The West has borrowed the Buddhist concept of ‘being in the moment’ and is repackaging it for a mass-consumer audience, says Suzanne Harrington. But there is a danger we are ignoring the philosophy at the heart of this ancient religion — compass.
MINDFULNESS — is it monetising ‘peace of mind’ or is it emotional evolution?
Stop what you’re doing. Step away from your devices. Close the door. Be alone. Now sit. Do nothing. No reminiscing, no forward-planning. Breathe. Count your breaths, slowly and repetitively.
Notice your thoughts, but don’t engage with them. The breath is your focus. That’s it. Breathe in, breathe out. Feeling better? Great. Sign up for the course, download the app, buy the book. Enter your PIN number.
If Buddhist meditation is the coca leaf of spirituality (gentle, benign, steeped in culture and tradition), then is Western secular mindfulness (hollowed-out, instantly accessible, monetised) its crack cocaine?
Mindfulness is so zeitgeisty that everyone from Arianna Huffington to the Bank of England are fans.
From corporate CEOs and City traders to the World Economic Forum at Davos, mindfulness is being practised and talked about; given that work related stress costs Britain £3bn per year and the US $300bn, de-stressing is big business.
Google was one of the first companies to offer its workers mindfulness sessions.
The practice became so popular that Huffington said 2013 was the year when CEOs, instead of coming out as gay, came out as adherents of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is without stigma — unlike anti-depressants or therapy — and is perceived as progressive. There is a reason it is so popular. It works.
But is the mindfulness industry like the food industry: all the goodness extracted and over-processed, so that we are left with tasty, empty morsels?
What started 4,000 years ago with a man sitting under a tree — the Buddha — has morphed into a multi-million dollar industry, with the awkward bits, like ethics and altruism, filleted out.
Mindfulness has its own app, Headspace, which is valued at $50m. (“Mini meltdown? Get some headspace in a hurry”, reads its iTunes advert).
Mindfulness is taught in schools, workplaces, even the military. The US army now uses mindfulness before and after ‘deployment ‘— its word for violence — for “improving operational effectiveness and warrior resilience.”
But wait. What’s the golden rule of Buddhism, the source of mindfulness? To abstain from killing or harming — Buddhism is about non-violence towards all beings, not just humans.
How did mindfulness end up in the army, the boardroom, classroom, the doctor’s surgery? And what is mindfulness? How does it differ from meditation? How does it differ from what critics are calling ‘McMindfulness’ and ‘Drive-Thru Enlightenment’?
The inventor of the Headspace app, former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, says mindfulness is “about being present in the moment…it’s when we learn how to step out of the busy-ness of our mind.”
The New York Times said Puddicombe has done for meditation what Jamie Oliver has done for food.
Speaking on a BBC radio programme, Puddicombe said that meditation was simply an exercise for attaining mindfulness.
It’s learning how to be undistracted, not overwhelmed by emotion; a moment of distance from the spin cycle of your thoughts.
Regular practitioners of mindfulness — that is, sitting still for ten minutes a day, and focusing on nothing but your breath — say that it improves mental resilience, acknowledges the realities of life without being consumed by them, and allows people to gently press the reset button.
Which all sounds great. A conscious pause in the daily, multi-tasking consumer insanity of modern living can only be a step up the ladder of emotional evolution.
And it has totally caught on — there are dozens of mindfulness centres, courses, and retreats all over Ireland, from Dublin to Dingle.
The Irish Mindfulness Institute runs one-day courses for €99; there is mindfulness for children; and if you can’t attend a course, you can buy a book, like Mindfulness On The Go, by health journalist, Padraig O’Morain.
In Britain, mindfulness has been available on the NHS since 2004 as a treatment for depression, anxiety and chronic pain, and is regularly prescribed by 30% of GPs. There is hard neuroscience backing up its efficacy. What’s not to like?
Anything that causes pause, reflection, and the gathering of oneself in a moment of consciousness is good. This is indisputable.
However, profit-driven, secular mindfulness appears to be the psychological equivalent of gym yoga, devoid of deeper meaning, and stripped of its original, spiritual intention.
It is all about self-help and self-interest, about making me-me-me feel better. Some critics have suggested that it is being misappropriated by the corporatocracy to keep ultra-stressed, over-worked employees calmer and more pliant, and therefore more productive.
More incongruous still is its commodification — how did we end up paying strangers money to teach us how to breathe?
And how did a distillation of Buddhism become so successful in the West that we are now — irony alert – exporting mindfulness back to Asia?
Throughout Buddhist history, meditation was mostly for monks. Then, around four millennia since the time of Siddartha Gautama (the Buddha), at the turn of the 20th century a Burmese monk was instrumental in spreading Buddhist teachings to lay people.
Fearful that British colonisation would weaken the Buddhist tradition of his country, Ledi Sayadaw began teaching ordinary people how to meditate. It stopped being just for monks and nuns.
In the 1960s, meditation techniques were vividly adopted by Western visitors to India — think of the Beatles with the Maharishi.
One of the earliest proponents of Westernised mindfulness training was Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979.
Having trained with Buddhist teachers, he repackaged meditation and mindfulness as a scientific and medical answer to stress.
In doing so, he gained a wider audience that might otherwise have associated the traditional accompaniments of bells and smells — gongs, candles, incense, chanting mantras — as too ‘other’.
Today, in a workplace where the traditional nine-to-five is an old-fashioned luxury, commuting the norm, and job security rare, and in a consumer society where happiness is equated with owning stuff, we tell ourselves we don’t have the time for anything other than running around.
So is mindfulness a sticking plaster? A mindless fad? Or the first sign that capitalist societies may be waking up?
In New York and San Francisco, anyone needing “peace and quiet on demand” can rent a quiet city room by the hour, empty but for basic furniture and a yoga mat, through a start-up called Breather. Your breather will cost you €25, and, with no apparent irony, this includes Wifi.
Or there’s the Nutshell, a canvas “collapsible privacy shield” to put over your head in the workplace, like a blanket over a budgie cage. Except you are the budgie, and your workplace is the cage.
Consciously looking after your mind is essential, because it is our engine for living, yet we tend to spend more time and effort looking after our nails.
The Western Buddhist monk, Christopher Titmuss, says that unless we embrace the ethical side of mindfulness — stuff like non-violence, compassion, acceptance, generosity, loving kindness, truth — then sitting in an expensive room counting our breaths is just an exercise in self-interest and narcissism, for the profit of others.
Or, in the case of soldiers using mindfulness to help them focus better on killing people, it is pure cognitive dissonance.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved