From a useful superstition with medical benefits to a deeply spiritual practice, mindfulness has seen a variety of labels. Together with Nguyên Giác, we put together a list of common misplaced attitudes towards mindfulness, so that you don’t sabotage your practice. [Watch video instead]
Mindfulness has become quite popular and seems to be gaining further momentum. It is set to soon be mainstream.
As is often the case with explosive popularity, there are some misconception and misinterpretations about mindfulness making the rounds among bloggers and on social media.
1. Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept
It’s not uniquely Buddhist. Mindfulness has roots going back to Christianity. More that that: wherever humans have existed, they have discovered mindfulness. Many traditions poke around the mindfulness bush, some more directly than others. Why? Because mindfulness is healthy. It makes sense, evolutionarily. A mindful population will thrive. A population lacking mindfulness will have a hard time propagating the memes (Richard Dawkin’s meme, not the funny picture, meme.. although they are related) and genes that define its character.
Christianity has elements of mindfulness practice present in ritual and scriptural form (both within and outside of the canon).
There are a number of passages that obviously point to the practice of mindfulness, and there are many others that, when understood in context, point to mindfulness practice.
Whenever you have people that are practicing awareness of what they are doing in that moment, you have mindful people. When people know they are washing dishes, they are mindful dishwashers. Christians who are mindfully carrying candles, passing out bread and wine, and consciously delighting in each other’s company are Buddhist Christians – they are increasing awakeness in the world.
As Thich Nhat Hanh says,
“‘Buddhism is a practice. Like Yoga’. It is not a ‘religion’ in the way that Christianity is a religion. There are no gods. No required beliefs.. Nothing to take ‘on faith’.”
It is an open-handed teaching, hiding nothing, encouraging actual practice, letting you realise things without forcing it. The labels of “Buddhist” and “Christian” can be hindrances. It is nice to respect our spiritual ancestors, but it is foolish to isolate ourselves within the confines of some set of teachings. Old “maps” may not accurately represent the present territory.
Some people make the claim that there is an actual historical link between Jesus and Buddha. Indeed, there were Mahayana Monks in Egypt during Jesus’ lifetime. But, with or without the causal connection, Buddha/Gnosis is one – the message is the same. People can happen across the same spiritual truths in totally separate cultural contexts. The historical connection would be interesting and exciting, but it is not necessary.
So, in conclusion, there are some big chasms to cross as one journeys between world views, but if we look within we will find one human experience– we are unique, but we share common ground. It is beautiful. If we can learn to gently share our ideas with respect and give credit where credit is due, this era of history can be an amazing one.
Naturally, mindfulness occurs in religions other than Christianity and Buddhism, we shall try to address that another time.
2. Mindfulness is about detachment and emptiness
Buddhist terminology also presents some problems for the Western Mind.
The translators of yore did not have the proper conceptual tools to work with the subtle ideas generated by Buddhist genius. And, still, people are hung up on ideas of “nonself”, “emptiness”, “detachment”, etc.
The Christian West has to do some serious psychic judo to make sense of these things without experiencing intense fear and trembling.
There are many potential points of conflict, but, let’s focus on non-self. Anatman. Anatta. No atman. This seems to have been one of the Buddha’s big ideas. There is no independently existing ego, or self-sustaining identity, anywhere in existence. All is dependent on all. Every square inch, square centimetre, every atom is as significant as the largest star. Look at “Indra’s Net”. It’s a nice way to visualise emptiness, or non-self: emptiness and non-self are the same idea. Interdependence is a better word. So when you read, “non-self”, “emptiness”, “voidness”, etc… just remember interdependence.
In the West, largely populated with traditional Christians, many have trouble with all this. There is this idea of “something out of nothing” that the Christian must accept in order to fall in line with dogma. It is totally illogical. Therefore, the Christian declares that faith is necessary. The question, “what was before the beginning?” will never be answered. Those who try to convince you that they have answered that question are liars or fools. Asserting that “God did it” is dangerous, the priests who make such assertions are “like dogs in the cattle manger, they can’t eat and they won’t let the cattle eat”. And, this is what Jesus is implying in the Gospel of Thomas when he encourages us to ignore those who claim to know “the way to heaven”.
On a more comforting note, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas also recognises this truth of non-self, which is very closely related to the truth of impermanence, another central Buddhist idea.
He also declares that all things that come together will fall apart. Everything will change.
Gospel of Thomas, 11:
Yeshua said / This heaven will pass away / and the one above it will pass away. / The dead are not alive / and the living will not die. / During the days when you ate what is dead / you made it alive. / When you are in the light, what will you do? / On the day when you were one / you became two. / But when you become two, what will you do?
