Buddhism · Meditation

The Dark Face of the Mindfulness Craze

“Mindfulness is the skill of thinking you are doing something when you are doing nothing. One of the good things about mindfulness is that you get to do a lot of sitting down. Sitting down is good for the mind because so much positive energy is stored in the lap.”

The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness

I recently attended a Writing for Wellbeing workshop which was designed to promote “mindfulness and calm.” We did various writing exercises and a little guided visualisation, and were told: “Whatever you write is right for you – when done mindfully.” Well, maybe I was having a bad day, but I didn’t feel calm or mindful.

The experience got me thinking about the current mindfulness craze. There’s been an explosion of books and courses, colouring books, a mindful opera, mindful magazine, meditation app, and (my favourite) the Calm website and app where you can choose a different image and soundtrack to run in the background while you meditate. Companies are encouraging their workers to meditate in wellness breaks at work; even the military are going Zen.

And then along came this:

New sorts of mindfulness
The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness – oh, my aching sides…

Cockney mindfulness! Yes, The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness is a supposedly humorous take on the latest fad for sitting still and doing nothing. And to be fair, the mindfulness movement is ripe for a good old piss take. There’s definitely something about it that feels off.

The Ladybird book could be seen as trivialising a valuable skill we could all benefit from learning, but the problem isn’t with the mockery. The problem goes deeper. To illustrate, I’ll give you another ‘hilarious’ quote from the Ladybird book:

“Leanne has been staring at this beautiful tree for five hours. She was meant to be in the office. Tomorrow she will be fired. In this way, mindfulness has solved her work-related stress.”

The problem is context.

Buddha statue meditating

Modern Mindfulness

The current crop of mindfulness practices were extracted from their Buddhist origins and incorporated into psychotherapy and healing modalities. So now we have MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) and MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy), which are used for a multitude of complaints:

  • to combat depression
  • to manage pain
  • to increase resilience to stress
  • to reduce anxiety
  • to improve immune function
  • to improve decision making

It’s an impressive list so it’s no surprise mindfulness is being seized upon as a kind of panacea for all our ills. Do a bit of meditation every day and your life will improve, you’ll be happier and more focused, and healthier too. This is a good thing, no doubt, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t be more mindful. Everybody could benefit from taking a few minutes every day to sit down, shut up, and just breathe.

But modern mindfulness isn’t the same as the practices described in traditional Buddhism. Does that matter? Well, it might.

Mindfulness forms one tiny part of Buddhist practice which is a process of deconstruction and de-conditioning that takes years to perfect. Meditation is about waking up to your true nature and isn’t necessarily designed to make you feel better about yourself.

Modern mindfulness has been removed from the context of these teachings and the values that support the practice, and in the process has been massively simplified. From a certain perspective this makes it more useful, because it’s removed from its spiritual context which might put some people off using it. But this is where the problems begin. It’s like removing the salicylic acid from willow bark, putting it in a pill and calling it aspirin. The active ingredient still works to remove your pain, but it will also cause unintended side effects that you definitely don’t want – like bleeding guts.

Remember: Everything you do can be done mindfully. You could kill someone mindfully, if you were so inclined.

And that’s exactly what the military are doing. They may be using mindfulness to help soldiers deal with the stress of combat, but they’re also being taught how to focus their minds so they can kill more efficiently. There’s nothing new in that – just ask a Samurai – but it’s beyond ironic that the same mindfulness practices are used to overcome the PTSD caused by being forced to kill.

Perhaps the companies offering their workers mindfulness breaks have only good intentions. Happy employees are good for business and it saves money in reduced sick leave and increased productivity. On the other hand, it becomes another way for workers to be exploited: your employer gets more work out of you and you learn to be happy about it by accepting whatever you feel with equanimity. Mindfulness in this context is used to create obedient cogs in a vast machine. Don’t transform your mind, just watch it and control it – and get back to work.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t practice mindfulness at work. If it helps you to feel less stressed, that’s great. But why are people getting so stressed in the first place? We’re seeing an epidemic in mental health issues and all the blame is being laid at the feet – or in the mind – of the individual: it’s your fault if you can’t handle the stress at work. Meditating for 10 minutes a day may reduce your stress levels and improve your health, but you’ll still be overworked and underpaid. And that’s not something you have the power to change – if you have bills to pay.

