You know when the practice of mindfulness has entered into the mainstream of North American culture when it has been given the Time Magazine front cover treatment. This Time article follows in the footsteps of Mindfulness Is A Useful Business Skill in Forbes Magazine (late November 2013) and the New York Times essay Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention (in early November 2013).
In short, mindfulness is trending.
I found the article in Time rather unsatisfying mostly because it portrays mindfulness as a “coping strategy”, a “survival skill” and a “key to success” to be used for personal advancement. This isn’t in spirit of how Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is taught, in my experience. The journalist also describes Jon Kabat-Zinn as someone “selling meditation and mindfulness to America’s fast-paced, stressed-out masses”.
I had always thought that Mindfulness was about helping to alleviate suffering! Or cultivating happiness, kindness, love, compassion and generosity.
Buddhist teachers and writers have been worrying about the popularizing of mindfulness for months. In June 2013 David Loy and Ron Purser wrote a provocative article in the Huffington Post criticizing the corporate appropriation and commercialization of “McMindfulness”. In this article they say:
Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context … [decontextualizes] mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics [and this] amounts to a Faustian bargain.
It’s a compelling argument. Mindfulness, when taught exclusively as a “stress reduction” technique – while undoubtedly valuable – is limiting both to the student and the teacher. The key to real happiness is not only mindfulness but a lifestyle that supports it and an understanding of its broader purpose beyond its service to the self.
The McMindfulness article concludes:
One hopes that the mindfulness movement will not follow the usual trajectory of most corporate fads — unbridled enthusiasm, uncritical acceptance of the status quo, and eventual disillusionment. To become a genuine force for positive personal and social transformation, it must reclaim an ethical framework and aspire to more lofty purposes that take into account the well-being of all living beings.
I hope they are right about the fate of mindfulness as a corporate fad. But I also feel quite sure that one need not start out the practice of mindfulness with the well-being of all sentient creatures foremost in mind. My own practice began as a “mental hygiene” practice and evolved over many years into a transformation of lifestyle and world-view.
Thich Nhat Hanh offers a reassuring counterpoint to worries about McMindfulness trends in his January 2014 interview You Have the Buddha in You in the Shambhala Sun:
We don’t have to worry whether meditation is being misused to make money. Meditation can only do good. It doesn’t just help you calm your own suffering. It also gives you more insight into yourself and the world. If your business is causing environmental problems and you practice meditation, you may have ideas about how to conduct your business in such a way that you will harm nature less. When you experience the wisdom brought about by meditation, then naturally you want to conduct your business in a way that will make the world suffer less.
So don’t worry about whether meditation is serving a wrong cause. It can change a wrong cause to a good cause.”
Thay is right: any amount of mindfulness anywhere is better than none.
Nevertheless, I think there is a middle way. While mindfulness can transform a wrongly motivated intention to practice, starting out with the motivation of greed – be it for attainments or self improvement – may not be the most helpful way to start off. But neither is it necessary to begin with the desire to free all sentient beings from suffering. Most people’s initial motive for practicing mindfulness is usually to be free from one’s own suffering – and that is a perfectly valid Dharma Door. Maybe greed is too – but only, I suspect, if you have a great master to help you be free from it. Otherwise, I expect, it will be a tricker journey.