The Myth of Mindfulness

Mindfulness has become a wildly popular concept. It is rare that a term from a contemplative tradition breaks into popular culture with such vividness and recognition. Self-help sections in bookstores are now chock-full of guides on mindfulness for everyday living. In psychology, an alphabet soup of therapies capitalize on mindfulness, such as MBSR, MB-CBT, ACT, and DBT. It is no longer unusual to hear business gurus describe mindfulness as a way to increase productivity, sports trainers claim it as way to get in the zone and or celebrities tout it as fashionable. Mindfulness has struck a nerve in our popular culture, and people are looking to it for answers to their problems.

Mindfulness is sometimes presented as a panacea, a magic bullet that will strike down our illusions in a moment and make us smarter, happier and stress-free. This hype around mindfulness, while bringing greater attention to meditation, also blurs mindfulness in the public imagination into a vague cure-all. This snake-oil approach to mindfulness is what I call the Myth of Mindfulness.

With so much hype about  mindfulness, it would be easy to assume that everyone knows what it is. Students who are new to meditation are often not clear on what mindfulness really is, and are too embarrassed to ask, because they assumed that if everyone is talking about it, then everyone else gets it. But in reality, pop culture definitions show that it is greatly misunderstood. So sincere practitioners get confused and are too embarrassed to ask about it. It sometimes gets defined as “attention,” “focus” or “being completely in touch.” In more mystical writings I have seen it described as “presence,” “surrender” or “being in the here and now.” In the psychological and stress reduction literatures there is a focus on mindfulness as being “nonjudgmental attention” and “radical acceptance.”

This is where meditators are often left scratching their heads. If mindfulness boils down to nonjudgmental acceptance of everything, and paying full attention in the moment, then how does it liberate us from our illusions? After all, someone deeply engrossed in a rampage during a game of Grand Theft Auto has great mindfulness by that definition. Someone breaking into a house is very mindful of every little noise they make, and is totally “present”. If you stop to think about it, I’m sure you can imagine many scenarios in which people can be “mindful” and do awful or even stupid things. So for someone trying to awaken, mindfulness by some of the most popular definitions doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the context of Buddhist meditation what does mindfulness really mean?

Mindfulness in four easy pieces 

The reason why the popular definitions confuse beginning meditators is because they are meant to serve totally different ends than those in meditation. In the therapy literature mindfulness is intended to help the person relax and get in touch with their feelings, which is not the focus of mindfulness in Buddhist meditation (though it is often a nice side-effect). In the self-help literature mindfulness is often intended as a way to help the ego accomplish something or get something – which is actually the opposite of what mindfulness is used for in contemplative traditions. It may be cynical to say, but celebrity versions of mindfulness are simply meant to enhance a public persona and will remain in the public eye until mindfulness has jumped the shark. If the meditator relies on pop concepts of mindfulness, they will be working against the path rather than moving forward.

Many definitions of mindfulness that are out there leave out three-fourths of the picture. They have it right when they include attention, so we can think of that as the first piece. What follows is a discussion of the other three missing pieces.

Piece 2: Mindfulness of… a meditation object

In order to pay attention, accept, or be nonjudgmental you need something to pay attention to and be nonjudgmental about. What you need is called an “object” in meditation. An “object” has a special place in the world of meditation; it is what the meditator selects as the focus and centerpiece of the meditation. Objects come in all shapes and sizes. Just about anything (and literally “no-thing”) can be an object. Objects are what the mind uses to get the meditation going and keep it going. Some traditional objects are the breath, sensations in the body, a repeated word or phrase, a question, the flow of thoughts, mental images, painted discs called kasinas, emotions and hundreds of other things. In some traditions the goal of the meditation is to maintain an awareness of the object through literally every waking moment. In specialized practices the mind is allowed to freely wander and whatever it naturally focuses on becomes an object for an instant, before it moves on to something else. In the context of practice it is important to remember that mindfulness is always “mindfulness of…” there is always an object to which the attention is applied. This crucial piece is what is often missing in pop definitions of mindfulness, as if it were a disembodied process with nothing to anchor it in reality.

