Mindfulness is not an app…

There are various approaches and rich descriptions of mindfulness. A single definition is not possible, just like love, happiness and compassion as states of being-in-the-world are different according to context and person. Accepting this plurality is a significant start because it enables numerous ways mindfulness can be expressed and practiced. Acceptance of plurality also means to abandon any absolutes or assumed a priori. To me, mindfulness is a constant practice of being and becoming.

However, some characteristics have informed my approach to mindfulness. For example, a celebrated Zen scholar and practitioner, Thich Thien-An, elucidates how mindfulness can give insights into harmony of nature: ‘Since everything is interrelated, since all things depend one upon another, nothing is absolute, nothing is separate, but all are part of the one indivisible whole’. He suggests mindfulness as a pathway for self-realisation and to discover new ways of relating to others. This speaks of an ecological consciousness and the interdependent system of all things. Another renowned Zen philosopher, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, describes a kind of awakening that is ‘attuned to the pulsation of Reality.’ When the mind is ready, ‘you at once return to your original home … you discover your new real self. From the very beginning nothing has been kept from you, all that you wished to see has been there all the time before you, it was only yourself that closed the eye to the fact’.

It is important not to confuse what I discuss with mindfulness framed by psychology and a world view that often sees its usefulness to change behavior towards a desired outcome (like a ‘mindfulness app’). This type of mindfulness is framed as a technique for relaxation, stress relief, attention and judgment, which have little connection to mindfulness that originates from spiritual teachings of Buddhism. Current trends and popularity in meditation and mindfulness has stripped this teaching and made it into a product. Thich Nhat Hanh shares two ways to wash the dishes. ‘The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.’ This simple story teaches us the difference between one that is outcome and future-focused and one that brings us closer to ordinary experience. The former state is ‘not alive during the time we are washing the dishes … sucked away into the future — and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life’. When this view of mindfulness is taken into design, it becomes a means of improvement, to solve problems or to achieve goals. Most concerning here is to see mindfulness used to further consolidate the mind that analyses, divides and separates consciousness, which is in fact the opposite of Buddhist teachings. Mindfulness that follows such teachings rejects logic and rational analysis. Suzuki cautions that the mind only trained to analyze, ‘in spite of its practical usefulness … goes against our effort to delve into the depths of being’.

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You can read more about this in a book chapter ‘Surrendering to the ocean: Practices of mindfulness and presence in designing’ in The Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Design, which is coming out in August 2017.