I’ve been thinking a lot about what “pragmatic dharma” is lately. This is partly because I’m trying to get my own head straight as I write about it, and partly because Jack Kornfield recently criticized it on Buddhist Geeks. Kornfield, in his usual gentle style, was mostly circumspect in his criticism, but he did say that the leaders of the pragmatic dharma movement (I’m assuming he means Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram) have redefined key concepts in Buddhism. He suggested that the attainments aimed for in pragmatic dharma are, in essence, not the real thing. Coming from the author of A Path with Heart, one of the most easy-going, downright cuddly dharma books out there (while also covering some deep wisdom), such direct criticism is pretty harsh stuff. He also pointed out that the idea that people could attain enlightenment in lay life, a key idea in pragmatic circles, is something that does not make a lot of sense to him and that the experiences and insights a person has in lay life are not the same, not as “transformative,” as what occurs in a more rigorous monastic setting like the Mahasi centers in Burma. He seemed to imply that he understood what goes on in those places while Kenneth and Daniel do not, and so they are redefining things out of misunderstanding. This is odd, because both Kenneth and Daniel spent significant stretches of time in the Asian centers Kornfield is referring to, in the exact same lineage as him, so something isn’t quite making sense. It really seems like a he said/she said sort of situation. I disagree with him here, so hope I didn’t just distort his point of view too much.
Given that Kenneth Folk was my teacher and I benefited immeasurably from the pragmatic approach he used, I was a bit taken aback by Kornfield’s critique. I love his work, and generally think he knows what he is talking about in such matters, so I wondered if there was a misunderstanding or clash of personalities at work rather than a substantial critique. I mean, does he really understand what pragmatic dharma is? Does anyone? What is it really? As I thought about this I came up with a handful of characteristics that I think give pragmatic dharma its shape at present.
Pragmatism – this one is so important it is right in the name. I think that it is the defining characteristic because it stands in contrast to the way the dharma is being taught in mainstream Buddhism in the west. The mainstream has key elements of the Buddhist practice, but it often seems to be more a kind of lifestyle, identity, or a spiritualized form of psychotherapy, rather than a focus on awakening itself or the working elements of practice. It strongly emphasizes uncoupling meditation from attainments, as a sort of de-stressing strategy for a harried western world. This is a very different version of Buddhism from the traditional approach, which strongly emphasizes attaining specific outcomes, like insight knowledges or stream entry, which are viewed as imminently practical. In the westernized version of Buddhism these practical attainments, and even awakening itself, seem to go out of focus and become a kind of aspirational concept rather than a reality. Kornfield actually said as much in his Buddhist Geeks interview, and what is interesting about this from a historical perspective is that he had a very important role to play in this transformation of Buddhism in the west, which is documented in the book Mindful America. This new style of dharma, unique to the west, was dubbed the “mushroom culture” by Bill Hamilton (the teacher of both Daniel Ingram, Kenneth Folk, and founder of the Dharma Seed audio library) who reportedly explained that this new western approach is like growing mushrooms, you “keep them in the dark and feed them shit.” Pragmatic dharma is a reaction against this new westernized style. It is a move to focus on what matters in the dharma – awakening and what leads to it – rather than the things that seem to be more lifestyle or therapy oriented. It is ironic that Kornfield critiques pragmatic dharma as redefining Buddhism away from the traditional meanings, because that is exactly the critique pragmatic dharma folks are making of mainstream Buddhism in the west.
Transparency – pragmatic dharma is big on breaking the taboo on talking about attainments. It means coming right out and saying so if you attained a jhana, had a cessation, or know what an insight is like because you had it first hand. The upside of this is that it invites people to see these things as real rather than fairy tales (which the mushroom culture seems to encourage). It also eliminates the weird game of spiritual marco polo that sometimes gets played when people talk around their own attainments rather than about them. The downside is that it provides an opening for people who simply want to make things up. If it becomes chic to say you attained jhana then no doubt people are going to start redefining jhana to match whatever they experience in meditation, that’s going to lead to a lot of confusion. So on this I can see the validity of the criticism. But does that mean we really need a taboo that leads people to not take these things seriously? Perhaps there can be a middle ground here. I can imagine a situation in which people are encouraged to be open about their attainments within select company. There are plenty of aspects of our lives that we keep private except with a close group, perhaps attainments can start to fall into a similar category. Not quite public, not quite taboo, but something we are open about with those who are going to understand and not overreact.
