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Angela Tilby: Mindfulness needs compassion

14 July 2017


IF YOU go to your doctor with stress-related symptoms, one rem­edy that you may be offered is an introduction to mindfulness. This meditation technique has been widely promoted as a way of im­­proving well-being, and enhancing performance at school and at work. I know clergy who practise it to counter the pressures of ministry. It is often described as a wholly secular therapy, but its true roots are in Buddhism.

It is not the first time that a form of Eastern meditation has been taken up in the West in a form that minimises its religious origins. In the 1970s, transcendental medita­tion was adopted by the Beatles. Their guru, Maharishi Ma­­hesh Yogi, taught that TM could be practised by anyone without regard for its origins in Hindu tradition. He hoped, sincerely, that, by helping individuals to find inner happiness, he would advance world peace; but any bene­fits stayed only with the individuals.

At the height of the Maharishi’s fame in the West, traditional Hindu teachers criticised him for separat­ing the practice of meditation from its religious roots — in particular, from penance and asceticism. The point that they were making was that meditation was not intended to be merely for individual benefit: it makes sense only within a frame­work of belief in the unity of being.

Mindfulness certainly seems to work for some people. But, by secu­larising it, we may be getting it in a distorted form. The writer Roman Krznaric, after attending mindful­ness courses, discussed its popular­ity with a French Buddhist monk, who was sceptical. He suggested that, without the Buddhist doctrine of compassion, mindfulness is empty of true meaning. A psycho­path intent on killing would be mentally sharper and more capable if he practised mindfulness.

So, it is possible that mindfulness may indeed work to relieve indi­vidual anxiety and stress, but this may theoretically come with a social cost. The practitioner could be relieved of any potentially stressful sense of obligation to others.

Christianity, like Buddhism, is social as well as personal. In the fourth century, St Basil of Caesarea, criticising those who sought private peace by withdrawing into solitude, asked: “Whose feet will you wash?” The true fruits of contem­plation are an increase in loving service to others.

If mindfulness protects us from engaging with the true otherness of other people, it is no more than a tranquilliser. One wonders whether it would harm its credentials if it were promoted with some reference to compassion. It would be a shame if it made us more efficient while effectively diminishing our souls. Compassion on the NHS? Why not?

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