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.
32 thoughts on “Why Mindfulness isn’t a Good Thing (…or New)”
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.
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…
Hi Gerco: Those ethical claims are implied in almost all the news items listed in the image up on the left. Google the word ‘mindfulness’ and you’ll find 95% of news items to be uncritically enthusiastic. This post is not concerned with a rigorous Buddhist interpretation of the Pali term ‘sati,’ but with the word that’s untidily entering our vernacular.
As for Csíkszentmihályi’s flow, you’re right: it’s not identical to sati. They’re different terms coined in different circumstances by different people in response to different questions. I’m making a point and taking some license.
Nevertheless, I don’t take it casually. My studies in Buddhist abidharma have left me skeptical of words that are supposed to somehow correspond to a specific, discrete state of mind. Meditation, or more frankly the mind, is a chaotic affair. The tidy Buddhist classifications that so appeal to us may make consciousness seem tamable, but by the time you actually nail any particular state of mind, it’s already dissolved into another. I approach sati as more of an art than a science.
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.
Your point is well taken Jeffrey, and I hope you weren’t offended by my hyperbole. Mindfulness is not about feeling good, but it is increasingly presented that way. As I explained to Gerco above, I’m more concerned in this post with the vernacular use of the term than a definition of what it ‘really’ is.
Not at all Stephen, your point was well said and succinct. It is good to have these dialogues and to get down to the meat and bone of what these “concepts” are and what they are not.
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!
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.
Just the question I’ve been waiting for Lenore. The thing that no one has yet brought up is, ‘mindfulness of what?’
I can be mindful of my breath and, if the mood’s right, enjoy the pleasant sense of being in the moment. Or, I can be mindful of my feelings and recognize how I’m motivated by anger or love, jealousy or empathy. This latter of course will be more complicated, entailing reflection, judgment — god knows what else. I might judge first that jealousy is painful, and then that judgment itself is a distraction to my practice of mindfulness. Things get chaotic.
A terrorist might be mindful of murderous intent and, if it’s to destroy God’s enemies, judge it to be godly. Or, less likely but possibly, he might see through his religious rationalizations and recognize his subconscious anger; he may even be dimly aware of some sort of denial. Whatever his conscious rationalization or his subconscious motives, the more his mind is fixed on something, the more effectively he’ll advance towards it.
The abhidharma-samuccaya defines mindfulness as, ‘to not let what one knows slip away from one’s mind. Its function is not to be distracted.’ It’s up to your sense of ethics — which may be healthy, sick or inconsequential — to decide what you don’t want to be distracted from.
The abidharma is Buddhism’s slickest marketing tool, a masterpiece of organization and categorization, logic and philosophy. It casts a compelling image of the mind as something tamable. However, once you get over the notion of what should be happening in meditation and acknowledge that what you find is quite different, the image we form of these clear categorizations shifts from realist to impressionist to abstract. There is still shape and form, but it’s quite different from the simple picture that tempted us to Buddhist meditation in the first place.
I don’t know much about the abhidharma – I’ve stuck mostly with the Pali canon – as close as we can get to the source. From what I understand Mr. Gotama spoke of ‘five foundations of mindfulness’. This approach was not about a fixed attention on a single thing but an awareness of various aspects of our experience. It’s not about intent focus but about as much awareness of what’s going on as possible.
From my own experience, when I’ve become mindful of the presence of righteous anger (perhaps what a terrorist might feel?) I’ve also become mindful of the harm to myself and others in that, the disconnection it creates both with myself and others, and the wake of negativity lurking behind it. I’m aware of the non-love that’s present in that intention.
I think the subsequent comments below touch on the core issue – what mindfulness reveals about our nature. I personally find it hard to believe that a terrorist could be very mindful of what really is going on inside them or they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. The more clearly you see the mechanics of your experience, the less you are motivated to harm and the more compassion you feel.
For me there was no simple picture of a tamable mind that drew me to meditation – in fact quite the opposite, I practice Jason Siff style (‘whatever happens in your meditation is your meditation’). I love mindfulness because it helps me know the mind in all of its states; it makes me aware of the ride I’m on and increasingly allows me to step off when it’s getting unhealthy. If a terrorist is being mindful and continuing with their terrorist activities, I think their practice is not strong.
Of course after I posted this I remembered I’d slipped in an extra foundation of mindfulness there! There were four foundations of mindfulness (I’d just been teaching the five aggregates!).
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.
Thanks Bernat. It’s arguable that in the post-Buddha abhidharma, which lists mental factors as if they were discrete and tidy, sati (mindfulness) can be distinguished from manasikara (bare attention) and assigned a positive (non-bare) value. This is presumably because within Buddhism mindfulness’s sole purpose is to pursue the path, but this also smacks of self-promoting institutionalism. If we go instead to the Buddha’s own account in his practical exposition of the eightfold path (which doesn’t mention manasikara), then sati (one of the three factors of samādhi, along with effort and concentration) is distinct from ethics (in speech, action and livelihood). (The remaining two limbs of the eight are view and intention, under the heading wisdom).