Digital – pragmatic dharma is a sangha in the cloud. There are communities, but they are mostly online communities. Message boards, forums, blogs, podcasts, and other online mediums are the spaces where ideas pop up and are explored. The Hamilton Project has a great list of pragmatic dharma sites. Buddhist Geeks has an online training program that looks fantastic, and pragmatically minded lay teachers (like myself) often teach people meditation online, via skype or other forms of live online interaction. Small groups meet in person in cities all over the world, but for the most part it is an online phenomenon. This gives it an interesting radical quality. There is something rebellious in spirit about pragmatic dharma that is found in many web-based movements. It is untethered to institutions and traditional hierarchies, and in this sense it is the dharma equivalent of Bitcoin or Wikipedia. A decentralized, crowdsourced fund of emerging wisdom and experimentation, that is unpredictable and destabilizing to established approaches. Some of the ideas that come out of it are destined to fail, like so many internet phenomena, but some are very good and deserve to be taken seriously. The internet is the perfect medium for this kind of experimentation.
Secularism – not everyone who is interested in pragmatic dharma is secular, but so many are it is difficult not to see a trend. Kenneth Folk is openly secular in his approach, eschewing the religious tradition and dogma for a more scientific and modern view of meditation as “brain training” or “contemplative fitness.” As he said in a 2013 article for Wired Magazine “All that woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde.” This trend in pragmatic dharma makes sense because secularism is in essence a scientific perspective, and the scientific perspective is almost pragmatic by definition. From a scientific perspective things only cross the threshold from woo-woo to reality when they’ve been shown to actually work in some fundamental way. This is a version of what pragmatic dharma is doing by focusing on attainments. The moment one takes attainments seriously then one has a sensible way to gauge whether things actually work or not. The threshold is the attainment. And the test of whether something works is whether it leads one closer to the attainment or is merely, to use Kenneth’s phrase, woo-woo. A secular focus means that those aspects of practice that actually work to produce insight and awakening take primary importance, while dogma, doctrine, and cultural additions tend to fall away. This leads to pragmatic dharma’s focus on techniques, maps, or even practices outside of any tradition, while downplaying mainstream Buddhism’s lifestyle-oriented focus.
A focus on ordinary life – most people involved in pragmatic dharma fall into the category of lay practitioners, but what makes them different from lay sangha in the past is that they are not (for the most part) focused on building merit by serving a monastic community in the hope of awakening in future life. They are focused on awakening in this life. This is an idea taken whole from the vipassana revival in Asia that led to the mindfulness movement in the west (see The Birth of Insight for a history of this movement in Burma). Ledi Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw, Goenka, and others spread the idea that lay people could practice Satipatthana meditation and learn Abhidhamma well enough to move along the path while also participating in ordinary life. As a result of this movement great lay teachers such as Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma, who were major influences on the western mindfulness movement, were able to teach and spread the idea that awakening is possible in lay life. As the vipassana movement landed in the west it brought this idea with it, and the idea that one could practice meditation and study Buddhism in lay life flourished. Yet the idea that awakening is possible in lay life is deemphasized as attainments take a back seat to a focus on de-stressing and coping with lay life effectively. Pragmatic dharma takes the idea that awakening is possible in ordinary life literally and seriously.
These five characteristics, pragmatism, transparency, a digital community, secularism, and focusing on awakening in ordinary life, are what gives pragmatic dharma its current shape. But there is something else that is worth understanding about them. They are occurring within a much larger picture that, I think, defines the disagreement that leads someone like Kornfield to criticize this upstart movement, and that is the presence of what I have come to call the “silent sangha.” Right now there is a vast group of people in the west who meditate regularly, practice mindfulness at the office, or are going through mindfulness based stress reduction courses on their doctor’s advice, who are gradually getting deeper and deeper into the world of meditation. They love meditation, but they really do not care much about Buddhism. There is a disconnect between them and a fuller understanding of meditation, beyond mindfulness, and in the coming decades the challenge for Buddhism will be to package and deliver the deeper teachings to them in a way they can understand and which will help them take the next step toward awakening. The silent sangha is a massive and paradigm-shaping group. More than any teacher, more than any blog, magazine, book or traditional institution, it is they who will shape what the dharma is going to look like in the west. What will Buddhism look like in the west when they start to take awakening seriously? If you think this is not a possibility, I’d urge you to read 10% Happier by Dan Harris and get an inside look at his transformation from skeptic, to mindfulness fan, to someone who tentatively wonders if awakening is possible in this life. I think there are millions of people just like Harris, and their minds are gradually opening to this possibility.
