Glimpses of Truth: A Comparison of Eastern and Western Approaches to Mindfulness
Academic: Book Report
To be human is to wonder what it means to be human.
The search for meaning is hard work. People often avoid it (to varying degrees of consciousness) via a whole host of isms—nihilism, hedonism, consumerism, escapism—because when they’re not avoiding it, they’re grappling with the futility of knowing for certain that there’s no way of knowing anything for certain. This burden of not knowing drives human industry, progress, and even evolution. It might be said that today’s world is a complex projection of humankind’s fear of the unknown, for all of the technological advancement, the global connectedness, and the (seemingly) boundless information that characterizes the postmodern age is really just an attempt at conquering those unconquerable truths that define and preserve mortality: temporality, corporality, and ambiguity. This paper is an examination of mindfulness through these three lenses.
Mindfulness is a means of connecting with the essence of existence. According to Kabat-Zinn (2016), mindfulness encompasses “a willingness to rest in the not knowing, in the awareness of both knowing and not knowing, and respond appropriately to whatever it is that needs attending to in this moment” (p. 99). In the modern world—a world increasingly wrought with distraction from earthly fear—mindfulness might just be the only way out of that fear.
And mindfulness is for everyone. Both Eastern and Western cultures acknowledge, endorse, and instruct on the practice of mindfulness, even while couching it in different fields and vernaculars. A side-by-side comparison of the Eastern and Western versions of mindfulness through the lenses of three topical intersections—temporality, corporality, and ambiguity—reveals much about the underlying truths the two approaches derive from.
It is helpful to begin with an examination of Eastern and Western cultural differences. Robson (2017) identifies profound differences in thinking between Eastern and Western cultures along the lines of self-concept, reasoning, and behavior: Eastern cultures tend toward self-deflation (underestimation of personal abilities), contextual reasoning, and collectivism (interconnectivity with others), whereas Western culture tends toward overconfidence, character-driven reasoning, and individualism. These differences are readily apparent in the analysis herein, which draws from culturally representative texts for the comparison of Eastern and Western approaches to mindfulness.
This study relies on Kabat-Zinn’s (2016) description of Eastern mindfulness as a reference point. With an emphasis on stress relief—or, liberation from suffering (p. 94)—Kabat-Zinn draws from both current-standing scientific research and traditional Buddhist teachings to provide a thorough and well-rounded primer for beginners, covering everything from the philosophical underpinnings of mindfulness to its practical application. Kabat-Zinn acknowledges the modern-era problem of “our increasing dependence on ubiquitous technology and its ever-accelerating effects on our pace of life” (p. 18) and urges readers to discard “selfing” (i.e. thinking in terms of I, me, or mine) (pgs. 40 – 42) in favor of the ambiguity of “not knowing” (p. 73). Kabat-Zinn maintains that the incorporeal aspects of being—or more specifically, thoughts and emotions—can cause unnecessary suffering, and offers mindfulness as a solution.
Devoid of any mention of the spiritual and grounded in theory, Arnett et al. (2009) represent the Western approach to mindfulness. Whereas Kabat-Zinn (2016) is concerned with freedom from suffering, Arnett et al. focus on “the good that . . . gives lives meaning” (p. xiii). Characteristically weary of exactitudes, Arnett et al. refrain from defining good, instead acknowledging the ambiguity of a “multiplicity of goods” (p. 9) that may arise at any given “historical moment” (p. 2). While it may be physically impossible to serve every good simultaneously, Arnett et al. offer mindfulness in the form of a “communication ethic” that can protect and promote an applicable set of goods at any given point in time (p. 4).
Upon first glance, the Kabat-Zinn (2016) and Arnett et al. (2009) texts may appear to have little in common. The former contains no reference to communication theory and the latter bears no mention of mindfulness. However, past the differences in language, method, and style, both texts address the universal, immutable human experience of uncertainty in a rapidly changing world by way of such complex topics as temporality, corporality, and ambiguity. To examine, through these lenses, how the texts approach mindfulness is to attain valuable insights into universal truth.