Some people want to hide in their meditation halls, with their tibetan loving-kindness mantras – that’s fine… However, the Bodhisattva (the being tending toward awakening) engages the world and meets people where they are at. By helping others in real life, the Bodhisattva also develops her own Buddha Nature.
3. Mindfulness is part of the positive thinking / law of attraction world view
Many have come to view mindfulness as a close cousin of positive thinking. This is a misconception.
Mindfulness cultivates non-judgement – which the exact polar opposite of insisting on only ever dignifying positive thoughts with our attention.
A concept seemingly resonant with positive thinking/ law of attraction appears in the Dhammapada, one of the primary collections of teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama:
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.”
However, mindfulness emphasises the value of accepting things as they come.
Yes, we “create our own reality”, but we certainly don’t do it alone.
Reality is seen from a fundamentally different viewpoint in the philosophy underpinning mindfulness. The Bodhisattva does not proclaim that things are either positive, negative or neutral– Buddha abides “beyond good an evil” – beyond positive and negative and neutral.
In many Buddhist schools, there is this idea of the Five Skandhas. The Five Heaps. The Five Collections or Aggregates. Instead of a self-sustaining ego, Buddha spoke of these components – the Five Skandhas – that make up a personality.
The sensory experience, contact with sense objects through one of the sense doors (light / eye, sound / ear, chemical / taste and smell, pressure and heat / touch, thought / mind), is either positive, negative or neutral.
There is an event, and there is a knee-jerk reaction to it that is either good, bad, or not good or bad.
“The Five Skandhas are empty”. They are interdependent. Sensation is just one of these heaps. Sensation depends on form, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. And – positive, negative and neutral are also empty!
There is no positive without negative or neutral, and the same is true for negative and neutral.
Our strength is not found in forcing reality to remain “positive”. We are considered accomplished because of the strength we have to endure the snaky shifting of Samsara. We endure the ups and downs, we remain in this mind system with these sentient beings, unperturbed by the positives and negatives and neutrals. We are beacons of peace and stability in this chaotic ocean.
4. Mindfulness is a natural remedy for anxiety
People want to talk about mindfulness like it’s some miracle pill. Despite what we so often hear, this practice of mindfulness is not always roses and cotton-candy. The practice of mindfulness may reveal things one has been been avoiding. This can be painful. This is the real work though! Learning to see clearly requires deep compassion for oneself and for all sentient beings. Gentleness can smooth over those scratchy rough spots.
Mindfulness meditation is work, but it is healthy, soothing work.
New things will be noticed. New things can cause fear. If new things aren’t being noticed, if fear isn’t arising, it is probably a good idea to refocus the practice. But how?
The goal is not to be rid of negative emotions.
Mindfulness meditation teaches us to put harsh feelings into context and not become totally overwhelmed by their presence. The goal is not to become a tranquil yuppy – it is to become present, aware and in touch with actual bold faced reality.
Yes, there are benefits. Mental and physical health benefits.
Breathing meditation can bring calm. “Negative” feelings can also arise – they are as real as “positive” feelings.
During practice, all of these arising positive and negative thoughts are gently touched – and like the fragile bubbles they are, they pop. It is not difficult. There is no strain. However, it is work. Perfectly paradoxical.
You may also like: Mindfulness is pointless – and that’s the point
5. Mindfulness is a medical treatment
Here in the West, the main drive for the explosion of mindfulness practice seems to be coming from the medical community. This is awesome. As always, medicalising normal processes is dangerous. It is especially common these days when people look to science for answers – rather than to religion. However, difficulty arises when science, which is much more about questions than it is about answers, becomes scientism, or high priests with Ph.D.’s handing out evidence-based dogma.
There is a lot of cultural appropriation going on around here. Doctors are not far off taking credit for practices that have already been employed for thousands of years. On the surface, this is all fine and dandy, but looking deeper we can see that it’s part of a larger pattern. We Westerners have not been so kind to our friends around the world. We take and take and take. The practice of mindfulness cannot be “owned”, but it seems to me that we should be giving more credit to it’s Eastern roots. Indeed, those roots extend beyond the Buddhist tradition. There are things to be learned from the cultures that have grown up with these practices.
Instead, it looks to me like as Westerners, we are trying to distill the “useful” practices from what we consider to be “superstition”.
Our sciences are constantly revealing a stranger and stranger reality. We would do well to hold our verdicts on what is and is not superstition.