Mindfulness has become a buzz word and for some a movement that has strong reservations or objections against it.
Mindfulness classes, events and retreats abound in many circles: in some pre-schools, elementary and higher education, work places, corporate and not for profit agencies, jails and federal prisons, health systems, congress, (well, one took the course), the armed forces and of course on many phone apps. As with anything that draws attention and a certain velocity, praises as well as much criticism are abundant.
Many articles have been written lately, not always favorable ones, by three main factions; some who never took the time to experience classes, some by those who have had long time meditation practices, as well by some Buddhist practitioners, all wondering about the current surge of interest and most of them challenging the purpose and validity of the practices of mindfulness.
The typical critical arguments and negative charges about mindfulness programs from these three groups are as follows:
“Mindfulness is another fad.
Mindfulness classes only reduce stress marginally.
The teachers use scientific research and neuroscience to justify its use but it has very little scientific validity.
It is another modality being marketed to vulnerable folks for greed.
Some Buddhists, claim that it is and unconscionable practice without the ethical focus as the primary foundation.
Meditation can be a dangerous practice for some.
Some teachers are not qualified and make unsubstantial benefit claims or use them for marketing benefits.
It is a program geared to white middle class people or for those who have money.”
I am going to address these comments one by one, but first let me define what mindfulness is, how to practice it and the purpose for engaging in it.
Mindfulness is often defined as “embodied, moment to moment attention, with awareness and intention while dropping judgment”
It is a practice that looks at body, mind and speech while living consciously in the present moment, being fully alive without becoming emotionally dis-regulated. One could observe people in our culture as walking and talking heads, who love to be distracted and have limited capacities to be or want to be conscious, intimate and engaged in authentic relationships.
Mindfulness practices coordinate movement and stillness, using the breath to relax the body and the mind and assist us in integrating our sensations, thoughts and feelings with any experience or in any given context, with attention, curiosity and awareness.
The practice of meditation allows us to respond to internal and external stressors rather than react to them and balance doing and being, by pausing and gaining insight into the nature of what is in each moment, unadulterated by the many story lines we tend to create or clouded by a multitude of triggers related to our habitual thinking.
We call ourselves human beings but in our current times and culture behave primarily as human doings, often causing harm in our drive to pursue well being at any cost, as we selfishly look for happiness in external stimuli and outcomes.
Mindfulness is also heartfulness as we cultivate loving kindness and non-referential compassion for oneself and others because the more awareness we experience, the more we realize our inter-connectedness with everything and everybody. We can navigate the neuronal highway in our brain from our reptilian component, firing hot reactive bottom up information to our cool, reasoning pre-frontal cortex in order to integrate what we experience with our values and intentions towards well flourishing. We explain neuro science and neuro biology to share with participants evidence based information about elements that we know have worked for thousands of years and silence the skeptics.
Let me now address each point of contention separately.
1- Mindfulness is a fad
Any time, some new thought, product or practice becomes popular, trendy and claims of being a cure-all it raises questions as to its validity by people who promote it and expand on its considerable benefits.
There is a tendency for most people to look for magical words, cures, pills and programs, particularly those that come across as a quick fix. This practice is based on using discipline and taking the time to observe one’s mind stream and all the elements that it contains to engage in making beneficial choices for oneself.
The facts are that mindfulness is being taught in many circles, many people have benefited from learning to change their relationship to whatever rises in their mind and body and has brought attentional, emotional and cognitive balance to them. Meditation which has the same root in latin as medication has proven to have less side effects than medications and is certainly cheaper, might be partly one of the factors for its popularity besides the fact that anyone participating in an eight week class will reap benefits as long as they practice.
2- Mindfulness only reduces stress minimally
Most mindfulness classes focus on stress as primarily being born out of lack of inner awareness and consciousness. We know that there are situational external stressors and depending on whether we react or respond to them there will be different outcomes. The constant lingering internal stressors usually produced by internal negative self talk are much more dangerous to health and well being. Mindfulness helps us determine wether stress is a friend or foe.
There are ample stressors we are exposed to in the digital world and being able to drop in the analog world of stillness, silence, reflection and contemplation balances out the tendencies to check out, dissociate and get lost in individual or institutional distractions.
Knowing the difference between sensations, thoughts and feelings as only momentary components of who we are in any given moment but not the totality of who we are, saves lives.
3- There is no scientific basis to Mindfulness benefits.
One could argue that the subjective world is not a good measure for analysis, comparative sciences and objective conclusions. However one has to use one’s subjectivity to come to any conclusions about anything.
Consciousness has to be as yet discovered in any specific location in our bodies and the controversy between whether the brain creates consciousness or not is ongoing and has yet to be settled.
Paying attention, being aware of one’s body, mind and speech however necessitates meta cognition, “awareness of awareness”, which seems to distinguishe us from other sentient beings.