For the purpose of this paper, temporality refers to the impermanence of material existence and the ensuing import of time orientation. Both Kabat-Zinn (2016) and Arnett et al. (2009) place their work—and therefore its relevance—within a postmodern context, and both offer a practical way of viewing, and dealing with, temporality. According to each, mindfulness is, in essence, essential to modernity because present-day life is otherwise chaotic—a perpetual race of doing rather than being (Kabat-Zinn, p. 17), characterized by “difference and loss of public agreement” (Arnett et al., p. xiii). To answer to the good of freedom from suffering, it is necessary to step away from the chaos and into a mode of conscientious openness. Kabat-Zinn instructs readers to “take care of this moment,” as this moment is the only time available; the past is something to reflect on—to provide a “platform” from which to judge the present—and the future is something to conceptualize in the now (p. 16); mindfulness is an observance of the moment, encompassing all the past that led up to it and all the future possibilities it provides for. Similarly, Arnett et al. designate the present as a time to honor the contention of good for the disruption of the past’s inaccessible sanctuaries (p. xiii); the only action to be done takes place in the present, and mindfulness in this sense means praxis of a communication ethic that embraces multiplicity and embodies learning (p. 2). Both Kabat-Zinn and Arnett et al. acknowledge the potential of the present moment in creating the future.
Corporality refers to that which is material—or, that which can be observed and measured. Humans experience (or sense) life through a physical self and wonder at the unseen force that animates it. This wonder can be a great source of confusion, conflict, and suffering. Mindfulness provides transcendental perspective.
Kabat-Zinn (2016) and Arnett et al. (2009) approach the problem of corporality in very different ways; however, both acknowledge a non-material aspect of existence from which mindfulness springs and advise on meaningful connection with it. Kabat-Zinn speaks of the mind as “having a life of its own” (p. 29) and of thoughts as “self-liberating” (p. 37). A useful analogy for this is the mind as an ocean: however tumultuous, or conversely, however placid, the surface of the ocean (i.e. material existence) may be, its depth (i.e. the subconscious mind) is unscathed (p. 35). According to Kabat-Zinn, thoughts, feelings, and emotions are transient, whereas awareness is “boundless and timeless” (p. 38). To practice mindfulness is to simply be aware of the mind’s activities. Kabat-Zinn advises the reader to let go of the earthly “thought habits” of “I,” “me,” and “mine” and adopt the perspective of a universal awareness that extends beyond the physical realm (pgs. 40 – 41). In this type of awareness, objects (i.e. those things experienced with the five physical senses) are unimportant; the awareness is the object of focus (Kabat-Zinn, p.45), and what Kabat-Zinn refers to as the “sixth sense” (p. 54). It is possible to “inhabit” the body using the sixth sense (p. 57), thereby unifying the corporeal and incorporeal and existing in a state of perpetual, transcendental awareness (p.60).
A radical departure from Kabat-Zinn’s (2016) concept of incorporeal awareness, Arnett et al. (2009) separate the physical self from the intangible self by way of theories and “corporately agreed-upon practices and regulations” that preserve and protect a greater good (p. 44). For Arnett et al., the human “soul” thrives on universal principles that are often embedded in and reflected by works in the humanities (p. 49); to transcend mortal corporality is to subscribe to the philosophies and theories of great thinkers, who have through centuries of observation and research distilled the best of humanity into creditable texts. According to Arnett et al., individualism minimizes the impulse to this type of transcendence; its counter is theory, which “fights against the silo of myopic individualistic insight” (p. 218), permits “looking and examination to take on a public dimension that lessens our tendency to look only to find what we want or demand to see” (p. 218), and provides “temporal ground for common sense in a postmodern culture” (p. 219). In other words, if corporality is an ailment, theory is the remedy.
Ambiguity is the hallmark of human existence. Concerns of space-time orientation and tangible/intangible reality inevitably lead to questions, attempts at answering those questions, and then more questions stemming from those attempts. It is, literally, an endless cycle, and as Arnett et al. (2009) assert, there is no such thing as an absolute “right” or “wrong” (p. 1). It may even be impossible for humans to know for certain who they are (Kabat-Zinn, 2016, p. 13). In both Eastern and Western thought, narrative is the answer to ambiguity.
