Sitting with the Demons – Mindfulness, Suffering, and Existential Transformation

  • Sebastjan VÖRÖS University of Ljubljana
Keywords: Buddhism, mindfulness meditation, ethics, intercultural dialogue, suffering, Kabat-Zinn


In the article, I critically evaluate some common objections against contemporary approaches to mindfulness meditation, with a special focus on two aspects. First, I consider the claim that de-contextualized contemporary approaches may have serious ethical consequences (the so-called problem of “mindful sniper/zombie”); second, I investigate the suggestion that it may be misleading to construe mindfulness meditation as (simply) a relaxation and/or attention-enhancing technique, as it is sometimes accompanied by unpleasant, even terrifying phenomena (the so-called “dark night of the soul”). In the last two sections, I weave the two narratives together by putting forward the following claim: traditionally-minded criticisms of contemporary approaches are ultimately correct, but for the wrong reasons––the historical context is not important in itself, but because of the role it plays in confronting the practitioner with the fundamental existential questions. In this sense, mindfulness meditation can be conceived as an important, but not the only element of a broader process of overcoming existential angst, whose ultimate goal is not relaxation or enhanced attention, but rather a radical existential transformation.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Sebastjan VÖRÖS, University of Ljubljana
Faculty of Arts, Department of Philosophy, Assistant Professor


Amaro, Ajahn. 2015. “A Holistic Mindfulness.” Mindfulness 6 (1): 63–73.

Bishop, Scott et al. 2004. “Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition.” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 11 (3): 230–41.

Black, David S. 2014. “Mindfulness-Based Interventions: An Antidote to Suffering in the Context of Substance Use, Misuse, and Addiction.” Substance Use & Misuse 49 (5): 487–91.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu. 2011. “What Does Mindfulness Really Mean? A Canonical Perspective.” Contemporary Buddhism 12 (1): 19–39.

Buddhaghosa. 2011. The Path of Purification. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.

Castillo, Richard J. 1990. “Depersonalization and Meditation.” Psychiatry 53 (2): 158–68.

Chadwick, Paul, Katherine Newman Taylor, and Nicola Abba. 2005. “Mindfulness Groups of People with Psychosis.” Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy 33 (3): 351–9.

Chiesa, Alberto, and Alessandro Serretti. 2010. “A Systematic Review of Neurobiological and Clinical Features of Mindfulness Meditations.” Psychological medicine 40 (8): 1239–52.

Chiesa, Alberto, and Peter Malinowski. 2011. “Mindfulness-Based Approaches: Are They All the Same?” Journal of clinical Psychology 67 (4): 404–24.

Davis, Jake H. 2015. “Facing Up the Question of Ethics in Mindfulness-Based Interventions.” Mindfulness 6 (1): 46–48.

Dobkin, Patricia L., Julie A. Irving, and Simon Amar. 2011. “For Whom May Participation in a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Be Contraindicated?” Mindfulness 3 (1): 44–50.

Dorjee, Dusana. 2010. “Kinds and Dimensions of Mindfulness: Why It Is Important to Distinguish Them.” Mindfulness 1 (3): 152–60.

Dreyfus, Georges. 2011. “Is Mindfulness Present-Centred and Non-Judgmental? A Discussion of the Cognitive Dimensions of Mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism 12 (1): 41–54.

Dunne, John. 2011. “Toward an Understanding of Non-Dual Mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism 12 (1): 71–88.

–––. 2015. “Buddhist Styles of Mindfulness: A Heuristic Approach.” In Handbook of Mindfulness and Self-Regulation, edited by Brian D. Ostafin, Michael D. Robinson, and Brian P. Meier, 251–70. New York: Springer.

Edwards, Jesse, et al. 2011. “The Neurobiological Correlates of Meditation and Mindfulness.” In Exploring Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship. Mindfulness in Behavioral Health, edited by A. Moreira-Almeida and F. S. Santana Santos, 97–112. New York: Springer.

