Ellen Langer has an interesting passage in her book on mindfulness claiming that her work is significantly different than 'spiritual buddhism' because it comes from the Western Scientific tradition.

“Mindfulness East and West

The definitions of mindfulness in this chapter, especially the process orientation just discussed, will remind many readers of various concepts of mindfulness found in Eastern religion. Students in my classes who are knowledgeable about such fields are continually drawing parallels. While there are many similarities, the differences in the historical and cultural background from which they are derived, and the more elaborate methods, including meditation, through which a mindful state is said to be achieved in the Eastern traditions should make us cautious about drawing comparisons that are too tidy.

My work on mindfulness has been conducted almost entirely within the Western scientific perspective. Initially, my focus was on mindlessness and its prevalence in daily life. As can be seen in the order of chapters so far in this book, the notion of mindfulness develops gradually by looking at aspects of mindlessness and then at the other side of the coin. Only after a series of experiments demonstrating the costs of rigid mindsets and single-minded perspectives do I begin to explore the enormous potential benefits of a mindful attitude in aging, health, creativity, and the workplace.

Behind Eastern teachings of mindfulness lies an elaborate an elaborate system of cosmology developed and refined over time. The moral aspect of mindfulness (the idea that the mindful state achieved through meditation will lead to spontaneous right action12) is an essential part of these philosophies. It reaches into matters too complex for the scope of this book. Since many qualities of the Eastern concepts of mindfulness and of the one being described in this book are strikingly similar, however, we might hope that some of the moral consequences striven for by the Eastern disciplines might also result from mindfulness as understood in this Western form and context.

As an example of the semantic and philosophical tangles that arise if we try to compare Eastern and Western views of the mindful state, consider the activity of creating new categories. While this is a form of mindfulness in our definition, it appears to be in direct opposition to what one does during meditation.13 In meditation, the mind becomes quieter and active thought is discouraged. In some forms of meditation, thoughts and images that come to mind are considered unimportant and are relinquished as soon as one discerns their presence. At the same time, in many Eastern views, the[…]”

Excerpt From: Ellen J. Langer. “Mindfulness.” iBooks.

What are these big differences?

  • The core difference, according to the paragraphs you quoted, seems to be, "the moral aspect of mindfulness" and "spontaneous right action". Perhaps that's "Eastern" but not exactly or not necessarily "Buddhist" -- e.g. the associated note 12 in the book references something titled "Unified Field Based Ethics: Vedic Psychology's Description of the Highest Stage of Moral Reasoning" ... I think that "Vedic Psychology" is more likely Hindu and not Buddhist. – ChrisW Mar 5 '16 at 19:03
  • A Wikipedia article like this suggests that maybe to Western clinical psychology, "Eastern Philosophy" is all one in some vague or hand-wavy kind of way, but generalizations from "Vedic Psychology" may not be applicable to Buddhism as we might know it; e.g. "Vedic Psychology" might talk about "science of the soul" or "God consciousness" whereas Buddhism in contrast might deny the existence of a "soul" etc. – ChrisW Mar 5 '16 at 19:16
up vote 1 down vote accepted

For the "big differences", we need to see how Ellen Langer and the Buddha defines "mindfulness" (and "mindlessness" when that helps).

Ellen Langer writes the following:

  • "Mindfulness involves two key strategies for improving health: attention to context and attention to variability"

  • "The more mindful we are, the more we can create the contexts we are in"

  • "The creation of new categories, as we will see throughout this book, is a mindful activity. Mindlessness sets in when we rely too rigidly on categories and distinctions created in the past (masculine/feminine, old/young, success/failure)

  • "In the character o Kutuzov, we can find portrayed the key qualities of a mindful state of being: (1) creation of new categories; (2) openness to new information; and (3) awareness of more than one perspective"

  • "The more we realize that most of our views of ourselves, of others, and of presumed limits regarding our talents, our health, and our happiness were mindlessly accepted by is at an earlier time in our lives, the more we open up to the realization that these too can change. And all we need to do to begin the process is to be mindful"

  • "A very basic and mindless error that we often make is to take the names we give to products/things as the things themselves"

Though she puts a lot of emphasis on categories and being able to work with different perspectives, on the attention to variability she writes:

"When people are depressed they tend to believe they are depressed all the time. Mindful attention to variability shows this is not the case

Finally, I haven't seem her speaking of meditation other than suggesting that it "is a tool to achieve postmeditative mindfulness" -- and it's not clear what meditation technique she is referring to.


