Mandala Online: How Does Mindfulness Relate to Middle Way Philosophy?

Mandala Online: How Does Mindfulness Relate to Middle Way Philosophy?

Jacob Sky Lindsley presenting his research at the November 2016 conference of the Mind and Life Institute, San Diego, California, USA. Photo by Doug Huppe.

We hear about mindfulness everywhere, it seems. Many of us practice it. But what is it doing? And how does it relate to Buddhist teachings on the emptiness of the self? If both mindfulness and Madhyamaka are methods to transform our experience of the self and reduce suffering, how do they differ in their approach?

Mandala recently interviewed Jacob Sky Lindsley, a graduate of FPMT-affiliated Maitripa College who will soon start Ph.D. studies in psychology. The conversation centered on the relationship between highly popular mindfulness therapies and Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy as propounded by Lama Tsongkhapa and many other scholars—the topic of Jacob’s master’s thesis and the subject of a paper he presented at the November 2016 International Symposium of Contemplative Studies of the Mind and Life Institute, the organization associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama that explores science and Buddhism.

Dharma students meditating at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, December 2016. Photo by Laura Miller.

Explains Jacob, “[Mindfulness] does help people. But it is far less radical than realizing the emptiness of the self … It just moves the attribution of self from the story, the narrative self, to another part of the self, the flow of experience or the awareness. But it still ascribes ‘self’ or ‘I’ to those things … Instead of saying ‘I am my story,’ we say ‘I am these sensations’ or ‘I am this awareness of the passing flow.’ But the mistake, the hallucination of ‘I,’ is still 100 percent there.”

Lama Tsongkhapa. Photo courtesy of FPMT Charitable Projects.

He adds, “The Gelug method [of analyzing and meditating on the emptiness of the self] seems to be able to eliminate our distorted conception of the self, not just help people create a more adaptive sense of self.”

And although Jacob respects what mindfulness therapies can do by helping people move away from identifying with their sometimes unhealthy internal narratives, he also points out that “an over-focus on mindfulness to improve well-being obscures this traditional Buddhist method for confronting our habitual relationship to self and leaves untouched its potential for ending suffering.”

He concludes that “there are reasons to consider expanding the study of meditation-based therapies, and their effects, to include the Buddhist understanding of self … After all, if attributing ‘self’ to ever-evolving experience creates suffering, doing less of it should reduce suffering. That would have to be tested, so pulling these meditations into social science research makes sense … Mindfulness came from Buddhism, after all, and is now widely used in secular therapeutic contexts. Stopping believing in a hallucinated self may also be profoundly therapeutic.”

Jacob Sky Lindsley teaching meditation as part of the public program at Maitripa College, March 2016. Photo by Marc Sakamoto.

Read “New Self / No Self: Jacob Sky Lindsley on Mindfulness and Madhyamaka,” Mandala‘s newest online feature:

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