The Mindfulness Program of Tovana
A Position paper: by Stephen Fulder
Theravada (Vipassana, Insight) Dharma arrived in the western countries from pioneers such as Goenka, Jack, Christopher, Joseph, Sharon, Christina, U Pandita, etc. who all created forms of practice directly out of monastic life. So the main practice for the last 50 years has been the silent retreat as a mini-monastery. But this is only suitable for a limited number of people who are ready for such a commitment. It is not suitable for the general population, nor many groups such as working mothers.
That means that most of society has no access to organized Buddhist practice and teachings apart from books which offer a conceptual approach but little practice. This did not matter much at the beginning when the dharma was arriving and we were all pioneers. But today with the crisis in western society of materialism, consumerism, loss of meaning, etc., and the large number of people who are looking for a new faith and do not want the extremism of the old religions, some Buddhist practice needs to be offered. The Buddha and his monks always offered teachings freely in the villages and towns without expecting householders to go on retreats (‘going forth’) first.
Today there is intensive discussion throughout all the Buddhist groups and among teachers about what kind of dharma teaching and practice is suitable for society in general and for ‘The Street’. And it is certainly different from ‘meditation first’ approach of the retreat form. Sila, social action, engaged Buddhism, generosity, and daily life mindfulness with metta have been proposed as simple dharma practices for the general population.
Things happen by themselves and now mindfulness has arrived in more and more sectors of the western world as a primary daily life practice. It is already well known in the field of psychology and some aspects of medicine where it is starting to have a real influence. Mindfulness is taught in structured 8-12 week courses, and its power is in the daily practice which is guided, gradual and an inherent part of the course. Mindfulness is practiced with inbuilt metta and kindness to self and others. I recently gave a talk at the Oxford Mindfulness Center where they have developed MBCT. They told me that if the process lacks training in kindness and compassion, it doesn’t work, and they have proved it scientifically. There are now thousands of scientific papers published on mindfulness. There are standardised protocols for teaching it and measuring outcomes. Techniques such as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) are now seen as highly effective and helpful therapeutically and in people’s lives. MBSR for example, is now taught in 700 hospitals, universities and centres in the USA, and recently a member of the US Congress, Tim Ryan, wrote a book called ‘Mindful Nation’ which has created a lot of interest in the US Congress. I had a meeting with him recently and he is coming to Israel.
If that is the case, then mindfulness can become an effective practice to introduce dharma into the western world, just as yoga has in introducing Eastern, Indian spirituality. Yoga has had a major influence on bringing individual mind-body spiritual development into the West. Before yoga arrived, in the 1970’s, more or less the only form of spiritual practice available was Judeo/Christian prayer. Mindfulness has the legitimacy and support from research (which is the language that gives authority in the modern society) and past experience, to be easily taken up by all sectors of society, even those who would otherwise be totally resistant. In the USA, for example, it is being taught to US Marines to help with emotional regulation and stress, in many high tech companies and businesses, and even in Batei Knesset. It is opening the eyes of many to an alternative way of looking at life, it is helping large numbers of people to meet themselves and be less reactive, agitated, violent and disconnected.
Is It Diluting Dharma?
Of course the question always comes up. Isn’t mindfulness diluting dharma and offering a very light version which will reduce dharma to something insignificant. Of course this is a concern. However there are arguments in the opposite direction. Firstly the way mindfulness courses are currently taught in the west is actually serious and not as light as one thinks. Secondly, it is a convenient gateway to retreats and deeper exploration of dharma for those that are ready. Thirdly the founders of mindfulness training courses, such as John Kabat-Zinn (MBSR) and Mark Williams (MBCT) are serious practitioners whose vision is of compassion – to provide some practical help to so many people in society who are suffering and try to aim and direct people to the depth of the spiritual path. Fourthly, if good mindfulness courses are not available, it will be that something else fills that gap, that may be more exploitative and less authentic.
Tovana and Mindfulness Courses
There has been much discussion in Tovana about becoming more committed to bring dharma out into the community and not only to those few who are ready to sit retreats. Teacher-led groups, Beit HaSangha activities, introductory courses, and Sfat HaKshev etc., are all part of this. Yet none of these has the power to really reach out to larger numbers and to most sectors of society. Mindfulness courses can do this however. So it is felt that Tovana should become involved in the mindfulness movement and influence it, rather than standing back and letting others take it over. This is clearly the time for it in Israel and in the world, because of the huge interest in it today.
However Tovana itself is not built to set up courses for payment, to advertise, and connect with organisations and large numbers of people, etc., so we are proposing to link up in partnership with an academic institution, Mercaz BenTchumi, Herzliah, (IDC) which can and does want to do this. A new unit there in the psychology department, ‘Muda’, headed by Nava LevitBinun, a committed dharma practitioner, is currently working to promote and develop mindfulness and meditative practice in Israeli society and the scientific community. It is keen to join with Tovana in this. Tovana will provide the teachers who will be experienced practitioners, and will help to train them in giving mindfulness courses. Tovana will have an influence on ‘Muda’. The Tovana teachers will be able to earn their living in this way. It seems like a win-win situation for all.
There are discussions going on right now about all of this. Some questions include:
Should Tovana be involved in such an endeavour?
What should Tovana itself get out of such an arrangement?
What should the arrangement between Tovana and Muda actually look like?
What kind of support can Tovana make?
How should it influence what Tovana is already doing to spread dharma in society?