Epstein, Mark D., and Jonathan D. Lieff. 1981. “Psychiatric Complications of Meditation Practice.” The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 13 (2): 137–47.

Garfield, Jay L. 2015. Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gethin, Rupert. 1992. The Buddhist Path to Awakening. Leiden and New York: Brill’s Indological Library.

–––. 2011 “On Some Definitions of Mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism 12 (1): 263–79.

Grossman, Paul, et al. 2004. “Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and Health Benefits: A Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 57: 35–43.

Hakuin. 2010. Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin. Boston and London: Shambala.

Harrington, Anne and John Dunne. forthcoming. “Mindfulness Meditation: Frames and Choices,” American Psychologist 1–27. Accessed October 15, 2015. pdf?sequence=1.

Healey, Kevin. 2013. “Searching for Integrity: The Politics of Mindfulness in the Digital Economy.” Nomos Journal. Accessed March 6, 2016.

Hickey, Wakoh Shannon. 2010. “Meditation as Medicine: A Critique.” Cross Currents 60 (2): 168–84.

John of the Cross. 1946. Ascent of Mount Carmel. Westminister: Newman Bookshop.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. 1994. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion.

–––. 2011. “Some Reflections on the Origins of MBSR, Skillful Means, and the Trouble with Maps.” Contemporary Buddhism 12 (1): 281–306. Kerr, Catherine. 2014. “Why Do Studies of Meditation and of the Brain Matter?” Huffington Post. Accessed February 28, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost. com/catherine-kerr/why-do-studies-of-meditat_b_ 6075664.html.

Kirmayer, Laurence J. 2015. “Mindfulness in Cultural Context.” Transcultural Psychiatry 52 (4): 447–69. Kordeš, Urban, and Olga Markič. forthcoming. “Parallels between Mindfulness and First-person Research of Consciousness.” Asian Studies 4 (2).

Kuijpers, Harold J. H., et al. 2007. “Meditation-induced Psychosis.” Psychopathology 40: 451–64. Lopez, Jr., Donald S. 2002. A Modern Buddhist Bible. Readings for the Unenlightened. London: Penguin Books.

Lustyk, M. Kathleen B., et al. 2009. “Mindfulness Meditation Research: Issues of Participant Screening, Safety Procedures, and Research Training.” Advances in Mind-Body Medicine 24 (1): 20–30.

Mackenzie, Vicki. 2001. Why Buddhism?: Westerners in Search of Wisdom. Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.

Manocha, Ramesh. 2000. “Why Meditation?” Australian Family Physician 29: 1135–38.

McCown, Donald. 2013. The Ethical Space of Mindfulness in Clinical Practice: An Exploratory Essay. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.

McMahan, David L. 2008. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Michal, Matthias, et al. 2007. “Depersonalization, Mindfulness, and Childhood Trauma.” Journal of Nervous Mental & Mental Disease 40 (4): 285–94.

Mikulas, William L. 2015. “Ethics in Buddhist Training.” Mindfulness 6 (1): 14–16.

Monteiro, Lynette M., R. F. Musten, and Jane Compson. 2015. “Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness: Finding the Middle Path in the Tangle of Concerns.” Mindfulness 6 (1): 55–70.

Nyanaponika, Thera. 1973. The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: A Handbook of Mental Training Based on the Buddha’s Way of Mindfulness. New York: Samuel Weiser.

Olendzki, Andrew. 2011. “The Construction of Mindfulness.” Contemporary Buddhism 12 (1): 55–70.

Purser, Ronald E., and David Loy. 2013. “Beyond McMindfulness.” Huffington Post. Accesssed February 28, 2016. ron-purser/beyond-mcmindfulness_b_3519289.html.

Purser, Ronald E. 2014. “The Militarization of Mindfulness.” Inquiring Mind. Accessed February 28, 2016.

