An Exploration of the Western version of Mindfulness as a Major Branch of Psychology

The Buddha abides as the original voice of mindfulness. Mindfulness belongs in the body of his teachings/practices. The Buddha’s approach to mindfulness reveals a comprehensive exploration offering a great depth of insight.

HEADINGS
Hub of the Buddha’s teachings
Three Common Approaches in the West
The Psychology of Mindfulness
Importance of Groups
Mindfulness Teachers arise from Mindfulness Practice
Our Potential to Evolve
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The hub of the Buddha’s teachings focusses on four core truths of a wise way of life

  1. There is suffering
  2. There are causes and conditions for suffering
  3. There is the resolution of suffering in specific issues and the full resolution
  4. There are ways to develop to see and know the end of suffering.

The West has adopted a personal approach to mindfulness with primary reference to the application of methods and techniques to reduce stress, anxiety and agitation. You will find little exploration of the significant experiences of spiritual *depths of mindfulness/meditation, nor transcendent and liberating realisations. This keeps Western mindfulness courses primarily confined to psychology. As mindfulness/meditation deepens a sense of a spiritual element with life may well reveal itself in countless ways. The spiritual goes beyond psychological issues.

The Buddha’s approach addresses human issues, inner and outer.  He offered a broad range of methods, techniques and approaches for the reduction and resolution of suffering. His teachings address outer circumstances that contribute to suffering.

His teachings inquire into political/religious authority, power, abuse of wealth, racism, caste, behaviour of corporations/institutions/business and a range of social issues.*  We need to be mindful of the impact of these areas on our lives and the subsequent suffering. This application of mindfulness (satipatthana) rarely enters the remit of mindfulness in Western psychology.

Three Approaches in the West

In the past five decades or so, mindfulness has rightfully come to earn its place as a major branch of Western psychology owing to the beneficial results of research revealed through sustained mindfulness practice.

Until mindfulness, the West offered three common approaches to dealing with troubling states of mind. These three Western approaches have genuine benefits but rarely can offer clients specific practices for specific needs.

THREE COMMON APPROACHES

  1. The taking of medication to block the brain cells from producing certain painful activities in the mind to give respite from suffering.
  2. Talking therapy, either one-to-one or a small group. The client shares their experience and the details/story of their issue. The psychologist might ask about childhood upbringing, patterns of behaviour and encourage the client to come to terms with the past or present and see a fresh way ahead.
  3. A combination of the above two.

These three approaches often address a specific mental health issue to help resolve the problem rather than feeling helpless in the face of suffering.

The troubled mind includes unhappiness, despair, reactivity, self-hate, trauma, guilt and impulsive behaviour.

I have Dharma friends in Australia, France, Germany, Israel, UK and elsewhere, who are practising psychologists. Their service, via their profession, has benefitted many people. Some of these psychologists also have become Dharma teachers or mindfulness teachers. I believe they would agree that Dharma teachings and practices offer a large vision – liberating and awakening.

The Psychology of Mindfulness

The psychology of mindfulness offers tools for personal transformation without excluding the support of the above three approaches.

Techniques include mindfulness of breathing, of body, feeling tones, states of mind, lovingkindness meditation and mindfulness of the senses. In the East, practitioners, ordained and householders, for many centuries have benefitted from these techniques. The application of these ancient methods has existed in an unbroken legacy passed on from one generation of practitioners to another for more than 2600 years. The skilful use of mindfulness techniques changes people’s lives.

The practitioner/ client receives specific tools to develop between sessions with the mindfulness teacher or group. The client practises these methods daily, so the practices have a beneficial impact with the potential to change our whole relationship to life. These tools contribute to the empowerment of the practitioner through becoming an agent for change, inwardly and outwardly.

The mindfulness teacher may make much, little or no reference to a person’s upbringing, the family constellation, and any painful experiences from the past. The practitioner has every opportunity to share such experiences if it seems beneficial, but it is not an essential aspect of mindfulness training.

