Tuesday January 16, 2007
Last Tuesday I taught my first meditation class for a couple of years. I have wanted to get back into teaching meditation for some time: it is something that I have always enjoyed doing, but I have put off doing so for some time largely on account of my own shifting relationship with meditation and my own continually changing understanding of what meditation is, in particular my own move away from a more formally “Buddhist” understanding of meditation.
The new class is at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and I advertised it as a “secular” or “non-religious” approach to meditation practice. This approach is one that is growing in popularity – a good example is the the University of Bangor’s mindfulness centre. But this transposition of meditation from its traditional context is one that raises all kinds of interesting questions, not to say controversy. What is lost in translation when you move mindfulness and meditation practices away from their traditional frameworks?
Whilst at the Sharpham Centre last summer, we spent a morning discussing this with Jenny Wilks and Duncan Moss, who teach mindfulness-based stress reduction. The question of what is lost in translation inevitably came up, and some claimed that this kind of approach to meditation was a “watering down” of traditional Buddhism. This is an understandable concern, but it is not one that I share. As I mentioned last summer during the discussions at Sharpham, there is no a priori reason to assume that this watering down – if this is indeed what it is – is necessarily a bad thing.
I myself prefer to avoid the language of “watering down”, which seems to already assume too much. Instead I am interested in this: meditation and mindfulness not as Buddhist practices, but as human practices. Of course, the context of our practice is, in one sense, very different from that of the Buddha’s time (we live in a vastly different cultural context from that of the Buddha) and we need to take this into account; in another sense, it is almost exactly the same (we are, biologically, constituted in the same way, with more or less the same kinds of minds and bodies and social tendencies). So there is a delicate task of translation to be attempted. But even if delicate, we should not be overly cautious. Rather than becoming anxious about some abstract idea of the “dharma” becoming “watered down”, it is more instructive perhaps to lay concerns about this abstraction we call the “dharma” to one side, and instead to look at the human practices of meditation – both the cultivation of stillness and the development of inquiry, mindfulness and ethics and to see them simply as human practices, patiently exploring which practices are beneficial and conduce to well-being and which do not. And then we might find that, whilst much is lost in translation, we have gained more than we could have imagined.
Image: Sillur on Morguefile
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