– Interview with Kathirasan K, Mindfulness trainer, Singapore
International Day of Yoga – 21st June, 2019
Kathirasan K, the Founder Director of the Centre for Mindfulness, Singapore, began his journey into Wellness, Mindfulness and Yoga while he was serving his 2.5 years national service in the Singapore Army in the early 90’s. Inspired by the works of Swami Vivekananda in 1994, he began his journey into Vedic Mindfulness viz Advaita Vedanta and yoga.
“At that time, I had too many unanswered existential questions that perplexed me. I explored western philosophies, eastern philosophies and popular religions. But it was Advaita Vedanta that resonated with my disposition.” He started to learn Advaita Vedanta traditionally from the late 1990s till 2004 and taught it after that. He was certified as a Yoga instructor in 2008 with S-VYASA and since then has taught yoga using both spiritual and secular approaches.
In his book Mindfulness in 8 Days, Kathirasan writes that through Mindfulness ‘we learn to live in the present moment, re-examine the meaning of success, failure, stress and joy, and confront any difficult situation with poise and inner strength.’
Asked if this is based on Indian philosophy, he affirms, “It is definitely connected to Indian philosophy, in specific its humanistic dimensions. A lot of what I write has been shaped by Indian Philosophy but not limited to it. And as mentioned earlier, the goals of being not a failure or examining the meaning of life are not always spiritual but it depends on the kinds of means that we employ to get there. They can also be viewed as laukika sadhya-s, and especially so in Indian philosophy where both laukika and vaidika aspects are not black and white but two sides of the same coin. And again Indian philosophy is a loaded word because it can refer to two diametrically opposite philosophies like the Mimamsa and Carvaka.”
Asked about the ‘secular’ aspect of his Mindfulness programme, Kathirasan quotes Job Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the secular mindfulness movement. “Kabat-Zinn has acknowledged the roots of secular mindfulness to be from Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism (Theravada and Mahayana), Chinese and Korean streams of Zen Buddhism and postural Hatha Yoga. So it is evident that Indian philosophical systems such as Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism and modern Hatha Yoga have contributed to the practice of modern Mindfulness.”
“Secular mindfulness is a spin-off from spiritual mindfulness, similar to butter that has been derived from milk but each having different properties. Secular mindfulness is thus very important so that it reaches out to people regardless of their race, religion or culture who undergo stress, depression, addictive disorders and for those who desire to enhance their brain capabilities to lead a happy and productive life.” -Kathirasan K, Founder Director of the Centre for Mindfulness, Singapore
However, he adds that Kabat-Zinn also states that “the purpose of Secular Mindfulness is to step away from the cultural aspects of these traditions as these would cause unnecessary obstacles in dealing with suffering that is universal to human beings. Leveraging on the direction set by Kabat-Zinn, universities around the world have been experimenting with these secular techniques and have been recording astounding results in many areas such as stress reduction, reducing depression relapse, treating addictive disorders as well as positive enhancements in personal and professional productivity and happiness,” says Kathirasan.
Kathirasan says the other important feature of secular mindfulness is that the practices are not focused on attaining any “soteriological goals of Buddhism, Yoga and Vedanta. Hence the goals of these secular practices are laukika (secular).
“A couple of universities in the UK have developed secular mindfulness by setting standards for teaching. Dr Matthew Brensilver has also defined the three distinct traits of secular mindfulness as rejection of the notion that some texts or ideas have special, protected status, openness to revision based on the emerging scientific evidence, and mindfulness not being a set of beliefs but practices that enhance well-being.”
There have been criticisms to these secular versions of Mindfulness, especially from Buddhist quarters, “who have called mindfulness without its spirituality not mindfulness at all. One scholar has also sarcastically urged these secular mindfulness to be called ‘brainfulness’ instead, as mindfulness is a spiritual practice. These criticisms are still active in spite of scientists continuously reporting the benefits of secular mindfulness on wellbeing,” says Kathirasan.
He says that there is one common thread, however, which runs through both these positions which is the acknowledgement that “secular mindfulness is a spin-off from spiritual mindfulness, similar to butter that has been derived from milk but each having different properties. Secular mindfulness is thus very important so that it reaches out to people regardless of their race, religion or culture who undergo stress, depression, addictive disorders and for those who desire to enhance their brain capabilities to lead a happy and productive life. As Kabat-Zinn has mentioned, we do not want to create unnecessary obstacles for these people.”
Kathirasan says this is important, especially, in multi-racial and religiously plural countries where secularism plays an important role in maintaining national harmony. “I would like to contribute an additional point which is that today we have many versions of mindfulness such as Vedic Mindfulness, Buddhist Mindfulness, Jain Mindfulness and Secular Mindfulness. All of these have both similar and different qualities and we also need to acknowledge that similar ideas are also found in Abrahamic religions too.”
Kathirasan says Singapore has embraced secular mindfulness given that the research on the effects of secular mindfulness have been very compelling in showing its positive effects on wellbeing. “It has become very popular with schools, corporates and people from all walks of life. At this point I would say that we are at the infant stages of Mindfulness becoming a mainstream practice, whereas Yoga had probably hit the maturity stage. Yoga is perhaps ten times more popular than mindfulness among corporates, although the interest in the latter is steadily increasing.”