The Importance of Groups

The Buddha spoke frequently of ‘going for refuge in the Sangha’ as a jewel of human life. In contemporary speak, this approach advocates the power of people meeting together to share experiences, learn from each other and offer and receive insights to contribute to their mutual well-being.

Groups take priority in mindfulness training while a one-to-meeting serve a specific need of a practitioner/client. Practitioners realise they are not alone. Trust and friendship develop in a group. The inter-action of the group contributes to the healing process. People look forward to these meetings, whether in the real world of virtual reality. The group has as an important function as the mindfulness teacher. Group meetings matter to develop happiness and mental health.

Loneliness has increased significantly since the start of the global pandemic due to extended periods of lockdown. Mindfulness/meditation can reduce transform loneliness into appreciation of aloneness.

People living alone may find themselves caught up in negative states of mind. Couples, shared accomodation and families find unresolved pressures in the mind spilling over into tension with those living in the same household.

Mindfulness groups develop communication skills.

Mindfulness examines the benefits and limits of techniques and a diversity of other ways of tacking problematic states of mind.

Some techniques will focus on sitting practising meditation with instructions for periods from a few minutes to 30 minutes or more. The teacher may give a guided meditation or instructions beforehand. Countless numbers of mindfulness practitioners testify to the benefits of these techniques to reduce stress, calm the mind and experience clarity.

People benefit from engaging in mindfulness practice in groups, small and large, at home, rented rooms, the workplace, spiritual centres and monasteries.

Mindfulness teachers will expand on the range of techniques as their experience and understanding grows. Such teachers will bave the experience and language to share their spirituals insights into the field of existence. The prescriptive model of set mindfulness courses/techniques and answers provide the first steps for beginners. More and more practitioners then may start to explore deeper applications of mindfulness.  Some mindfulness teachers offer greater depth through teachings, workshops and residential retreats.

Mindfulness Teachers arise from Mindfulness Practice

Many conventional trainings in the world of mind-body health/well-being emphasise the acquisition of specialised knowledge leading to understanding and communication with a client/patient.

A training for a mindfulness teacher includes this approach with an additional necessity for ongoing personal practice The trainee mindfulness teacher develops their practice in mindfulness, formal meditation, diet, study, work and communication with friends/strangers and the unfriendly.

A group of practitioners share their experience with each other. Mindfulness leaves no stone unturned. The bathroom, washing the dishes, listening to music, using a mobile phone, gardening, going to work or a conversation with another(s) provide environments for mindfulness practice.

The practice of mindfulness contributes to deepening a connection with daily life, as much as with oneself. The key word is Practice. The experience of mindfulness and the dedication to the practice functions as an important foundation in the training of mindfulness teachers. Their firsthand experience gives authority when working with others in a group or in a one-to-one.

Mindfulness looks at recent causal conditions for states of mind, what is arising now and what is beyond now.

Ten Popular Approaches in Mindfulness Training using Techniques daily

Here are 10 common reasons why people join a mindfulness group. A course in mindfulness might last for six or eight weeks with a weekly evening meeting or via Zoom.

Teachers will often provide guidelines for guided meditations for such practises listed below. Here are 10 examples of techniques employed in mindfulness. Teachers might offer other techniques for the same issues.

A group can often engage together in such practices or practice alone at home, work, travel or outdoors.

