With headlines like “Gentrifying the dharma: How the 1% is hijacking mindfulness” and “Rebel posturing and ‘mindfulness training’ can’t cover up tech world’s awful labor standards” on Facebook courtesy of Salon.com, suddenly American Buddhists find themselves pushed to one side or the other of an age-old debate. Should the sacred life show secular benefits, or should spirituality be essentially an “inside job”?
Most Buddhists I knew in the ‘70s and ‘80s weren’t bothered when Vipassana meditation was repackaged as “mindfulness” by American Buddhist teachers. You met the occasional purist who said Vipassana shouldn’t be offered without the ethical teachings of Theravada Buddhism to anchor it. But few actively opposed it. Those of us who had by then been practicing Buddhist meditation for decades never dreamed it would become insanely popular—much less that it would be used to legitimize a culture that was becoming certifiably insane.
Mindfulness meditation is being used by the US military to make soldiers into more effective killing machines overseas—and to treat them for PTSD and suicidal impulses after they get back. Closer to home, companies like Google are using mindfulness to enable employees work harder for longer hours—sometimes for lower pay. Is your job stressful and unrewarding? Mindfulness could be the answer. Do you sometimes feel pangs of guilt about serving the 1% of the population that manipulates our elections, controls our money, and sends meditatively enhanced young soldiers off to fight meaningless wars? Mindfulness could be the answer as well.
When the studies on mindfulness started rolling in a few years ago, it was good news for those of us who had been practicing Buddhist meditation for years. We were told that it reduced stress, enhanced performance, improved memory, healed trauma, and led to better relationships—both at home and on the job. “See, I was right!” many of us wanted to say.
We’d suffered for decades from the cultural stereotype that viewed Buddhist meditators as the ultimate spiritual slackers—an impression that wasn’t helped by Buddhist books with titles like “Being Nobody, Going Nowhere” and “Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There.” In the beginning at least, mindfulness meditation—and the enhancements and benefits it promised—really did seem like the answer to our prayers for a legitimate, culturally coherent explanation of what Buddhism was and what it had to offer.
But in the midst of all this there was a question few of us ever thought to ask: What was mindfulness for? Did it stand for anything? Did it have any ethical content? Did it produce compassionate people—or compliant people? Did it relieve stress without curing its causes? Did it treat us for the symptom without ever addressing the disease?
By enhancing our Buddha-given abilities, mindfulness might have helped us to get where we were going in life, but did it tell us where we ought to go? Not really. It was a technique without a teaching, a means without a moral, a compass with no needle pointing north. It was a way of sleeping soundly through the worst cultural excesses in human history while fooling ourselves into thinking we were awake.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.