Mindfulness in the Mainstream

g9510.20_mindful.inddYou 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).

The Huffington Post offers an explanation for Why 2014 will be the Year of Mindful Living which shows, among other things, the following Google Trends map on the search term “mindfulness”:

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.

Buddhism and God

Many westerners are drawn to Buddhism because it is not a theistic religion. Believing in God, prayer to God, worshiping God or even talk about God is just not present in Buddhism.  The basic FAQs about Buddhism are emphatic about Buddhism having nothing to do with God at all.

Yet there are also (several) allusions to God-like ideas in Buddhist texts, if only in negative terms.  Verse 21 of the Dhammapada says:

Mindfulness is the way to the Deathless (Nibbana)

and in the Samyuta Nikaya  (43.14) there is

I will teach you the far shore … the subtle … the very difficult to see … the unaging … …  the undisintegrating … the unmanifest … the unproliferated …  the deathless … the sublime … the unafflicted

But what is it that is ageless, unchanging and out of time if not God?

I have heard Thay Nhat Hanh say on more than one occasion:

“I know the address of God – it is here and now”

I don’t know why more people aren’t pierced to the core by that statement. The implication is – awareness of the present moment can bring you in touch with that which is out of time, unbound by conditions and transcendent. What greater incentive could there be to practice mindfulness?

Ajahn Sumedho has said as much too when he paraphrases the Buddha:

There is the Unconditioned, Unborn, Uncreated, Unoriginated: Amaravati – the Deathless Realm, which is timeless, apparent here and now.

It’s true that Buddhism has nothing to say about a creator God or a personal God, but it does make reference to a metaphysical God, contact with which is possible by humans and which is the door to liberation from suffering.

The conclusion must be that the practice mindfulness is not secular.  Minfulness is a method that leads to liberation from the conditioned realm by bringing us in touch with Nirvana, the Deathless Realm, God.


“…what are the greatest blessings
which bring about a peaceful and happy life.
Please, Tathagata, will you teach us?”

(This is the Buddha’s answer):
“Not to be associated with the foolish ones,
To live in the company of wise people,
Honouring those who are worth honouring”

Mahamangala Sutra

A friend and I have been debating what is of greater value: friends that do things with you and for you (drive you to the airport, help you in times of material need) or friends that show you the way to unconditional happiness and spiritual freedom. Naturally, these are not exclusive – being driven to the airport can be done with love and that love can be spiritually awakening. All practical aspects of life have a spiritual dimension, whether that is explicitly recognized or not.

The comparative “greater value” may not be appropriate either.  Why compare them even. A friend you help by driving them to the airport benefits even from just the drive – and the driver benefits from the giving. Giving and generosity are a practice of liberation too, so even just giving the ride is of great value.

Yet the gift of Dharma is of immeasurable value and the friends on the path who share it with you are invaluable friends. They are rowing with you to the other shore.  Friends who are not on the path will help you in worldly ways – lend you money, fix problems, resolve conflicts.  This is good.  But it is a greater good, I think, is to know how to be truly happy in ways that do not depend on whether your problems are fixed, how much money you have or whether all conflicts are resolved.

Spiritual friendship (Kalyāṇa-mitta) is embodied in your Sangha. And the Sangha is one of the “three jewels” for this reason: it is the vehicle to freedom from all suffering. Hence it is to be treasured above all else.

Letting Go

letting-go-2You hear this phrase “letting go” a lot in meditation circles. It’s easy to say, and pretty easy to explain as well: don’t cling to the past, don’t get absorbed in plans for the future, don’t let fear, worry or anger get a hold of you in the present.

But try telling someone who is fearful or angry – in this present moment – to “let go” and you may get your ears boxed. And it won’t do anything to help them to let go either.

Actually letting go doesn’t come about by doing anything. Letting go isn’t something you do – it’s more like something that happens, almost by itself.

The conditions have to be right, of course.  You must be able to let go – often you must have the courage and openness to accept whatever life has to offer – to not resist what might be unpleasant.  And meditative exercises help too, of course: focusing your attention on the here and now creates the discipline of mind to not be carried away by anticipations of the future or memories of the past.

But being fully at ease with whatever is present in your experience is hard.  It requires an attitude of welcoming to whatever this moment has to offer – an act of faith in the unknown of the future.  But such an attitude cannot be brought about by doing anything.  It’s more in the act of non-doing and just witnessing.

This is what meditation is about, really. Stopping. Not doing and just being and being aware. Dwelling in awareness is how this total relaxation can happen. And when you are totally relaxed – at ease with everything – there is no clinging and no grasping.  “Letting go” has happened.

