Meditation, Meditation, Meditation

The people at Tricycle put this on their Facebook page this week..


On his page, Dan Fisher featured the image with the phrase:

How “the Mindfulness Movement Uses Buddhism to Prop Up the White-Supremacist-Capitalist-Cishet Patriarchy” – a phrase he borrows from Josh Eaton. I think there is a seed (grain?) of truth here. Like many others, I’m heartened and moved by accounts of Mindfulness being used to help those with anxiety, (MBSR, etc!) : But – there’s just something about the co-opting of it by various groups, its repackaging and reselling and that makes me more than a little uncomfortable. I think I’ll try and disentangle my thoughts on this later in the year..

Meditation and ‘Spirit’?

An issue that keeps coming up in talks about Dispirited is that of meditation. Mindfulness meditation seems, in some contemporary settings, thoroughly secularised.

Over at the Mental Health Foundation offer an online course to support people dealing with stress. They have a FAQ page that contains this statement:

Is it Religious?

No, this course does not contain anything of a religious nature. You will not be asked to accept anything except what you experience for yourself.

The question that I have been asked – in the context of being someone who wishes to look at how we might live without Spirituality is ‘Is Meditation spiritual?’

This strikes me as a very good question. Mindfulness as we now seem to refer to it has explicitly religious roots. It is based on the Pali Buddhist term Sati and arises as an integral component of the early Buddhist traditions. Nonetheless, my answer has usually been that there is scope for a non-spiritual reading of mindfulness, and that we could even offer (though here is not the place to do this, perhaps) a non-spiritual reading of much of the Pali Canon.

But am I right? Does this make sense – or is the religious inscribed into mindfulness? There might a praxis based answer located in an anthropological study of the use of it within Buddhist communities. Another answer might be derived from the key Suttas in the Canon that seem to be the basis for this practice.

The Satipaṭṭhāna (Foundations of Sati – Mindfulness) Sutta in the Majjhima Nikāya may be a good place to start. [The Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta – The Greater Foundations of Mindfulness, in the Dīgha Nikāya, adds little in this context]


The Sutta begins with a statement that surprises some, after the usual pleasantries, in that declares the way offered has as the ‘only way’ to fully overcome the problems that Buddhism identifies (sorrow, lamentation, the way to over come dukkha). Some who think of Buddhism as inclusivist and open may be somewhat taken aback by this – it bears further examination.

The translation at calls is ‘The Only Way’. In the authoritative translation of the Majjhima Nikāya by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (The Middle Length Discourses of The Buddha, Wisdom Books), they opt for ‘this is the direct path’. The Pali reads ekāyano ayam bhikkhave maggo – the important terms here being that of ekāyano and magga. While magga is not troublesome – being way or path – what are we to make of ekāyano? It is a compound from eka and ayana, the latter being ‘going’. Ayana maggo would be a path going (in this case to the goal). But the presence of eka here makes a difference. It is the word for ‘one’, but is often used in an indefinite sense (as noted here). We might be tempted (as Ñānamoli & Bodhi note most translators are, n.135, p.1188, inclined to do) to just have this as ‘the one way’, the ‘only way’, etc. However they invoke examples from elsewhere in the Majjhma Nikāya, and the commentary, that make things less clear. The context in the other uses of ekāyana magga make it clear that it can indicate a one-way path, or a single path that needs to be walked alone. Taking all this into account they opt for “direct path”: noting that other practices can be sidetracked, whereas “Satipaṭṭhāna leads invariably to the final goal”.

So maybe the apparent exlcusivism here is not so harsh as all that – but the efficacy and directness of the method is being brought to the fore..

Back to meditation:

The rest of the Sutta is not without issues of translation, but these don’t really impact on our concerns here hugely. Other than in one way…

The term itself for mindfulness: Sati : while this is linked to the Sanskrit Smriti (“that which is remembered”, a term used to refer to {non Śruti [‘heard’ – directly received]’} Hindu scriptures) it seems to have a base meaning of memory – which develops in Pali Buddhist usages (see Ñānamoli & Bodhi, p.1188) as attention, or awareness directed at the current or present moment. This is what seems to be what we mean by ‘mindfulness’ – present awareness or attention.

I will return to the Sutta in future posts, but what are the foundations here of Sati? The paṭṭhāna – the foundations (that which sets up) of mindfulness are listed as four-fold:

 “What are the four?

“Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending (it) and mindful (of it), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating the feelings in the feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending (them) and mindful (of them), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness, ardent, clearly comprehending (it) and mindful (of it), having overcome in this world covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects, ardent, clearly comprehending (them) and mindful (of them), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief.”

These – the body, feelings, mind/consciousness (depending on translation), mind-objects – all seem to be consistent with a world-view that doesn’t invoke any sense of ‘spirit’ at all. I’d like to return to the detail given to awareness of death in the Sutta (another time), but here we have an account of mindfulness that seems wholly non-spiritual.

The possible issue that might cloud this is of where this leads: for some might suggest that if this leads to Nirvana – then that is itself a spiritual construct. That is a thorny question I’d like to return to as well: but the fundamental account that this practice, of self-aware, concentrated attention on the present experience of mind-body, is a means to the reduction and overcoming of suffering and misery may be an indicator that a non-spiritual account of meditation is perfectly feasible.