Mindfulness as a Natural Process
In recent years, these scientific principles and inquiry methods have focused on the material phenomena of the mind in which mindfulness is viewed as a chemical process and the function of being aware and fully conscious—a part of what makes us human (Wallace, 2008). To date, an increasing number of studies in the neuroscientific sector demonstrate that participating in mindfulness practices brings about “changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking” (Holzel et al., 2011, p. 36). Most, if not all, of these studies describe these changes in positive terms, such as an increase in attention and greater emotional regulation. Although these achievements may be outcomes that most individuals wish to attain, the means of achieving these outcomes are not necessarily value free.
In a study by Eileen Luders and colleagues (2012), long-term meditators were found to have a larger cortical folding in the insula—the “hub for autonomic, affective, and cognitive integration” (p. 5). Although there is still conjecture about what this actually means, the authors note that “meditators are known to be masters in introspection and awareness, as well as emotional control and self-regulation, so the findings make sense that the longer someone has meditated, the higher the degree of folding in the insula” (p. 1). From this perspective, mindfulness can be identified as a natural, if not necessary, process, particularly for the purposes of developing the self-reflective capacities of social work students. Is it therefore secular in nature and something akin to eating or bathing?
In addition to the work of neuroscience and its development of our understanding of its effects on the brain, there has been increasing interest in and development of mindfulness-based applications since the late 1990s in clinical psychology, cognitive therapy, education, law, business, and leadership (Mark, Williams, & Kabat-Zinn, 2011). Each of these disciplines is making a particular contribution to mindfulness as a secular practice and process that is natural. Medicine and health were forerunners in recognizing the benefits of mindfulness and developing mindfulness-based programs for use with clients. Psychology has focused on defining mindfulness, the establishment of its traits, and the development of therapies that are mindfulness based. Social work has drawn on the work of these other disciplines and emphasized its application with individuals, groups, and communities. Education, law, and business have also focused on its application for learning, for justice, and for developing leadership.
Wallace (2011) suggests that these developments in mindfulness have a materialist base and are limited by a scientific tradition that has no scientific definition of consciousness, objective means of detecting consciousness, and an ignorance about this mental phenomena. Wallace is highly critical of the methodology used to study the mind and mindfulness, and he argues the need to integrate contemplative methodology that would involve professionally training contemplative scientists who undertake collaborative research with psychologists, neuroscientists, health and medicine, and physicists—“a potential revolution in the physical and mind sciences” (p. 21). Still others suggest that there is already a convergence taking place between “Western empirical science, and that of the empiricism of the meditative or consciousness disciplines [particularly Buddhist forms of meditation] and their attendant frameworks, developed over millennia” (Mark et al., 2011, p. 4). In a 2011 special edition of Contemporary Buddhism, Mark et al. identified a number of questions that they believe are important to reflect on at this point in the convergence of the two traditions—questions not unlike those being asked by the authors of this chapter. These included the following:
Are there intrinsic dangers that need to be kept in mind? Is there the potential for something priceless to be lost through secular applications of aspects of a larger culture which has a long and venerable, dare we say sacred tradition of its own? What are the potential negative effects of the confluence of these different epistemologies at this point in time? Do we need to be concerned that young professionals might be increasingly drawn to mindfulness . . . because it may be perceived as a fashionable field in which to work rather than from a motivation more associated with its intrinsic essence and transformative potential? Can it be exploited or misappropriated in ways that might lead to harm of some kind, either by omission or commission? Might there even be elements of bereavement and loss on the part of some, mixed in with the exhilaration of any apparent “success,” as often happens when success comes rapidly and unexpectedly. (p. 4)
In response to these questions, authors (Bodhi, 2011; Grossman & Van Dam, 2011) identified the need for caution as these two “ways of knowing” converge as well as the challenges that arise in bringing the different contemplative traditions into a secular context (Batchelor, 2011; Maex, 2011). Perhaps the question is not so much “Is mindfulness value free?” Rather, the inquiry is concerned with the ethical issues that arise in the convergence of traditions and how these should be addressed.