Fully Present is an interesting book in its unique structure and its approach to what the authors call “secularized mindfulness.”
The authors have divided each chapter into three parts—the science, art and practice of mindfulness. Susan Smalley presents relevant research on mindfulness, while Diana Winston discusses the art and provides helpful exercises. There are chapters on breath and body awareness, attentiveness, obstacles, stressful thinking, and dealing with pain and positive and negative emotions.
Smalley, founder of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), presents research findings in a splendidly organized, reader-friendly way. Her expansive scholarship is revealed in meticulously detailed endnotes. She draws on familiar sources (e.g., Richard Davidson, Daniel Goleman, Jon Kabat-Zinn) but also cites hundreds of specialized journals and books from a wide range of scientific and humanistic disciplines. Admirably, she avoids overstatement, often using language such as “the data suggest” or noting that a particular study lacked a control group. The science sections are in effect an updated, state-of-the-art report on research on mindfulness.
Winston is well qualified to flesh out the art and practice sections. A longtime vipassana meditator (including a year as a nun in Burma) and a Spirit Rock Center teacher, she is director of mindfulness education at MARC. The art of mindfulness is discussed mainly in terms of bringing awareness to our experiences in daily living—which is where we spend most of our time, after all—rather than on the cushion. Winston provides excerpts from her students’ writings that illustrate skillful reactions to suffering and joy. These are persuasive, often touching, real-world experiences. A thirty-seven-year-old salesman describes his breakthrough when acknowledging his anger rather than adding self-blame. A forty-one-year-old mother discovers that her identification with depression has merely been a story that obstructed authentic joy.
The first three chapters are aimed at beginners who need basic instruction about sitting and breathing, and the practice sections focus mainly on familiar meditation techniques. For more experienced meditators, however, the creatively developed science and art sections will probably be the heart of the book.
A broader question raised by this book centers around the authors’ aptly chosen phrase secularized mindfulness to describe their approach. Briefly, secularization involves making little or no identification of Buddhist sources and eschewing exotic terms, even when the narrative is powerfully rooted in Buddhist teachings. The approach has been increasingly prominent during recent years in various other books as well as in workshops, conferences and programs in hospitals, prisons, universities, K–12 schools and education associations.
In Fully Present and this ever-expanding literature of smartly interpretive works, secularization reflects core aspects of Buddhist spirituality in a nontrivial manner. In such works we are seeing the growth of a new, free-range Buddhism that skillfully brings the Dharma to an untapped audience of twenty-first-century citizens of the world.
But is the recasting of the Dharma in secular terms an unwarranted appropriation of Buddhist ideas and practice? Or is it a continuation of the centuries-long adaptations of the Dharma to new times and places—leaving behind, incidentally, the sectarianism, rigid hierarchies and sexism that persist in some traditions?
I confess to a deep ambivalence about this myself. As an academic, I’m troubled by the inadequate honoring of sources. But in the larger picture, I see secularization as a creative process and a prudent strategy. As we reach out to various secular and religious communities, pragmatism trumps historical referencing and imported vocabulary. This is clearly the approach of Smalley and Winston, and their book provides one springboard for reflection on this question.