  1. Anger/Blame towards oneself or/and others. Develop loving kindness/compassion meditations for others and oneself.
  2. Anxiety. Feeling Low. Scan the body to notice changes in sensations in anxious areas to reduce/dissolve waves of anxiety or reactive mind states due the impact on the mind of these unpleasant sensations. In easier moments, meditate on feelings tones, changes in energy and interest to explore feeling low. Feeling low has a hidden potential for a depth of clarity.
  3. Busy. Busy. Busy. Long, deep breathing. Relaxing on the outgoing breath to experience inner space whether alone, at the desk, in the factory, driving, shopping etc
  4. Excessive thinking about the past or future or both. Develop meditation practise to be in the now.
  5. Lack of concentration. Mindfulness of breathing to develop a calm, single pointed focus to develop the power of concentration in key areas.
  6. Overeating. Eat food slowly. Chew the food well until it is a liquid upon swallowing.
  7. Pain/tension in the body. Turn attention slowly to explore mindfully the painful area whether sickness/injury/ headache/ knot in the stomach etc. Sit upright. Relax into it. Practice to expand pain horizon. Use movement, different postures, shapes of body, yoga to break up painful contractions.
  8. Loneliness. Sit still or walk slowly. Connect with what is around you, via eyes and ears, indoors or outdoors Prepare a few words to say in a contact with another whether friend or stranger.
  9. Sleepless nights. Feel oneself resting into mattress moment to moment. Listening to a relaxing audio story. Experience stillness.
  10. Stress. Regular periods of two to three minutes during the day of stillness/silence in any location. Relaxing on each outbreath.

Ten Approaches in Mindfulness Training without Techniques

Absence of technique includes changing causes/conditions for suffering. Absence of technique refers to reflection, inspiration, experiment, learning from others and developing a fresh attitude. We can describe some practices as a technique or not a technique.

  1. Anger/Blame towards oneself or/and others. Being mindful of the impact of memory, tendencies, impressions and views. Develop a fresh perception. What is the demand in the anger? What is the behaviour, tone of voice or tone of what is written? What are the alternatives you need to practice?
  2. Anxiety. Feeling Low. Where is the anxiety or feeling low most felt. Body? Emotions? Thoughts? All three? Practise changing the description of experience without the word ‘anxiety, feeling low or similar words. Such frequent use of the words become a weight in the mind.
  3. Busy. Busy. Busy. What do you need to reduce or let go of? What are you missing out on by being so busy? Practise cultivating empathy with others through words and actions.
  4. Excessive Thinking. What views are grasped onto that leads to mental pressure? Develop mindfulness of space around to give opportunity for a fresh way of looking at a situation.
  5. Lack of Concentration. Interest, energy and love make concentration easy. Reflect on and develop ways for all three conditions.
  6. Overeating. Does overeating show lack of emotional nourishment in daily life? Develop contact with nature, plants, animals, people and the arts to feel nourished and fulfilled.
  7. Pain/tension. What are the conditions for pain/tension? In what area do you need to develop mindfulness to protect oneself and others? Is there a relationship between tension, physical posture and attitude to past, present and future?
  8. Loneliness is the experience of feeling sorry for oneself. The ‘self,’ the ‘I’, feels disconnected from what is around. Develop maximise use of senses in everyday tasks to enjoy and appreciate connections of the everyday. See a range of colours. Listen to the sounds of the day etc.
  9. Sleepless nights. What contributes to a relaxed day? Is the mind overstimulated in the evening – computer/television/absorbing news/spicy/industrial food/alcohol. Experiment with making changes to the day and evening include rhythm of the day, diet and exercise. Meditate. Sleep in a different direction. Keep notes of what contributes to a good night’s sleep.  Practise what works.
  10. Stress. Is stress relating to dependency on results of what you do or others do? Is stress related to excess of effort/will power/striving? Is it fear of starting a project? Does resistance to doing something worthwhile produce stress. Do you put pressure on yourself in terms of ‘should’ or ‘must?’ Reflect on and develop a different approach, a different attitude until a fresh way becomes effortless.

Benefits and Limits of Technique and Absence of Technique

Technique and absence of technique have the potential to support each other. A practitioner may experience one before the other or one without the other. Practice takes priority.

Some practitioners may give up on a technique or absence of technique claiming these approaches do not work. The person forgets years of conditioning/habits/reactivity shape the mind. Alongside sharing of support with others, daily practice can lead to major change releasing peace of mind, much harmony and wisdom to deal with challenging situations. Release from conditioning can occur suddenly or gradually, via practice.