It is in this context that a new approach to Buddhism, a truly western approach friendly to the western worldview, is going to emerge. Will it focus on attainments and awakening in this life? Or will it remain lifestyle and therapy oriented? Will it find a way to combine the two? What will western Buddhism become once the silent sangha collectively decides to go deeper? These are the big questions that are the backdrop for the disagreement that Kornfield is having with pragmatic dharma, and that pragmatic dharma is having with mainstream Buddhism. It isn’t really about what Buddhism from Asia is, or whether particular claims about attainments are true or not, it is really about what western Buddhism is going to become. In this context these disagreements seem healthy and vital rather than divisive or harsh. They are a sign that bigger trends are on the move and growth is occurring.
I’m curious to see where it all goes.
The takeaway: This book is about the struggle of a guy trying to figure out what is real in the world of pop-spirituality. The good news is that he found it. The bad news is that he had to search through loads of woo-woo to finally discover what it is. This is a good book for teachers, advanced students, and people deeply involved in meditation communities to read, because it is a reminder that the people who show up, get involved, and commit to the work have had to put up with a lot of stupidity before you ever see them. They deserve a lot of respect.
Dan Harris is not an awakened master. In fact, he is about the farthest thing from an enlightened person that there is, and he’d be the first to admit it. An avowed atheist and skeptic, he’s turned off by the spirituality and oddball ideas associated with meditation. And in my opinion that is why he is the perfect person to write a popular book on meditation.
First the background: Harris is a news reporter, and the book opens with an account of one of the worst days of his career. Maybe one of the worst days of his life. He is reporting live on Good Morning America, one of those upbeat morning shows where the news is mixed with cookie recipes, dancing pop stars, and lots of weather reports for places where you don’t live. On the morning Harris describes, viewers from all over the country are eating cereal, drinking their coffee, and waking up while watching GMA, when he has a full-blown panic attack live on the air. A racing heartbeat, gasping for breath, inability to speak – the whole embarrassing thing unfolds in front of approximately five million groggy-eyed viewers just before they head off to work for the day. For a reporter, it is the stuff of nightmares.*
The reasons for the attack are numerous and make up an interesting biography in the first couple of chapters, but what is most interesting is what happened next. He goes on a search to change himself, and it turns into a kind of postmodern spiritual journey: a spiritual journey by an investigative journalist who investigates all things spiritual for a national news outlet. How meta can you get?
If you meditate, then the basics of his search will probably be very familiar to you. He reads self-help books. Then he stumbles upon Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and the other Oprah Book Club gurus. He goes from books to talks. From talks to meditation. And so on. It seems to be the trajectory many people follow in the west. Step one: read the books. Step two: listen to the teachers. Step three: try it for yourself. Step four: repeat.
But here is the unique thing about Harris’s story, he is in a position not just to read the books, but to interview the authors. Harris goes on a bit of a mission to investigate the gurus and see who they really are. He clearly has a spiritual yearning, but his reporter’s instincts give his investigation a clarifying effect that is missing from other “spiritual journey” biographies: he can easily see what is BS and what is not. And there is a lot of BS. He sums up the problem he encountered perfectly in the opening chapter:
Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem. Largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment.
He gives a frustrating account of his interview with Tolle, who has a way of producing loads of what Kurt Vonnegut would call “foma,” sayings that are harmless but essentially meaningless, only to suddenly say something so true, clear, and powerful that it shocks you into amazement. The effect is short-lived, because more foma quickly issues forth. Harris senses that Tolle is on to something, but he can’t put his finger on what it is and can’t get any meaningful advice from him on how to find out for himself. He drops him for a time, but he makes a reappearance later in the book.
