Know your audience

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Lecture 2, Part 3 of 15 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

Student: I wanted to go back to your original comment about context and culture. [Transcription of next sentence unclear] Jon Kabat-Zinn says we need to approach this area using life lessons and knowledge of the clinical realm in much the same way that an anthropologist would respect and approach any culture, even though we’re really deriving it for its applications for use in the clinical realm. I’m wondering if you have any comments on that, because I’ve looked at the clinical applications and am really trying to bridge to the transpersonal. I’m struggling with the reality that a true mindfulness practice, in my understanding and sort of experiential perspective, does develop a deepening understanding of self. And there’s this development to the spirit; the small S and the large S, but our clinical construct in this culture doesn’t; that doesn’t really translate.

So while there’s a deliberation of the use of mindfulness in the clinical realm to help people with chronic pain issues, now even to help people enhance their well being, there isn’t really a context for the spiritual part of that. So I’m trying to connect those two worlds and I don’t know if you have any commentary or direction on that.

CTT: Yes. That’s important. That goes back again to the fact that we’re always operating in a context. Of course those contexts can change considerably from one situation to another. Every one of you has brought some expectations and hopes and fears into this class, into coming to ITP, about what might happen, what you might be able to do with it, and so forth.

When I wrote the Waking Up book, I was very much focused on Gurdjieff’s ideas, and that was a deliberate, conscious focus. At the same time, I was aware of the context. I wanted that book not to be a cult book; that only people who thought Gurdjieff was the greatest master to ever come along would think it was fine. I wanted people with a general psychological approach to be able to read it and appreciate it. That means, for instance, there are a lot of ideas of Gurdjieff that I didn’t touch on at all.

The way the universe is constructed, what “eats” what in the cosmic hierarchy, and all that. Not only did I avoid those for a political reason, because they would just turn people off, but also there were things that I don’t know whether they’re true or whether they’re nonsense, right? In my world view, somebody could be a highly spiritually evolved being, very spiritual, very profound, very useful and still have a lot of ideas about some things that are just totally wrong or irrelevant.

When I did the Living the Mindful Life book, I based that on a series of classes I gave for people who were already largely involved in Tibetan Buddhism. So I used certain kinds of concepts there that would both resonate with them and not wave red flags at them to make them angry.

In the third book on mindfulness that I’ve done, that I didn’t use as a text here, Mind Science, I based that on workshops I gave for people at the biannual Tucson conference on consciousness where, again, most of the attendees were scientists and scholars who bring quite a different set of biases.

When I’m trying to teach people, I’d like to reach them. Now I could have very easily used language that would get by with Buddhists or Gurdjieffians, but would have been either incomprehensible or offensive to the people I was working with there. Somebody was just telling me today, as a matter of fact, how much she admired that particular third book because of the way she could use it to reach psychological professionals and medical professionals. So you have to be real careful in how you present this.

Jon Kabat-Zinn wanted to apply mindfulness meditation not to Buddhists but to chronic pain patients in typical American medical settings. Okay. If you want to work in medical settings, you can be sure there are certain things you can say that will get you marginalized right away and you can be guaranteed to be ineffective in what you want to do. So in one sense he’s being very respectful in only taking things out that translate readily, and in another sense he’s being politically astute in presenting the parts of it that he feels are sufficient to be effective but are not going to raise unnecessary barriers. So that’s always something to be careful of.

As a therapist, you have to speak your patients’ languages. There are ways which might be true to your deep self but which will cut the rapport between you and your patient just like that and make you less effective. You don’t want to do that, so always keep context in mind. Okay?

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