Illustration by Javier Jaén
A recent article in the Sunday Times is critical of the mindfulness movement. I read through some of the comments to the article and they thought the piece was cynical or misinformed.
I think the presence of a critical, high profile, article such as this highlights that mindfulness is maturing as a concept and a movement. It can and should take the observations and respond to them where necessary and reject them where they don’t fit.
Virginia Heffernen in the piece entitled, The Muddled Meaning of Mindfulness, starts with a consideration of the term mindfulness. It is based on the Pali word sati and like many Pali words does not have a one-to-one correspondence in English. Mindfulness was chosen as that term in the 19th century and that carries with it a set of implications. The more accurate translation is “to remember” as in remembering to pay attention to what is happening now.
Maybe the word “mindfulness” is like the Prius emblem, a badge of enlightened and self-satisfied consumerism, and of success and achievement. If so, not deploying mindfulness — taking pills or naps for anxiety, say, or going out to church or cocktails — makes you look sort of backward or classless. Like driving a Hummer.
This quote reminds me of the South Park episode “Smug Alert!” (Season 10, Episode 2) where Prius drivers become smug and self-righteous to the point of idiocy.
It seems that everyone these days is interested in mindfulness and its applications continue to burgeon. It’s a hot commodity and one with substance behind it, no doubt. But sometimes, that substance gets overstated. Overzealousness is a function of a bandwagon effect.
This bandwagon effect has led me to change the copy in my bio and marketing materials. I start by saying, “long before mindfulness became popular …” And this is the case. I sat my first vipassana retreat in 1989 when mindfulness was far from being a household word. Does that make me more mindful than the newcomers? No, not at all. Why do I want people to know I’m not part of this fad? Not sure. I guess I have some identification with being an “early adopter” and want credit for that, silly as that may be. I also know the promises and pitfalls from my own practice that spans over twenty-five years.
Most people who come to mindfulness are not interested in the big pay-off: awakening. To awaken is not some pleasant trifle; it is radical restructuring of perception, experience, and self-identity. Most folks just want to be less stressed, better able to cope, and be more productive at work. That is fine.
There is a good chance that mindfulness practice will make you a better person regardless of your motivation to practice. Of course, there are always people who misappropriate any practice but even “superficial” mindfulness practice will have benefit.
The more mindfulness gets discussed, the better. A real conversation does not idealize or shy away from controversy. The mindfulness movement can withstand the criticism and will hopefully grow from it.
My recent book, The Awakened Introvert, contains an entire chapter devoted to the practice of mindfulness and another chapter devoted to the Buddha’s teachings on awakening. You can get the basics and go deeper if you like.