After Tolle he moves on to Chopra, who comes off horribly in the book. Chopra is not so much a spiritual guru as a business guru, a salesman, and he is a glutton for fame and attention. Harris is restrained and polite in his skepticism, but clearly after spending time with the blackberry-addicted, media-loving, savvy businessman that is Deepak Chopra, Harris feels less than inspired.
But luckily, that is when he runs into Mark Epstein. Epstein introduces him to Buddhism, the mindfulness movement, and the world of people associated with insight meditation.** It is touch and go, and the mindfulness people don’t seem that much better than Tolle or Chopra at first. But over time he comes to see them as more real and less obsessed with fame. The fact that they make no weird claims about quantum vortexes, the law of attraction, or awakening hidden energies doesn’t hurt. Epstein and many others seem like ordinary people who discovered an extraordinary thing – meditation actually works when you know how to do it. But still, the world of mindfulness and Buddhism has its fair share of sentimentality, if not outright woo-woo, and in this respect teachers like Tara Brach do not come off well in the book.
Despite his skepticism, he begins meditating and discovers, like so many millions, that it actually works. But he is frustrated by the dissonance between the weirdness of the culture surrounding meditation and its incredible down-to-earth practicality. As he puts it:
I suspect that if the practice could be denuded of all the spiritual preening and straight-out-of-a-fortune-cookie lingo such as “sacred spaces,” “divine mother,” and “holding your emotions with love and tenderness,” it would be attractive to many more millions of smart, skeptical, and ambitious people who would never otherwise go near it.
In the end of the book, Harris does not become enlightened. As far as I can tell, he has only begun his practice. This is not a book about the joys of finishing the path, or even of being on the path, but rather the relief of finally finding the trailhead. It is about the frustrations of finding real information despite the wall of white noise that is modern pop spirituality. The thickets of new age confusion that one can get caught in are on full display in this book, and Harris, with his investigative journalist’s eye, describes just how awful they are for someone starting their search. And while this could give the book a cynical tone, the overall feeling is hopeful. Harris does find the trailhead. He finds a practice worth doing and is excited to demystify it for other newbies. From what I can tell he has not yet experienced the first big mystical breakthrough, what is called the A&P, but if he keeps meditating I’m sure he will.
I’m looking forward to that book.
*The way the other anchors and the corporate folks respond to his panic attack is amazing. It makes one question the stereotypes about those involved in the news media.
** It’s an odd coincidence, but I ran into Harris at this point in his journey. We attended a dinner together and though we didn’t get a chance to talk I kept wondering why he looked so familiar. I assumed we must have skyped about meditation at some point so as I was leaving the dinner I waved at him and said “sorry we didn’t have a chance to talk.” Now I understand the look he gave me, which at the time I thought was “I’m sorry too,” but in hindsight must have been “who the hell is this guy?”
Ron answers questions on a whole range of meditation and psychology related topics, from the online BG community.
“Jill” is 32 and works as a lawyer in the southwest. She wrote to me explaining that during her meditation she sometimes feels a panic attack coming on and has disturbing mental images. She cannot control it and does not know what she is doing wrong. When we talk for the first time I ask her when it began. “It started a few months after my therapist taught me mindfulness…”
Third wave Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the marriage of modern psychology and ancient buddhist meditation. It has grown rapidly in the past decade, and many psychologists and meditation teachers are enthusiastic about the development, seeing it as a blend of the very best of eastern wisdom with western psychological science. Third wave CBT goes under a variety of names such as Mindfulness-Based CBT (MBCBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). There are also less structured approaches and informal sitting groups springing up in clinics across the country. It is the rare hospital or clinic that does not have a meditation group these days. This has resulted in a historically unique situation. Psychologists, medical doctors, social workers and counselors are rapidly becoming the vanguard of meditation in the west, introducing people who may have never meditated to the practice.
