Is Mindfulness Value Free? Tiptoeing Through the Mindfield of Mindfulness
ROBYN LYNN, JO MENSINGA, BETH TINNING,
AND KELLY LUNDMAN
Mindfulness is increasingly being integrated into human service workers' professional practice on the basis that, as an approach, it is part of all spiritual traditions and can be practiced in a secular context without the values of those traditions (Hick, 2009). Over time, mindfulness has evolved from its traditional roots in Buddhism and been integrated as a secularized practice into modern therapeutic and social change interventions (Bishop et al., 2004; Didonna, 2009; Hick, 2009; Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Langer, 1989; Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002). This professional secularization has been supported by scientific research on the benefits of mindfulness-based therapeutic interventions for improving attention and emotional regulation processes and contributing to self-care in clients (Shapiro & Applegate, 2000; Shapiro & Carlson, 2009; Siegel, 2010). Many of these interventions also require the practitioner to be authentic, skillful, and accomplished in the meditation or mindfulness practices that they use in their intervention process.
Social workers have relatively recently begun to describe the ways in which they are using mindfulness as an intervention in practice and in social work education (Hick, 2009; Lynn, 2010). Most of this literature focuses on the apparent success of mindfulness in practice. The emphasis is primarily on its value for selfcare for practitioners (Berceli & Napoli, 2006; Minor & Carlson, 2006), as an intervention technique for social work (Birnbaum, 2005; Birnbaum & Birnbaum, 2004; Brandon, 1976; Coholic, 2005; Hick, 2009; Hick & Furlotte, 2009; Kane,
2006; Lee, Ng, Leung, & Chan, 2009; Turner, 2009), or as a contemplative practice (Sheridan, 2004; Sherman & Siporin, 2008).
There has also been a larger focus on the mind-body-spirit connection (Birnbaum & Birnbaum, 2008), as well as consideration of how mindfulness might be used in relation to social justice (Hick & Furlotte, 2009). Whereas Hick and Furlotte identify tensions and similarities between the basic beliefs of mindfulness and social justice, Birnbaum and Birnabaum argue that it reflects “ontological and epistemological shifts among social workers, as a group, both in the field and in academia” (Birnbaum & Birnbaum, 2008, p. 88). The paradigmatic shift identified by Birnbaum and Birnbaum is in relation to the use of holistic and transpersonal theories in social work that emphasize the practice of mindfulness to expand consciousness, self-observation, and knowledge of the world. They show how these approaches relate to the central values of social work. Hick and Furlotte also show that there is a convergence between mindfulness and social justice “around the ideas of social relations, dialectics, consciousness, and selfreflection or reflectivity” (p. 5). However, they also note tensions between critical social science theory and mindfulness around the notion of theory and human nature. For example, in relation to human nature, social justice approaches in social work have their roots in a critical theory conception of human nature. From this perspective, “social structures determine social behaviour [and it is the] differential access to wealth and power [that] is the cause of social problems” (Hick & Furlotte, 2009, p. 12). In contrast, a mindfulness approach would see “humans as naturally generous, kind, and caring. Social relations based on material wealth are incompatible with human nature” (p. 12). At the core of these tensions may be a different view of nondualism between mindfulness and social justice approaches (Hick & Furlotte, 2009).
Most accounts in the literature draw on modern accepted definitions of mindfulness and appear to fail to examine whether mindfulness in its secularized form is value free. In addition, there is very little recognition of the confusion that exists in the current literature about the meaning of mindfulness, the implication of separating mindfulness from its spiritual and traditional bases, and the ethical implications for social workers and their practice. A student-initiated inquiry about the application of mindfulness in practice was made by Kelly after she participated in a Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) workshop during her final year of her Bachelor of Social Work field placement.
