I came across a Washington Post article entitled, “Mindfulness would be good for you. If it weren’t so selfish.” The author, Thomas Joiner, argues that “authentic mindfulness” is a pretty good idea:
True mindfulness recognizes every instant of existence, even those of great misery, as teeming and sundry. It encourages adherents to be dispassionate and nonjudgmental about all thoughts, including those like, “I am hopelessly defective.” Mindfulness wants us to pause, reflect and gain distance and perspective.
This is about recognizing that each thought is inconsequential and thus not worth getting depressed or anxious about. Viewing the mind’s moment-to-moment products as of a similar standing as floating motes of dust — myriad, ephemeral, individually insignificant — is admirable and requires genuine humility.
[M]indfulness has become pernicious, diluted and distorted by the prevailing narcissism of our time. The problem has somewhat less to do with how it’s practiced and more to do with how it’s promoted. People aren’t necessarily learning bad breathing techniques. But in many cases they are counting on those breathing techniques to deliver almost magical benefits. And, all the while, they are tediously, nonjudgmentally and in the most extreme cases monstrously focused entirely on themselves. That is troublesome for mental health practice and for our larger culture.
This version of mindfulness inevitably “tends to be described in terms of what it can do for us as individuals.”
I’ll start by admitting something up front: what motivates me to practice meditation is relieving my own suffering. When I sit with my Zen meditation group, at the end of our practice, we recite: “May whatever excellent qualities we have gained from this practice be extended for the benefit of all beings.” That’s all well and good, and it certainly feels like a noble aspiration. But what actually motivates me to sit is not all beings. Sure, I care about others and it would be nice to help them. But I mostly just want the excellent qualities for myself. I wouldn’t spend so much time on my cushion if I didn’t expect it to have benefits for me as an individual. To pretend otherwise would be dishonest. If mindfulness were not marketed in terms of what it can do for us as individuals, I doubt anyone would bother.
When I was a kid, I read a short story called “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” by Roald Dahl. Henry Sugar was a guy who started to meditate because he wanted to develop superpowers. Specifically, he wanted the ability to see through cards and predict the future so he could make a lot of money gambling. (The Yoga Sutras describe some of these alleged superpowers – siddhis – that come from meditation. I’m pretty skeptical, but who knows.) Anyway, Henry’s love of money motivated him to practice hard, and he eventually developed the powers he wanted. He went to a casino and won a ton of money. But then he realized that all the hard practice had had an unexpected side effect: he no longer cared about money. So, he started using his gambling winnings to fund orphanages instead. It kind of makes you wonder if Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” mindfulness initiative – presumably aimed at improving employee productivity and the company’s profit – might “backfire” in a similar way.
So, while I can’t deny that I practice for mostly selfish reasons – to improve my life – I hope the practice is strong enough to handle that. I mean, if I were truly enlightened enough to be motivated only by helping all beings, I probably wouldn’t need meditation. Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen teacher, once said, “Don’t think you do zazen [seated meditation]. Zazen does you!” Of course we bring all our baggage and narcissism and self-absorption to the practice. But maybe we can trust that – if we continue to show up – the practice will do us despite all that. I sure hope so.
That said, the way mindfulness is marketed bothers me too. For example, Joiner writes about how mindfulness is often equated with “self-care”:
Indeed, self-compassion and self-care are intertwined with the popular concept of mindfulness. The notion seems to be that it is not selfish to tend to and even to prioritize one’s own needs for care and understanding. After all, this line of thought goes, how can one be available for others unless one is fully present, and how can one be fully present unless one’s own needs are met? …
Of course, self-care in the sense of adequate sleep and nutrition is eminently sensible. But it seems that the most ardent fans of self-compassion focus on things like relaxing vacations, restorative massages and rejuvenating skin-care regimens. This preoccupation gives the impression that “self-compassion” is code, and a rationalization, for doing things people already find pleasant.
I see that a lot, particularly in the yoga community. It drives me nuts sometimes. The thing is, I’ve always been the queen of self-care (of the self-indulgent rather than just the basic variety). This was true long before I started meditating. I indulge in regular pedicures, massages, and me-time. I love spa vacations. I love taking walks by myself and getting lost in good books. I love savoring cocktails at fancy restaurants overlooking the beach.
And let me tell you, meditation – at least for me – does not feel like any of those activities. It isn’t relaxing. It doesn’t make me feel special or pampered. It is often unpleasant. Getting a massage is a far more enjoyable use of time than meditating. Hell, getting a cavity filled or standing in line at the DMV is often a more enjoyable use of time than meditating. I mostly use self-care as a distraction. “I’m feeling bored. Maybe I’ll go get a massage. That’s a pleasant way to fill time.” “I’m feeling stressed. Maybe I can lose myself in a novel.” And these things do help me get through the stresses of life. But meditation at its most effective offers no such distraction. If I’m bored, I have to sit there and be bored. If I’m anxious, I have to sit there and be anxious. All exits are blocked.
I did not turn to meditation because I was looking to add to my already extensive repertoire of self-care activities. I turned to meditation because self-care was simply not cutting it in the relieving suffering department. And I’m slowly discovering that meditation can bring about a deeper form of relaxation than any kind of self-care activity. It can help me relax even while I’m not relaxed, even when the moment that I’m in truly, deeply sucks and is the exact opposite of a blissful self-care experience. And in doing so, it can soften my sense of entitlement to a constant string of blissful self-care experiences.
