I read this article in the Washington Post — “Mindfulness Would be Good for You if it Weren’t So Selfish,” as essay by psychologist Thomas Joiner.
Although there are various definitions of mindfulness, a workable one, drawn from some of the most respected practitioners, is the nonjudgmental awareness of the richness, subtlety and variety of the present moment — all of the present moment, not just the self.
Joiner goes on to discuss how true mindfulness is not about emptying the mind or savoring the momentary pleasures but a practice of developing a fuller awareness of each moments vastness and minuteness, developing an attitude of nonjudgmental and humility.
Ah, but then he goes on:
But mindfulness has become pernicious, diluted and distorted by the prevailing narcissism of our time. The problem has somewhat less to do with how it’s practiced and more to do with how it’s promoted. People aren’t necessarily learning bad breathing techniques. But in many cases they are counting on those breathing techniques to deliver almost magical benefits. And, all the while, they are tediously, nonjudgmentally and in the most extreme cases monstrously focused entirely on themselves. That is troublesome for mental health practice and for our larger culture.
I have been “into” mindful meditation off and on for some forty years. Lately, I have become more disciplined about my practice. Which is to say, I wanted to hate this article based on its title, thinking it was going to bash mindfulness. I didn’t hate it entirely. I have in fact been kind of wondering about some of the points Joiner makes.
Truthfully, what I have been questioning is more related to things like The Secret and the law of attraction where you are supposed to convince yourself you are worthy of, deserve, and should have _________ (money, fame, happiness, etc.) and the universe will provide. I wonder about the selfishness of that thinking. Why don’t we all get together and ask the universe for world peace and an end to violence, hunger, war, etc.?
I realized that Joiner was making the same point about mindfulness as a popular trend. So many of the books and articles these days are about promising a key to personal happiness, self-gratification, and self-satisfaction.
Since my introduction to mindful meditation has been through the teachings and philosophy of the Buddha, this pop culture stuff does bother me. The Buddha did, for example, have the difficult concept of “non self.” The meditation practice group I attend at present always has the time to discuss and share how any insights that might be attained can be used out in the world to make the world a better place.
But I wasn’t entirely happy with this essay either. Joiner sited a number of scientific studies, some of which he called rigorous (those that did not support the benefits of mindfulness). My problem with that has to do with the definition used above. It’s okay as far as it goes but it does not (as the trendy writing he disparages do not either) take into account that mindfulness is a long term practice. You are not going to prove anything one way or another by instructing subjects in mindfulness for an hour and then having them perform memory tasks.
Both pop culture gurus and scientists need to take a longer view.
In the meantime: om mani padme hum.