Now, what about buddhist "mindfulness" -- sati in pali?

First, it goes without saying that the dhamma is in the context of a soteriology: become permanently free from dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) whereas Langer's is concerned with health.

But I see intersections. Though sati has many different uses, it does have an aspect of awareness and an aspect of memory. Generally, in a gist, it means "to have [something] in mind"; moreover, many of the exercises of sati in the Buddha's teaching are in the form of:

"Breathing in long, he discerns, 'I am breathing in long' [...] "Furthermore, when walking, the monk discerns, 'I am walking.' When standing, he discerns, 'I am standing.' When sitting, he discerns, 'I am sitting.' When lying down, he discerns, 'I am lying down.'

-- Kayagatasati Sutta, MN 19

In other vein, one function of sati is observed both in the Buddha dhamma and in Langer's writings: the recognition of change. However, where Langer advocate the local usefulness of such recognition (e.g. that a depressing state is not permanent) and stops there, in the Buddha dhamma such recognition encompasses these benefits and goes way beyond, aiming to establish by direct experience the impermanence (anicca) of all phenomena we come to contact.

Moreover, Langer's elaboration of categories and perspectives does not have a direct correspondence in the dhamma. It's purpose seem to be, generally, on improving critical thinking -- and there's evidence for that, which is good.

In Langer's mindfulness, the play on categories seems useful to take one out of an illusory context. However, a Buddhist would continue that sentence saying: "...by putting one in another illusory context/category". That is, buddhists are taught to have "direct experience", insight -- without intermediary categories interfering -- by learning to observe the entire mind process, from bare experience to understanding how mental formations come into play -- assisted by buddhist psychology (five aggregates, six senses) and buddhist soteriological context (eg. three marks of existence: unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, not-self). This emphasis on detailed observation of the mind and the minutia of mind processes fully encompasses Langer's notion by going much deeper in the problem of illusory concepts -- making Langer's mindfulness seem gross in comparison to my eyes.

Finally, for an in depth treatment of minfulness in early buddhism, I suggest the book Mindfulness in Early Buddhism by Tse-Fu Kuan.

Do you have the passage? If you posted an excerpt it would be easier to answer the question.

But "scientific Buddhism", or Buddhist philosophy and practices adapted to fit a Western, secular audience, is not new. The Dhamma talks I've heard from teachers on retreat at places like the Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts, focus much less on formal scripture and avoid metaphysics or the supernatural. Since the Buddha himself spent a lot of time de-emphasizing metaphysical questions, this is an easy step to take. Sam Harris has an entire book (Waking Up) that tries to convince skeptical, secular Westerners to practice Buddhist meditation.

On the plus side, this kind of approach cuts away the cultural baggage that grows up around any religious institution. Buddhism works perfectly well without spirits, devas, or reincarnation, and in this form it is easier for modern people to work with. Using the scientific method as a check on the woo-woo and wishful thinking that can corrupt spirituality is also a big benefit. (Does practice increase happiness? is a testable question, and it's reassuring that science seems to say "yes".)

On the minus side, emphasizing medical research showing that meditation and mindfulness are correlated with lower blood pressure, reduced stress, blah blah blah, risks taking a very thorough and rich spiritual tradition and turning it into a relaxation technique. Even people like Sam Harris, who take things like no-self seriously, throw out a lot of serious introspection in their attempt to strip things down.

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