Lately, it seems that as each month goes by, another study is released touting the almost miraculous benefits of mindfulness—another hospital has started offering mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) classes to patients, and there is yet another another online training course to become a certified mindfulness teacher. In the five decades since Buddhism-based mindfulness teachings have become shared widely outside of Asia, especially in Europe and North America, “mindfulness” has gone from being a simple word to a full-fledged phenomenon.
When John Kabat-Zinn created the first MBSR course in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts, there was genuine concern that if most of the American participants knew they were practicing teachings from an Eastern religion, they might not want to attend. When my teacher, Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, published The Miracle of Mindfulness in 1975, an English-language translation of a long letter he composed in 1974 to encourage peace activists in Vietnam, no one knew that it would last beyond its original printing, let alone become a classic. In an interview, the psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman said, “Given the widespread acceptance of mindfulness these days, I think people may be surprised to hear how difficult it was to get people to take [mindfulness] seriously. It was a little scandalous at the time, from the point of view of mainstream psychology.”*
This is no longer the case. Meditation studios are opening in large cities across North America, meditation apps have a growing market, and there are even portable devices that read your brainwaves to guide your practice. Mindfulness retreats can be found year-round in many countries. Mindfulness meditation courses are taught in private and public institutions, including prisons, the military, and hospitals around the world. By 2014 it was found that “79 per cent of medical schools offer some element of mindfulness training.”** Mindfulness has truly gone mainstream.
But is this a good thing? Only time will tell, but it is a question worth asking. The other day a friend asked me if I was concerned about the mindfulness craze. Yes, I am concerned, although I, too, have benefited from it. I don’t know if I would have found my way to my teacher and ultimately become a monastic had it not been for the popularity of mindfulness. And our community runs retreats attended by people who have heard about mindfulness because of this popularity. So this is something that I’m grateful for.
My concerns, however, are twofold. First, with any trend comes an almost inevitable weakening of the original teachings. There are plenty of mindfulness teachers who themselves don’t practice regularly. Ad campaigns for financial institutions sprinkle buzzwords such as “Zen” into promotional compaigns for their products. The cost of many retreats leave these teachings on freedom often accessible only to the affluent, like a new luxury spa service. Fortunately, the Dharma is about 2,600 years old (depending upon what calendar you use) and it has withstood plenty of challenges so far. I trust that as long as the genuine Dharma is being taught and practiced somewhere, the genuine Dharma will continue. Those who come to mindfulness practice as a fashion or trend may eventually leave, while those who are deeply committed to the path of liberation taught by the Buddha will persist.
Second, what concerns me more than its popularity is the almost mythical status that some people give to mindfulness. Given all the hype, it’s easy to believe that mindfulness is a panacea that can cure everything from insomnia to cancer, fix our inter-personal relationships, heal childhood trauma, and solve political conflicts—all in an eight-week course. Mindfulness practice might offer some of these benefits for some people, but expecting that any teaching can “cure” all of one’s troubles makes for an unbearable burden. When stated like this, it seems logical and in a way even I fell for it.
If you had asked me before I joined the monastery whether I expected meditation to resolve all my problems (negative habits, childhood wounds, etc.), I would have said, “No, of course not!” But now that I’ve been living in a mindfulness practice center for a number of years, I see that I did enter with many preconceived and subconscious ideas about the healing power of mindfulness. While some of my habits have changed through my practice, others have remained. I can still become overwhelmed when I have too much work and turn into a knot of tension. I still stay up way too late on the Internet when given the opportunity. I still don’t know how to stay present when talking with someone who holds power over me, or with whom I want to have a close relationship. When these patterns arise, I’ve noticed an extra layer of judgement popping up lately that says things like, “You’ve been practicing for how many years now and you still do this?” These problems don’t sound that bad and I know that they are manageable. I assumed that because they aren’t insurmountable, I would be able to “get over them” by meditating. I was not immune to the hype. In expecting too much from a spiritual practice, I added another layer to my suffering. And in writing about it, I am learning to let this layer go.
Don’t we all do this? Whether it’s expecting that our doctors will always know how to treat our ailments, that working hard and getting a good job will ensure a happy life, or that taking on a committed spiritual practice will free us from our demons, we seem to believe that there is some sort of formula that will ensure “success.” But nothing in life is that linear. Mindfulness can bring about life-changing effects. In my community we often talk about healing and transformation, which do happen consistently through the practice, but not for every person, every time. Expecting that any practice, technique, or teaching will “solve” anything is missing the point. Feeling that we need to be fixed is one of the biggest obstacles to our practice! Only by being present to all that feels overwhelming do we learn to integrate, accept, and heal the parts of ourselves we’d rather wave a magic wand at and make go away. But even mindfulness isn’t a magic wand.
Stripped of all the hype, mindfulness refers to our moment-to-moment awareness of what is happening in the present, especially directed to understanding the nature of the mind, the nature of suffering, and thus the end of suffering. People often want to jump to the last part first—ending the suffering. But if mindfulness doesn’t include understanding suffering, then it’s not the mindfulness of the Buddha. I keep finding more ways that I’ve also tried to follow the formula to skip over suffering rather than understand it. Then I return to mindful breathing, to experiencing whatever is present as it is, to letting go of the idea of changing anything at all. And in doing so, much of the suffering takes care of itself.
After looking at these different dimensions of the mindfulness craze, I find it helpful to come back to the words of my teacher. When asked about the application of mindfulness in a secular setting, my teacher once said: “Mindfulness is not an instrument. It is not a tool. Many of us have thought mindfulness is a tool. With mindfulness you can heal, with mindfulness you can reconcile, with mindfulness you can make more money, with mindfulness you can kill better the enemy. [But] mindfulness is not an instrument, not a tool, but a way. Mindfulness is one of the eight elements of the path. So it belongs to the path, the Right Path, samyak marga. If you take mindfulness out of the context of the path, it is no longer mindfulness. This is very important.”***
Of course, you never know where a path will take you. But you’ll never find out unless you try!
* The Untold Story of America’s Mindfulness Movement (Tricycle)
** An Examination of Mindfulness-Based Programs in US Medical Schools (Mindfulness)
*** Mindfulness Is Not A Tool; It Is A Path (Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center)
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