Many practitioners and non practitioners have participated in all kinds of scientific experiences and outcomes have consistently shown marked differences in structural, physical, cognitive and emotional states between those who practiced mindfulness and those who didn’t. Our culture loves evidence based information to justify the efficiency and efficacy of any practice. My personal stand is that when we see people and testimonials of physical, emotional, volitional and cognitive shifts towards wellness by the time they finish the course is sufficient enough and motivates me to keep teaching. One specific example is teaching the course to clients with cancer and other catastrophic illnesses and seeing improvemet in the quality of their lives, (often beating the prognostic date of their mortality)and their changed views about what really matters in life, regardless of how many breaths are left in their lives.
4- Making money off mindfulness
It is a class and I don’t see any harm with charging for teaching valuable lessons toward well being and well flourishing. After all people are asking money for most services, therapeutic interventions, hospitals stays, food and car parts, this is America! Mindfulness doesn’t claim to be a cure-all and looks at body and mind relationships, not as a laser pointed approach to a fix a body part or mental dysfunction. The focus is to live, be at ease in ones body and mind and cultivate well being and well flourishing, elements that are rarely taught in schools, businesses or hospitals.
In fact it is nice to be rewarded financially and vocationally for providing life changing resources and serve people so that they can live better and more productive lives. It is often the case that when classes or presentations are free people tend to see no value in it. It is also possible that some trainers are unethical as can be the case in any system, charging high rates for something of little or just band aid value
5- Buddhists have concerns about the lack of ethical value
The Buddha was not a Buddhist! While this practice has borrowed many elements of secular Buddhism, it is not meant to make Buddhists out of it and never was the intention. The elements of calming the mind, gaining insight into the nature of reality, becoming more awake, understanding that “whatever we attend to becomes our reality” (William James), that the cultivation of loving kindness and non referential compassion is reducing unwholesome thoughts and behaviors sounds very much like the teachings of the Buddha. While we are not promoting enlightenment, which in Pali translation signifies, “extinguishing the fires…”, we are seeing people becoming calmer, kinder and able to bring to their pre frontal cortex the hot, reactive stuff of the reptilian brain, eliminating mental toxins and experience psychological relief by adopting new choices.
I leave it up to the purists radical Buddhists to argue about the validity of mindfulness; what the Buddha taught before his death to his followers was to question and ponder his teachings and find out if they make sense. They do for me and don’t conflict in any way with the elementary teachings of mindfulness classes. I actually see them as a springboard for many to continue to explore and integrate the Dharma’s many teachings, precepts such as not killing the mind of compassion or following quotes like “the path is not difficult for those who have no preferences” while studying many teachings and texts filled with wisdom. Wisdom alone is not beneficial, neither is compassion by itself; both need to be understood and complement each other for well being and being liberated from suffering.
6- Some teachers are not qualified and make unreasonable claims about its benefits.
It is true that some teachers are better at transmitting knowledge and skills than others while creating a safe container to experience what has been taught. It is also true that some teach without training or do not have a regular meditation or contemplative practice. It is always a fundamental challenge and problem for those who lead and teach when there is incongruence between what they say and how they behave.
Most people with many years of meditation practice and ethical precepts who have had Buddhist training with reliable teachers are often qualified in the art and skills of guiding people towards peaceful means and wellbeing. There are trainings and guidelines at this juncture for teachers to be able to teach; ethical standards and experiental maturity and skills sets for sound structures and processes for delivering classes that bring benefits to participants are in place.
Those who practice will gain not only knowledge but also deep insights into their basic nature, habitual patterns and conditioning and use discernment to make wiser choices in their lives. The classes that build on each other provide resources and interactions to make considerable improvement in attendees who practice and experience physical, emotional and mental states towards balance, peace of mind, and resiliency.
Having worked with a few thousands of participants from all walks of life, physicians and other professionals, patients with chronic and terminal illnesses, students, people with addiction problems and many other issues and seeing all the wonderful, sometimes miraculous changes and new possibilities have convinced me to continue teaching.
7- Only middle class people can afford the mindfulness classes.
I have offered the program through grant funding, insurance coverage and given a lot of free classes to those who could not afford it and have had diverse populations from different communities attend in different part of the country and cities.
It is easy to generalize and criticize mindful practices. When being mindful, we drop judgment and replace it with discernment so we can use skillful means to change what is not beneficial to us and others. Students and participants need to check and be able to assess whether a mindfulness program is sound and whether the teachers practice what they teach. Then, when they participate in a course, they have unlimited opportunities to gain insight into the nature of health, well being, how they engage in relationships and cultivate pro-social tendencies and qualities. When they practice they are able to make shifts in their lives to be strong and tender, awake and present, focused and spacious and most important live life to the fullest for contentment and be of service to others. The course is only the beginning of an adventure in being more fully alive again and again.