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Mindful, or Mind Empty?

I don’t know what to do with my disappointment. It took me years to accept that Buddhism was not just profound scripture but also an infernal institution. Today, mindfulness has been hijacked by The Corporation, distilled into twenty-first century opium. Where’s a modern-day subversive supposed to lay his head?

Why subversive? Think about it: the Buddha declared everything contingent, unsatisfactory, selfless — and chose homelessness over a life of power and influence. He abandoned his wife and son. He spent the rest of his life begging on the streets. Literally. Even after fulfilling his quest, he stayed away from civilization.

Today, who follows the Buddha into homelessness? Even venerable Asian monks live in nice monasteries. Meanwhile, mindfulness is settling very comfortably into the Googleplex and elsewhere where, as the BBC says, ‘it’s highly beneficial to both businesses and their employees.’

Funny, I thought the point of mindfulness was to see the futility of gain and fame. Evgeny Morozov’s right when he says that CEOs are on a mission to ‘finally reconcile spirituality and capitalism.’ Have your cake. Eat it too. Lovely.

I thought Morozov made his point rather well, but instead of being attacked by rabid capitalists, it was the Buddhists who got upset. He committed the sin of discussing mindfulness as if it were a new fad, not an ancient spiritual practice. God forbid.

Joshua Eaton writes about ‘Gentrifying the dharma: How the 1 percent is hijacking mindfulness.’ Professors Ron Purser and David Forbes protest that ‘Google Misses a Lesson in Wisdom 101.’ When the founders of Google and Facebook recently joined Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner to award prizes for life extension research, British philosopher John Gray asked, ‘Are Sergey Brin And Mark Zuckerberg God-Builders?’

Then there are the activists. Amanda Ream disrupted the Wisdom 2.0 conference while claiming that it presents, ‘evolution in consciousness of the wealthiest among us as the antidote to suffering rather than the redistribution of wealth and power.’ Sounds like communism to me, but that’s okay; the Dalai Lama’s a self-declared communist and he’s always being fêted at the White House, by democrats and republicans. They don’t take him too seriously.

What exactly is going on?

I’d say, same old. The nineteenth century captains of industry weren’t shy about co-opting the message of Jesus Christ. The Protestant Ethic turned out to be the twentieth century’s dominant ethic. We need our myths too, and what with the decline of religion and the ascent of scientism, the great myth of our time seems to be that we’ve finally broken free of myths.

We’re a passionate, crazed species. What other explanation is
there for continued optimism in the face of our deadly insight?

How anyone can fall for that one I have no idea. If we have no more mythic drives, why do we spend our lives chasing dreams of capitalism and communism, Buddhism and atheism? How come Hollywood’s still in business? We’re human beings. Myth is what we do. Ecclesiastes nailed it two and a half millennia ago, “…vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

Mindfulness is not like that, we’re told. It’s ‘being in the present moment,’ no illusions, no judgment, no mental wandering, no disturbance. Full frontal focus.

The way to sell snake oil is to tell people exactly what they want to hear, and I’m disappointed because I practice mindfulness and I teach it, but Morozov’s right: it’s become a fad. Real-world mindfulness reveals that mental stillness, total concentration and stress-free living are fantasies of desperate longing. Mindfulness may involve acceptance of what we can’t change, but it also impels us to engage with what we can. It clarifies our minds, but reveals our demons.

I don’t so much believe that mindfulness should be subversive, revolutionary or seditious. It’s more something I feel. The Middle Way is no wishy-washy compromise; it’s a dangerous tight-rope walk over the abyss of what Giacomo Leopardi calls ‘the emptiness of all things.’ We’re all going to die — remember? All that keeps us on our feet is the irrepressible delight we’re biologically programmed to take in our illusions.

To take those illusions as real dooms us, but without them we’re doomed too. Philosophers have found no satisfactory answer to the question of life’s purpose. Observe human behavior though: our intent is clearly to love and be loved. Hell, that’s even why we go to war. We’re a passionate, crazed species. What other explanation is there for continued optimism in the face of our deadly insight?

We’re on the verge of being too clever. Industrialization has gone digital. Efficiency’s measured in megahertz. Anomie is exponential. We live in times of epic change. All we can foresee is faster change. Are we about to outgrow the illusion that change equals progress, or will it soon be so taken for granted that we forget to question it? Decadence is just around the corner.

If this leaves you at a complete loss, go read Ecclesiastes. It’s only eight pages in my 1870 Spottiswood edition. Don’t be shy: they’re idiots who say you have to believe in a personal creator God to read the bible. This is a creation of the sublime human mind. It reaches through the ages. It grips you like a lover.

Buddhism has lost control of the term ‘mindfulness’

You’ll just have to do with mindfulness what you can. Buddhism has lost control of the term. It drifts through the idiom like a lost balloon, as misunderstood now as Karma™ and Samsara™. Some people will use it to calm down, perhaps even delay heart-attacks. Good for them. Soldiers will use it to steady their aim and be better snipers. It seems perverse, but how did snipers ever become good at what they do, whether or not there was a name for it?

