Even the popularity of mindfulness in spiritual/religious circles these days is the result of co-opting it to an extent, as it is often presented as the singular practice one needs – kind of a one-stop shopping, fix-it-all approach. There are certainly benefits and value to mindfulness – indeed, it has endured as a practice for millennia because of its usefulness – but to have it as one’s only practice is to limit and water down the possibilities of what can be realized and embodied. Presenting it as a singular practice is also just plain weird, considering the traditions from which mindfulness comes, namely Chan/Zen and Buddhism. In these traditions, mindfulness is just one in a wide array of practices to engage in as part of a more whole, complete practice, and it’s essential to engage in these various practices without trying to whittle them down to the most effective or best one. What’s more, the purpose of such a practice overall is to enable a person to more fully engage in and contribute to the wider world of which he or she is a part, which comes with a felt sense of broadening things vs. narrowing them. In contrast, to remove mindfulness from that array of practices and focus on it solely is to take a narrower route and employ a limited view. Additionally, the ways it is practiced these days it tend to be centered on one’s own life – how to manage responsibilities and stress and effectiveness on an individual level – and more about surviving the wider world than serving it.
As to why mindfulness was plucked from among the wider array of practices and singled out, I think one can look to the basic economic principle of supply and demand: with modernization and advancements made in recent decades, people’s lives have become busier, faster-paced, and more fractured as people are being pulled in multiple directions, so it helps to hear and learn about ways to slow down, connect with the present moment, and feel whole again. Interestingly, though, the popularity of mindfulness has been increasing over these decades, suggesting that it isn’t addressing the fundamental issues of people’s lives as much as abating them, keeping the demand for mindfulness at healthy, profitable levels. It’s good, solid business sense, and many are capitalizing on it.
All in all, though, what I’ve described above is simply what we humans do as part of our makeup, so while I certainly find it lamentable and worth looking into and transforming, I don’t find it overly concerning. What I find more concerning is a side effect I’ve noticed related to mindfulness being presented as a singular practice: people thinking it encapsulates the essence of the broader traditions from which it comes, then making inferences and judgments about these traditions, not realizing they are working from limited, specialized information. As I see it, trying to gain a reasonable understanding of Chan/Zen or Buddhism by only looking at the teachings and practices of mindfulness is like trying to gain a reasonable understanding of modern music by only listening to Taylor Swift records – it confines one to a narrow, limited view, and ignores a vast, rich and varied landscape that has much more to offer. Regardless of whether you are for or against mindfulness, to think it accurately and completely represents Buddhist traditions as a whole and make your mind up about them is to do a grave disservice to yourself and those traditions. It can lead a person to embrace or dismiss these traditions too readily, without ever taking time to see them for what they are, resulting in the furthering of misunderstanding – something we seem to have an abundance of in our world at present.
I happened across a blog that illustrates this pattern of establishing and conveying misunderstanding, which you can check out here. The thing is, I am completely on board with the author’s general message and applaud her for pointing out the oxymoronic nature of creating a mindfulness app. But at times in her post she presents bits and pieces of information about Buddhism as a whole, working off of what she knows about mindfulness and relying on second- and third-hand knowledge to form and support her ideas, and what she presents about Buddhism is woefully inaccurate and mistaken or simply wrong (especially that Chesterton quote). Nevertheless, those who read her post, not knowing any better, will carry this misinformation and misunderstanding inward and onward, not making a distinction between mindfulness and Buddhism. What’s perhaps even more regrettable here is that the author creates then highlights differences between two traditions when in reality they have a lot of similarities. In fact, as I was reading what she wrote about the spirit of her tradition as she knows it, I felt she was speaking directly to the heart and spirit of my practice as I know it, just using different terms. (For what it’s worth, I did send along some feedback about this to the author and have yet to receive a reply.) By simply taking a little time to go beyond surface appearances and preformed ideas, people could realize we have much more in common with one another than we are led to believe. Sadly, it seems not a lot of people take that little bit of time and instead end up building misunderstanding on top of misunderstanding without even realizing it.
