A SUMMARY OF KELLY’S REFLECTIONS FROM HER FIELD PLACEMENT JOURNAL
Kelly's reflections in her field placement journal entry were prompted by her experiences of a MBRP workshop while in her field placement. These experiences generated a number of questions for her, which can be summarized into five areas for thought. First, can “mindfulness” practices (or, indeed, meditation or awareness) be separated from their spiritual origins and traditions? Second, is the use of “mindfulness” that does not explicitly acknowledge the historical spiritual foundations of the practice inappropriate or even unethical for social work? Third, what are the implications ofusing (1) “spirit-less” mindfulness that is separated from any spiritual tradition and defined as secular in nature and (2) “spirit”- infused mindfulness underpinned by a spiritual ideology? Kelly's fourth area for thought concerns how social workers can respectfully and authentically introduce work that allows for “spirit” into practice. Her final question expanded on the use of “spirit” in social work practice. Kelly asked why there appeared to be less sensitivity required of professionals when using Buddhist traditions in mindfulness practice when, in contrast, Christian and other formal spiritual traditions' practices are used sparingly or with great care in the secular arena of social work. Her reflections on these questions were primarily concerned with the cultural differences embedded in the mindfulness practice to which she was introduced and the more specific issues of diversity, authenticity, openness, and transparency.
In reflecting on these questions, Kelly briefly described how the universal concept of meditation is specifically expressed in a range of religious or philosophical contexts. She sought out examples of people she knew who regularly meditate and asked their opinions about the assumption that meditation is a secular practice. These people came from diverse backgrounds, and she gave examples of three people she spoke to who told her they meditate as a spiritual practice, grounded in their particular religious or philosophical worldview.
On the basis of this diversity, she now believes that social work needs to recognize and acknowledge the implications of this diversity in its possible use of meditation practices. This acknowledgment of the diversity of meditative practices was absent at the training workshop Kelly attended. She explored the discomfort she experienced as a Christian asked to engage in a practice that was specifically defined in Buddhist terms and its incompatibility with her Christian beliefs. This included conflict for her between the Buddhist explanation of suffering and the Christian doctrines of suffering. As such, she had to decide if she was going to participate in what she experienced as overtly Buddhist meditation exercises. She decided to follow the practical instructions of the practices while personally retaining her own Christian understanding and explanation of the concept. In participating in the practice, she decided to include her Christian practice of acknowledging the arising thoughts and sensations as sacred and God-given before gently returning to the breath.
In reflections, she questioned who has the capacity to construct a model of therapeutic meditation based on ancient religious practices. For example, she raised the question of whether she as a non-Muslim could construct a model of therapeutic meditation based on ancient Islamic meditation practices and whether such a construction would be widely believed as morally, intellectually, and professionally bankrupt; contravening many ethical principles; and grossly lacking in any kind of legitimacy, credibility, and cultural or religious sensitivity. The basis of condemnation was the unspoken expectation for “authenticity” in the workshop in terms of expecting the social work practitioner using MBRP to also regularly engage in his or her own Vipassana practice and its associated beliefs. Given her Christian background, Kelly viewed herself as ill-equipped, unsuited, and unwilling to guide anyone in the practices from religions other than her own. Thus, she questioned why Vipassana meditation was being specifically taught to practitioners to use as a tool with clients. The expectation of “authenticity” in the application of these techniques with clients did not sit comfortably with Kelly. In the workshop, the use and integration of meditative practice was justified based on the assertion that “Buddhism is not a religion.”
For Kelly, this assertion did not sit well. As a Christian, Kelly would not choose to use or teach a Vipassana intervention because this would conflict with her personal worldview and therefore, as she noted, would lack the authenticity expected with clients because she would not be prepared to regularly undertake this form of meditation practice or follow associated beliefs. She concluded that she was only able to credibly use meditation as a decontextualized skills set or to use a personally compatible form of Christian meditation (i.e., authentically Christian) that ascribes thoughts and sensations as sacred and God given. However, from her perspective, this meant that it would only be logically suitable for Christian clients, or for those open and willing to engage with Christian beliefs. The subsequent question that arose was the following: “Is such a practice, even with willing clients, appropriate and professional in the largely secular domain of the helping professions and, specifically, within nonreligious agencies?”
Kelly noted that in her experience, meditation, prayer, or other tools based on explicitly Christian ideas are often deemed inappropriate to include in her work, unless there has been a sensitive and careful negotiation with an individual client. She posited that the same would be true if a colleague actively used meditation, prayers, or tools from, for example, the Islamic tradition. Why should it not be the case then, Kelly argued, for the introduction of authentic Buddhist and Hindu meditations to also be questioned? For some time, social work in Australia has been avidly secular—so much so that many people, she believes, are terrified of the thought of bringing a Christian tradition into practice—but somehow there has been very little question of or curiosity about why there is not the same fear about bringing in a practice based on the Buddhist tradition.
She concluded that the less problematic option is the decontextualized approach of reaching into a toolbox and pulling out “generic” meditation techniques that are free from all religious or philosophical affiliations. However, to Kelly, this did not do away with a further concern about the ethical responsibilities a worker should have to disclose the origins and rationales of meditation interventions or mindfulness activities, particularly in the context of clients with impaired capacities. In the decontextualized situation that she observed, clients were asked to suspend all their beliefs. At the same time, the practice they were being asked to engage in was based on a particular set of beliefs. In asking this of others, Kelly saw the teacher's own beliefs being privileged for no other reason than, at that time, being presented as the “right” beliefs. Where is the authenticity in this? Kelly asked. Although Kelly recognizes the implementation of mindfulness and meditation as a decontextualized skill set as a positive move toward holistic practice that brings some benefits to the individual, meditation to her has personal meaning, and this meaning is inextricably woven into the spiritual framework from which she lives and practices. Hence, for her, “mindfulness” is not as culturally or spiritually neutral as it claims to be.