Mindfulness is the thin edge of a wedge that, if inserted deeply enough into our minds, will open them to wisdom. Whether or not this actually happens, however, depends on various causes and conditions.

Some say the process is natural and inevitable, that once the practice of mindfulness is taken up its power of transformation is inexorable. This can sound similar to the monkeys-and-typewriters theory, though, and indeed there is usually a footnote in small print invoking countless lifetimes over multiple aeons. Most others acknowledge that mindfulness is a tool whose effectiveness requires such things as right view, diligent practice, long-term retreats, the guidance of a good teacher, a strong ethical base, and a karmic, if not genetic, predisposition for spiritual progress.

There is considerable enthusiasm for mindfulness these days, as long as it does not threaten to make us wise. Corporate tycoons would like to bring mindfulness into their world to help them achieve a competitive edge, as long as they do not have to spend too much of their valuable time meditating, and only if they can be reassured that they will not lose their killer instincts and get all mushy and compassionate. And they are interested in training their workers in mindfulness, as long as it makes employees more accepting about what they are required to do and does not raise troublesome ethical questions or throw their workers into a midlife crisis that leads them to drop out in order to do something more meaningful with their lives.

The military are always likewise interested in producing a more effective soldier. You have to be careful, though. I knew a guy who quit his job as a police officer after getting involved with mindfulness meditation because he realized that now he would hesitate to shoot if he had to draw his weapon. This was a threat to his fellow officers, he knew, and so he resigned. His personal transformation was part of a larger engagement with Buddhist thought and practice, but still—if this is the effect of mindfulness training, it clearly will not do for the armed forces. Yet we know how effective such training was for the samurai, and ethical difficulties did not seem to intrude at the critical moment when launching an offensive war in the middle of the last century. Perhaps the wedge can be used to pry things open a little, without allowing the process to go too far.

When “mindfulness” is defined in contrast to “mindlessness,” it roughly means “attention,” and this is the sense in which the word is most commonly used outside Buddhist circles these days. In an age when attention is a rare and precious commodity, even as it is spread around so promiscuously, training in attention skills is an understandably popular program. The ability to hold awareness upon a chosen object with some stability or to return it to a primary object once it has strayed, and to do so without agitation, self-blame, or frustration, is a useful skill to learn. It is also the leading edge of the mindfulness wedge as described in the classical Buddhist texts.

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