The workshop Kelly attended presented MBRP as a secular intervention that is value free despite its roots in Buddhism. It was assumed that participants would experience it as a technique rather than as something that may have over- tones/memories or an explicit link to ideas ofspirit for participants. However, the presenter did define mindfulness in specifically Buddhist terms, as an insight- oriented approach that reveals how the mind creates suffering, according to the four Noble Truths. There was no other information provided in the workshop about the origins of mindfulness.
As a Christian, Kelly drew links with ideas of spirit and identified MBRP as having a set ofunarticulated Buddhist values and beliefs, in its use ofmindfulness, that are not necessarily congruent with other spiritual and cultural values and beliefs. For example, her understanding of suffering is based on Christian doctrines. She considered this understanding to be irreconcilable with the Buddhist explanation. This took her on a path of wondering if mindfulness indeed can be “mindful” practice without an explicit acknowledgment and inclusion of a discussion of the contemplative tradition from which it has emerged. This included questions about how authenticity and integrity are maintained when we “take” ideas in part or in whole—while leaving parts behind. Kelly's response and experience at this point in the workshop are described by the following excerpt from her journal:
He then urged our group “to put aside all your thoughts and all your beliefs. Suspend your beliefs for now so that you can benefit from this activity. You don't need any beliefs for this activity.”
I can't speak for the others, but put my beliefs aside? Not likely! And what about the teacher's own beliefs? Isn't this “authentic” practice based on a set of beliefs, including adherence to such doctrines as the four Noble Truths? I certainly agree that we can stop actively thinking about our beliefs, but we are still nonetheless influenced by them. If he were to put aside these stated beliefs wouldn't his own practice be robbed of its inherent meaning? Hasn't he become the only person in the room privileged by the prerogative to maintain his own beliefs, simply because they are the right ones?
She took the position that Vipassana meditation when used in a therapeutic regime is not value free and put forward the idea that using mindfulness without contextualizing the origins of the practice with the client is potentially problematic for social workers.
Kelly's reflections prompted her field liaison (Beth) to critically reflect on her own views and, with Kelly's permission, she shared Kelly's journal entry with other staff (Robyn and Jo). In our individual reading of her entry, we had critical reactions to her reflections but found that her struggles also resonated with our attempts as educators to introduce contemplative practices into the curriculum and our pedagogy. Our journeys included students who we failed to engage with mindfulness, others who embraced it enthusiastically, and questions about trying to incorporate other forms of knowledge and understanding into education and practice: “Is something lost in the development of secular mindfulness applications?” “Am I authentic enough to facilitate mindfulness practice in the classroom?” “Who can practice this?” “Who should teach this?” “Can it be taught by anybody?” “Do I have to be a practitioner of a certain set of values in order to teach it?” “Should I expect all students to participate in these practices?” We asked ourselves, Do we need to think about this or not? Is it value free or not? Some informal conversations between Robyn, Beth, and Jo prompted the beginning of a structured critically reflective dialogue between us that sought to further explore and respond to Kelly's reflections around her position that mindfulness is not value free.
We want to share what emerged from this dialogue given the growing attention being given in the literature by social work practitioners and educators to mindfulness interventions and its introduction into social work pedagogy. Although there is a growing acceptance of the use of mindfulness and meditation in biopsychosocial therapies and social work, a more thorough evaluation of the interventions and their role in pedagogy is required, not just in terms of apparent success but also in terms of intellectual rigor, ethics, and values. Central to this is a consideration of the differences between mindfulness as a tool and mindfulness as an ideology or way of being that needs to explicitly define the boundaries between the different forms. In this chapter, we present aspects of our dialogue that explored the question, “Is mindfulness ‘value free' and what are the implications of this?” The themes that became central for us in addressing this question were the response of social work to the introduction of other ways of “knowing” (ontology and epistemology); mindfulness as a natural, spiritual, and cultural process; and cultural colonization or convergence. Here, we summarize Kelly's reflections. We then provide an overview of our approach, share our reflections on aspects of Kelly's response, and discuss the implications of this for social work education.