The western consensus buddhist culture typically supports what we could call a mild meditative hybrid of concentration and insight practice, wrapped up in a traditional container of dogmatic, religious morality, with a heavy emphasis on psychology and philosophical thought.
Perhaps this is all well and good, but to me, excellent meditation practice trumps all of this. The mainstream spiritual religious culture is basically a consolation prize for people who aren't willing or able to become mystics. Hence we have religion, dogma, moral codes and intellectualization. Maybe this is necessary and useful, as clearly we human beings need some consoling.
Functionally, the widely recommended middle of the road mindfulness could be described by MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), a secular approach adapted by Jon Kabat-Zinn from traditional Buddhist mindfulness practices. My impression is that most people who are into meditation are familiar with something along these lines, generally a core focus on the breath, a heavy emphasis on relaxation, with some mild instruction to notice other things, all in a non-judgemental way.
Although this mainstream mindfulness is perhaps "adequate", in that it probably works for some, my view is that at its worst it becomes a least common denominator approach that ends up failing on both the development of concentration as well as insight.
There is the typical heavy concentration on the breath, which is the core of many instructions on mindfulness.
It does kind of blow my mind that in most of the references in the popular literature to the mindfulness sutta (i.e. the key basic mindfulness instruction chapter in the pali canon), usually all they mention is the mindfulness of the breath. Sometimes they quote the sutta, but always using only the section on the breath, presented as if that one little part was the whole thing. It's only one paragraph out of an 11 page chapter. Might be something more there.
Not that I'm endorsing a dogmatic view of everything in that sutta, but to me the parts I would highlight are along the lines of the simple insight of seeing things as they are, and actually noticing them. Quoting from Majjhima Nikaya 10:
when feeling a pleasant feeling, a bhikku understands: 'I feel a pleasant feeling'This can be done for sensations, emotions, thoughts, etc. Almost as if one were doing a noting practice ;)
The widely recommended breath focus can make sense on a certain level, being immediately accessible and ever-present, but then again it isn't generally done with enough of an absolute focus so that substantial concentration benefits would reliably ensue. I'm guessing most people doing MBSR aren't going into jhanas, for example. The mindfulness aspect, of noticing everything that is going on at all the sense doors, is often overlooked and at any rate is crippled with that same bias to the breath. And there is a general lack of emphasis on the kind of continuous earnestness that seems to be required to really "get the job done". We end up with a format that practically assures few will ever attain technical stream entry. The emphasis is somewhat more on relaxation and psycho-intellectual "growth" as opposed to close, persistent, continuous attention to what is chaotically predominate in awareness.
It's an approach that meets the requirements of not offending many different styles and traditions but it's kind of like throwing a nice entree and a dessert into a blender and saying, yeah, it's the same thing as eating them separately, so just drink this instead of your meal.
Other than the aforementioned McMindfulness, there is the psychological aspect, referring to this meditative culture that communicates almost exlusively in terms of the psychological, the philosophical, and the intellectual. My theory is that this aspect grew out of the general culture's increasing awareness and acceptance of psychology in the past few decades and was plausibly exacerbated by the leadership of Jack Kornfield and his bias to preferentially hire dharma teachers with a background in psychology. And as they say, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
I'm not necessarily saying that it is a bad thing, to do a bit of psychology, but it's a bit of the same comment as before: it's as if we're trying to kill two birds with one stone and we end up with no bird at all.
On the other hand, there is a certain level where you do have to have something to talk about at local meditation groups, and teachers have to have something to talk about with students. Maybe that's exactly what people need in a meditative context, a culture of inexpensive and lightweight group therapy combined with standard morality doctrines and religious sermons. Maybe that's what sangha needs to be.
Psychotherapy can be helpful, to some, I think it was tremendously helpful to me (albeit extremely expensive and time-consuming), but then again, outside of a few specific evidence based areas, it should be mentioned that there is precious little to recommend it clinically. And the same could be said of meditation, at least for clinical situations.
One of my real concerns, based on a fairly small sample, is that I'm seeing an increasing number of meditation practitioners who seem to actually believe that psychological development is the same thing as enlightenment.
Although we don't have much research, Jeffrey Martin's work (2010), found that ego development was not particularly correlated with enlightenment. His definition of enlightenment was individuals with "persistent non-symbolic experience".
Psychological insight and enlightenment are not necessarily incompatible, but then again eating right and exercising are also not incompatible with enlightenment. In fact, getting enough omega-3s and exercising are actually key components for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. So there's a lot to recommend good nutrition and exercise if you're trying to acquire a skill like meditation.
But of course eating right and exercising are not the same thing as enlightenment. Similarly, one could do decades of group therapy, but that isn't going to get you enlightened either.
What I see as the underlying danger in this psychological approach is that people become trained and habituated towards intellectual, philosophical, psychological analysis, and this becomes a significant part of their meditative practice. Therapy teaches people this process, and meditation teachers are in some cases reinforcing it. They end up training themselves to automatically go off into thought, into concept. They are bowing to the needs of the ego to think and control things and they are imagining that they are getting enlightened.
The problem is this: you have a person ostensibly meditating, and some kind of vaguely challenging, uncomfortable or difficult feeling comes up. What do they do? They immediately go off into their trained psychological analysis mode. They decide, "This is unpleasant, I'm going to fix this, I'm going to get to the bottom of this, I'm going to figure this out, I'm going to understand where this comes from, I'm going to trace this back to my childhood, I'm going to draw metaphors around it and relate it to other things in my life. I'm going to do this so that at some point in the future maybe I'll feel a tiny bit better."
Good luck with that. You'll never think your way into enlightenment, although you can certainly get an intellectual understanding. The understanding of enlightenment is more of a direct knowing that is prior to thought. And that knowing is now, not at some point in the future.
To be clear, I'm not discounting psychotherapy, rather I'm saying that there is a time for everything, and maybe while practicing your true nature on the cushion is not the time for intellectual concepts. Psychological analysis is the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You might feel well pleased with yourself after arranging the deck chairs into a smiley face, but you're still on the Titanic. I'm advocating that instead you lash the wooden deck chairs into a raft and get off the sinking ship.
Running off into thought and concept is itself a grasping, it is a striving, and it is being actively trained by an increasing number of practitioners. Can you feel that desire to go off into thought?
What I'm advocating is in some ways a more primal version of psychotherapy. The invitation is to actually feel your feelings (what a radical concept!), to actually stay with those potentially unpleasant sensations instead of running off into concept-land. The possibility is to stay with those basic experiential, unconditioned, non-conceptual feelings and allow them, make peace with them, feel your resistance to them, learn to live with them, be okay with them, surrender to them, meet them halfway. Be curious about the actual raw sensations as opposed to your stories about them. Can you stay with what is?
The striving that is acceptable is to prejudice oneself back to the original mind, the raw experiencing mind prior to language and concepts. There is a striving there, because there is something trainable there, absolutists notwithstanding.
Based on the changes seen in the brains of advanced meditators (Brewer 2011), we see highly significant differences that come from training the mind in specific ways. A dogmatist may say you can't see enlightenment, so there is nothing there. But actually we do see it clearly in the fMRI scans. In fact, in advanced meditators we see some of the largest deviations from normal ever seen in any population.
So there IS something there, there are attentional networks that are being trained, retrained, or untrained, just as surely as children are trained to speak, read, write, and do mathematics. And almost without exception children are able to train their minds in these ways, they learn these things. It is possible to learn new skills, to train the brain.