–––. 2015a. “Clearing the Muddled Path of Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness: A Response to Monteiro, Musten, and Compson.” Mindfulness 6 (1): 23–45.

–––. 2015b. “The Myth of the Present Moment.” Mindfulness 6 (3): 680–6. Ricard, Matthieu. 2009. “A Sniper’s Mindfulness.” Accessed January 14, 2016.

Rocha, Thomas. 2014. “The Dark Night of the Soul.” The Atlantic. Accessed January 14, 2016. the-dark-knight-of-the-souls/372766/).

Sauser, Sebastian, and Niko Kohls. 2010. “Mindfulness in Leadership: Does Being Mindful Enhance Leaders’ Business Success?” In Culture and Neural Frames of Cognition and Communication, edited by Shihuhi Han and Ernst Pöpper, 287–307. New York: Springer.

Sayādaw, Mahāsī. 1971. Practical Insight Meditation: Basic and Progressive Stages. Kandy: Buddhist Publications Society.

–––. 1995. The Progress of Insight. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publications Society. Accessed January 14, 2016. JR-AN/an141147.pdf. Sedlmeier, Peter, et al. 2012. “The Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Meta-Analysis.” Psychological Bulletin 138 (6): 1139–71.

Segall, Seth Zuiho. 2013. “In Defense of Mindfulness.” Existential Buddhist. Accessed January 14, 2016. in-defense-of-mindfulness/.

Shapiro, Deane H., Jr. 1992. “Adverse Effects of Meditation: A Preliminary Investigation of Long-Term Investigators.” International Journal of Psychosomatics 39: 62–67.

Sharf, Robert H. 1993. “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism.” History of Religions 33 (1): 1–43.

–––. 1995. “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.” Numen 42: 228–83.

–––. 2014a. “Is Mindfulness Buddhist? And Why It Matters.” Transcultural Psychiatry 1–12. –––. 2014b. “Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan.” Philosophy East & West 64 (4): 933–64.

Siderits, Mark. 2007. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Stanley, Elisabeth A., and Amishi Jha. 2009. “Mind Fitness: Improving Operational Effectiveness and Building Warrior Resilience.” Joint Force Quarterly 55: 144–51.

Stanley, Steven. 2015. “Sīla and Sati: An Exploration of Ethics and Mindfulness in Pāli Buddhism and Their Implications for Secular Mindfulness-Based Applications.” In Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness, edited by Edo Shonin, William Van Gordon, and Nirbhay N. Sing, 89–113. New York: Springer.

Tang, Yi-Yuan, Britta K. Hölzel, and Michael Posner. 2015. “The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16: 213–25. The Cloud of Unknowing. 1922. London: John M. Watkins.

Thompson, Evan. 2007. “Neurophenomenology and Contemplative Experience.” In The Oxford Handbook of Science and Religion, edited by Philip Clayton, 226– 35. New York: Oxford University Press.

Van Gordon, William, et al. 2015. “There is Only One Mindfulness: Why Science and Buddhism Need to Work Together.” Mindfulness 6 (1): 49–56.

Victoria, Brian. 2006. Zen at War. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

Vörös, Sebastjan. 2015. “Sedenje z demoni: čuječnost kot eksistencialno-transformativna praksa.” Poligrafi 77/78: 139–69.

–––. 2016. “Buddhism and Cognitive (Neuro)Science: An Uneasy Liaison.” Asian Studies 4 (1): 61–80.

–––. 2016. Forthcoming. “Mindfulness De- or Recontextualized? Traditional Buddhist and Contemporary Perspectives.” Taiwan Journal of East Asian Studies 13 (1): 1–34.

Wallace, Alan B. 2012. Meditations of a Buddhist Sceptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practices. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wilson, Jeff. 2014. Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
How to Cite
VÖRÖS, S. (2016). Sitting with the Demons – Mindfulness, Suffering, and Existential Transformation. Asian Studies, 4(2), 59-83.