The problem with mindfulness
Updated: May 15
Is mindfulness a self-help cure-all?
Recently here in the UK the idea of mindfulness has been incorporated into the fields of health and education, pretty much as a cure-all. Paying attention to the present moment and calming the mind would seem to be self-evidently good things. How could you argue with that? Considered in context, though, and keeping the question in mind 'how is the idea of mindfulness used?' the situation is not so clear cut. Buddhism, when it's understood as a philosophy or science rather than a religion, and mined for psychological techniques, appears to have had its ethical and activist guts removed, let alone the magic.
The co-opting of ancient eastern practices by the contemporary western fields of mental health and self-help, while in a sense a welcome development for the relief of individual suffering, also functions as a distraction from the systems of oppression that perpetuate that suffering.
A new kind of suffering, and the mindfulness fix
The kind of suffering mindfulness is often used to undo was undreamt of by the originators of the techniques – a recent example of this is the Dalai Lama, who when he arrived in the west encountered 'a new kind of suffering – psychological suffering!' and was initially unable to comprehend what lack of self-esteem might be. He was of course not unacquainted with difficulty himself, having undertaken a dangerous and arduous escape from his homeland under Chinese occupation.
Wrapped in huge nets of intricate personal suffering, obsessed with getting out of them, despite our media awareness we may effectively forget that the 'old' problems are still alive and well. Refugees like the Dalai Lama are still escaping situations that we are equally unable to comprehend.
With the mindfulness fix we can feel good in the worst of situations. So where's the drive to change them?
The trickle down effect, neo-liberal capitalism and mindfulness
It is a bit like the trickle-down neo-liberal idea of capitalism – take care of yourself, get rich and the profit will automatically benefit others.
This concept has surely been soundly discredited by now. While it's true that rich people can use their wealth for good, there is no reason at all that they should necessarily do so, and reliance on them to do so weakens the systems constructed to make sure those in need are cared for. Wealth tends to insulate rather than connect people to others. Power tends to accumulate. Patterns form of manipulation, exploitation, abuse.
Similarly with meditation and mindfulness – while they may well lead to a personal 'wealth' of peace and happiness that could be intentionally shared around, there is no reason why this should necessarily be the case, and it may well be quite the opposite, as people settle into a comfortable bubble. The use of these techniques with the aim of solely individual wellbeing, undermines collective efforts to fight for what is right, because it is right, not for any personal gain. Personal gain should be a side effect, and not the other way round.
The Mahayana vow
The organised attempt to fight for what is right should be the aim of religions, and Mahayana Buddhism (including Tibetan, Zen and Nicheren traditions) in this respect is uncompromising - with a daily vow taken every day to refuse to be liberated from suffering in further lifetimes, to keep on returning like firemen to the blazing house until every sentient being is saved. This is the polar opposite of escaping to the meditation cushion while Rome burns.
Peace of mind as the world burns?
We need our own peace of mind, just as we need money, to be of any use at all in the world. But taking the attitude that peace of mind or money are necessarily positive and sufficient goals in themselves is mistaken.
There's a sense in which making the achievement of a calm mind for yourself personally in times of extreme injustice, brutality and imminent environmental catastrophe beyond the worst disaster movie seems more than a little perverse. From an imaginary future perspective when asked what, in those awful final times we did, 'I sat on a cushion and watched my breath until I felt really peaceful' just doesn't seem to cut it.
Against spiritual materialism
In the 60s Chogyam Trungpa wrote 'Against Spiritual Materialism'. This classic text was about the danger of using spiritual techniques intended to destroy the ego in service to the ego. Spiritual materialism however is not only dangerous within spiritual terms. It may also, while 'waking us up' within our own small circle of reality, help sleepwalk us into situations of mass-coercion, while buying some nice prayer beads and yoga mats along the way.
Nicheren, the Buddhist fight against injustice
Nicheren was a Japanese Buddhist from the 13th century, who suffered persecution and narrowly escaped being put to death. His escape was not due to a mindfulness technique, but to his causing a miracle.
He advocated a fighting Buddhism which stood up against injustice, using an intensive daily practice first and foremost to mobilise and arouse people to action. Rather than zoning out on the cushion, he encouraged people to chant with their eyes open as if they were galloping horses. The awakened state was seen as a very active one and he urged his followers to use the strength they accumulated to fight oppression.
There is no shortage of oppression to fight today, a fact not always grasped by affluent westerners, and those aspiring to similar lifestyles, narcotised by social media addiction and the wellbeing industry, which has appropriated yoga, meditation and the omnipresent 'mindfulness' stripped of their contexts and inserted into a new role of making us blind to the larger situations in which we live and die, and which we might, if we could just see straight, choose to try and change – not because it feels good, not even because there is much hope of achieving success, but because it's right.