five qualities as the driving force behind the whole practice of the dharma. It’s a useful model. When you introduce mindfulness, if it then occasions these other qualities, then I think it’s had the Trojan horse effect.
Pat: It does!
Stephen: In order for mindfulness to work, at some level those other elements have to come into play. In other words, mindfulness cannot be completely stripped of its historic context. It’s always going to be operative within a person’s coming to terms with their own dukkha. So I don’t think there is a really big conflict here between mindfulness practiced by clinicians and Buddhists. The division is political, it’s about what is allowed, what the health system is able to tolerate in terms of what it’s doing, what it’s able to stand up for.
Pat: And what the dharma community is willing to tolerate.
Stephen: Exactly. The dharma community has its own neuroses about what they imagine belongs to them. A lot of traditional Buddhists probably feel that their dharma is being somewhat trivialized, watered down, dumbed down. I think that’s silly, frankly. The bottom line is that Buddhists do not have a monopoly on dukkha, and anything that can be used to work with it, in any context, seems to me to be legitimate. To think that these techniques should be reserved for high thinking Buddhists is ridiculous.
Pat: The five powers come into play within the context of the groups because although we only work together for nine weeks, they have all this homework that has to be done between meetings. It takes a lot of effort, and the whole point is to build confidence in their own abilities to move forward. Concentration is obviously central to the meditation practice, and that is followed up with insight. The intelligence comes about when we begin to examine experience and inquire into the content of thinking.
Stephen: If you translate panna as wisdom you miss that. The word panna is here being used quite explicitly to mean discrimination, analysis, inquiry, but that’s not how it is traditionally understood. It’s a mental function that is not exclusive to wise people. It’s a basic human capacity to differentiate and distinguish things, to analyze. I would translate it as intelligence or even discrimination, though discrimination has associations that intelligence doesn’t have.
Pat: I would like to ask you about the question of sangha. Within the context of the groups, the group comes together, it flourishes, there’s a lot of mutual support, and then of course there’s dissolution. In a way it parallels everything that happens in life as it comes and goes. But what does it mean to have a sangha?
Stephen: The word “sangha,” is a bit like the word “faith,” both have been by and large co-opted by the religious people. I find it amazing that for many in the Buddhist world the word sangha simply means monks and nuns. Giving an offering of food to the sangha means bringing food to the guys in the yellow curtains. I don’t mean disrespect, but it contradicts what the Buddha said. The Buddha never defined sangha as those pursuing a particular life style or being a monk. Sangha meant anyone who has embarked upon the eightfold path in a committed and focused way. In fact the words the Buddha uses is that someone who has become “sangha” is someone who has confirmed confidence in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. Here we return to the question of faith.
It’s irrelevant whether you’re a man or a woman, a lay person, a monk or a nun. It makes no difference at all. It has to do with your level of commitment, the extent to which you have decided to live your life based on those core values. Now in that sense, the function of sangha is about establishing a set of relationships and friendships which support your own process. I think that’s necessary, but it does not mean that you need a crowd of people, you may need only one or two such relationships. There’s not a number, it’s not a head count. If you have a friendship with just one other person who supports you in your practice, that is sangha. It sounds a bit strange because the word does mean “community,” but the key is not the number involved, but the quality of relationship.
Each meditation retreat creates a temporary sangha, after which people go back to their lives and the sangha breaks up. But we encourage them to cultivate relationships amongst the group. Again, it’s not just a question of having a friend, but having the ability to expose yourself, to be open to others, to develop bonds of mutual trust, that’s the practice of sangha.
But finally, when you’re in crisis, the Buddha says the only refuge that can be of any help is your own internalization of the dharma. Your friends might not be around, they might be dead, there’s no way to know where they’ll be. The Buddha is long gone, so basically you’re on your own. Paradoxically perhaps, the relationships of sangha are about creating the conditions for each person to flourish in their own individual way. That’s a very important point. Some think that if they join a Buddhist sangha, that will mean conforming to a set of behaviours and beliefs. But sangha is not about conformity. That would be a collective or cult situation. A lot of religions do have that tendency, if you don’t speak or believe or behave in a certain way, then you’re out. That unfortunately is what it degenerates into: the church, the mosque, the political party. Whereas sangha is about an active and dynamic friendship or set of relationships that enable you to develop and grow, just as your participation in other’s lives enables them to grow. Once you’re out of a formal setting like a retreat, it’s important for the development of your mindfulness practice to cultivate relations with others engaged in the same kind of work, at the very least to act as a kind of sounding board.
Pat: In terms of this organization I’m growing with Tita, what we want to do is create a community of practice, integrating clinical work with dharma practice. Do you have any suggestions about maintaining a mentoring relationship, keeping checks and balances around monitoring one’s own teaching? Like a dharma advisory board?
Stephen: The only caveat I would have initially is that one should always be striving for autonomy. This is important. One seeks to become independent of others in the Buddhist teaching — that’s the way he defined stream entry. In other words, one practices in order to become your own authority. To cultivate independence. But at the same time in order to achieve that degree of maturity, you need an ongoing connection with others who share the same body of values.
[u1]The bringing together of the need for transcendence in a culture of science
[u2]Mindfulness in the clinical context is a way to bring these practices into a clinical context that is “scientific” to help ease suffering – it’s subversive and radical – people don’t know what they’re getting but they are changed by it anyway.
[u3]It is a form of self-study, the acquisition of self knowledge for the purpose of living a more awakened and fulfilled life which then makes one more available to others – increasing compassion for self and others.
[u4]As Freud said as health increases concern for others increases and self concern decreases. Also – e.g. my experience with the resident who upon doing the raisin exercise felt sad eating it because it felt violent and destructive – so without any instruction on non-harming he – through the practice of a mindful exercise began to taste interdependence and reduce the self/other divide
[u5]This is an interesting point – however, I have the sense that the basic values get communicated through the practice itself, the doing of it and certainly through the teachings themselves – the teachings in mbct certainly parallel many of the Buddhist teachings and it would be interesting to make these connections explicit. I think it is happening thisgreater secularization in language and thought – as what becomes evident is mbct as a form of self-study, waking up to being present with what is “that’s just the way it is Ananda.”