I often encourage people to engage in a practice for 40 days and 40 nights to see if it works to change the causes and conditions to reveal a state of natural wellbeing. If one forgets a day, then a person starts again.

A person may practice with techniques, experience benefits only to find the benefits wear off. It means the causes/conditions that give rise to problematic state need to change.

A person may engage in reflection on causes and conditions and see clearly why a problematic state of mind arises. The person lacks the intention to change a condition that sustains the problematic mind.

Placing a cigarette in the mouth is a major condition for smoking. Lighting a match or lighter is another condition for smoking. A single change to one link stops the sequence. That change may stop cancer later.

Our Potential to Evolve

As a species, our humanity faces daily immense challenges. We can learn much from those who live a well-adjusted, well-integrated daily life with deep kindness. From the standpoint of the Buddha, the ongoing experience of well-being confirms a beneficial ground of support for much deeper areas of experience.

With much reduction in stress and agitated states of mind, the practitioner finds herself or himself prepared for a fresh adventure of the human experience profound and enlightening. Western mindfulness shows a step in the right direction.

A well-integrated human being has the potential to evolve in exceptional ways for the benefit of one and all.

Join our Mindfulness Teacher Training Course

In October 2021, Ulla Koenig in Germany and I start our next 12-month Mindfulness Teacher Training Course, via Zoom, with opportunity for short residential meetings in Germany for those in Europe/Israel.

In late July, 2021, 42 people have registered with places for 50 participants with a maximum of 60 participants.

Many of our trainees engage in public service, whether working in the public sector or through their form of self-employment.

For comprehensive information on the MTTC go to www.mindfulnesstrainingcourse.org. See to link to MTTC on home page.

*The Spiritual Roots of Mindfulness by Christopher Titmuss
*The Political Buddha by Christopher Titmuss
see: www.christophertitmuss.net and Amazon



  • Thanks for the wise, knowledgeable, balanced and well written essay Christopher. As you have alluded, mindfulness practices can lead directly or indirectly to the healthy relief of psychological issues. I’m glad you mentioned your colleagues who are psychologists and also teach Dharma. I think it’s wonderful that you are training mindfulness teachers.??
    The following are some of my personal beliefs prompted by reading and reflecting on the essay. I welcome any comments and any contradictory ideas.
    The word psychology comes from two Greek words meaning “soul” and “knowledge”. When the Buddha referred to suffering I believe he was referring to painful feelings, a psychological phenomenon.
    The idea of mindfulness is often misused in the modern western setting, especially within the context of commercial organisations and especially when a fixed outcome is desired.
    Without distractions, mindfulness is the inevitable resting state. The majority of distractions are emotional in nature and therefore a psychological issue. All obstacles to self knowledge stem from emotional disturbances and thus are psychological in nature.
    Spiritual awakening leads to transcendence, but it is only the healthy mind that can be transcended.
    There is no spiritual growth without psychological change.
    Mindfulness, Buddhism, meditation, spirituality, philosophy, psychology, science – all of these are on balance, overwhelmingly beneficial, yet all can be misused by unethical actors (teachers and seekers). A huge proportion of modern spiritual seekers are using spirituality as a hiding place for unresolved psychological issues. Spiritual bypassing is real and common.
    Mindfulness, spirituality and psychology are inseparable.

    • Thank you for your important comments. Psychological change, mindfulness and spiritual growth support each other. A weak link in spirituality shows itself in denial of problematic mind states/views or such claims as ‘everything is only energy’ or ‘all is one’ or ‘everything is perfect.’ Liberation includes keeping our feet on the ground in the way the world reveals itself. Your final line is worthy of remembering for people who explore all three areas.

  • Thanks, too, for putting the Western approach in its position, i.e. limits set by analytical thinking and technicalities.

    Skillful means imo can be quite a long chapter on its own.


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