These days, I spot mindfulness in every corner of the Internet. Mindfulness at work, mindful eating for weight loss, mindfulness-based communication… It seems to be the Holy Grail of the self-improvement industry.
I can understand where this is coming from. It is easy to see mindfulness as a single competence that, once acquired, automatically influences all the other areas of life. Once you become more aware, everything else falls into place.
There are two problems with such an approach, though. One is that mindfulness is not something you ever “acquire.” There is no end goal here. It is an ever-ongoing practice with no designated finish line.
The second problem is we often don’t realize that for mindfulness to be as beneficial as we hope it to be, it needs to be seen within a framework of other qualities. Mindfulness doesn’t live in separation from competences such as compassion or patience. If we treat it as if it did, we may be losing the whole point.
“(…) in the societies where it originated, mindfulness meditation is part of a larger system of Buddhist belief and practice with strong ethical and moral dimensions. Extracting techniques like mindfulness meditation from the social contexts in which they originate may change the nature and effects of the practice.” — Laurence J. Kirmayer, McGill University
The place of mindfulness in Buddhism and in the West
In the current clinical and self-improvement context, the definition of mindfulness is often borrowed from the classic: Jon Kabat-Zinn. For the purpose of this article, we will take as an operational definition this excerpt from his flagship book, Full Catastrophe Living:
“[Mindfulness is] the awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
This definition is, however, often superficialized by neglecting the “non-judgmental” component. From my experience, when people speak about mindfulness, they mostly keep in mind the “present moment” element — while treating the “on purpose” and “non-judgmentally” ones as secondary. This is just one example of how we oversimplify even the already compact, Western understanding of mindfulness.
In the mainstream self-improvement paradigm, we came to treat mindfulness as a path which is complete in itself. However, in the Buddhist tradition where it originated, it is the seventh component of The Noble Eight-Fold Path — which, in turn, is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths. That certainly gives us some new perspective.
Originally, mindfulness was just a part of a complex doctrine for living well. All the elements of this doctrine were compatible and working to support one another. Mindfulness stood as one of the many recommended qualities — rather than the single Holy Grail.
One of the reasons why some Westerners struggle to comprehend the benefits of mindfulness may be that the other qualities of the framework are not so readily present in our culture. Mindfulness is served outside of the broader context where it originated. This often leads to unnecessary resistance, struggle and frustration in Westerners who try meditation for the first time. For example:
“(…) this notion of no-self is in unavoidable tension with Western values of individualism that seek to cultivate, amplify, enable, and aggrandize the personal self. Hence, the relative lack of attention to the doctrine of no-self is not accidental but reﬂects the larger cultural context in which Buddhist ideas are being introduced.” — Laurence J. Kirmayer, McGill University
One case of cutting mindfulness off from its roots and placing it within foreign realities of the Western culture is its implementation in the army. There, mindfulness is used primarily to improve focus and decrease mind-wandering in soldiers. According to this study, it proved to be successful and increased the army’s overall efficiency.
While Buddhist scholars would probably confirm that this is indeed how mindfulness training works, I am guessing that they would point to the enhanced cognitive abilities more as “side-effects,” which arise naturally as you follow the path to enlightenment. In the Western army context, the approach is much more utilitarian. The military setting turns mindfulness into something more of a tool to serve particular interests of a particular group of people.
The fundamental question is this: If mindfulness is being used as a training to improve mental faculties of fighters, does it still serve the underlying Buddhist principle of the fourth of the Four Noble Truths — reducing suffering? To me, it seems that it does not. Simultaneously, it makes “mindfulness” in this context lack integrity with other qualities among which it originated.
When this integrity is lost, we can start questioning whether we are still talking about the same practice.
What we really mean when we praise “mindfulness”
“ ‘Theravada Buddhist teachings claim that experiencing for oneself in this direct and lucid way the impermanent and unstable nature of all aspects of experience brings about a profound change in how one relates to oneself and others’ (Davis &Thomson, 2014, p. 592). The claim is that if one practices mindfulness one can discover these truths for oneself. But are these ideas self-evident or do they require cultural background knowledge and training on how to interpret experiences and draw the right conclusions?” — Laurence J. Kirmayer, McGill University
Practising mindfulness allows us to notice more things. However, what we do with the things we notice also matters a great deal.