Piece 3: The Quality of Attention – Falling in love with the object

But this is not the whole picture. Mindfulness is not just being present in the moment. It is not simply attention, and it is not the object either. And it is not both. It is an intimacy between the meditator and object that is unique depending on the person and object. At this point, the attitude of the meditator plays a great role in mindfulness. The meditator begins to build a relationship with the object, to learn about it, understand it, and become deeply alive to it. The meditator needs to generate curiosity, interest and affection for the object. I once heard the concentration meditation teacher Tina Rasmussen describe this process as “falling in love with the object.” This is a perfect way of describing it.

Piece 4: Remembering to remember

Adding to the complexity, and depth, of this practice-oriented view of mindfulness is that it also includes the act of remembering – the last piece of the picture. Staying focused on an object, even for a few minutes, can be difficult. There is effort involved in staying with the object, especially at first, because the mind likes to wander off. What is needed is a constant act of remembering to pay attention to the object. This act of remembering is also referred to with the shorthand: “mindfulness.” This is the work of meditation and it can be very difficult for some meditators. I have been meditating for years and I still need to put effort in each time I choose an object and “put mindfulness before” me, as the Buddha described it. That initial effort gets easier and easier as time goes on, and eventually you will even take joy in that effort, as if the act of remembering brings with it the inspiration to keep at it.

Myth busting

A mature practitioner will see that though mindfulness does indeed include attention to the present moment, it is so much more. Mindfulness is the gentle, recurring, building of a relationship between the mind of the meditator and an object of meditation. To build this relationship the meditator constantly guides the mind back to the object and surrenders as much attention to the object as they can. In this process, the mind becomes quiet and still, and the object starts to become more and more joyful to watch. Once the meditator begins to master mindfulness, they will find that they are wondering “…is this it? There must be more than this.” And the answer is that there is much, much more. When mindfulness increases, so do the other factors of meditation, particularly concentration, energy and investigation. At this point, two things can happen, the meditator can increase attention so much that they experience “absorption” with the object, in which the object seems to absorb the whole of experience, or the meditator can begin investigating the object to see if the teachings of the Dharma are true (check out the General Dharma page for more). What the meditator will inevitably discover though, is that mindfulness is not all that there is to meditation and awakening. Mindfulness is the foundation upon which more complex and subtle meditative techniques rest. It is the first skill a meditator learns, the one that is done throughout all of one’s practice as a supporting background, and the one that continues to need refreshing even after enlightenment.

Once the meditator has mastered mindfulness, they may be surprised by what he or she is not experiencing. The meditator finds that mindfulness does not translate into a complete lack of stress, or a solution to the problems of life. The meditator will not become more beautiful, begin to make genius business decisions or suddenly dunk baskets like a star. In fact, becoming even more sensitive and attentive in general might make you more irritable, not less! This might seem like a let down to those who have bought into the myth of mindfulness, but that is only because the myth caters to the very thing that all of pop culture caters to: the ego. In developing and truly experiencing mindfulness, the meditator cannot help but gradually shed illusions, and the biggest illusion of all is the self. This can happen in a sudden wallop of absorption, on through the gradual erosion of illusion that insight produces. Either way, if you engage in a sincere practice of mindfulness you will find that while the myth sounded nice, the reality is far far better.

About Ron

To learn meditation, no matter where you are in the world, just send an email to: alohadharma@gmail.com

Posted on March 31, 2011, in Dharma, Meditation, Mindfulness and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Yes! The biggest illusion is the self, because it’s not there. Take a look, it can be seen in reality. You don’t exist.

  2. my teacher, Shinzen Young, has a succinct technical definition of mindfulness. he describes it as an ability to keep track of sensory components (touch, sight, sound, feel, image, talk) moment by moment.

    B. Alan Wallace has a great essay on this topic as well. see http://www.alanwallace.org/spr08wallace_comp.pdf

    ~C

  1. Pingback: Mindfulness – what it is and what it isn’t | Ego_and_Me

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