Mindfulness' "truthiness" problem: Sam Harris, science and the truth about Buddhist tradition

Sam Harris wants practitioners out of religion business. But the supposed science behind it is its own mythology

Published December 6, 2014 3:45PM (EST)

Stephen Colbert, Sam Harris        (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia/Photo montage by Salon)
Stephen Colbert, Sam Harris (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia/Photo montage by Salon)

The spike of popular interest in the mindfulness movement, with its enthusiastic endorsements among celebrities, politicians, CEOs and other movers and shakers, has made its champions extremely confident, even evangelical. Prophesying that the mindfulness movement “has the potential to ignite a universal or global renaissance… that would put even the European and Italian Renaissance into the shade," Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is no modest innovator. Sparked by the unique confluence of science and the meditative disciplines derived from Buddhism, the global renaissance that Kabat-Zinn envisions promises to deliver much more than just stress reduction. This mindfulness movement, Kabat-Zinn proclaims in a recorded interview on Insights at the Edge, “may actually be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next couple hundred years.”


People who are drawn to mindfulness programs are there for a variety of reasons and in response to all sorts of promises, from pragmatic concerns to reduce stress-related disorders, to garnering better focus at work, and yes, even to bringing about world peace. But for some Buddhists, and we include ourselves in this group, there is a growing concern that the mindfulness movement has the potential to push to the margins contemporary Buddhism’s dialogue with tradition, diminishing its capacity to serve as a challenge to materialist attitudes and values. The rapid mainstreaming of mindfulness has provided a domesticated and tame set of meditation techniques for mainly upper-middle-class and corporate elites so they may become more “self-accepting” of their anxieties, helping them to “thrive,” to have it all—money, power and well-being, continuing business-as-usual more efficiently and, of course, more “mindfully”—while conveniently side-stepping any serious soul searching into the causes of widespread social suffering.

Our concerns have nothing to do with complaints that Buddhism is being diluted or whether the mindfulness movement is an authentic and accurate representation of traditional Buddhist teachings, although those who venture to raise critical questions are often immediately pigeonholed as out-of-touch Buddhist purists. To be clear, we know of no one opposed to meditation being employed for reducing human suffering of any kind. But we do take issue with the troublesome rhetoric that the Buddhist tradition amounts to nothing more than an outdated set of cultural accretions. Author Sam Harris exemplifies this in his essay “Killing the Buddha,” when he characterizes the Buddhist religious tradition as an “accidental strand” of history and tells those in the mindfulness movement that they “no longer need to be in the religion business.” Dan Harris, co-anchor of ABC’s "Nightline" and "Good Morning America" and the author of the best-selling book "10% Happier," decries “meditation’s massive PR problem,” code for shedding any associations with anything that smacks of Buddhism. This kind of deprecatory, at times hostile characterization of the Buddhist tradition betrays a terrible lack of understanding of what it means to engage meaningfully with a religious tradition, and a naïve belief in the unassailable authority of science as the sole arbiter of truth, meaning and value.

Science, however, is not the only game in town for questions having to do with human meaning, ethics and spiritual insights. Buddhism can and should engage in dialogue with modern modes of rigorous thinking, but that shouldn’t be restricted to the domain of empiricism having to do with physical things and processes. To have a more balanced dialogue, we need to include, as Amedeo Giorgi, one of the world’s leading phenomenological theorists, points out, the qualitative human sciences (cultural anthropology, for example) as well as history, comparative religion, and philosophy.

Unfortunately, the current rhetoric hasn’t enriched the conversation with tradition, because, to a large extent, the mindfulness movement seems actively uninterested in it. And the very logic of the movement provides no reason one should be interested. When mindfulness advocates deem it necessary to rhetorically engage in a war on the Buddhist tradition, it is not just a matter of good branding. Rather, it amounts to an active attempt to dismiss the whole of tradition and replace it with, well, themselves.

Why has the mindfulness movement grown exponentially and gained increasing acceptance in modern culture? “The reason is the science,” Kabat-Zinn told Time magazine. One of the foundational claims of the mindfulness movement is that science has proven that mindfulness is good for you. It is an idea expressed by mindfulness advocates that scientific studies have proven reliably that mindfulness has many benefits for improving physical and mental health, relationships, general well being, workplace efficiency, even sex. Neuroscientific studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of meditators’ brain states are frequently touted in the media as incontrovertible evidence that science has verified the efficacy of mindfulness. Whether it’s increasing the size of grey matter, shrinking of the amygdala, or quieting of the default mode network, reports of functional and structural changes in the brain (even if the neuroscientists themselves are more circumspect about the actual significance of their findings) have come to symbolize an official stamp of scientific legitimacy. Indeed, as Professor Richard Henson at the University of Cambridge points out, “the pictures of blobs on brains seduce one into thinking that we can now directly observe psychological processes.” In fact, Deena Weisberg and her colleagues found in their study "The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations" that even bogus and bad explanations for psychological phenomena, when couched in the language and dazzling visual imagery of neuroscience, are seen as more satisfying by most people.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that the mindfulness movement has turned to science for its authority. As Richard J. Davidson, a pioneer in the emerging field of contemplative neuroscience, explains, “There is a swath in our culture who is not going to listen to someone in monks’ robes, but they are paying attention to scientific evidence.” It doesn't require sophisticated market research to figure out that branding mindfulness with the veneer of hard science is a surefire way to get the ear of the general public.