Why Meditate?

The meditation (introductory and intermediate) classes that I teach for the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Ottawa are wonderful! For one thing, the students ask such great questions.  One question I had from an experienced student last term was: “why practice awareness of the present moment?”.

I can’t remember the answer I gave when the question was asked but the question is still with me.  One answer that comes to mind is “what else is there to attend to?”

In “Now is the Knowing” Ajahn Sumedho writes

Yesterday is a memory
Tomorrow is the unknown
Now is the knowing

Of course we can know our memories too.  And memories of the past have an impact on our conciousness in the present.  So being aware of the here and now doesn’t mean ignoring the past. Nor does the unknown of tomorrow mean that what goes on in the present isn’t thinking or planning – this is a legitimate function of the mind, perhaps even a characteristically human feature – that we can and do anticipate the future an act accordingly in the present.

Yet all of this (remembering, planning, thinking) takes place now – side by side with breathing, feeling hungry, worrying, tasting…. all these things that are happening in the present.

So what there is to attend to – life – is happening now. It’s actually not possible to attend to the past or the future.  There is nothing else to attend to.

So perhaps the question is: “why pay attention at all?” Why not just watch spend all your time distracting and watching good movies on Netflix?

An experiential answer was once given to me by a teacher to whom I asked that very question.  Her answer was to get me to close my eyes and breathe, whereupon she whacked me on the head with a slipper. It hurt just enough to give me the answer: if you don’t pay attention the result can be painful!

The other answer – the transcendant one – is that awareness is the refuge, the path to a happiness that does not depend on conditions.

Ottawa Week-End Retreat w/ Greg Scharf, June 15-17, 2012

Join the OBS for a special weekend retreat

being taught by Greg Scharf

June 15 (Friday evening) to June 17, 2012 (Sunday afternoon)

Where: Maison Bruyere, 57 Rue du Couvent, Gatineau (Aylmer) Quebec

Cost: $227.00 OBS members*

Cost: $257.00 non-OBS members*

Greg Scharf has practiced with both Asian and Western teachers in the Theravada tradition since 1992, including training as a monk in Burma at Panditarama and Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Centers. His teaching emphasizes the natural unfolding of love and wisdom through the cultivation of mindful awareness. Greg has been teaching residential retreats in the USA and abroad since 2007, including being a member of the teaching team for the annual Autumn 3-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts for the past 3 years. Co-teachers for this retreat include Joseph Goldstein and Carol Wilson, among others. Greg has also taught at the IMS Forest Refuge, for one month periods, annually, since 2009, and has been a member of the teaching team, along with Michele McDonald and Rebecca Bradshaw, for an annual 16 day Metta/Vipassana retreat at IMS each Spring over the past 4 years.

Insight, or Vipassana meditation is the simple direct practice of moment-to-moment observation of the mind/body process with relaxed, open and careful awareness. By learning to observe our experience from a place of spacious stillness and balance, we begin to access a natural clarity of mind and openness of heart. As our practice unfolds, we respond to the inevitable joys and sorrows of life with increasing sensitivity, stability and love. Loving kindness or Metta meditation develops the heart’s capacity for patience, acceptance, and forgiveness as we connect with and care for ourselves and others.

This retreat will emphasize how the unfolding of wisdom through present moment awareness opens the heart to the beautiful qualities of love and compassion. The format will include guidance in both Insight and Loving-kindness meditation and is suitable for both beginning and experienced students.

Information about the registration and where to send it and your payment can be found in the registration form. To download the registration form, click here.

If you have questions about the registration process, please contact Evelyn Tan at evelyn.tan@rogers.com.

Registration is open starting April 22th

*All fees include applicable taxes. Please note that all fees only go to cover the cost of running the retreat. Donations are not included in the fees.

Accommodations at Maison Bruyere will be shared with other retreatants of the same sex.

Part of the practice at the retreat is to not eat past the mid-day meal. Tea and hot chocolate will be available in the early evening.

Mindful Eating Workshop – Sept. 7th 2011

One in four Canadians is currently overweight. We are facing an obesity epidemic.

One of the primary causes of overeating has been identified as ‘mindless’ eating. Overeating is a cause of great suffering in our society.

Do you know someone who is suffering because of excess weight? Do you know someone who would like to end the cycle of endless dieting?

Chan Huy and Laureen Osborne (from the Mindful Coaching Clinic) are offering a community outreach workshop to the general public at the University of Ottawa on September 7th at 7PM to offer an opportunity for participants to learn mindful practices which can be incorporated into daily life.

Please see the poster for details.