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Why Mindfulness isn’t a Good Thing (…or New)

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.

Bricklayer Winston Churchill at work

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.


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32 responses to “Why Mindfulness isn’t a Good Thing (…or New)”

  1. Walt

    Thanks to all those bringing ‘ethics’ and ‘virtue’ back into the mindfulness conversation. I confess that when sharing in a secular context I’ve avoided these needed aspects. I wonder why? They make all the difference and definitely belong there as much as in the spiritual application.

  2. Gerco

    Hhhhmmm, two comments…

    This posting seems to be come perilously close to a “strawman attack”, by confusing the use of the word “good”. Most, if not all, postings and publications I’ve seen use of the word “good” in the meaning of beneficial to mental and/or physical health; I have yet to see any that claim “goodness” in or a moral/ethical sense. I have no idea where you picked up those postings that claim a moral component to mindfulness… (I obviously do agree mindfulness to be ethically neutral).

    I am also not (yet?) convinced about the seeming direct correlation you apply to mindfulness and flow. While, in my experience, the former has a strong awareness component the latter has not; and while the latter seems to involve a strong degree of absorption, the former does not. Are these really as closely related as you suggest? Or am I missing something…


  3. Jeffrey

    Mindfulness is indeed ethically neutral. However, I would disagree that it feels good or is pleasurable. It can indeed be pleasurable, but I think we are associating pleasure with Mindfulness. Flow on the other hand is very pleasurable as we become absorbed into the task. One cannot find flow without learning mindfulness first.

    I live with chronic pain as a result of lung surgery I had in 2005. Nerves were permanently damaged in my chest wall as a result of the surgery. Although I had practiced other forms of meditation (trance) at this time, they could not and did not help me as much as mindfulness did.

    After my surgery, I had to learn to hold and regulate my emotions anew. Sometimes It was a “fight” as the waves of emotions ran over me. I still deal with this from time to time even today. Mindfullness only found me a neutral spot from which to be present with the pain. It never took it away, and I am grateful for that.

    Mindfulness has it place, and is useful, but it is only one tool in my toolbox. Its a big and important tool, but it still just a tool. Learning it took time, patience and perseverance. I am glad there is a rich and vibrant history behind it and one that is actually worldwide. its been there in many forms and as you have said it is not new.

    Thank you for this important reminder about what it is and some of the pitfalls associated with it.


  4. Richard Alexander

    Hmmm…..the real insidious problem that is being pointed to but not addressed is our cultures belief in the “power of marketing”….The forces of “capitalism” embrace mindfulness only if it sells!….mindfulness in the schools …mindfulness in health……mindfulness at the airport….how ridiculous. The art of mindfulness should be applied to all forms of hype,marketing to undermine the “selling” of certificates of mindfulness training!

    1. Lenore Lambert

      I agree with the posts above except perhaps for the cynical bit about capitalism (I think mindfulness can be beneficial, though not always pleasant, in just about every setting).

      Stephen I wonder, if your point was really to raise awareness that in many cases mindfulness is being ‘marketed’ away from the dharmic meaning and in the process is being warped, perhaps it would have been helpful to make that point directly. Anyone who’s practiced mindfulness for any serious amount of time knows that mindfulness is more full living in all its shades not just the pleasant bits.

      Also I’m not sure I agree (literally, I’m not disagreeing, I just haven’t finished thinking it through) that mindfulness can heighten the murderous intent of a cool headed terrorist. In that instance are you not confusing it with intense focus? If a terrorist were truly being mindful wouldn’t they become aware of the dependently arisen patterns of thought/ feeling, behaviour that drive them into such a disconnected and hateful state, look into them and see that they are detrimental to themself and others?

      And yes, mindfulness is not the same as flow which is where all of your bandwidth is taken up by the task leaving none for awareness of your experience. One of the telltale signs of flow is that you don’t realise it was joyful until it’s over.

  5. Bernat

    Short but great piece. I agree that this need be said: mindfulness alone is neither good nor bad, it’s neutral.
    Funnily enough, the original conception of ‘mindfulness’ (sati) WAS ethical, and it doesn’t correspond to the current understanding of it as bare non-judgemental awareness. I think it was Donald S. Lopez who had a very nice paper about that.

  6. Anne

    Loved your description of brickies. Either you’re an Australian or brickies are the same the world over.

  7. Dawn

    I grew up in a Buddhist/Taoist family in Singapore, so the concept of mindfulness isn’t entirely new, so from my point of view, mindfulness has always ever been like any other skill or instrument– it can be wielded for different purposes. Just like power or prayer isn’t “good” or “bad”– it’s simply how it’s directed and what it’s used for. :p

  8. Jared Saverino

    Thank you, I enjoyed this article. But, I think you’re being a bit of a bully with the word “good.”

    While mindfulness is certainly ethically neutral in many senses, it’s practice leads to actions more closely aligned to a person’s true nature. Slowing down to observe well and perform well will, on average, result in a more ethical lifestyle if you hold the opinion that people are generally good.

    You’d have to convince me that a potential terrorist who’s mindfulness increases gradually over time, will become more self-deluded instead of more self-critical on average around the globe.

    It comes down to your views of humans. If humans are exactly neutral on an ethical scale, mindfulness alone certainly cannot effect global ethics. However, the debate is generally between humans being either mostly good or mostly bad on the global/genetic average.

