If we’re to believe all the hype about mindfulness (one-month’s worth on the left), it’s a magic bullet. Claims for this latest fad grow daily more dazzling. Trouble is, there’s nothing ‘latest’ about it. It’s not the least bit new, and I’m not talking about the fact that it’s been taught for thousands of years in Asia.
What I mean, and what’s almost ridiculously underappreciated, is that it’s been practiced forever, everywhere.
One of my most memorable summer jobs was as a bricklayer’s mate, though I didn’t enjoy it at the time. I had to provide bricks and fresh mortar to two unrefined brickies who were paid piece-work and tolerated no down-time. Nevertheless, on the rare occasion I was ahead of the game I admired their workmanship and noticed the deliberate flow of their every movement. Cigarettes sometimes hung motionless from the corners of their mouths, growing ash like forgotten weeds. In that stillness I saw their minds at work as they built walls that would stand for centuries. It was exacting and absorbing. They took pride in the precision of their task. It was no surprise when I learned years later that Winston Churchill — British Empire warrior, Prime Minister and literary giant — composed his troubled mind at the bottom of his garden by laying bricks.
If you’ve ever been immersed in a piece of music or the sounds of nature, stopped in your tracks by a gorgeous sunset or, like my brickies, engaged in a task that absorbs your whole attention, you know the joys of mindfulness. In the 1970s, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi initiated a whole new field of psychological research when he appropriated the term flow to describe this experience. Before that there was no particular name for it. Perhaps it seems so new to the general public today because it wasn’t objectified that much; it needed no particular name.
What we mean by ‘mindfulness’ today however is more complicated. Look at these popular conceptions: it improves just about anything you do; it’s ‘spiritual’ for those who want it to be and ‘secular’ for those who don’t; if you’re just getting into it, it’s way cool; and, the one thing almost everyone agrees on, it’s good — which is where I disagree.
It’s great that so many people finally want to slow down and stop, but it’s important to understand that mindfulness is ethically neutral; it’s neither good nor bad. It cultivates mental strength, brings clarity and feels pleasant, but just as effectively as it can enhance the healing touch of a doctor, it can also heighten the murderous intent of a cool-headed terrorist. Mindfulness is impartial. That’s why it’s so readily embraced by business leaders and military commanders. They don’t necessarily care about people finding their true purpose in life, or overcoming self-cherishing thoughts.
Because mindfulness always feels good, we think it always is good. Ours is not the first civilization to confuse pleasure with virtue, and like every other we’ll pay a price if we don’t stop and pay attention. Paradoxically, stopping to pay attention is what mindfulness is all about, but no one until now suggested it was good in itself. It was always meant to be combined with ethics and intelligence, without which it will never be an agent of positive personal and social change.
As a civilization, we’re right now taking that for granted. Thinking of mindfulness as inherently good, and as the best new thing since sliced bread, is wishful thinking. It’s a luxury we can’t afford.