Some of us will still use mindfulness to peer mercilessly into our own delusions. You might say that’s what it’s meant for, but that’s just your opinion. Funny, I used to feel like a deviant when I first came to Buddhism. I feel that way again, now as I distance myself from it.

Most people have no time for this nonsense. They want to get on with their lives. They’ll vigorously deny that living life to the full means questioning everything. Just as everything didn’t change with the arrival of Buddhism, everything’s not lost with its corruption. Life will go on, chaotic as ever, and just as we’ve done since we climbed down from the trees, we’ll continue to believe we’re on the verge of greatness.

Yes, go read Ecclesiastes.

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18 responses to “Mindful, or Mind Empty?”

  1. Christina

    Very interesting topic. Thank you!

  2. Robert Schenck

    I agree totally. This, I think, is the heart of it. “[T]he Buddha declared everything contingent, unsatisfactory, selfless — and chose homelessness over a life of power and influence. He abandoned his wife and son. He spent the rest of his life begging on the streets. Literally. Even after fulfilling his quest, he stayed away from civilization. Today, who follows the Buddha into homelessness?” Our contemporary translation of “the middle way” is “you can have it all.”

    Robert

  3. Eileen Santer

    I’ve taken lots of retreats where they teach beginners’ mindfulness and I don’t see any difference to what’s being taught in public now. Some people will go on from this instruction and plumb the depths of mindfuless and other people will go on to another bit of instruction on something other technique that promises something else. That’s life. For those who stay with it and really find out what it’s about, the instruction is worth it, for the others, they at least will have a moment of peace and that’s also worth it. I say have at it.

  4. Mark Knickelbine

    Stephen. You are a writer, and you know showing is better than telling. So show me where this evil fad you are so afraid of exists. Quote me a recognized mindfulness teacher who says this practice is for anything other than “peering mercilessly into (our) own delusions” as you put it (although, if we’re all delusional, wouldn’t a little mercy be warranted?) If you look even at the brand they teach Marines, you will see, not firing more accurately, but abandoning the attempt to escape from how things really are. Give me specific examples of this thing you and Loy and Purser seem so terrified of. Is it possible what you’re really afraid of is that “Buddhism has lost control” of the term — and that the prerogatives of being a monk, naked or otherwise, are no longer what they once were? And the big question — is starting off on the path because you think it will make you a better soldier or businessman any more delusional than going to India and putting on robes because you think some Asian master can give you the answer? Who doesn’t start from grasping, aversion and delusion? Is the fact that some company’s cash register might be ringing because people want to learn about mindfulness any worse than the feudal autocracies Buddhism has propped up over its long history? What is the compassionate thing to do here? Deride people for joining up with a “fad”? Or help them along the path, especially through one’s owe example of acceptance and kindness? I don’t see very much faith in the dharma here. I see a lot of reactivity to fear.

  5. Jayarava

    ‘Mindfulness’ is an English word. Buddhists, who are still less than 1% of the English speaking world, never had control over it. The less abstract term “mindful” is recorded in English as far back as the 14th C We ought to be aware that meditation is also an English word (1st recorded in the 12th C).

    We never had control over words, ideas or techniques that we used. In Indian Buddhism there was a constant syncretisation in both directions. Buddhism was always a patchwork. ‘Karma’ comes from Vedic ritual; ‘saṃsāra’ comes from Late Vedic cosmology. And so on.

    The thing that really surprises me about this brouhaha is that no one draws the obvious parallel with Japan. In Medieval Japan, Zen was hijacked by professional soldiers (samurai) to make them better killers. No different from today’s Google workers or indeed army snipers.

  6. Suzanne

    Although I share your dismay, I do have to say that Buddhists have been complicit in this hijacking. Our local temple conducts “mindfulness meditation sessions” on Friday nights for the general public. It is not entirely stripped of all “religious” trappings, but it is definitely “Buddhism lite.” The intent is to introduce Buddhism to Westerners in a non-confrontational, almost ecumenical manner. The participants can hardly be blamed for going away thinking that Buddhism is about stress relief and “happiness.”

    Ironically, the temple has begun an “Introduction to Buddhism” course at the request of several of us — and there were at least 50 people in attendance at the first meeting, which is roughly the same number of non-Buddhists who come on Friday night (since it’s the only English service, English-speaking Buddhists attend it). We’ll see if that keeps up, but it does indicate that there is interest in Buddhism, not just “mindfulness.” We might have to institute a second English service for English-speaking Buddhists if this keeps up!

