There was a good op-ed piece in the Guardian recently [06/08/2014] by Suzanne Moore on mindfulness which raises some important questions about the current mindfulness craze. Moore complains that mindfulness has been taken away from its original religious context and turned into just another device in consumerism's panoply of diversions. She is surely on to something here. Robbed of any spiritual purpose, mindfulness is now being made to serve just about any secular interest. Bankers do it, soldiers do it and in Japan, even gangsters, the dreaded Yakuza, have always done it. So what is going on here?
I have a number of friends, committed Buddhists all, who look upon the popularisation of mindfulness as a highly positive development. And I once had occasion to ask Ajahn Amaro, the abbot of Amaravati Buddhist monastery, what he thought of the spread of secular mindfulness. "Stealth Buddhism", he replied with a broad smile. I greatly admire Amaro as a teacher and authority on Buddhism, but I tend to side with Moore on this matter. While it is likely that some people will take their introduction to mindfulness as a good first step towards a more committed spiritual practice, our cultural experience suggests that secular mindfulness could be a short-lived affair. Indeed, if you are of a certain age you may have the feeling that you have seen this sort of thing before. You might remember when Transcendental Meditation was widely promoted as a panacea for every imaginable ill. I have nothing against TM and suspect that its benefits in stress reduction are quite similar to those of secular mindfulness. But what the hype surrounding any sort of approach to meditation tends to overlook is the importance of maintaining a regular, disciplined practice. The Buddha, however, taught that the single most important factor needed for meditation is patient endurance. Unfortunately, consumerism thrives on novelty and as soon as something is seen as tedious it quickly loses its appeal. This is hardly auspicious for developing any sort of serious meditation practice. Nevertheless, TM is still widely practised and taught and many people no doubt continue to benefit from it. So it is quite possible that secular mindfulness will find a similar market niche for itself.
It is easy to see how mindfulness appeals to people these days. It is, after all, sold as a technique that improves concentration by inducing calm and reducing stress. Efficiency tends to be the watchword here, as if the practice can be justified only by referring to performance tables indicating such things as increased productivity in the work place and higher grades on test scores, to say nothing of the physiological and psychological benefits that have been confirmed in clinical tests. But while such benefits may indeed be demonstrable, they can also be regarded as mere side effects of a practice whose greatest benefit might actually be its ability to afford a clear view of the self making propensity of the mind. This is what most intrigues me about mindfulness, both as a psychotherapist and as a practitioner of mindfulness. I hope to discuss this theme at greater length in a later blog.
There are a couple of books I would like to recommend now. The first is Selling Spirituality by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King,. which argues that the marketing of a variety of disparate spiritual practices relies on the selection of such practices (cherry picking, as it were) for their commercial appeal. Taking things such as yoga, mindfulness and other forms of spiritual practice away from the religious traditions in which they originated can be likened to the corporate strategy of asset stripping used in predatory capitalism. The book deserves attention for it offers a carefully argued and well researched analysis which documents and describes the present commercial climate of spirituality very well. The other book is a recent collection of articles called After Mindfulness,which was edited by Manu Bazzano. My highly favourable review of this book, which has been recently published in Self & Society, can be found soon on the "Publications" page on this website. I think this is a terrific book which explores in greater depth some of the issues that Moore addressed in her article. So for anyone who is interested in secular mindfulness, it is certainly well worth reading.
Finally, fairness obliges me to mention two of my friends, Andy Paice and Richard Burnett, who are strong advocates of secular mindfulness. Richard has a prominent role in the Mindfulness in Schools Project [mindfulnessinschools.org] and is enthusiastic about what mindfulness can do for pupils. His enthusiasm can be quite infectious as I know, for I credit him for reviving my interest in mindfulness several years ago when it had begun to flag. Andy is a former Karma Kagyu monk who spent three years on a meditation retreat in a Tibetan monastery in France before disrobing and returning to the UK. He now works as a life coach specialising in mindfulness [www.naturalinsight.com] and includes bankers and other business people in his list of clients. But you don't have to be a rich City of London type to enjoy his services. Andy holds weekly meditation services in Finsbury Park which can be attended by anyone for a small donation. Although I continue to have reservations about how secular mindfulness is being marketed these days, I have nothing but respect for the ways Richard and Andy try to spread their knowledge of mindfulness.