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Mindfulness Is Not Enough


Back in the late 1970s Jon Kabat-Zinn realized the potential value the 2,500 Buddhist meditation and awareness technique called sati—commonly translated into english as “mindfulness”—would have in therapeutic settings if it was stripped of its spiritual trappings and presented as a course in stress reduction. And so secular mindfulness was born, the wholsesale transformation of one the many, integrated tools of Buddhist practice into an entire self-help cottage industry. The new mindfulness was employed towards a vast array of ends, from reducing stress in the workplace to preventing addiction relapses, developing well being and so on. The list is potentially endless (check out a catalogue from your local 'well being' institute for the details).

Naturally, an essential development in presenting mindfulness as a marketable commodity was to extract it from the less market friendly tools in buddhist practice, such as the demands to participate in a spiritual community (sangha) and the emphasis upon ethical behavior (right speech, right action and right livelihood). Its certainly easy to grasp why Right Livelihood had to go: Most of us willingly agree that harmful speech, killing and stealing are generally bad ideas, but refraining from work that involves misrepresentation or crippling stress is a huge ask, as it would instantly eliminate, or require significant change towards, the bulk of capitalism's 'dream jobs:' advertising, public relations, banking, social media start ups and so on. Surely such a complicating ethical demand had to go for mindfulness to find a quick consumer base.

It doesn't stop there. Mindfulness itself was additionally eviscerated of its challenging qualities: while awareness of inner states (sampujhanna) is certainly one element of the 2,500 year old practice, the Buddha referred to mindfulness as "the gatekeeper of the mind," an analytical tool to help us remove unskillful mind states (attapa). The new mindfulness was diminished, er simplified, to acknowledging moment by moment inner experience without judging; we're asked to believe that so long as we're aware of our body sensations, feelings, mental energy and thoughts, accepting these experiences as they are, the bulk of our suffering would disappear. This belief is founded on the idea that excessive self-rumination and resistance to our underlying states are the chief culprits of all suffering; the daily trudge to alienating employment in a world increasingly bereft of meaningful social engagement is conveniently swept under the carpet.

The drawbacks to acceptance based mindfulness, stripped of membership in a spiritual community, appreciation of the four noble truths and the demands of changing behavior towards the ethical are significant. Painful emotions, born of early childhood abandonments and poor attachment schemes, do not go away on their own; they require reliable relational support to override. And while studies of stress reduction at the workplace have indicated that workers become more productive and peaceful at their jobs, is that really such a positive development, if the jobs are alienating, requiring humane hours and leave us too busy to seek deeply meaningful employment?

Secular mindfulness, without insistence on ethical behavior, brings to mind the philosopher Slavoj Zizek's (largely misplaced) criticism of buddhist practice in general: focusing on acceptance based inner peace results in an abdication of ethico-politically based actions. Without directing attention to the outcomes of one's engagement with the world, McMindfulness emphasizes relaxing into the present moment, breathing through exploitation in the hopes 'bad capitalism' will vamoose on its own. Allowing twelve hour-a-day workers to feel good about their lives, returning to small apartments with artificially high rents (who has time to protest for meaningful rent control and low income housing) is far from a positive development in the world. The result is well-being without adding any deep meaning to life. The critiques are popping up everywhere, "Mindfulness the Google Way: Well intentioned saffron washing?" by Sean Feit* being one of many cogent examples.

Alas, rather than confronting this diminution of mindfulness head on, many buddhist communities participate in over emphasizing retreat practice at the expense of 360 degree Buddhist practice. Rather than exploring the importance of reducing one's needless material addictions, practitioners are urged to go on weeklong, largely silent retreats that, while providing a nice break from mundane stresses, drain bank accounts and lead to little significant change in life. After returning from seven days spent amidst rolling hills, eating vegetarian meals being while urged to practice self-love, one returns to the daily grind. Acceptance can only go so far without its partner, change in external behavior.

Mindfulness is meant to be part of the far larger Buddhist spiritual tradition that demands a deep examination of our moral values. Without questioning our livelihoods and developing our ties to a spiritual community, insight doesn't produce wisdom, it devolves in a business as usual behavior, which has resulted in the global catastrophe of 21st century capitalism. And so no matter how beneficial mindfulness is on its own, without ethics, karma and community its part of the problem, not the solution.

*http://www.nadalila.org/mindfulness-the-google-way-well-intentioned-saffron-washing/

Comments

  1. Mindfulness is not enough

    retrieved from http://dharmapunxnyc.blogspot.com/2014/03/mindfulness-is-not-enough.html, 3-8-14


    //Back in the late 1970s Jon Kabat-Zinn realized the potential value the 2,500 Buddhist meditation and awareness technique called sati—commonly translated into english as “mindfulness”—would have in therapeutic settings if it was stripped of its spiritual trappings and presented as a course in stress
    reduction. //

    I don’t think that he was committed so much to a strpped down buddhism as redescribing buddhism for a western audience in a hospital setting. But according to my friend and meditation teacher Will Kabat-Zinn, the son of the creator of MBSR, “MBSR is just buddhism.” And I agree.