And it has, enormously. Branding mindfulness with the imprimatur of science is a common marketing strategy in a number of recent books in the mindfulness genre on the New York Times best-seller list. Take the book "Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace)," written by Google’s top in-house mindfulness advocate, Chade-Meng Tan. The inside front cover flap immediately signals that the authority for mindfulness certainly “cannot be the domain of bald people in funny robes.” Rather it lies with the scientists in white lab-coats, as he cites study after study to back up his claims that mindfulness delivers greater happiness, prosperity, health and career success. And when it comes to mindfulness, he insists, “everything can be completely secular.” Mindfulness is, in his view, a way to have it all — success and profits, wisdom and compassion — all in the playful spirit of fun and joy.

Media-savvy entrepreneurs have become fond of denigrating Buddhism, viewing it as a culturally archaic and superstitious container in which the scientifically efficacious practice of mindfulness has been preserved. Dan Harris says, “I always thought mindfulness practice was for people who live in yurts, or collect crystals… as it turns out, there is all this science that says it can boost your immune system, reduce your blood pressure, and rewire key parts of your brain.” These are all familiar tropes of the mindfulness movement: that science, in validating mindfulness practice, has liberated it from the flaky, foreign, irrational, outdated and spooky metaphysics of religious tradition.

But how much science is there, really?

Prominent contemplative scientists are expressing their concerns regarding the hype. Brown University researcher Willoughby Britton told Tricycle magazine, “Public enthusiasm is outpacing scientific evidence,” and that, “People are finding support for what they believe rather than what the data is actually saying.” The guiding ethos of scientific research is to be disinterested and cautious, yet when scientific studies are employed for the purpose of advocacy, their trustworthiness becomes suspect. “Experimenter allegiance,” she worries, “can count for a larger effect than the treatment itself.”

There is in the mindfulness movement a great deal of momentum to override the caution that is the hallmark of good science. Researchers seeking grant money, authors seeking book contracts, mindfulness instructors seeking clients, workshop entrepreneurs seeking audiences — these have together created a multimillion-dollar industry built on the most lofty of claims to scientific legitimacy. We are now witnessing what Joel Best, in his book "Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads," calls the “illusion of diffusion,” a mistaken belief that growing enthusiasm toward mindfulness provides evidence of its durable quality.

Previous studies of scientific communications have shown that the prevalence of exaggerated promises, media interest, scientific competitiveness, heightened public expectations, and commercial pressures has the effect of feeding a “hype pipeline.” Catherine Kerr, who directs the neuroscience lab at Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative, is concerned that the hyping of mindfulness research is doing a disservice, and “if this wave of hype continues,” she warns in a blog post for Tricycle magazine, there could be negative consequences and “the backlash will be too strong.” Kerr worries that “people will lose faith and revert to the other side: mindfulness has no value.”

To this point, one of the few things we can say with certainty about the science of mindfulness is that, at least in its public presentation, it appears to be based more on rhetoric than rigor, having less to do with actual science than it does with sounding “scienc-y.” Like Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” it is more that it “feels” like science than that it is science. In many respects, branding mindfulness in the cloak of science is not all that dissimilar to how any new fitness fad, whether it be low-fat diets or some exercise craze, is promoted. Promoters of the latest diet or exercise program are notorious for cherry-picking studies and appealing to the authority of science to bolster their claims, promising that we can shed pounds and dramatically improve our lives in just a few short weeks. Their solutions almost always turn out be short-lived fads.

There is an irony here. The appeal to science for legitimacy and validation is based largely on faith in promises about science, not in science itself. For now, the science of meditation functions mainly as a kind of new mythology, put forth in the belief and with the claim that it is eradicating, or at least superseding, all prior mythology. From this standpoint, the symbolic forms through which Buddhism, like any religion, has traditionally transmitted its meanings and values are mere relics of the unscientific past and, therefore, suspect.

This pernicious attitude toward tradition correlates with another assumption characteristic of the mindfulness movement: that Buddhism has a universal essence that modern Westerners have privileged access to and that can be extracted and made widely available to mainstream culture. At the Buddhism in America conference, Kabat-Zinn explained his view: ‘‘The Dharma, to me, is pointing to something that really is universal.… The cultural and ideological overlays, and the historical elements of [Buddhism], beautiful and honorable and wonderful as they are, are not necessarily the heart of the Dharma, which transcends them.’’