All these approaches have the common elements of CBT (recognizing and challenging maladaptive thoughts) and a version of meditation that goes under the moniker “mindfulness meditation” or sometimes just “mindfulness.” A review of the treatment manuals for DBT, ACT, MBSR and MBCBT suggest that “mindfulness meditation” is something close to a “soft-vipassana.” The person doing meditation in these treatment protocols is instructed to watch thoughts and feelings come and go on their own without judgment. This leads to the insight that one does not need to believe in, or act on, thoughts or feelings. This is perfect for CBT, which emphasizes the importance of thoughts and beliefs as the drivers of mood disorders. I call mindfulness meditation a “soft” version of vipassana because it stops short of instructing the person to see that everything in awareness is coming and going and is not owned. It also does not emphasize the kind of intense or rapid momentary concentration that marks some vipassana techniques. Instead, clinical mindfulness focuses on relaxation and gentleness (but not samadhi) and points the person to watch thinking and emotional reactions. I would argue that these differences are a very good thing because, despite popular opinion, traditional vipassana would be terrible medicine for a person who is emotionally distraught, unstable, and unable to cope.
That last sentence may be a bit shocking to some. If you are like most people, you associate meditation, all types of meditation, with happiness, relaxation, and maybe even bliss. The idea that it could produce difficulty is not only counter intuitive, it is anathema to how meditation is presented in the west. If anything difficult does occur during the meditation the meditator is likely to feel that they are doing something wrong. If he or she goes to a meditation teacher the advice will likely be to just “let it go,” “drop it,” or my favorite, “thank your mind for it.” This is patronizing. It gives the false impression that if anything distressing does occur during meditation, the problem is one of technique or reactivity on behalf of the meditator. In reality difficult experiences in meditation, ones that are remarkably similar to the symptoms of many mood disorders, are so normal that the most ancient surviving meditation manuals in Buddhism go into great detail about them, categorizing them into six distinct types that occur in a specific order. Far from being a sign of poor meditation, they are actually described as a sign of deepening insight. In other words, the most ancient manuals not only affirm that difficult experiences occur during serious meditation, they posit that these experiences are supposed to happen. They are a definite sign of one’s movement along what the famous Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw coined The Progress of Insight, and are known as the “dukkha nanas” or “insights into suffering.” This might sound bad, but the good news is that these more distressing insights only occur when one is well on the way and down the path. Meditators usually have to go through a lot of sitting time, develop strong concentration, and become very equanimous before they can enter into the later insights. For this reason it is unlikely that a soft-vipassana approach can get one very far beyond the initial insights and into the dukkha nanas. So in a clinical setting if you stick to the instructions and don’t overdo it, nothing unsettling is likely to occur. I do not believe mindfulness meditation is intentionally designed for this, but if it was it would be a damn clever modification of traditional vipassana.
Despite the limits of mindfulness meditation, there is a problem. A small number of people in clinical settings are unexpectedly good at meditation. With the barest instruction, some people are able to launch themselves deep into the rabbit hole of insights that vipassana is intended to produce. It is an experience that can be troubling and even destabilizing, particularly if one has no idea that it is coming. As third wave CBT has boomed in the past decade these people have become a significant minority in the meditation community. Introduced to meditation through therapy, they find themselves on an emotional ride to which they never agreed, encountering upheavals and difficult truths at the very moment in their lives when they are least able to handle them. That is bad enough, but much worse is that many of the well-intentioned clinicians who teach these techniques have no idea that anything troubling could occur.
Many of the developers of these approaches received their training in meditation through Zen, which eschews the more old fashioned stage-models of insight, and therefore does not formally recognize the predictable difficulties that arise (though every Zen teacher I’ve met is cognizant of them and is well-prepared to handle them). Additionally, for reasons too complex to go into here, traditional vipassana teachers in the west have elected to present the practice without much emphasis on the traditional stages of insight. And so, without intending to, they often leave the simplistic impression that there are no difficulties associated with insight, and that more meditation equals more happiness. The inspired psychologists who learn from these teachers come away greatly impressed with meditation, but with little to no knowledge of the dukkha nanas. They return to their clinics, offices and hospitals and find novel ways to integrate meditation into the treatments of unstable people. Most of these people get great benefit. Some have a different experience, one that is unsettling. And while many meditators may object to this characterization, pointing out that their own experience of dukkha nanas was not so difficult, I would argue that most people who go through it with little trouble are not in the midst of therapy or suicidal.