    I see overwhelming evidence that humans are mostly good but also woefully naive and impulsive. This tells me that mindfulness, practiced alone, can be ethically good.

    ~Jared Saverino

  9. Ralph chidiac

    Any human endeavor is a double edge sword the question is on which side is it sharper.
    Thankfully, like any other human activity it is used for the betterment of humanity. The same can be said about many human virtues such as intelligence, beauty, wealth, and even love.
    What should therefore be entertained is where does its propensity lay.
    I believe on the better side of the human psyche, no?

    1. Jared Saverino

      Very well said, Ralph.

  10. David Read Barker

    Stephen, you have conditioned me to look forward to The Naked Monk on Sundays as a welcome counterpart to The Washington Post.

    But I am skeptical that what your brickies were thinking about had much to do with mindfulness. Many human activities since the Neolithic era involve highly repetitive movements: planting paddy seedlings, weaving, laying bricks, etc. Religious traditions have tapped into repetitive motions (prostrations) and vocalizations (mantra, hesychasm), for the purpose of focusing the mind. Without guidance, from someone like a guru or starets, repetitive motion creates a wonderful environment for day dreaming. There’s nothing wrong with day dreaming, but surely it is not the same as mindfulness. My guess is that your brickies weren’t actively thinking at all about laying bricks, but about getting laid, or the next football match, or mowing the lawn, or….

    I suspect that most people think daydreaming is a lot more fun–and certainly a lot easier–than mindfulness, which at least in my case has required decades of effort with very little to show for it. If I can take myself as representative of people as a whole, sustaining focused awareness of my mind on anything is hard work, and, in the short run, much less pleasant than daydreaming.

  11. Rob Stolzy

    I’m glad for this post and the ideas it raises.

    I remember thinking in my early 20’s or so, a period during which my inner life was mainly occupied with reading and thinking about Zen, Gurdjieff stuff, Sufism, and Rumi, even a little bit of Casteneda, that it would be quite automatic that ethically sound behavior would follow naturally on getting ‘truth’ clear in one’s mind. Goodness was seen as an emergent consequence of the correct and sufficiently insightful view of things.

    I moved from these to other systems and practices — but I do not fully think that is the reason why I came to see and know that the capacity for and performance of ‘goodness’ is very much it’s own quality. A quality needing and deservant of cultivating it’s own techniques, having it’s own spiritual life and methodology.

    Maybe two things most made this clearer for me. The first was the gradual migration of my awareness about what ‘Being’ meant: it moved away from it’s original abstract and mental character towards something more real, living, and interior. Something which needed to be experienced. It was about this same time, maybe around age 30, that I realized with direct seeing, instead of intellectualizing, that there are reasons you cannot tell someone else an inner truth. Because it does not matter so much that they encounter words about it. They need to go through a formative experience surrounding it, which more often than not involves making mistakes about it and learning from within about it — like developing an inner new sense. A friend confronted me once back then about a relationship he’d had which did not work out, and was painful. He said to me, partly accusingly, but partly also with a gentle awareness, that I knew from the beginning (a few years prior) that the woman in question was not ‘right’ for him. And it is true… I did think this. But what good would it have done that I pronounce this to a friend, in the absence of some really dire problem? His destiny was to learn it himself, from the inside.

    The second thing was getting a clearer understanding about the old Greek concepts: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. Again, something one gets with experience, not exclusively with reading. Truth: the ideal culmination fo thinking; Beauty: that of feeling; and Goodness: that of willing. Three root human soul functions, pillars of the inner life, each with it’s own idealized goal to strive towards. These three twines braid and mingle together, lovingly and mysteriously, from beginning to ‘end’ on the inner path of development. SOmetimes one masquerades as one of the others. Their boundaries become fuzzy and one sees how each contains aspects of the other two. But each one must be consciously developed and worked upon, if one hopes to maintain spiritual balance enroute. Often the one which most appeals to us is the one we least need to develop at the moment.

    I completely agree that cultivation of mindfulness per se does not imply ethically sound development. And more importantly, I agree with what I see as the main sentiment of the post: that other very essential qualities are getting lost within the current popularization of mindfulness techniques. Even though ‘goodness’ is something experienced within a different region of our inner being, still we can recognize in that region oriented towards ‘truth’, that it is a separate thing, requiring a separate attentiveness.

    1. Oda

      I very much liked you point about “Being”:
      (“The first was the gradual migration of my awareness about what ‘Being’ meant: it moved away from it’s original abstract and mental character towards something more real, living, and interior”).
      Mindfulness, when embodied in Being, is not a tool and is thus not neutral as many of the commentators suggest. Rather, when mindfulness is deeply connected to Being, it is a clear-sighted seeing that transcends personal limitations. It simply comes from a different place. As such it can’t be bought, sold, marketed or even really learned. It has to mature, and it matures as one’s Being matures.

  12. Paul

    Winston was no “brickie”: the (lack of) quality in his product makes this clear, despite the dangling cigar.

    1. Paul

      Actually, his mind’s troubles and confusions appear to have distilled themselves into the bricks and mortar, leaving the intellect and intuition free and clear. QED

  13. Ethel Carter

    The media is not saying it’s good. Research is not saying it’s good. Dinner party conversation is not saying mindfulness is good.

    What the media are saying, what people are saying, is that it fulfills the purpose it was designed for It alleviates suffering.

    That’s it. That’s all it does.

    Now isn’t that good:)

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