This view holds that mindfulness is “Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism.” Thupten Jinpa Langri, the Dalai Lama’s long-time interpreter and a prominent scholar in his own right, chairs the Mind and Life Institute, which is on the forefront of the Buddhism-science dialogue. In a feature article for Tricycle, he says that he finds it problematic when mindfulness proponents “make the bigger claim that they have extracted the juice out of the Buddhist practices and what they have got is the essence, and what is left is all these mumbo-jumbo rituals that are useless. And this is where the problem is.”  Taking issue with the mixed messages among mindfulness advocates, speaking on a panel at the “Mindfulness in Cultural Context” conference at McGill, he said, “Although I am aware that sometimes the presenters of mindfulness practices on the one hand want to argue this [mindfulness] has nothing to do with Buddhism, it is secular… but at the same time, they want to argue this is the essence of the Buddhist teachings. I’ve often told them, you know, you cannot have it both ways.”

To say that one has arrived at a universal essence of an ancient world religion is not only a bold claim, but it bears the stamp of colonialism with its rhetoric of universal reason. Mindfulness is now being marketed as a scientifically tested natural food for the mind, purged of all the extraneous fat and toxic preservatives of Asian “cultural baggage.” If this sounds familiar -- educated Westerners and Western entrepreneurs appropriating elements of Asian culture with the attitude that modern modes of thought provide a privileged understanding and means of employing of those otherwise "exotic" elements -- it should. It is characteristic of the imperialist mindset, which says, "we know better than you what you are about." 

Buddhism has remained a living tradition vis-à-vis the intergenerational conversations that have been sustained over several millennia. While these conversations have at times been contentious and fraught with arguments and debates, their participants could continue the conversation as they were fluent in various foundational aspects of the tradition. The willingness to participate in the discourse is a sign of the inherent value placed on tradition, whether it involved the translation process to a new culture or Buddhist reformers seeking to innovate. One finds something similar in the world of music -- or for that matter, any culture-building endeavor. No matter how revolutionary a musician may be, whether it is Johann Sebastian Bach or John Coltrane, these revolutionary musicians were participating in an ongoing musical dialogue, which emerges out of a preexisting tradition. As Igor Stravinsky wrote, “A real tradition is not the relic of the past that is irretrievably gone; it is a living force that animates and informs the present.” Indeed, without the tension of tradition and its resisting foundations, sustainable innovation is unlikely. As the late jazz bassist Charles Mingus noted, “You can't improvise on nothing man; you've gotta improvise on something.

Mindfulness advocates have often responded to criticisms by comparing their initiatives to the work of the Buddha, reminding us that he often taught kings, merchants, and feudal village leaders. This is true, but misleading. The Buddha certainly did converse with leaders and the merchant class, but what he taught them was not a mindfulness-based intervention so they could simply feel better about themselves. Nor did the Buddha simply provide them a meditative technique for improving concentration so that kings and merchants could obtain wealth and riches for their own sake. Rather, the Buddha advocated a wiser form of ethical leadership based on fair and just means for the acquisition and proper use of wealth. Moreover, the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, an eminent American-born Theravada Buddhist monk and English translator of the Buddha’s earliest discourses, noted, “I do not know of any discourse in which the Buddha teaches satipatthana meditation and systematic vipassana meditation [the main sources of practice for the mindfulness movement] to householders. Those are monastic practices, which normally presuppose renunciation -- or at least a strong disposition to renunciation.”

For every Silicon Valley executive who takes a mindfulness workshop, there might well be someone less privileged -- say, a renter in San Francisco who is being forced out of her apartment by Silicon Valley money buying up the city's real estate -- who thinks, "Well, if those are the people that Buddhism is appealing to and the places Buddhist teachers are doing their teaching, then I don't think I have a place in that practice." For every person who is convinced by the claims of scientific validity to try meditation, maybe there are others who think, "This sounds just too good to be true. In fact, it doesn't sound true at all." And in both cases, they would have good reason to be put off by Buddhist practice, reasons every bit as good as those put forth by the mindfulness movement to promote their form of stealth Buddhism. In fact, to us, their reasons might be better.

There also is timidity among leaders in the Buddhist community who see the folly of the mindfulness movement, but are reluctant to speak up. They express their doubts privately, but as yet there are few who have spoken out publicly. Maybe they don't want to criticize their friends and colleagues. Maybe they are hoping some of the benefits of the mindfulness boom will come their way. Whatever the case, up to now, raising questions about the mindfulness movement — and a lot of questions are being raised — is happening mainly not by Buddhist leaders but by the rank-and-file community.

As for the benefits of mindfulness, it does seem that there has been some success with its application in stress reduction, but just how much success is still unknown. So far, the limited number of reliable studies indicates that it is no more and no less successful than any number of things, such as talk therapy, or for that matter, taking regular walks. Whether it will make one 10 percent happier, well, maybe. But as most any experienced meditator knows well, meditation can also lead one into some very dark places, and that 10 percent can evaporate in an instant. And what then? Without a framework that sets the practice in a purposeful context -- if it is just a metric of happiness -- then there is no meaningful way to understand the ups and downs. If it is not providing immediate gratification, then why keep at it?

But even if the most enthusiastic claims for the benefits of mindfulness don't pan out, its continued popularity does promise at least one unqualified benefit: It just might keep some celebrities out of Scientology. And everyone can be glad for that.

By Ronald Purser

Ronald Purser, Ph.D., is a professor of management at San Francisco State University.

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