by Brandon Nappi
Over the past few years, we have witnessed the explosion of mindfulness and meditation in popular culture. Physicians are referring their stressed out patients to take an eight-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, panicking children are taking quivering breaths before exams, athletes are using guided meditations to optimize performance, and psychologists are prescribing meditation to enhance sex.
Shouldn’t we be celebrating the advent of mindfulness to the board room, the locker room, and the bedroom? Here at Copper Beech Institute, we generally welcome this mindfulness explosion and appreciate the opportunity to be of service to those who are interested in bringing awareness compassion to daily life. Still, I have concerns that the unbridled enthusiasm for the very real benefits of mindfulness might unintentionally cloud the reality of what mindfulness might offer us in our lives. In the past few years, this over-promising of mindfulness practice has been coined McMindfulness. Many have wisely wondered what happens when mindfulness becomes a fast-food commodity. How might mindfulness be like the extra fistful of fries which are a party in the mouth and a teenage breakup in the stomach?
As we seek to bring honesty and integrity to our own practice of teaching and learning here at Copper Beech, I offer these observations about some of the common McMindfulness tendencies that can be misleading and unhelpful:
1. Over Selling (and Under Practicing)
(Mc)Mindfulness seems to be the answer for everything these days. While the scientific research in many areas is incredibly promising, I am always careful to remember that mindfulness is not a means to an end. We don’t practice mindfulness to flee the present moment for some other idealized situation where everything is better, easier, and more pleasant. In fact, this craving habit of pursuing something beyond the present reality is precisely what creates our suffering. Persistent means to end thinking will destroy the fruits of our practice. While in the short run we might receive some relaxation benefit from even this kind of practice, the unintentional reinforcement of this habitual craving for something other than the present moment will only deepen our suffering in the long run.
I’ve taught mindfulness to kindergarteners, inmates, physicians, and executives. Of course, I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t think mindfulness brought some benefit to people’s lives. Mindfulness offers us a confounding paradox: it’s precisely in surrendering any gain from the practice that we have the most to gain. When we let go of benefiting from mindfulness and commit to the regular and often boring practice of meditation, we receive the most benefit. This paradoxical wisdom eludes glossy advertisement and snappy media messages.
2. Equating Mindfulness with Positive Thinking
Mindfulness is not the cultivation of happy thoughts. The practice of mindfulness does not involve optimism (nor pessimism). It does not involve visualizing yourself as smart, rich, wise, important or peaceful. The goal of mindfulness is not the achievement of a blissful state separate from the daily challenges of life. Rather, mindfulness helps us to remain grounded and stable in the midst of the inevitable hardships of life. Mindfulness helps to cultivate awareness of thoughts so that we can wake up to the stunning reality that we are not our thinking (positive or negative).
In my own life, this truth that we don’t need to believe everything we think has brought an incredible relief from the torrent of my busy mind. Mindfulness practice offers us a stability that is beyond positive or negative thinking and is not dependent on what happens to be manifesting in the running commentary of the mind. Our culture preaches you can “have it all” if you simply visualize what you desire and think positively. The problem, of course, is that we have gotten what we wanted. At this point in human history, we in the West have more material possessions than ever before, we live longer, and we are safer than human beings have ever been. Still, we suffer, and in the process, we destroy our planet with this unbridled craving for what we don’t have.
The only thing worse than not getting what we want may be getting what we want. Equanimity is not dependent on something as elusive and unpredictable as thinking and desiring. In the end, mindfulness offers us solid ground to stand on when we are not getting what we want or thinking “happy” thoughts.
3. Glossing Over Risks
Many of us come to mindfulness to reduce our suffering in some way. In my own life, I discovered mindfulness when the raw and jagged edges of my emotional pain were lacerating my life. I would do anything to make the ache of sadness to go away. Ironically, when I began practicing 15 years ago, my pain seemed to intensify. All the mechanisms that I had used to deny and ignore my own pain were dissolving in my meditation practice. Nobody told me it might get “worse” before it got “better.”
Most of our consumer culture is driven by the attempt to numb pain. We eat, shop, drink, have sex, and consume media to avoid feeling the pain of life. Over time, mindfulness opens us to the full spectrum of human emotion -- from the most sublimely pleasant sensations to the most heart wrenching painful experiences. In mindfulness there is a risk that we might become acquainted with not only the heights of joy but also the depths of pain. Committed practitioners will notice that this risk is inseparable from mindfulness practice.
This popular explosion of mindfulness invites us all to look deeply into our own lives and be honest about our motivation for practicing. It has brought much light into people’s lives; it has also helped us to clarify what is most essential to the integrity of the mindfulness tradition.
When society mass produces food, we generally lose nutrition and freshness. What tastes good in the moment may not serve our health in the long run. When mindfulness is marketed and packaged on an industrial scale, something of its original genius is likely to be lost. I believe that we can live lives of presence, compassion, and connection through mindfulness and meditation practice. While fast food might be an occasional treat, true nourishment is most often slow and requires effort. I look forward to sharing this journey of slow, steady, and nutritious mindfulness practice with you in the coming days and months.