And of course in today’s pluralistic world, ‘mindfulness’ is finding dozens of new interpretations, whether Buddhists like it or not. I’m far more interested in what people think when they see the word than what scholars think they should understand.
For those who don’t know, the eightfold path’s subdivided as follows:
It appears, then, that what most people may think of when they see the word mindfulness is ‘manasikara’.
I don’t know that much how clear in the original suttas is this breaking of the eightfold path in 3 sections , but in any case, I personally find it interesting to think of ‘sati’ in terms of ‘remembering’, ‘recollecting’, and see how it also helps in the actual practice of ethics, understanding the eightfold path as a whole whose parts interact with each other.
Of course this is just how I, now, relate to ‘sati’. Indeed “the word mindfulness” is evolving and taking up new definitions and variations, which is absolutely fine; and you’re right, how people understand this word and what original buddhist concepts actually do or do not correspond to it are definitely two different conversations.
You make sense Bernat. Mindfulness serves us best when applied ethically, and for that we need the right sort of effort and insight. Here’s hoping we stay on track and get it right.There are no guarantees.
Loved your description of brickies. Either you’re an Australian or brickies are the same the world over.
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
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.
Hi Jared: you’ll be aligned more closely with your true nature if your nature is what you’re being mindful of. What of all those people who think that being mindful of their breath will lead them to the same sublime place? It won’t. It’ll feel good, temporarily reduce stress and do no harm, but the sort of mindfulness you’re talking about needs some additional skills, namely ethics (sīla) and intelligence (paññā).
The close attention of my two bricklayers to their work made them especially good at it. Are you suggesting that cultivating that particular mind-hand-eye skill leads to ethical goodness?
Speaking of mindfulness as if it’s a thing in itself is problematic. You can’t just be mindful. You’re always mindful of something, and that’s what determines outcomes.
I’m not particularly interested in a stifling hierarchy placing mindfulness in a list by Buddhist teachings.
I’ve assumed we’ve been talking about mindfulness of thoughts and motivations. Perhaps mindfulness of task is included as well but that doesn’t really change anything. Mindfulness of thoughts and motivations is the same as being mindful of bricklaying.
Neuroscience has shown us that the practice of mindfulness is useful in changing a state of awareness that is the precursor to other reflective and intelligent thoughts (which can have ethical consequences.) It leads to a change in states of mind which alters how clearly we think and what we think of and how we think about what we think. It’s part of determinism. Too many mental states keep us from reacting well. Mindfulness (yes, about our thoughts!) helps us to make better decisions closer to our good natures (creating “good” choices.)
Finally, it doesn’t take ethics or intelligence to be skilled at mindfulness. Yes, mindfulness is a learned skill according to neuroscience and my own practice in tai chi/kung fu/meditation practices.
Being mindful of our nature isn’t very easy and therefore doesn’t lead to clear changes in our nature. Being mindful of our own thoughts and emotions is how we bridge that gap to causing improvements in our “nature.” I’m using “nature” here to describe our genetic tics, habits, reactions, gut feelings, tempers, etc. The non-cognitive reactions that ruin the way we react to the world around us.
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?
Very well said, Ralph.
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.
Thanks for the complement. Sunday mornings are precious time.
You’ve opened a can of worms now, David. How many of us have sat down to meditate, only to get up an hour later and realize we’ve been daydreaming? I’ve often wondered whether the instruction to ‘focus single-pointedly,’ is a trick (or to put it more kindly, a pedagogical device) to make us more appreciative of the mental chaos and to see through the illusion of control.
With all due respect, you’re being unfairly dismissive of my brickies. They’re manual workers, not mindless drones. Theirs is a skill that requires constant attention to detail, the same attention that is the key to mindfulness. Just as those bricklayers grew calm and collected — and just as Winston Churchill managed his ‘black dog’ depressions — by laying bricks, mindfulness of anything reduces stress and induces calm, but only in the short term. Transforming your perceptions is another thing altogether. To do that, the Buddha was very specific about what to be mindful of: anicca, dukkha and anattā.
The idea that mindfulness is necessarily ‘spiritual,’ or is transformative no matter what is an increasingly pervasive misconception. It’s wishful thinking.
This article is helpful and informative, but in it the word mindfulness is more watered down than ever. Author Melanie Harth has as much right to redefine the vernacular as any of us — languages are contingent too — but the transformative potential of mindfulness as presented in Buddhist contexts is nowhere to be found.
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.
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.
Winston was no “brickie”: the (lack of) quality in his product makes this clear, despite the dangling cigar.
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
Really? I never saw his brickwork. Perhaps it was as bad as his French.
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:)
No, that’s not all by any means. It can alleviate suffering, but pursued all the way it brings freedom from both suffering and happiness.