Can you be a mindful murderer? Interview with an ex-monk
As interest in the term “mindfulness” continues to snowball, I wondered whether we are doing justice to how we talk about it, understand it, and practice it. To address some questions that keep coming to mind, I interviewed Bryn Jones, a Drama and Movement Psychotherapy Lecturer at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama who was an ordained Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Mahayana tradition for 7 years. Mindfulness meditation originated from the Buddha, and Bryn’s deep understanding of Buddhist philosophy combined with his practical experience of working with patients as drama movement and mindfulness therapist in specialist hospitals, combines to shed a refreshing light on what mindfulness really is all about among the myriad of voices proclaiming its virtues.
Adiba: In the last couple of years, we’ve seen interest in “mindfulness” grow to such an extent that it is almost part of mainstream vocabulary. What are your feelings about how the concept is spreading? Do you think people are saying the right things about it, or practicing it in the right way given its origins? Do you think we actually get it?
I have ambivalent feelings about its rising popularity. On the one hand it is a good thing that people are interested in being more mindful. Bearing in mind that mindfulness and meditation are two different things.. mindfulness meditation is one type of meditative practice which develops the quality of mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation is a beneficial and enriching practice, but this benefit and enrichment can be experienced in a number of ways, and may not always be in accordance with narratives around well-being, which is the angle that nowadays people take most of the time.
A sincere mindfulness practice requires commitment to working deeply with oneself – the depth and the work might initially evoke a process that doesn’t necessarily involve an immediate improvement in well-being.
Sometimes the way that mindfulness is being delivered today, appears to short-circuit that depth inquiry, instead rushing towards the quick delivery of a felt experience in improved well-being.
This speedy approach may overlook some of the deeper and sustainable potentials that mindfulness can unlock; such as resilience and patience. These may not be so obviously beneficial or attractive as immediate improvements in well-being. However over time it is these practice elements which can support a real and sustained transformation within the individual.
There might well be a powerful sense of improved well-being after an 8-week course for instance, and that experience might be indeed be real, but a question remains as to its sustainability, let alone its basis for future development. Is the learning process sufficiently immersive to function as a foundation for future growth? Just as soil has to be of high quality to grow healthy plants, I wonder if the ground work being done in the name of mindfulness is deep and fertile enough to bring about real transformation.
Adiba: If modern narratives around mindfulness focus on wellbeing at the risk of short-circuiting the depth-inquiry required for sustainable transformation, is this a problem with how it is being talked about, or how it is actually being taught?
If you consider that mindfulness practice can bring to the surface deep responses and reactions, the therapist teaching mindfulness needs to be sufficiently immersed in the model to responsibly hold the reactions arising within those who are learning. This is an important and ethical consideration.
People and the government have become aware that we are sitting on a mental health time bomb. Alienation and loneliness are just two of the big problems we face both personally and socially. A lot of time and money is now being spent on changing the landscape of therapies addressing mental illness.
The growth of Psychotherapies in the last 5-10 years has tended towards those which are cognitive and behaviour based. Therapies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) have been neatly packaged, made succinct, accessible, and with measurable outcomes. They tick all the boxes. My feeling is that mindfulness may have been “bolted on” to some presentations of CBT to give it a sense of depth, more texture.
As a result we have a practice that is as rich and expansive as mindfulness being somewhat reduced to fit the acronyms of the contemporary milieu; MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) and MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction). Therapists are trained in a short period of time in technique and formula, and to deliver a short term intervention from Day 1. This is the only way the NHS can provision for it. However this doesn’t require the therapist to do the depth work on themselves for a long period of time, which is key in gaining that fuller and responsible understanding in how mindfulness can transform someone.
Mindfulness is a deep and dirty practice. Yet it has now been assimilated by the mainstream and made clean and shiny. In some instances perhaps it can lose some of its amazing potential for richness and depth.
As the mental health industry attaches acronyms to it and rolls it out as a packaged short term intervention with the aim of “fixing people”, I wonder whether this is a mindful approach. It is mindfulness being delivered, but it is not coming from a mindful place, nor is it mindfully thought through.
Adiba: If you feel it is misleading to promote mindfulness as a means to wellbeing, why would you say someone might want to practice mindfulness meditation?
Clearly there is no fault in Mindfulness being employed in the alleviation of an individual’s suffering. However there is more to our well-being than just feeling ‘well’. There is a question of what sustains our being! Mindfulness offers us the enrichment of just being. This holds a big broad meaning not a narrow outcome-focussed one.
Even if you just think about that word…outcome…it refers to what comes out of a process…without any prejudice about what that might be. Only through the process will you find out where that enrichment might lie for you. You have to be open to what might arise. It’s like magic.. you don’t know what you’ll get.
It might turn you on to the wonders in your life as it is … your relationships, your accomplishments, or something in yourself that you might simply appreciate in a different way, notice in a different light. It might bring meaning. It might help you recognise the value in things as they are.