Unless you fundamentally change the way you live, doing the odd bit of mindfulness isn’t going to make that much difference. If you think you can bolt mindfulness onto your already overstuffed life and expect a miracle cure, you’re going to be disappointed.

And then you’ll think mindfulness doesn’t work.

But that’s because you’re doing it wrong. Mindfulness was never meant to be something you slot into your life, the equivalent of taking an aspirin for a headache: an easy way to change without doing much or making an effort. It’s meant to be part of a larger framework of change and transformation. Buddhism isn’t just meditation, it’s a whole moral and ethical worldview that has to be lived day to day for it to be effective. You can’t do it just by reading books, and you can’t do it just by meditating.

Another danger is that Buddhism ends up being trivialised: you take the bits you like, the bits you can use, and sell it with the promise of improved health and happiness. But its real power is neutered and declawed. Buddhism could be described as a technology to transform consciousness, but instead it becomes another way to put you to sleep. It guilds the cage instead of ripping open the bars to set you free.

“While Buddhism has tended to become reductively identified with its religious forms, today it is in further danger of being reductively identified with its forms of meditation. If these trends continue, it is liable to become increasingly marginalised and lose its potential to be realised as a culture: an internally consistent set of values and practices that creatively animates all aspects of human life.”

Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs

Modern mindfulness is Buddhism Lite. Some of the popular books written by Western Buddhist teachers have effectively dumbed down the dharma into a stripped down Buddhism For Idiots designed to be easy for our massive egos to accept. This means you never have to confront the true cause of your problems or make any real changes. The best that could happen is you go around in circles and perhaps feel a little less stressed; the worst – you delude yourself into thinking you’re “being Zen” and that you’re enlightened because you’ve had a couple of “awakenings.” (I can guarantee if you think you’re enlightened, you’re not.) If you bail out when it gets hard or scary or when you just feel a little uncomfortable, you’ll never free yourself and discover the truth of who you really are – which is so much more than a consumer of spiritual products.

All of this could undermine the power of Buddhism and make people think it’s as stupid and vacuous as the mindfulness movement seems to have become. The Ladybird quote about losing your job because you’ve been lost in a daydream looking at a tree is a perfect example of the misunderstandings that can arise in relation to Buddhism and mindfulness when they’re stripped of context. It’s the context that provides meaning and structure. Without that, it’s easy to push ideas into logical absurdities, which may be entertaining but can have serious consequences. The New Age movement in general suffers from the same problem (and probably deserves a post to itself), but this is the kind of guff you end up with:

MIndfulness-stupidity-Eckhart-Tolle

All problems are illusions of the mind…

All problems?!

You don’t need me to explain why that’s idiotic.

Enough ranting from me. Next time we’ll look at what mindfulness really is and restore some context. In the meantime: What’s your experience of mindfulness? Am I getting worked up over nothing? Answers in the comments…

Image: Ladybird Book

Copyright

Advertisements

26 thoughts on “The Dark Face of the Mindfulness Craze

  1. Some people just want to make a profit from book sales and lose the essence of what Buddism is all about. People read this and are mislead.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciate your post. As a budding Buddhist and long time psychotherapist, keeping my meditation practice spiritual while sharing secular practices of mindfulness and meditation with clients who ask can be challenging. Helping them understand that meditation is not a panacea seems to make room for learning to be truly present in one’s life and not avoid painful emotions.

    Like

    1. It’s a tricky balance. There are so many benefits from meditation and mindfulness that you want to share them, but not everybody is going to be open to learning about the spiritual foundations of the practice.

      Thanks for stopping by 🙂

      Like

  3. Dear Jessica, Thank you so much for this insightful and eye-opening post. I felt such a rush of relief – and amusement 🙂 – when i read your take “All problems are illusions of the mind.” I’ve never heard anyone challenge the absolute ‘truth’ of that philosophy before; and I’ve struggled for years to grasp and apply this concept to my life — all to no avail.

    I do see the wisdom in detaching from my thoughts and not getting tangled up in them. But I get stuck when presented with a statement such as: “your situation has nothing to do with your suffering. It’s your thoughts about the situation that causes your suffering.” Ummmm, really? I wish it could be so simple. Until reading your post just now, I have felt like a failure in my inability to fully embrace and integrate ‘truths’ such as this. Again, i definitely see the wisdom in it, and I wish I could figure out how not to suffer from abuses, traumas, and tragic events I’m currently struggling with.

