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).
It’s 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, errr, 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 12-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 Fiet 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, it’s part of the problem, not the solution.