Why Mindfulness is Important but Not Enough
see also Mental Health and Mindfulness: Process Thought and Relational Neurobiology
How 2014 Became the Year of Mindfulness
The ancient Buddhist concept of mindfulness has been gaining traction in secular Western culture for decades, but it may have reached a peak in 2014. “Mindfulness”--understood today as a state of being aware in the moment, and honed through regular practice of meditation and breathing exercises--is widely believed to confer benefits both spiritual and material. In just a few minutes a day, it’s said to help practitioners cope with practically every facet of modern life, from everyday stress and anxiety to life-threatening illness and depression. It’s penetrated many of our major institutions, from hospitals and schools to the corporate world. In Britain, the NHS funds mindfulness seminars for patients with depression. It’s on the curriculum at schools across the country. Companies like Target and General Motors have started offering employees mindfulness training; even cut-throat firms like KPMG and Goldman Sachs have sponsored mindfulness seminars in recent months. Google hosts “mindful lunches,” taken in silence save for the ringing of bells.
The McMindfulness Craze: The Shadow Side of the Mindfulness Revolution
In case we had any doubt after watching Anderson Cooper on "60 Minutes," mindfulness is the new yoga - and we are in the midst of a mindfulness revolution. It's been embraced by celebrities, business leaders, politicians and athletes; and recommended by doctors, clergy, psychotherapists and prison wardens. Apps and bestselling books touting the benefits of meditation proliferate. Google "mindfulness" and you'll get over 24 million hits.
The Newly Mindful Anderson Cooper
As someone influenced by process theology, I best begin with a confession. Many of the process theologians I know are thoughtful but not mindful. This is ironic because, influenced by Whitehead, we think the building blocks of reality are present moments of experience; and yet we ourselves are not always attentive to the present moment.
They – we -- like to think about big ideas and how these ideas might come down to earth, but we are not usually relaxed and attentive in our daily lives. Working with a sense of urgency that the world is filled with too much violence and suffering, and perhaps on its way to catastrophe, we are often too hurried to be good listeners. We are thoughtful but not mindful.
Truth be told, many other people with strong convictions are like this, too, especially if their hearts and minds are spurred by a prophetic imagination. A prophetic imagination is constantly torn between an awareness of the world as it is (but should not be) and the world as it can be (but is not). We are either denouncing what is wrong or announcing what is right – but somehow not present to the reality and sometimes the sheer beauty of what is.
Why mindfulness is important
Mindfulness meditation helps you become fully present, in the here and now, so that you can feel the presence of what is inside you and outside you in a relaxed and attentive way.
If you do it on a daily basis, say for twenty minutes each morning, certain benefits can accrue. You can sleep better; you can be less prone to mood swings, you can be more creative; and you can become less distracted in your daily life. You will become more centered as a human being.
If you are interested in helping make the world a better place -- if you have a passion for justice, as my students like to put it -- mindfulness can help you better become what the world needs today: a good listener.
In The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists, and the Future, Arlene Goldbard proposes that we live in two cultural worlds today: (1) the world of Datastan in which all things, including people are reduced to information, facts, and numbers, and (2) the real world of actual persons who are subjects of their own lives with stories worth hearing. She calls this real world The Republic of Stories. Mindfulness can help you listen to the Republic of Stories.
Why Mindfulness is not enough
Still. mindfulness practice is not enough for a well-lived life. In Buddhism mindfulness is only one of eight dimensions of a well-lived life. The other seven include right livelihood (how you make your living), right association (who you hang out with), right effort (how hard you are trying), right action (working for the good of others), right understanding (how you understand things). A traditional Buddhist would never say that mindfulness is sufficient for a well-lived life.
Indeed, those of us who have practiced mindfulness over the years, but who are not formally Buddhist, know this as well. We may be Christian or Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, Baha'i or Confucian. Some of us may also be avowedly non-religious.
For one thing, we have a need for meaning - and mindfulness meditation does not really give that. As a practice, it intentionally brackets questions of belief and focuses on capacities for direct, nonverbal attention. Consider these questions:
Make no mistake. The practice of mindfulness is in no way antagonistic to these questions. Indeed, with mindfulness we can ask them more clearly and seek honest answers. But mindfulness itself does not raise the questions, even as the questions are extremely important. In addition to mindfulness, we need thoughtfulness.
Moreover, it can fail to touch or even hide from interpersonal conflicts. Here is how Jeffrey Rubin puts the point in The McMindfulness Craze: The Shadow Side of the Mindfulness Revolution.
I'm both a psychoanalyst and a long-time student - and now a teacher - of meditation. Over the years, I've witnessed the capacity of meditation to increase awareness, deepen compassion and cultivate wisdom. This is an immense gift for Western culture in general and psychotherapy in particular. But I've also seen how students and teachers of meditation alike grapple with unresolved emotional and interpersonal conflicts that meditation by itself sometimes doesn't touch, and in some cases hides.