I am a very committed mindfulness practitioner. I sit every day for thirty minutes, no matter what. The only day I missed in the last three years was the day my daughter was born. Nothing can stop me from paying attention. . . except, perhaps, the perception that nothing can stop me from paying attention. Adopting this stance can have an unfortunate side effect: the sense that I’m so mindful that it is totally fine if I become a “scrollbot” for 20 minutes on social media because I’ve somehow earned it. Even more dangerous is the misperception that practice makes me “good” and thus I’m incapable of doing bad (my wife might have something to say about that one). What I’m talking about might be called “blindfulness.”

This phenomenon is related to a psychological concept called “moral licensing.” In his podcast, Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell offered a commonly accepted definition for the term: “Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.” 

Gladwell then provided a prime example of moral licensing, uncovered by a psychologist named Daniel Effron from the London Business School. After Barack Obama became president in 2008, Effron surveyed people who identified as Obama supporters and found that the explicit support of a Black president actually led some people to be implicitly racist, believing their support somehow inured them to such behavior. “​​A significant chunk of the people who supported Barack Obama were then more likely, at least in the experiment, to express racially questionable opinions,” Gladwell explained. One step forward, two steps back.

Those engaged in mindfulness practice can run the risk of both moral and attentional licensing: the belief that one is above bad behavior or that one has earned a respite from paying attention in much the same way an athlete winds down from excess movement with excess stillness. Yet mindfulness doesn’t quite work that way. We don’t bank it and, a literal belief in karma aside, we can’t accrue goodness. So how can mindfulness practitioners be aware of the one-step-forward-two-steps-back pitfall? 

I posed this question to Zen teacher Brad Warner, the author of Sex, Sin, and Zen, and someone who has bristled usefully against the preconceptions people often have about practice. 

“I think it’s important to try to maintain the same attitude one establishes in zazen practice throughout the rest of the day,” said Warner. “It’s not that you try to establish an intense focus for 20 or 40 minutes and then you’re done. In zazen it’s not about establishing an intense focus anyway. It’s about noticing what you’re doing. If you’re vegging out, you notice that. If your concentration is intense, you notice that. These states come and go.”

In other words, creating a binary division between mindfulness and ordinariness might only serve to reify the idea that depth occurs on the cushion and anything goes off the cushion. This can lead to what Chogyam Trungpa called “spiritual materialism”—grasping at states that we believe are special to the exclusion of the richness that is inherent in all states.  

“What is it that is there in every state?” asked Warner. “Who is vegging out? Who is maintaining intense focus? To me, that’s the interesting thing to investigate.” An investigation that can be honed during formal practice but that is no less valuable during informal practice.

“We can get curious about that craving. . . and that curiosity itself feels better than the craving or the anxiety it produces.”

Another way to think about blindfulness is through the lens of neuroscience. Dr. Judson Brewer, the Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, and the author of Unwinding Anxiety, has studied consumptive habit loops in the brain. We tend to engage in licensing because of the short term gratification of scrolling on Instagram or engaging in a salacious vice. According to Brewer’s research, bringing awareness to this habit loop is the first step toward seeing it clearly, and seeing how unrewarding such behaviors are in the long run. Mindfulness can become what he terms the “bigger, better offer.” As he explained to me, cultivating this openness can help us recognize that licensing is a pitfall rather than a productive pursuit.

“We can get curious about that craving,” explained Brewer, “and that curiosity itself feels better than the craving or the anxiety it produces. Because curiosity feels better, our brain starts to engage in that.” A rewiring can occur when our relationship with licensing behavior changes from indulgence to inquiry.

Avoiding blindfulness doesn’t involve going cold turkey on behaviors but seeing them clearly. It is not about establishing an internal police state through constant vigilance, and then guilting ourselves into being extra virtuous when we lapse. This only creates a division: good/bad, open/closed, mindful/blindful. Mindfulness is not a state but an action, a cultivation of openness, again and again in each moment. Blindfulness occurs when we believe we have achieved this state, our task completed. Mindfulness occurs when we humbly accept that the activity is ongoing and the choice to practice is always available.

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