According to Kabat-Zinn (2016), “it is endlessly amazing what the mind will do to construct and reinforce an identity” (p. 104). This construction takes the form of narrative. While narratives may include or be based on elements of truth, they are merely thoughts and are therefore only a very small part of existence (p. 67). Kabat-Zinn draws from a University of Toronto study that identifies two brain networks that assist and enable the self-referencing aspect of experience, the Narrative Focus (NF) and the Experiential Focus (EF); the EF network is engaged in experience while the NF network constructs narrative around experience (p. 68). While it is not necessary to privilege one network over the other, it is helpful to recognize the danger in mistaking thoughts (doing) for experience (being). Thoughts are not to be taken personally, or even as reality, and to see them for what they are—events of the mind’s attempts at solving ambiguity—is to be truly free from the “habitual patterning” they create (Kabat-Zinn, p. 39). Mindfulness in this sense means “letting how you live, your actions and attitudes, speak for you with no need to synthesize a satisfying narrative for others, or even for yourself” (Kabat-Zinn, p. 105).
Arnett et al. (2009) also address narrative, in terms of “shared stories that give our lives meaning” (p. xii). Narratives encompass, preserve, and promote goods (Arnett et al., p. 5). As postmodernity is a time of narrative contention, it is necessary to openly question narratives, which are assumptions—not reality, in order to locate the goods they embody. In this Western conception of ambiguity and narrative, mindfulness takes the form of a pragmatic communication ethic that acknowledges diversity and honors the multiplicity of goods that exist regardless of knowing or engagement (Arnett et al., p. 9).
An analysis of Eastern and Western approaches to mindfulness reveals much about an underlying truth foundational to both of them. This is because, however different they are, the two approaches ultimately arrive at the same conclusions in regards to the nature of human existence. This is readily apparent through an examination of how each addresses the (human) problems of temporality, corporality, and ambiguity.
In terms of temporality, both Kabat-Zinn (2016) and Arnett et al. (2009) emphasize the importance of space/time orientation. There is, literally, no available time to act in other than the now, which is a culmination of past events and a precursor to future events. This points to a universal truth of fixedness in time, and of patterning that takes place as a result of occurrences that have happened as well as actions, attitudes, and thoughts in the present moment. It is humanly impossible to break out of the time-space continuum, yet human beings harbor immense potential to both affect the conditions of the future and put into a broader perspective the conditions of the past. In essence, time loses its power to control those who recognize existence beyond time and exert intentionality in orienting to time.
Corporality is also temporal. There is an experience of existence outside of the flesh-bound self. For Kabat-Zinn (2016), this is the mind, and mindfulness is a way of communing with the incorporeal element of existence to the end of awareness beyond thought. For Arnett et al. (2009), incorporeal existence is ideas, and mindfulness is the practice of openly engaging ideas to the end of recognizing the good they embody. Both of these approaches speak for an underlying truth that may be worded as such: There is an immaterial existence, in which the absolute may be found.
Human beings tell stories to make sense of the ambiguity of experience. These stories, or narratives, are composed of thoughts, which are often inaccurate, incomplete, and fleeting; therefore, the nature of narrative is “intrinsically empty . . . [and] devoid of any essential, enduring finality or truth” (Kabat-Zinn, 2016, p. 67). This means that absolute, or universal, truth exists outside and independently of human construct. And as human construct is the only available means of sense making, knowing truth is an impossibility. This is the human condition, and mindfulness transcends it.
Arnett, R. C., Harden Fritz, J. M., and Bell, L. M. (2009). Communication ethics literacy: Dialogue and difference. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Kabat-Zinn. (2016) Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment—and your life. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc.
Robson, D. (2017, January 19). How East and West think in profoundly different ways. BBC. Retrieved from west-think-in-profoundly-different-ways