But it might also be scary. Mindfulness isn’t a bandaid or sweetener. It will be difficult, and it will challenge us…that is how we grow…we don’t grow if we are always fine and dandy. I’m not saying one must dwell in existential angst, but our mindful practice may well take us to such a place. Why? because that’s where we are and that’s where we need to be in order to be.
To be a Buddhist is to look within, to see who we have become. Mindfulness provides us with a particular type of mirror in which we can see where we’re up to and what we are like in this life. That is what being in the present is about. We come to see what we have become in this life. How we have become ourselves. That can come as quite a shock. And at some point we might say “bloody hell, how did I get here, how did I become this..?”
To really see what we have created with this life, to look at ourselves openly with compassion and non-judgement, that is what mindfulness brings us to.
Most of us will discover that we’ve created a bit of a mess. We then have to accept this, and we might choose to make changes…that is hard work. It is not easy to look in this mirror. It doesn’t give us a glow of instantaneous well-being. I’d say it gives us something infinitely more precious than that. It gives us ourselves.
Mindfulness was developed to enable this degree of self-awareness. The practice of paying attention to our breathing, body scans…all of this helps deliver us to ourselves, as we are.
Adiba: Do you think everyone who wants to develop a mindfulness practice should have a teacher?
I’m not so comfortable with that ‘s’ word. Mindful practice isn’t so concerned with should and shouldn’t or right and wrong. However it is helpful to have someone who has been there and done the depth work on themselves, helpful when we hit a glitch or when things get difficult.
Having a teacher helps a dialogue to take place. We often think we know what we want, but that might we quite different from what we actually need. The little voice that knows what we need is often the most quiet within us. A dialogue with a teacher can help discern a space for it to be heard more.
A qualified mindfulness teacher would know the importance of dharma as an essential part of the recipe required for developing a practice. Dharma is something like truth..it is the actual way of things. The open, relatively unconditioned, accepting insight into ourselves – that is dharma. So an individual might begin with 5 minutes of mindfulness breathing practice and some mindful technique. That might be enough but if that leads to a deeper interest, a drive, a thirst, then a teacher can help support growth.
Adiba: Can you be a mindful murder?
If mindfulness as a definition is “being purposefully present in the moment, performing things with deliberate purpose” then yes, you could be a mindful murderer.
Murderers can murder with remarkable clarity, with calmness, very careful, absorbed, engaged, connected to what they’re doing and why they’re doing it – they could be alive to these intentions in the moment.
But as I’ve mentioned, for me, mindfulness is inseparable from dharma – and dharma is conjoined with non-harmfulness – and non-harmfulness is a naturally peaceful mind.
From a dharmic point of view it’s not possible to be a mindful murderer because in murdering you are engaged in a destructive act, taking something against someone’s will. It is in harmful conflict with another, and therefore it’s not arising from a peaceful state.
Your question gets down to that issue of depth – what is the quality of our understanding of mindfulness? Is it just full awareness, or is it more related to why we do what we do, and how.
Compassion is integral to the practice of mindfulness from a dharmic point of view. It’s interesting to wonder about the degree to which this is integrated into the mindfulness courses that are available these days. It’s a key component.
Adiba: If mindfulness is about being in the present, and it is good to be mindful all the time..how does this fit with the fact that it is also good to think? We need to think, to do our tasks, plan for the future, or make peace with the past.
It’s a great question, because it touches on something fundamental to understanding mindfulness.
Mindfulness is an immersive practice. It is not linear. Sometimes it might be thought of as a clean and straightforward process; start here, follow some steps, end up there. I really don’t see it in that way. It is an expansive practice that transforms the way we are, reconfiguring us neurologically, emotionally, physiologically, bringing about a profound change in our being.
So what an individual might find is that they are still doing their thinking, planning and recalling but they are dong it more mindfully. To some degree anything can be done mindfully. So you can have a quality of mindfulness which can inform your thinking.
How do we think about the past? Mindfully. We can reflect on the past in the present moment, with an awareness of how and where we are reflecting from. We can do this without losing the mindful sense of ourselves in the present moment.
We build up this way of being through familiarity, through the repetition of mindfulness practice. We reflect mindfully without falling into nostalgia or becoming sentimental and losing ourselves in a delusional picture which is created in our minds and has nothing to do with what the past was really like. So like this we can can keep our practice real. We may think ‘oh this example is not perfect mindful practice’. We become overly critical seeking perfection and miss the essence. Mindfulness is more wabi-sabi; perfectly imperfect.
In this way whatever we do from this mindful place is naturally characterised by a more mindful flavour. The conversations we have, the relationships we nurture, the way we get out of bed in the morning. There is a sense that the practice starts to accumulate and gather around everything you do.
It is not a black and white practice. It isn’t about here and thereness. Mindfulness enables us to be with the paradoxical. We don’t need an either, or. It develops a broad, expansive state of consciousness in which the paradoxical can be and you don’t need to sort it out. Phew. What a relief!