Is secular dharma the same as mindfulness?

While mindfulness can be described as a secularized form of a Buddhist practice, it is not the same as secular dharma, which is a burgeoning movement that seeks to interpret the wisdom of all of the Buddha’s teachings within a modern context.

Mindfulness is now taught widely in secular contexts, removed from its Buddhists roots. Some secular dharma practitioners approve of these mindfulness courses because they teach students a practice that relieves their suffering. Whether students are initially aware that this practice draws on Buddhism or not, they may become more open to dharma communities where mindfulness and related practices are cultivated within a richer cultural context.

Other secular dharma practitioners hold that when mindfulness is taught commercially it can blunt the appreciation people might otherwise feel for the Buddha’s teaching, because Siddhartha Gautama (Pali: Siddhattha Gotama) taught a lot more than just mindfulness. Further, students who learn a particular practice and find that it doesn’t work for them may conclude that Buddhism as a whole has nothing to offer them.

Seen in the framework of the four tasks of secular dharma, mindfulness classes often consist of just the first three tasks: embracing life, letting go of reactivity, and seeing the ceasing of reactivity. The fourth element—the task of acting, setting a direction in our lives in which we cultivate an ethical way of being in the world—is often missing from mainstream mindfulness programs. This last task is based on a secular reading of the Buddha’s noble eightfold path:

  1. Authentic worldview;
  2. Appropriate thinking and intention;
  3. Authentic speech;
  4. Appropriate occupation, the work we do and how we approach it;
  5. True survival, in other words what we do in life so as to survive;
  6. Appropriate effort in our spiritual endeavor;
  7. Appropriate mindfulness;
  8. Appropriate inner integration.

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