    The bottom line here is, Thank You! Your insightful, observant and honest review of today’s major ‘thought movements’ is deeply validating to me. I feel a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I feel like I’m not “bad” or wrong for struggling and, yes, even suffering. Who wouldn’t, I wonder sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Maureen. I’m glad you liked the post and found it helpful 🙂

      I think you have to be a saint or a Zen master to be able to rise above your suffering like that. A lot of damage can be done when people think they have to live up to these impossible ideals. All you really need is to do your best – you don’t have to be perfect, just human! There’s never anything wrong with struggling. The key for me seems to be about acceptance and wholeness – and not running away from the struggle. It’s hard and it hurts sometimes – but it’s real and it’s true. And that’s life!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I think that pretty much nails it.

        Transcending suffering ain’t the same as avoiding pain. If you want that forget Buddhism and try heroin instead. Suffering is what happens when you perceive the pain as an assault on you personally from something other than you.

        So in a sense it’s true that suffering is conditioned by your thoughts about it, but that’s completely useless as advice for overcoming it. In fact it just creates a new locus for suffering in the notion that your defective thinking is to blame. But it has a lot of appeal to people who aren’t suffering the same way you are because it gives them a reason to imagine it couldn’t happen to them as long as they keep up their practice.

        When I was crippled with depression my New Age mum was always coming up with reasons I was to blame for my own suffering, with my own thoughts about it at the top of the list. Of course that was incredibly hurtful and unhelpful, in part because I was already blaming myself, so it hit home hard. When my suffering finally lifted I realised she’d been right in a sense, but that if she’d known how she was right she’d also have known how harmful her assertions were and so would have kept them to herself.

        One type of thinking that needs to be overcome is largely promoted by Buddhism itself and that’s the idea that escape from suffering is some kind of reward for the diligent and virtuous. The corollary of course is that suffering is punishment for those who lack such virtue. I think it’s more helpful to see overcoming suffering as a kind of grace that just happens to some people. Yeah, it’s probably conditioned in part by virtues but it’s probably due just as much to faults and weaknesses. And when you get that you also get that there’s really no such thing as virtue or vice other than the judgement you project upon it.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I too have to question the idea that all problems are illusions of the mind. But I get the point that one can have problems, and depending how one looks at them, they may or may not cause a great deal of suffering. I get that we will have problems no matter what, and we can deal more effectively with them when we don’t overreact…but for some people, that’s hardly possible. When you are starving, or on the verge of homelessness, for example…it’s ridiculous to say it’s an illusion of the mind! On whatever esoteric level that may be true…it doesn’t help the person who has the problems!

    Keep the great posts coming! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hey Jessica,

    Great post. This has been on my mind a lot lately. Osho once said that when the military starts using mindfulness for combat the soldiers will realize their responsibility and power and drop their weapons. I’m not sure this is true, but meditation will bring greater power to individuals to recognize their role in creating reality and to quiet the monkey mind enough to see through faulty motivations.

    Much of the “mindfulness” stuff is, indeed, incomplete and taken out of context, but it is the beginning of an awakening for many who would never consider it unless it was packaged in something familiar and accepted. The five spiritual powers which lead one to liberation in the Buddhist tradition are faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom and I believe an increase in any one of these will start the fire that leads to the rest, so from this standpoint, it is good to see “mindfulness” entering the mainstream. However, you’ll never get agreement on this because everyone takes their own path through the nonsense to finally enter the same place. At a certain stage of development, it is all seen as a test of wills which will eventually be seen to be a useless waste of power.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right – it’s great that more people are being introduced to the possibility of taking a different approach to life. I suppose the rest is a matter of discernment and learning. In the end, the real teachings are still there, untouched by the madness – you just have to go look for them, and then put them into practice.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In both the Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya Cullavagga the Buddha says (over 2500 years ago) that the true Dhamma will last 1000 years, unless women are allowed into the Sangha in which case it will last only 500 years. He then allowed women into the Sangha.

        So if you’re a ‘true’ Buddhist you don’t believe there’s been any true Buddhists for more than two millennia. Unless, of course, you take the teachings out of their historical and sexist context.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, Gautama was a typical bloke in many respects – reflecting the attitudes of the time (and now). But then if you limit yourself to studying only unproblematic texts, you’re not going to get very far. The patriarchy has left its mark on everything.

          But enlightenment is genderless. As I’m fond of saying – God doesn’t have genitals.

