Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thoughts on Mindfulness

You hear more and more about mindfulness meditation.

The word "mindfulness" is getting very over-used. It makes writing a blog about mindfulness kind of awkward to do, much less write books about. Mindfulness is very, very old, but it seems that it's gone through some predictable and repetitive cycles in its spread across cultures and time. A couple of nights ago I was reading Miyamoto Musashi's "Book of Five Rings" when I came across this quote: "The field of martial arts is particularly rife with flamboyant showmanship, with commercial popularization and profiteering on the part of those who teach the science and those who study it. The result of this must be, as someone said, that amateuristic martial arts are a source of serious wounds."

That was written back in 1643. The same can be said of meditation in general and mindfulness in particular. The word is over-used. It's become something of a status symbol among the spiritual elite. Surely you must have trained with so-and-so, done this-and-that, etc. What winds up happening is that too many people feel like they can't anywhere in the practice without the proper "credentials". But there is no substitute for a daily practice. Plenty of people have spent hours of one-on-one time with some very famous and gifted teachers and walked away without any change in their meditation practice- or lack of.

You don't have to go to India or some exotic location. It all starts with your breath wherever you are.

What happens when "unconditional, present-centered awareness", as Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it, becomes commodified? I recently came across a headline that said something like "mindfulness can make you more money". In the words of Tony Montana, "is that what it's all about?" Is that what the Buddha taught? A marketing tool? A researcher has recently sparked controversy by assembling a study of mindfulness among military personnel. While this heal their pain or make them more efficient, focused killers?

The truth is, our culture and our time are not new to these sorts of questions. The context of mindfulness has not always been the pristine monastery in a tranquil countryside. Even in the Buddha's own time, brutal war and genocidal conflicts raged all around him. So did charlatans, con artists and frauds. During his many frequent travels, he often returned to a place he had been before and found the local populace practicing a degenerated form of his teachings under the spell of a charismatic teacher.

This has all happened before, and I believe the antidote stays the same. The goal of any mindfulness practice must be compassion towards self and other and service towards those less fortunate and suffering. This comes about by being simply present. Don't bother with showmanship-- learn the instructions, then just practice, practice, and practice. There will always be someone who has practiced longer than you, with more famous people, in more exotic locations. There will always be those whose altars and meditation areas are just perfect, those who have really spiffy meditation accessories, and those whose libraries are more interesting.

None of this matters.

These are all distractions. Mindfulness is not meant for pristine conditions. The Buddha practiced in clothes other people had discarded alongside dusty roads under frankly miserable conditions. Pabonka Rinpoche once told a story about an old lady who learned the mantra "Om mani padme hum" wrong. Yet she repeated it unceasingly, meditating on compassion. She was enlightened even though she got the words wrong due to her motivation, intention and practice.

So never mind the hype. Practice, practice, and practice some more. Just breathe.


  1. Great blog post Sameet. So true. It is not a fad or a marketing word but a way of being present with intention. Too often in our society, a 'practice' catches on and becomes diluted and pop. Thank you for posting this.

  2. Thanks for posting! Unfortunately we humans can be drawn to the flashy and obstinate on our spiritual path. Is it simple and is it humble should be our first questions in following a spiritual path.