Setting Intentions by Mark Maclean

18 January 2016

We asked writers to talk about the idea of setting intentions for 2016. Picking up on some of the themes in Tibet’s Secret Temple each blog post relates to the exhibition from the perspective of the writer. Mark Maclean, a psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher offers his.

As 2016 rolls into motion, ‘Practise Mindfulness’ might well be at the top of many people’s New Year’s resolutions. The NHS prescribes it, the media hypes it and last year MPs debated its benefits in Parliament. With an ever-growing evidence-base supporting its efficacy in the treatment of a wide range of mental and physical conditions, mindfulness has become a key feature of contemporary life. It is practised in schools, hospitals, corporate boardrooms and prisons, and delivered by psychologists, GPs and an array of smartphone apps.

The ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple‘ exhibition at Wellcome Collection offers rare insights into the radically different meanings that mindfulness carries in the world of Tibetan Buddhism. Entering the darkened chambers of the Lukhang temple, we encounter a sacred space where meditation is not a straightforward path to stress reduction, but a journey through unfathomable depths of ecstasy, vision and enlightenment. Yet in spite of this Otherness, the exhibition is not only of anthropological and historical interest, but of clinical relevance too.

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Fine minature of the “white” Padmasambhava, sitting in meditation posture.

In recent years, neuroscientific research has established that the practice of meditation results in significant changes in the very structure of the brain. The phenomenological experience of these changes has been painstakingly documented within Buddhist tradition for over two and a half millennia. In Tibetan Tantra, the path of meditative development is understood to be marked by a sequence of psychosomatic changes within the ‘subtle body’, inaccessible to ordinary perception. The Lukhang murals depict this process vividly. Adepts are shown with chakras glowing, energies coursing through an intricate network of channels and pathways throughout the body.

As a teacher of mindfulness in clinical settings, I have found that a small but significant minority of Western mindfulness students report experiences that are uncannily similar to these descriptions of the ‘subtle body’ in Tibetan Tantra. What is most surprising is that these experiences often occur amongst people who have no prior knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism or any other esoteric system, but have arrived at mindfulness, perhaps reluctantly as a last resort, to cope with chronic pain, recurrent depression or simply the stress of daily life.

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Manuscript depicting drawings of Thogal. (Image credit: JT12, The Royal Library, Copenhagen)

Secular mindfulness courses begin with a ‘body scan’, a practice of systematically bringing awareness to the body, from the toes to the crown of the head. At the start of the body scan, participants set their intention to simply notice bare sensations as they arise: perhaps an itch, an ache, a gurgling stomach. They are discouraged from seeking to attain any ‘special states’ and are instructed to pay attention to ordinary embodied experiece with an attitude of curiosity and non-reactivity. With practice, the attention is honed to notice increasingly fine-grained details, such as the blood pulsing through capillaries near the surface of the skin, or the tickle of individual nostril hairs disturbed by the movement of the breath, and the complex interweaving of mood and bodily sensation.

But as this process deepens, the familiar flesh and bone form can give way to an altogether stranger, shifting interior landscape. It is at these points that the gulf separating Tantric and secular mindfulness practice seems to close and the Tibetan maps of the ‘subtle anatomy’ provide a surprisingly close fit with meditators’ subjective perception. Brilliant lights can appear in the mind’s eye, sensations of electrical current flow up and down the spinal column, proprioception can seem to expand beyond the boundaries of the skin into the surrounding space.

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Course of the Life Span Principle. (Image credit: American Museum of Natural History)

New research is starting to take an interest in these startling ‘side effects’ of mindfulness, which are as yet scarcely acknowledged or understood in secular contexts. This is an urgent matter, especially where mindfulness is being used as a clinical treatment for vulnerable people. We can be sure that the meanings that these experiences have for secular practitioners will be quite different from their Tibetan Buddhist counterparts. But we should not be too quick to assume that our own biomedical model provides the best framework for categorising these phenomena, despite surface similarities with familiar psychiatric categories. Given the extensive discussion of such occurrences in Tantric tradition, it is surely worth considering that these sources may well have something important to contribute to our understanding.

As the practice of mindfulness continues to spread, the Lukhang murals should not be seen as mere relics from a forgotten, arcane world, but rather as windows into aspects of experience that we are only beginning to understand.

Mark is a psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher.