Is Secular Mindfulness for the Better?

I co-wrote the following piece with my friend Craig Hase. For more information on Craig and his teaching, please visit: http://www.satimindfulness.com

Mindfulness has hit the big time. It's in schools, it's in hospitals, it's even at Google and Facebook and General Motors. Many of our friends are delighted by this development. Others are dismayed and disturbed. We are two teachers who sometimes share the dharma in contexts that are more explicitly Buddhist, and sometimes share meditation instructions in secular environments—and as such, we find ourselves straddling an awkward space in between. 

On the one hand, we are both a little uneasy about some of the developments of the mindfulness movement, with its emphasis on techniques, quick fixes, and flashy marketing. On the other hand, we see firsthand the benefits non-Buddhist students derive from learning meditation and putting it to work in their lives, and are inspired by their efforts.

So what’s the answer?

The simple fact is that, as far as we have figured, there is no easy answer. But a good first step might be to highlight what’s going right with the mindfulness movement, acknowledge some of its shortcomings, and then explore some next steps for those of us who are building bridges between Buddhism and the secular modern western world.

What’s Right with Secular Mindfulness

There have been many useful and well-considered developments as mindfulness has traveled from its well-worn pathways within Buddhist cultures into the secular contexts of the modern West. In our experience, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction stands as a net good. We see it as an intelligently structured eight week course that provides a firm grounding in meditative techniques while also, perhaps implicitly, carrying the underlying ethos of its dharma ancestry. We see Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy the same way. Mindful Self-Compassion, too. All of these modalities (and others), in fact, train their teachers well, emphasize ethics and guidelines in those training programs, and subscribe to a basically humanistic system of values that aligns well—though perhaps not perfectly—with more traditional Buddhist views of how people should probably treat each other.

The Problems with the Mindfulness Movement

From a Buddhist perspective, however, the current mindfulness movement has run into some disquieting territory in the next phase of adaptation. In this phase relatively untrained but charismatic teachers, who have little or no connection to Buddhism, begin to teach meditation as a “brain hack,” a performance psychology that emphasizes personal gain and the kind of hyper-individualist competition framework that most of us take for granted in late-capitalist societies. When this happens we start to see the following problems:

1) Instrumentalized meditation

Meditation is currently being promoted as a performance enhancer, a technique, a brain hack on the order of micro-dosing LSD or the newest fad diet. And while mindfulness training does appear to enhance certain mental faculties, such as focus and short term memory, treating mindfulness as a technique-driven performance enhancement robs the practice of its roots, and it’s true benefits. 

2) A divorce from ethics

From a Buddhist perspective, mindfulness must always be practiced in the context of that which it is meant to promote: mutually beneficial relationships, communal engagement, and freedom from suffering. When it is practiced instead  to enhance hyper-individualist goals (such as a narrow-minded focus on one’s own success), we not only do a disservice to the traditions from which it arises, but we rob ourselves of the very fruits of the practice. We are, to use an old Zen metaphor, taking a thief to be our only child. 

3) The colonial mentality

Contemporary colonialism, or what is often called cultural appropriation, is a tricky topic—slippery, often subjective, and variously defined. Unlike the clear cut practices of 18th and 19th century colonialism, in which Europeans overpowered indigenous peoples and took their resources, contemporary colonialism shows itself as more of an attitude. For example, the well-worm trope that mindfulness teachers have discovered the “essence” of Buddhism and freed it from its cultural baggage. A half-acknowledged orientation of superiority lurks right there: this all-too-common assumption that westerners, especially white middle class westerners, do everything better, even mindfulness. 

Speaking frankly, there is no simple solution to these problems. Indeed, each of us, at one point or another, has participated in these very dynamics. In fact, as white, American, cis-hetero men raised in the middle class, we likely still participate in these unconscious processes, despite training in traditional Buddhist contexts with Asian teachers, studying our biases, and making a sincere attempt to adapt these practices while maintaining their rightful context. That said, we would like to suggest a few steps forward that we hope will both honor the tradition and allow for the cultural adaptations that non-Buddhists might need in order to use these practices to ease their suffering.

1) Stay in the game

We have both, at different times, considered disengaging from secular mindfulness. The problem with that, of course, is that when those of us who have classical Buddhist training stop teaching in secular environments, we then cede the floor to the kind of highly branded and instrumentalized mindfulness that is running rampant and unchecked in mainstream American culture. So we have each chosen to stay with the ambiguity, stay engaged, and continue to sit with the various problems of being involved in an economic and sociological system we cannot easily change. 

2) Talk about ethics

Many of our friends who teach entirely in secular contexts shy away from speaking explicitly about ethics, for fear of sounding moralizing, shaming, or just too Buddhist. Our experience, though, is that there are profound opportunities for genuine dialogue—if we are brave enough to take the plunge. None of the people we teach want to live a life of killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and addiction: so why not talk about that? Of course, this takes some skill, and we certainly don’t want to clobber our students with the Buddhist precepts, but why not help them unpack their own very genuine Christian or humanist or professional ethics, and then help them live by those using mindfulness? The whole point, after all, is to understand what is causing our underlying dissatisfaction and suffering and to habituate towards behaviors that will reduce and eliminate it.

3) Honor the tradition

Again, we don’t feel it’s our job to convert people to Buddhism. But we do feel it’s our role, at least as teachers who travel back and forth between the Buddhist and secular worlds, to tell people where we’re coming from. We might not teach about emptiness to a room full of elementary school teachers or download the doctrine of rebirth onto a stressed out middle manager who needs some help with relationship skills. But we tell people who our teachers are, and we hold our traditions with a lot of reverence and respect, even as we may adapt certain practices to the person who’s sitting in front of us and needs some help. 

The mindfulness movement is not going away. More people than ever before are discovering the benefits of meditation. And that’s a wonderful thing. Less stress is a wonderful thing. Better emotional regulation is a wonderful thing. Increased focus, when applied to worthwhile endeavors, is a wonderful thing. Yet, as mindfulness goes mainstream, it will inevitably pick up the values and structures of big business, big marketing, social media, and the rest. Rather than throw in the towel, the two of us have chosen to engage, bringing with us the ethics and values of the Buddhist tradition. And while we understand that mindfulness is not the answer to everything, and that structural changes are necessary at the highest levels of our society, we do think that engaging in good faith with the mindfulness movement will benefit all of us—Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.