  7. Mat Witts

    Fine, it’s your blog but it’s difficult to disagree with the responses from both Mark Knickelbine and Jayarava – put simply – I think you may be ’tilting at windmills’. Mindfulness is an impossibly difficult and possibly even a redundant concept to try and articulate, and when it comes to forming a judgement on Others procedures or ethics we are intervening in sophisticated, relativistic systems through perceptive apparatus we know is less than perfect. The more important point you miss I think is: What is really at stake here? and since your direction has matured enough to recognize the divergence of implementations from narrow ideas of wellness and personal development and growth and those directed at wider issues such as social equity, cosmology and philosophy then I would say your analysis is accurate and something I recognize too – but your conclusions I think are at best – non-substantive and at worst – bigoted. The proper conclusion here to my mind is that Buddhism has a great deal to offer anyone, but not necessarily everyone and those of us that are committed to Buddhist ideas and practices perhaps could do worse than think more carefully about how we implement the skills, knowledge and ethics we claim for ourselves and spend less time looking over our shoulder as if Buddhism is an ancient, limited resource that would be better suited in a museum if only to try and protect it from the ‘tomb raiders’. If then we are so intent on kicking away the ladder and constructing limitations as to the moral and procedural shape Buddhism ‘ought’ to be in just to so as to suit our own self interest then I believe this risks undermining what we know about what the Buddha taught perhaps at it’s most fundamental level?

  8. Mat Witts

    Okay, so in places you chide those that develop industrial, commercial and military implementations. You imply perhaps a pure or at least more appropriate or historically justified deployment – for example in the service of gaining personal insights and perhaps initiatives that seek to target social inequity and so forth, and privilege those that follow the narrative of ‘what the Buddha taught’ but with some healthy interpretivist claims thrown in to sweeten the pot. This is fine but if it is not your intention to satirize these (other) types of (can we say ‘non-normative?) extensions in domains you do not entirely approve of or have any experience in then you will need to review and edit this piece because that’s exactly how I interpret what you have laid out here. I will leave the overtly Christian concept of ‘damnation’ in your response to one side since although it offers some warmth there isn’t much light in it for me. I think it is fair to say that this piece is essentially a judgement of taste – and of course your own taste in matters of procedure will be right for you, whereas the (stereotypical?) sniper or Google C level executive you perceive as ‘doing it wrong’ (which of course they might be) will appear alien. I don’t wish to argue for or against the content of your analysis which I said before, I do recognize but it makes me wonder why you took so much time to elucidate what I think may be no more (and no less) than a relatively trivial matter of cultural distaste in a public forum rather than go for the real meat which for me is the discussion about the potential for radical change in organisations of all kinds which (from my research so far) share remarkable characteristics of dysfunction and encourage a range of maladaptive. conformist behaviors in individuals who may happen to find themselves either in a Buddhist monastery, a large tech. company or the US Marine Corps. In short, the problem from the research I have undertaken so far is not the person – the sniper, the CEO or the celebrity – it’s the people – the particular social and political dimensions of Buddhism and the Buddha himself I am sure recognised the particular difficulties himself in attaining enlightenment and then the supplementary difficulties in teaching which is peculiar to educative enterprises of all kinds and do not seem to be rooted in Buddhism per se – but rather lie at the socio-political intersection between self and community, and for that we need understanding and engagement and respect for difference – not more polemics on the Other?

  9. Eckart Zabel

    Interesting, informative post. Whatever position one holds regarding mindfulness, its secular forms and integration into the mainstream, it is good to stay informed and follow the discussion – unless one is convinced one knows it all. Do we?

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  11. Jonathan Mitchell

    I pretty much agree Stephen. Personally, I find buddhism endlessly puzzling. When I find it otherwise I’ll be in trouble. For me mindfulness means shaking things up. I haven’t a clue whether one can do that with a particular goal in mind but my thinking intestines say likely not. As for being a deviant I cannot but concur. Some of us are destined to orbit far from the sun.

  12. Michael

    Re the Japanese Zen Buddhists using mindfulness to become better warriors, ’tis true. No doubt American Snipers are doing the same. Some 25 years ago I saw SAS soldiers (Special Air Services) meditating in T-shirts emblazoned with a winged bullet logo and “Death from Above”.

    Yet we have the Dalai Lama saying, ‘Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.’. Frankly he should have known that neophytes would misinterpret his words. For example, are killers to use mindfulness meditation to become better killers? Context? What is this context of which you speak?

    Of course there is a play on words in that maxim, as few know what they really are when they first hear it, so initially they try to use meditation be better at their occupation or passion, or what they perceive they are already. Yet the Dalai Lama’s simplistic call is in fact a call for the deepest self-reflection. The intent is to disillusion you of roles or masks you have adopted, or those that society has given you. A pity that our attention deficit world this is not made clear, but such is life.

    So back to mindfulness meditation. It is but one tool and a potential step on the path, no more no less. And of course it was going to be co-opted and corrupted by those who seek the gain and fame of illusion – seriously did you really think otherwise, or are you just venting? Regardless, compassionate non-attachment is the key to the tools of Buddhism and even Buddhism itself. Perfection is the enemy of all, and all is impermanent.

    Or if you prefer the wisdom of Sufi poets, ‘This too shall pass’ – an adage co-opted by Judeo-Christians, Romans, Arabs, and Turks, or was it the co-option the other way around? Hell, just take from us Aussies, we are blissfully ignorant, “She’ll be right mate.” 😉

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