Interview with John Barter – All Things Meditation
Interview transcript: Jen Ng from the University of Technology, Sydney, with
Buddhist psychologist and Mindfulness Meditation teacher from Well-Aware-Ness,
Dated: April 2015
How does Buddhist psychology differ and contribute to western psychology?
There is a growing movement from the spiritual and sacred to the secular within
contemporary western culture. This is something that has occurred for some time and
more specifically and more recently with regards to meditation. There is a movement
from what has been the specific domain of the monastery, especially Buddhist
monasteries, into the mainstream with a growing interest in meditation, particularly
mindfulness based meditation. With a somewhat medicalisation of mindfulness and
meditation this has both positive and negative outcomes.
What are some of those positive and negative outcomes?
Where meditation and the practice of mindfulness as been more the exclusive domain
of the monasteries, the monk, the Zendo, and the Ashram, where it’s moving
mainstream, it’s losing a lot of its context, its meaning and potential. Meditation,
which has been used for realizing the highest spiritual potential for human beings, in
becoming medicalised is simply being used as a stress reduction technique.
Whilst there has been an introduction of meditation to mainstream, the next step is to
be reminded and therefore to include the wisdom aspect back into meditation, because
essentially most people get stressed because they’re not living in a wise and conscious
way. So whilst meditation can reduce stress, if the person is not particularly wise then
the stress will occur again and again.
Does Buddhist meditation involve religion?
Within the context of Buddhist meditation it doesn’t have the religion. Buddhist
meditation isn’t particularly religious, it’s more psychological or wisdom based as
opposed to religious in terms of rituals, religious trappings and belief systems.
This is why this particular form of meditation and mindfulness-based mediation is
finding great interest and application in contemporary western situations, because it’s
quite transferable without a lot of rituals involved with it. But at the same time it
needs to also include the wisdom in terms of understanding the nature of the mind, the
body, and emotions and it’s the element of wisdom that can be with mindfulness to
help people to have a more whole and bounded wellbeing.
Are we seeing a rise in Buddhist meditation?
We’re seeing a rise in mindfulness meditation and that’s rising a lot more than
Buddhism meditation. That’s because of the scientific research into mindfulness and
mindfulness meditation about its many health benefits. Over the last thirty years Jon
Kabat-Zinn has done a great deal to bring mindfulness from a Buddhist meditation
retreat environment into mainstream society. His programs are now taught and used in
many hospital environments throughout the world and has also been brought into
various forms – into schools and organisations that see the benefits of mindfulness to
enhance mental calm and mental clarity, and therefore enhancing performance in
whatever area of life one is engaging with.
In American some of the people who have been doing mindfulness are even bringing
it into their workplace, including politicians. There is also discussion around bringing
it into the military because it helps people be more focused and less stressed.
However that brings up ethical concerns as to if it is really worthwhile to enhance
people to fight and kill better, using something that was meant to ultimately be a very
peaceful and harmonious practice to realise enlightenment.
What’s the difference between Buddhist meditation and mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation, which has come from Buddhist teachings, is like a small
part. When I was a Buddhist monk for eleven years I would practice mindfulness
meditation, especially mindfulness of the breath meditation or even specifically what
is called the four foundations of mindfulness – mindfulness of the body, feelings,
mental state and mental content. The purpose of this meditation is not just to develop
mental calm and clarity, but to develop insight, or the Buddhist word Vipassana, and
this is something which makes Buddhist meditation more than just mindfulness
meditation; mindfulness is used but it’s used for the development of insight.
Whilst they talk about the medicalisation of meditation, especially in western
mainstream society, meditation is used for anxiety, used for depression, addiction and
chronic pain, but in the Buddhist context we can say that the medicalisation of
meditation is the reduction and healing of psychological or psycho-spiritual irritants
or illnesses such as greed, anger, and confusion.
What is the scientific explanation behind how meditation affects the brain?
Through the development of directing attention, one is able to activate and enhance
the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain. So that gets enhanced and developed as
opposed to the brain being overcome by the amygdala which is more the primal part
of the brain used in emotion and stress responses. Rather people going into reacting
out of fear or anger or confusion, they are more able to have a clear-minded approach
to consciously look at their experience and then chose how they might like to respond,
rather than just reacting.
Are we seeing any recent developments with Buddhist meditation in Australia?
Whilst in the last twenty to thirty years there has been an increase in the mindfulness
side of meditation, people are seeing that mindfulness comes from Buddhism and
therefore they want to learn more about Buddhism. That is slowly happening because
people are seeing that it is not enough to just reduce stress and to be calm, but it’s
important to be wise as well. Buddhism is: śīla which is morality, living in a
wholesome way; samādhi which is the meditation, concentration aspect through mind
development; and pañña is wisdom, so the development of wisdom and the use of
wisdom in one’s life. So it becomes a whole approach to life: living in a moral
conscious way, developing the mind through meditation and engaging wisely in life.
As someone who is able to bridge the gap between the east and west, do you feel
there are still skepticisms between cultures?
There will always be skepticism, suspicion and doubt; that is the way the human mind
is. But it is getting less because now as it is seen as a more conscious and healthy way
to live, which doesn’t involve a lot of doctrine, rituals or belief systems. For example
you can still be a Christian and still practice Buddhist meditation and go to a Buddhist