Mindfulness’s lack of judgement

Contemporary mindfulness is often characterised by a non-judgemental approach, what does this mean for meditators?

What do we mean by a lack of judgement?

Although definitions across contemporary forms of mindfulness are varied, we usually find mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are explicitly non-judgemental. In the context of meditation technologies, we think about ‘non-judgement’ being both operationalised in the meditation practice itself, as well as in the wider ethical context surrounding the meditation. This lack of judgement in MBIs appears to have been one of its foundational principles, present since its introduction into clinical/scientific settings1. This absence of judgement is somewhat surprising given the presumed conceptual relationship with Buddhist forms of mindfulness, where judgement and ethics provide stable theoretical frameworks.

Is it important?

Scholars2 and practitioners3 have considered how the ‘non-judgemental’ approach in MBIs, position them in relation to traditional forms of mindfulness. However the questions from a history of science perspective are more linked to how and why things developed this way. What does the apparent paradox (judgemental practices translated as non-judgemental), mean about the scientific context in which mindfulness was established and now flourishes? There are concerns that the removal of judgement and/or a wider ethical context, reflects a distance between contemporary practices and the traditional forms. This debate has been illuminated recently by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, who wrote that meditation alone is not enough4. That an understanding of the ontology and epistemology of the practice is an essential part of the process. Although Rinpoche was talking specifically about Buddhist meditation, his view supports the notion that meditation stripped of its ethical and judgmental elements may become something quite different. We should be clear that although there are Buddhist methods which operationalise a non-judgemental view, they are typically conducted within an ethical/judgemental setting.

“If we use these precious resources to examine things critically, we can understand both the way things appear and the way they truly are.”

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche4

Does non-judgement change the result of meditation?

Why a lack of judgement?

From a psychological point of view, the idea that meditation should not be separated from a judgemental and ethical context raises three important questions. Firstly, are students of MBIs getting some ad hoc judgement/ethical context from their mindfulness teacher or other sources to fill the gap? Secondly, judgement and reflection require engagement with important processes in the brain’s intrinsic networks, therefore there are likely to be differences between the results obtained from judgemental and non-judgemental approaches. And finally, if judgement is regarded as being central to meditation technologies, why has it been removed from contemporary practices? It is this last question that holds the greatest significance.

What does it mean from a history of science perspective?

In one sense, psychology is free to develop whatever forms of meditation it sees fit to invent, it can also investigate established meditation methods. But the creation of contemporary mindfulness interventions, based on an existing form invites different questions. If the specific traditional practice(s) mindfulness has emerged from are known, cognitive psychology should be able to investigate their theoretical and operational components. Then by making comparisons with contemporary mindfulness, a clear understanding of what has been added or lost can be established. It appears that this kind of foundational work has not taken place so we do not really know the extent to which mindfulness is rooted in any traditional practice. Therefore, although contemporary mindfulness stresses a close relationship with Buddhist meditation technologies, this is not generally supported at a theoretical or operational level. So why and how did things turn out this way? If the scientific origins of mindfulness are uncertain, why has it been so robustly supported by the scientific and clinical communities?

Framing the questions

There is ample evidence that there are fundamental problems in the science of mindfulness. However these claims are still controversial, not least because of the important role mindfulness has occupied in contemporary society. But acknowledgement of limitations with the scientific reliability does not necessarily mean that mindfulness does not work, or it does not have an important role to play. Rather it highlights that there has been a separation of the intervention from the level of evidence normally expected in this field. How and why this approach to the science of mindfulness has been sustained over 40 years is likely to be dependent on a range of factors, not all explicit at this stage.


Taking about mindfulness

“The early papers on MBSR cited not just its Theravada roots (Kornfield 1977; Nyanaponika 1962), but also its Mahayana roots within both the Soto (Suzuki 1970) and Rinzai (Kapleau 1965) Zen traditions (and by lineage, the earlier Chinese and Korean streams), as well as certain currents from the yogic traditions (Thakar 1977) including Vedanta (Nisargadatta 1973), and the teachings of J Krishnamurti (Krishnamurti 1969, 1979) and Ramana Maharshi (Maharshi 1959).”

Jon Kabat-Zinn1

References

1 Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 281-306 here.

2 King, R. (2016). ‘Paying Attention’ in a Digital Economy: Reflections on the Role of Analysis and Judgement Within Contemporary Discourses of Mindfulness and Comparisons with Classical Buddhist Accounts of Sati. In Handbook of Mindfulness (pp. 27-45). Springer, Cham here.

3 Bodhi, Bhikkhu. “What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective.” Contemporary Buddhism 12, no. 01 (2011): 19-39 here.

4 Nyima Chokyi. “Why Meditation isn’t Enough.” Lion’s Roar (2019). https://www.lionsroar.com/why-meditation-isnt-enough/ here.

5 Van Dam, Nicholas T., Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner et al. “Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2018): 36-61 here.

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