(A quick aside: I regularly encounter people who misunderstand Zen/Chan and some of its basic concepts, and we are able to have a conversation to explore and clarify things together. Knowing how useful these conversations are, in the near future I am going to begin a series of posts addressing and hopefully clarifying some of the more prevalent misconceptions of which I am aware…so stay tuned.)
Returning to mindfulness – not as a whole but when solely focused on and promoted as a singular practice – I sometimes feel frustration at how prevalent it has become in our culture, in many instances being more like a product aimed at meeting consumer-driven needs and wants. I also have a deep passion for Chan/Zen, and I see how the current mindfulness trends have led people to misunderstand my tradition, making assumptions about or dismissing it, not ever being informed of or realizing where the practice they’re taking up has its roots. So a little while back, as I was allowing this frustration and passion to mix and mingle and play together, a poem started to develop and come forth. The process was a little therapeutic and cathartic…and a lot of fun! Woven through it to a degree is the spirit of one of my favorite ancestors, Hakuin, who was known at times to rail and rage against the practices of his day when he felt people were being duped and deceived by them. He also had great humor, taking things and himself lightly and playfully, often with much joy and abandon. So with a bit of a nod to Hakuin while very much speaking my own heart-mind, and with a dose of venom in my tongue, I offer my poem for you to take as you will:
Present Moment My Ass!
There is no such thing
yet you make such a thing of it
talking of it as if it is a place one can be
or not be…
A chair is a thing – you sit in it
A pen is a thing – you write with it
A car is a thing – you drive it
Things are meant to be used
to serve and support your various endeavors
to serve and support you
and this is what you’ve done to the so-called present moment
making it into a thing that serves and supports
a thing that is used
What a shame
What a sham
I know someone who has been stuck in the present moment for years
building up and fortifying walls around it
to protect it and keep it safe from outside influence
The walls are thick, solid
deflecting anything that challenges or threatens
the ideas and concepts housed inside
and over which he freely lobs these ideas and concepts
that have been manufactured, replicated, reinforced -
Nothing new coming in
Nothing new coming out
Round and round the interior of the factory he goes
not realizing how he’s imprisoned
in a fortress of his own making
living off of stale Present Moment fodder
recycled, regurgitated, ridiculous
I’ve known others who live in perpetual shame
at not being able to find or abide in
The Present Moment
Heads hung low, eyes downcast, speaking timidly
In self-made exile
full of self-doubt, self-pity
Yet still they find encouragement in your words
quoting them and using them as guidelines
giving them hope amid this bleakness
not realizing such words are the barriers
upon which they bump their low-hung heads
over and over and over
Downcast eyes unable to see beyond this limited territory
not able to see there’s no inside, no outside
to the inside and outside they’ve created,
built up, been bred on, believed in
And as to this mindfulness you teach and encourage…
What an infestation!
In your tethers it has lost its natural, spontaneous nature
like a wild animal in captivity
that has lost connection with its true home
and any memory of that vast, open space
It has mutated and spread like a disease
seeping into the world
injected into popular culture
becoming a commodity
packaged for the masses so it can be used
To achieve spiritual ambition
To enhance relationships
To reduce harmful emotions
To secure the bottom line
To improve your tennis game
To bring out the full flavor of food
To eliminate the drudgery of all mundane tasks
And even – yes, that’s right –
even help you find the elusive, illustrious Present Moment!
Step right up, folks! Come one, come all!
The cure-all of all cure-alls: Mindfulness!
Not feeling satisfied with your vocation?
The daily commute wearing on your nerves?
Worries and concerns persistently intruding on your carrot cutting?
Chop, chop, chop them away with Mindfulness!
Not fulfilled in your marriage?
Has your partner tried Mindfulness?
Life still coming at you relentlessly despite your meditation practice?
Divert it with Mindfulness!
Mindfulness not meeting your expectations consistently or at all?
It’s not Mindfulness, it’s you. Try increasing Mindfulness!
All Mindfulness, All The Time
is nothing but selling snake oil and blowing smoke
But we like the easy fix, the short cut, the simple recipe
You’ve tapped directly into that need
with great efficiency and success
The best marketing campaigns are those that appeal
to our base human nature and desires
leading us to pursue and consume them
with hardly even a second (or first) thought
Not very mindful of us, eh?