People who have had this unexpected experience are growing in numbers and are starting to share with each other and with more traditional meditators. They have come to call the dukkha nanas the “dark night” after the Christian experience (some teachers believe they may be in the same mystical family if not the same thing). They are sharing and seeking advice on internet forums and in settings such as the Cheetah House and Dark Night Project where they feel they will not be told to simply “drop it” but will be supported in gaining understanding. They are an unseen, and as yet unrecognized, growing minority of western meditators. Many have no sangha, no formal teacher, no texts or canon, no philosophy or anything resembling “faith.” They are frequently alone, searching the Internet for anyone like themselves, trying to sift through the overwhelmingly positive pitch for meditation for some nugget of information that can illuminate their experience. Like refugees with no home, they do not understand what is happening to them or why, and they often do not know what to do or where to go for help.
This issue is not abstract for me and perhaps my own experience will shed light on why I care so much. Two years ago I received the green light from my teacher to begin teaching insight meditation. I put up a website, told those who knew me what I was up to, and waited to see who would be interested. While I made an effort to write in my own voice, which can be irreverent, what I presented was right down the middle vipassana. However, I did do one thing that was unusual and for which I am very grateful. I went against the common practice of downplaying the insight stages and instead put them front-and-center on the site. I did this because my teacher was clear about them with me, so I followed suit and was candid about them in my teaching. I made sure to include a rich description of the dukkha nanas and cautions to those who may be about to plunge into them. Unbeknownst to me this one gesture of understanding came to define my experience of teaching for the next two years, as the great majority of people who contacted me, and continue to contact me, are in the dark night. Most got into it through formal practice (amazingly, it doesn’t seem to matter much which technique or tradition). But I was alarmed when it seemed that a significant number, perhaps a third, learned to meditate from their therapist or from a group in a clinical setting. Sometimes they were actively suicidal at the time they learned to meditate. Interestingly, the majority never discussed their negative experiences while they were in therapy. Like the therapists themselves, they wanted to believe that meditation was helping, and so they dismissed what was occurring or blamed it on the thing that brought them to therapy in the first place.
As a psychologist this is more than a bit embarrassing, it is troubling. It is one of the ethical principles of psychology that no intervention is done without fully explaining the risks and benefits of the treatment. If an intervention could possibly cause distress, even mild distress, psychologists are ethically obligated to inform the person of this possibility and gain their informed consent before proceeding. Psychologists are not doing this when it comes to mindfulness meditation, chiefly because they do not know there are risks. But more and more people who have participated in it know that there are. This is not a situation created by malice, but by ignorance. Psychologists simply were not told this could ever happen, and were given the impression that the results of meditation were exclusively happiness, calm, and increased wellbeing. They are not to be blamed for this situation, as they have merely borrowed a problem that already existed in the way meditation was being taught to students in the west. It is a problem that continues and in some ways defines what “mainstream” meditation teaching is in the west.
While this is not psychology’s fault, it is only a matter of time before the consequences lay squarely on the shoulders of psychologists who teach mindfulness meditation. Sooner or later, those who teach it will learn about the progress of insight and the dark night. Either from writings like this or from patients themselves. When they do they will face an ethical dilemma about whether to continue teaching meditation in clinical settings. While meditation teachers can essentially “get away” with not telling people about the dark night, psychologists do not have this luxury. Ethically, we are obligated to acknowledge the risks and be cautious. This is not happening yet, but it is my sincere hope that those enamored of third wave CBT will examine not only the manuals and the studies, but look deeply into the descriptions of insight in the pali cannon. Even better, talk with meditators who have experienced a dark night, researchers who study it, or best of all dive into it and see what it is like. Psychologists might benefit most from going beyond mindfulness meditation, breaking loose of the manual, and seeing how far this practice can go. Then there might be more respect for the powerful, and sometimes life-shaking, changes that vipassana can create in the heart and mind. It is my hope that psychology will soon lose its infatuation with meditation, and begin to evaluate it as a tool for change in a more mature light, seeing both the promise and the dilemmas. Until this happens I expect the community of mindfulness meditation refugees to grow.