    //And so secular mindfulness was born, the wholsesale transformation of one the many, integrated tools of Buddhist practice into an entire self-help cottage industry. //

    Again I don’t think that JKZ’s intent was to turn mindfulness alone into a self help industry. MBSR involves a pretty intensive series of classes and recommenation and support for ongoing commitment to the entire MBSR community, in support of life long practice. At least that’s what they taught in my MBSR class.


    //Most of us willingly agree that harmful speech, killing and stealing are generally bad ideas//

    actually, I think if that were true, the world would not be nearly so screwed up as it is!



    //, but refraining from work that involves misrepresentation or crippling stress is a huge ask, as it would instantly eliminate, or require significant change towards, the bulk of capitalism's 'dream jobs:' //

    I absolutely disagree. One of my first meditation teachers has made a career of taking MBSR into the capitalist workplace. I as a student of busshism am suspisious of a recommendation to “instantly elminate.”

    //advertising, public relations, banking, social media start ups and so on. Surely such a complicating ethical demand had to go for mindfulness to find a quick consumer base. //

    That perhaps may be true, though I would then say that we would be better advised to let go of the quick consumer base. Seeking a quick consumer base, to me, seems like a mindfulness based stress amplification program, not reduction program.

    // It doesn't stop there. Mindfulness itself was additionally eviscerated of its challenging qualities: while awareness of inner states (sampujhanna) is certainly one element of the 2,500 year old practice, the Buddha referred to mindfulness as "the gatekeeper of the mind," an analytical tool to help us remove unskillful mind states (attapa). The new mindfulness was diminished, er simplified, to acknowledging moment by moment inner experience without judging; we're asked to believe that so long as we're aware of our body sensations, feelings, mental energy and thoughts, accepting these experiences as they are, the bulk of our suffering would disappear. //


    I never heard any meditation teacher or therapist ever say that, and it sounds like delusion to me. (though I would love it if it were true!).

    ReplyDelete
  2. //This belief is founded on the idea that excessive self-rumination and resistance to our underlying states are the chief culprits of all suffering//


    Well, I do think we have some data in support of the idea that avoidance is a key behavior in the perpetuation of emotional suffering. I would certainly not let that stop me from telling someone to stop banging their head against a wall if they complained to me of a headache!



    //The drawbacks to acceptance based mindfulness, stripped of membership in a spiritual community, appreciation of the four noble truths and the demands of changing behavior towards the ethical are significant. //

    when I teach MBSR I teach all that…why would any serious pracitioner not?


    // Secular mindfulness, without insistence on ethical behavior, brings to mind the philosopher Slavoj Zizek's (largely misplaced) criticism of buddhist practice in general: focusing on acceptance based inner peace results in an abdication of ethico-politically based actions. Without directing attention to the outcomes of one's engagement with the world, McMindfulness emphasizes relaxing into the present moment, breathing through exploitation in the hopes 'bad capitalism' will vamoose on its own. Allowing twelve hour-a-day workers to feel good about their lives, returning to small apartments with artificially high rents (who has time to protest for meaningful rent control and low income housing) is far from a positive development in the world. The result is well-being without adding any deep meaning to life. //

    for me this is a description of an opiate of the masses, not MBSR as I understand it or as I think JKZ intended it…

    // Alas, rather than confronting this diminution of mindfulness head on, many buddhist communities participate in over emphasizing retreat practice at the expense of 360 degree Buddhist practice. //

    on my first retreat one of the teachers told me that the retreat was a poetic sham, that all the sitters were pretending to be students and all the people in the front of the room like him were pretending to be teachers. he opined that the retreat had never begun and it would never end, because it didn’t exist. thus began my journey with sunyata.

    //Rather than exploring the importance of reducing one's needless material addictions, //

    I’m not convinced all material habits are addictions or unskillful.

    // practitioners are urged to go on weeklong, largely silent retreats that, while providing a nice break from mundane stresses, drain bank accounts and lead to little significant change in life. //

    data in support of that hypothesis?

    //After returning from seven days spent amidst rolling hills, eating vegetarian meals being while urged to practice self-love, one returns to the daily grind. //

    I returned changed

    Acceptance can only go so far without its partner, change in external behavior.

    // Mindfulness is meant to be part of the far larger Buddhist spiritual tradition that demands a deep examination of our moral values. Without questioning our livelihoods and developing our ties to a spiritual community, insight doesn't produce wisdom, //

    MBSR as I was taught it was a program of acceptance and change all at the same time

    //it devolves in a business as usual behavior, which has resulted in the global catastrophe of 21st century capitalism. //

    is there no room for ethical capitalism?

    //And so no matter how beneficial mindfulness is on its own, without ethics, karma and community its part of the problem, not the solution.//

    except, of course, when it isn’t…

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dam! seems like you're having a mass debate with yourself anonymous! Sorry about interrupting you, carry on.

    ReplyDelete

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