For example, people with depression may be more conscious of their negative thoughts and feelings and have a more accurate perception of themselves than healthy people. However, the heightened awareness of their shortcomings or unpleasant events is usually precisely what makes them spiral down into depressive episodes. The rumination and anticipation of even darker thoughts don’t serve anybody. In fact, they are the opposite of what mindfulness promises to accomplish.
When coaches and self-help gurus advocate mindfulness, they usually think about a whole set of qualities that make mindfulness work. These qualities allow you to not merely notice what’s going on inside your head. They also give you the means to respond to both wholesome and unwholesome experiences in a way that leads towards long-term personal growth. At the same time, they orient you for reducing your own, as well as the world’s suffering.
The thing is that we mention these other qualities not nearly as often as mindfulness itself. So here are a few of those which I find crucial to support mindfulness. They also correspond with the original Buddhist Noble Eight-Fold Path.
Noticing your pleasant and unpleasant experiences needs to be backed by a deep knowing that everything is going to pass. This realization helps you move through the tough times, as well as not become overly dependent on the nice things in your life. Over time, it also enables the famous endeavour of seeing through the illusion of a fixed ego — because you realize that who you are at any point in time is contextual and fluid.
When you realize that nothing is permanent, it is also much easier to refrain from favouring certain experiences over others. This is what true equanimity is about. If you notice all the experiences moving in front of your eyes like a film, it only becomes natural to see them all as equally valid.
Mindfulness carries more benefits when you know why you are practising it. It matters whether your intention is aligned with all the other elements of your path. For example, if you want to sharpen your cognitive skills just to prove that you are better than somebody else at work — this is probably not aligned with the intent to fully love yourself. If you try to achieve both through mindfulness, without realizing how they contradict one another, you will keep sabotaging your own efforts. At least until you finally realize what you’re doing.
Commitment to responsibility
The equivalents of this one on the Noble Eight-Fold Path are the right speech, right action and right livelihood. These are important because they are the material expressions of your internal realizations. In the long run, what good does it do if you identify your harmful behaviour patterns by mindfully noticing them — but you never actually make an effort to change them? Personal responsibility is about acting on the realizations that arise during mindfulness practice.
Compassion and positive reinforcement
These are the competences that people diagnosed with depression usually lack. With increased mindfulness, you notice a lot of ugly thoughts, uncomfortable feelings and things about yourself that you may have been hiding from all your life. You need compassion to respond to them in a gentle and non-judgmental way. And you need positive reinforcement to cultivate the wholesome and let go of the unwholesome behaviours over time.
Deliberate practice of mindfulness
This is the technical part. It boils down to actually taking the time out of your worldly commitments and practice. Mindfulness can arise spontaneously — but for the vast majority of people, these spontaneous events are not enough to reinforce lasting change. You may experience profound, metaphysical realizations once a year — but that doesn’t really impact your day-to-day way of conduct.
I am amazed by and grateful for the fact that meditation and mindfulness are becoming so popular. I see it not just a temporary trend — but rather, the ultimate way for humanity to move forward. With all the social, economic and environmental problems we’re facing, we cannot any longer afford to act as if we lived in separation from one another.
Cultivating mindfulness empowers us to see the workings of the law of cause and effect — as well as perceive our intimate connection to one another. This is why I suspect that mindfulness might be among the most crucial factors for the human race to thrive — or even, to survive.
Acknowledging its significance, we must also realize that mindfulness only does the intended job when it’s teamed up with other qualities of a good life. These are universal competences that philosophers and spiritual teachers have been advocating for centuries. Compassion, equanimity and accommodating the impermanence of life — these concepts are nothing new. We all quietly know their power. We just sometimes set them aside — especially in the moments when it feels easier to act upon judgment or desire instead.
But if you decide to practice mindfulness — there is no point in trying to do it in a void. The principles of the good life have been known for ages and shouldn’t be ignored. Leveraging them with your ever-increasing awareness may be the doorway to experiences that were unavailable to you before.