          Like

      2. BTW. Early Buddhism enforced a ban on depictions of the Buddha, merely alluding to his presence with an image of a lotus, wheel or bodhi leaf. That taboo ended about 500 years after his death (you can trace its history in the images at Ajanta).

        I think there’s a case to be made that when idolatry entered Buddhism the Buddha lost his status as a teacher and was elevated to godhood – thereby putting the culmination of dhamma beyond merely human aspiration. Sure enough, in the Buddhist countries in which I’ve resided the overwhelming majority of practitioners – including bhikkhus – think enlightenment is too high to aim at and that improving ‘your next life’ is the appropriate goal of practice. Western practitioners, OTOH, often seem to think they can elevate themselves to godhood via the dhamma. So I guess the Buddha may have been right about the duration of true Dhamma.

        What’s more, young women today continue to do the same thing with images of Justin Beiber! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I LOVE this. Reshared. Thanks for posting. best part: “Buddhism isn’t just meditation, it’s a whole moral and ethical worldview that has to be lived day to day for it to be effective. You can’t do it just by reading books, and you can’t do it just by meditating.”

    Best to you (from a long-time, actual Buddhist)

    Sally

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Well said. Yes indeed, Buddhism has not been immune to propping up various kinds of oppressive power structures throughout history. Yes, I do believe we should be acutely aware of the potential for any spiritual practice to be used as a tool of pacification. But as far as practice goes, I think it’s horses for courses. In my personal practice, I pick and choose what suits my modern life. I think that’s one of the great strengths of Buddhism: that it can be separated from it’s context. At a certain point, you realize that whatever you call it, it’s just a label anyway. So it dosen’t really matter what you call it as long as it achieves some holistic benefit. There is a Buddhist precept that the teaching must fit the student’s level of comprehension. “Dry grass will not stick to a wall.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, I tend to pick and choose bits of teachings that seem to work for me and my particular situation. I suppose the problems start if you stay too long in the shallow end of the dharma pool. But you’re right – the teachings have to fit the level of comprehension of the student. It’s a tricky balancing act.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Hey there great to hear from you. Yes, modern life and spiritual practice are not always the most compatible. But the challenges of finding that practical level of integration really enhance the learning curve. Or should I say unlearing curve. I hope things are going well with your writing projects. Thank you kindly for your time!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Your beliefs about Buddhism being whatever you want them to be does not make them Buddhist, Leeby. in fact, you seemed to have missed the entire point of this article. “Buddhism isn’t just meditation, it’s a whole moral and ethical worldview that has to be lived day to day for it to be effective. You can’t do it just by reading books, and you can’t do it just by meditating” sums it up best.

      Nihilism isn’t Buddhism. Whatever you want it to be isn’t Buddhism. Labels don’t matter, but facts do.

      Best to you,

      Sally (an actual practicing Buddhist)

      Liked by 3 people

  8. There’s nothing new in that – just ask a Samurai – but it’s beyond ironic that the same mindfulness practices are used to overcome the PTSD caused by being forced to kill.

    Here’s another one for your reading list (which must be longer than many of the books on it by now).

    One of the characters in Flanagan’s novel is a Japanese officer who seeks perfection through the mindful decapitation of prisoners with his katana. There’s no suggestion he’s a cruel man. Just a very focused one.

    I once got into a heated argument with one of my philosophy lecturers with an example from Japanese history she used to argue against moral relativism (lifted from Mary Midgley). According to her the medieval Samurai practice of tsujigiri (testing your new sword on a random passer by) was unambiguously immoral even though it was sanctioned by the society that practiced it (though we don’t know the views of those who were bisected) and showed that our society was – at least in that respect – morally superior than that of ancient Japan. I thought that was a little rich coming from a car owner who lived in a society that accepted the slaughter of random passers by in the name of individually owned fast wheeled transport.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I couldn’t have said it better.

    The only thing I’d disagree with is the implication that dumbing down Buddhism to fit an oppressive agenda is a new thing. It doesn’t just go back to Jerry Brown (as the DKs pointed out in 1979). I’d argue it was well under way when Vajrayana first started watering down anatta to be compatible with a theocracy of ‘reincarnated’ lamas.

    Sometimes I wonder if the Buddha’s advice that his followers not concern themselves with politics may be a factor in why so many Buddhist countries develop autocratic, militaristic regimes.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s