The Dark Face of the Mindfulness Craze

“Mindfulness is the skill of thinking you are doing something when you are doing nothing. One of the good things about mindfulness is that you get to do a lot of sitting down. Sitting down is good for the mind because so much positive energy is stored in the lap.” – The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness
I recently attended a Writing for Wellbeing workshop which was designed to promote “mindfulness and calm.” We did various writing exercises and a little guided visualisation, and were told: “Whatever you write is right for you – when done mindfully.” Well, maybe I was having a bad day, but I didn’t feel calm or mindful.

The experience got me thinking about the current mindfulness craze. There’s been an explosion of books and courses, colouring books, a mindful opera, mindful magazine, meditation app, and (my favourite) the Calm website and app where you can choose a different image and soundtrack to run in the background while you meditate. Companies are encouraging their workers to meditate in wellness breaks at work; even the military are going Zen.

And then along came this:

Cockney mindfulness! Yes, The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness is a supposedly humorous take on the latest fad for sitting still and doing nothing. And to be fair, the mindfulness movement is ripe for a good old piss take. There’s definitely something about it that feels off.

The Ladybird book could be seen as trivialising a valuable skill we could all benefit from learning, but the problem isn’t with the mockery. The problem goes deeper. To illustrate, I’ll give you another ‘hilarious’ quote from the Ladybird book:
“Leanne has been staring at this beautiful tree for five hours. She was meant to be in the office. Tomorrow she will be fired. In this way, mindfulness has solved her work-related stress.”
The problem is context.

Modern Mindfulness

The current crop of mindfulness practices were extracted from their Buddhist origins and incorporated into psychotherapy and healing modalities. So now we have MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) and MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy), which are used for a multitude of complaints:
  • to combat depression
  • to manage pain
  • to increase resilience to stress
  • to reduce anxiety
  • to improve immune function
  • to improve decision making

It’s an impressive list so it’s no surprise mindfulness is being seized upon as a kind of panacea for all our ills. Do a bit of meditation every day and your life will improve, you’ll be happier and more focused, and healthier too. This is a good thing, no doubt, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t be more mindful. Everybody could benefit from taking a few minutes every day to sit down, shut up, and just breathe.

But modern mindfulness isn’t the same as the practices described in traditional Buddhism. Does that matter? Well, it might.

Mindfulness forms one tiny part of Buddhist practice which is a process of deconstruction and de-conditioning that takes years to perfect. Meditation is about waking up to your true nature and isn’t necessarily designed to make you feel better about yourself.

Modern mindfulness has been removed from the context of these teachings and the values that support the practice, and in the process has been massively simplified. From a certain perspective this makes it more useful, because it’s removed from its spiritual context which might put some people off using it. But this is where the problems begin. It’s like removing the salicylic acid from willow bark, putting it in a pill and calling it aspirin. The active ingredient still works to remove your pain, but it will also cause unintended side effects that you definitely don’t want – like bleeding guts.

Remember: Everything you do can be done mindfully. You could kill someone mindfully, if you were so inclined.

And that’s exactly what the military are doing. They may be using mindfulness to help soldiers deal with the stress of combat, but they’re also being taught how to focus their minds so they can kill more efficiently. There’s nothing new in that – just ask a Samurai – but it’s beyond ironic that the same mindfulness practices are used to overcome the PTSD caused by being forced to kill.

Perhaps the companies offering their workers mindfulness breaks have only good intentions. Happy employees are good for business and it saves money in reduced sick leave and increased productivity. On the other hand, it becomes another way for workers to be exploited: your employer gets more work out of you and you learn to be happy about it by accepting whatever you feel with equanimity. Mindfulness in this context is used to create obedient cogs in a vast machine. Don’t transform your mind, just watch it and control it – and get back to work.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t practice mindfulness at work. If it helps you to feel less stressed, that’s great. But why are people getting so stressed in the first place? We’re seeing an epidemic in mental health issues and all the blame is being laid at the feet – or in the mind – of the individual: it’s your fault if you can’t handle the stress at work. Meditating for 10 minutes a day may reduce your stress levels and improve your health, but you’ll still be overworked and underpaid. And that’s not something you have the power to change – if you have bills to pay.

Unless you fundamentally change the way you live, doing the odd bit of mindfulness isn’t going to make that much difference. If you think you can bolt mindfulness onto your already overstuffed life and expect a miracle cure, you’re going to be disappointed.

And then you’ll think mindfulness doesn’t work.

But that’s because you’re doing it wrong. Mindfulness was never meant to be something you slot into your life, the equivalent of taking an aspirin for a headache: an easy way to change without doing much or making an effort. It’s meant to be part of a larger framework of change and transformation. Buddhism isn’t just meditation, it’s a whole moral and ethical worldview that has to be lived day to day for it to be effective. You can’t do it just by reading books, and you can’t do it just by meditating.

Another danger is that Buddhism ends up being trivialised: you take the bits you like, the bits you can use, and sell it with the promise of improved health and happiness. But its real power is neutered and declawed. Buddhism could be described as a technology to transform consciousness, but instead it becomes another way to put you to sleep. It guilds the cage instead of ripping open the bars to set you free.
“While Buddhism has tended to become reductively identified with its religious forms, today it is in further danger of being reductively identified with its forms of meditation. If these trends continue, it is liable to become increasingly marginalised and lose its potential to be realised as a culture: an internally consistent set of values and practices that creatively animates all aspects of human life.” – Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs
Modern mindfulness is Buddhism Lite. Some of the popular books written by Western Buddhist teachers have effectively dumbed down the dharma into a stripped down Buddhism For Idiots designed to be easy for our massive egos to accept. This means you never have to confront the true cause of your problems or make any real changes. The best that could happen is you go around in circles and perhaps feel a little less stressed; the worst – you delude yourself into thinking you’re “being Zen” and that you’re enlightened because you’ve had a couple of “awakenings.” (I can guarantee if you think you’re enlightened, you’re not.) If you bail out when it gets hard or scary or when you just feel a little uncomfortable, you’ll never free yourself and discover the truth of who you really are – which is so much more than a consumer of spiritual products.

All of this could undermine the power of Buddhism and make people think it’s as stupid and vacuous as the mindfulness movement seems to have become. The Ladybird quote about losing your job because you’ve been lost in a daydream looking at a tree is a perfect example of the misunderstandings that can arise in relation to Buddhism and mindfulness when they’re stripped of context. It’s the context that provides meaning and structure. Without that, it’s easy to push ideas into logical absurdities, which may be entertaining but can have serious consequences. The New Age movement in general suffers from the same problem (and probably deserves a post to itself), but this is the kind of guff you end up with:

All problems are illusions of the mind…

All problems?!

You don’t need me to explain why that’s idiotic.

Enough ranting from me. What’s your experience of mindfulness? Am I getting worked up over nothing? Answers in the comments…