Joiner further argues that there’s not much evidence that mindfulness helps with health conditions anyway. He’s probably right that mindfulness is over-hyped relative to the actual scientific evidence. As a social scientist myself, I sympathize. But honestly, I’m not sure I care what the scientific evidence says about mindfulness. I’ve occasionally told health care providers that I meditate. And their reaction inevitably is, “So, has it helped with [condition X] yet?” Somehow this always makes me bristle. It feels kind of like asking someone, “So, you say you’ve been praying daily for three months. Has it helped your arthritis yet?” In other words, I get annoyed when health care providers treat my spiritual practice as a mere medical treatment, as something that’s supposed to work exactly the way we want it to work, and on our time rather than God’s (as some religious folks might put it). I feel like it totally misses the point.
But that’s just my knee jerk emotional reaction. A more reasoned version of this is that most of the studies on mindfulness are done over a few months. Over that time frame – at least in my experience – meditation sucks royally. It took me years of daily practice to start seeing benefits. I’m not sure if that’s typical, but I remind myself that in the religious traditions from which mindfulness is derived, real change takes place not over weeks or months or even years, but over decades and lifetimes. Yes, multiple lifetimes. Even if you don’t buy into reincarnation, that’s a pretty good metaphor for the pace of progress and the patience required. I said above that I turned to meditation because self-care wasn’t cutting it in the relieving suffering department. Well, medical treatments were not cutting it in that department either. Trust me, if they were, there’s absolutely no way I’d have the patience for such a tedious and mind-numbingly boring practice.
I have one final reflection – and this is kind of tangential to Joiner’s main argument. Joiner attributes the self-absorbed version of mindfulness to the narcissism of our modern society. I’ve heard Buddhist teachers argue that it comes from divorcing meditation from Buddhist – or any other form of – morality. But as I was reading the article, I remembered that it was actually the Buddha’s own behavior that used to bother me the most in this regard. According to Buddhism’s founding story, the Buddha was raised in luxury as a prince. After starting to notice and be bothered by the fact that human life was full of suffering, he chose to leave his wife and newborn son to try to find enlightenment.
I don’t know how much of this story is factually true. But I used to spend a lot of time worrying about it. How could I possibly practice a religion in which it’s okay – even admirable – to abandon your family responsibilities? To claim to be doing what’s best for humanity in the abstract while being an asshole to the specific humans in your life? Plus, the Buddha was a privileged male. The path he took of abandoning his family to practice probably would not have been open to a woman. It probably wouldn’t even have been open to a man who had to work to support his family. How can such an elitist, sexist, self-centered path possibly lead to the truth?
When I first started practicing, I spent months trying to figure all this out, to justify it to myself. I read books to try to reconstruct the facts of what happened. I concocted explanations – all thoroughly unsatisfying – for how the Buddha’s behavior could be consistent with my values, with my notions of what “true” religion should be. And since there’s no shortage of analysis out there on the internet, it was easy to keep the hamster wheel spinning.
I’ve gone down similar rabbit holes with other religions I’ve explored. In Christianity, for example, I could not get past the belief that people who did not accept Christ – that’s, like, two-thirds of the world – were going to hell. Again, I’d spend hours trying to understand, rationalize, explain. I read books. I googled. I researched alternative interpretations that I could live with.
But all of this – trying to figure things out, trying to find the perfect religion with nothing that offended my values, trying to make sure everything I believed and practiced was morally correct, true, and consistent – was futile. It was the same type of overthinking and overanalyzing that created misery in all the other areas of my life. It was extremely self-absorbed in the sense that it assigned enormous importance to my thoughts, to my interpretations, to my ideas of what a religion should be. And ultimately, what I needed was to cut it all off and just practice. I needed to stop feeding the fruitless speculation, sit on my mediation cushion, and bring my attention back to my breath. Repeatedly.
I don’t worry much about the Buddha and his family any more. It’s none of my business. It’s above my pay grade. And dropping that chalupa has been a major relief. But I’m still constantly trying to rationalize and figure out my practice. No matter what experience I have during meditation – pleasant, unpleasant, boring, profound – there’s a part of my mind that wants to judge, to analyze, to mansplain. If I have a “bad” meditation session, I worry, I get defensive, I problem solve. If I have a “good” meditation session, I congratulate myself, and I try to figure out the recipe so that I can recreate it. My mind is constantly trying to insert itself into things that aren’t my business.
The mindfulness practices that seem to work best for me are minimalist. Take your attention off the continuous mental chatter, the continuous analyzing and return it to your breath. Repeat as often as needed. Nike Zen, as one teacher I used to know put it. Just do it. Don’t argue, and don’t ask questions. Sit down and shut up.
There’s a (disputed) story about the physicist Niels Bohr that goes something like this: Bohr had a horseshoe hanging over his office door. When asked how a scientist could possibly believe in such superstitious nonsense, Bohr replied, “It works whether you believe in it or not.” I sometimes feel the same way about meditation practice.