What's Wrong With Mindfulness : Review


In What's Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn't), a host of Zen authors critically interact with the current mindfulness movement in the West.  Having witnessed the rise and fall in the popularity of Zen practice, these authors are in a unique position to offer advice to leaders in the mindfulness movement.  Contributors to this book range from being extremely critical of the direction of mindfulness to more sympathetic outlooks.  Mindfulness instructors and practitioners as well as those engaged in Western Buddhism as a whole will benefit from reading this collection of essays. 

Overview: The book is divided into two large sections: Critical Concerns, a series of essays which addresses the problems Zen authors see with the mindfulness movement, and Creative Engagement, a series of essays which explore Zen perspectives on mindfulness meditation itself.

Part One:  In Part One, Critical Concerns, each contributor offers their unique critique of the state of the mindfulness movement in the West.  Recurring themes, as discussed in the Introduction, are the realities of secularization (pulling meditation from its monastic setting, complete with ritual, the sangha, study, etc.), instrumentalization (seeing meditation primarily as a means to a particular personal end), and deracination (extracting meditation from the wider religious context of Buddhism as a whole, including its ethical and philosophical dimensions).  

Of these three concerns, the most common critique from the book's contributors surrounds instrumentalization, or seeing meditation as simply the means to a personal end.  Mindfulness meditation has been hailed as a method for stress reduction, a way of focusing and paying attention, a way to regulate emotions, a treatment for physical illness, an aide in psychotherapy, a path for personal happiness, a means of increasing kindness and compassion, and a way of living more in the moment.  The problem is not that mindfulness meditation may, in fact, lead to these positive effects, but that meditation is often seen as simply a means to an end that the practitioner finds desirable.  This focus on positive effects has, in the view of several contributors, led to the commercialization of meditation, or what has been dubbed "McMindfulness."  The examples of mindfulness being used by businesses (specifically Google) in order to improve production, or even by the military to help soldiers' performance, are pointed to as ways in which mindfulness has been co-opted and used for ends that are far from the original intention within the Buddhist tradition.  

Many of these authors feel that the Buddhist ideals of non-striving, or realizing the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and impersonal nature of all things is being lost when the focus is placed in improving a particular element of a practitioner's life.  

Other concerns discussed in this section of the book include the seeming "buffet" of options on the meditation and spirituality market and mindfulness' place in this New Age market, the divorce of mindfulness from a complete way of life, ambiguity in the meaning of the term "mindfulness" in popular usage, and skepticism, or at least caution, about the supposed scientific studies surrounding the movement, especially as it relates to brain research.  

Part Two:  In Part Two, Creative Engagement, Zen practitioners give their perspectives on mindfulness meditation itself.  Several of the authors in this collection either practice both forms of meditation or have even been officially certified in both.  Focus is placed on how both forms of meditation can be complimentary to one another, although, for these authors, Zen is the primary practice.  This section can be thought of as "seeing mindfulness meditation through a Zen paradigm" in the sense that the Zen tradition colors the authors' understanding of mindfulness, not the other way around. 

Of particular interest in this section is an essay on the word sati, often translated as "mindfulness," and a conversation between a teacher and student who are both trained in Soto Zen and Vipassana.  

Reflections:  As with any collection of essays, there were some that I found valuable and some that I didn't.  As a whole, I thought the first section of the book, which focused on the perceived problems with the mindfulness movement, was more thorough and more interesting.  I think those involved in Western Buddhism will find this part of the book to be far more important than Part Two.  Conversations surrounding these authors' critiques could lead to real change within the mindfulness movement (assuming it is just one movement).   Essays within this collection that I found to be the most helpful were Mischief in the Marketplace for Mindfulness, Mindfulness Myths, One Body Whole Life, and Two Practices One Path.  

Overall, I think the major trends within the mindfulness movement which are pointed out in these essays are accurate.  Mindfulness has become significantly unbundled from a Buddhist framework, probably moreso than any other form of spiritual practice has been uprooted from its religious context in history, and this is probably the biggest concern for those who approach the practice from a Buddhist understanding.  

Personal Takeaways:  I do not actively practice mindfulness meditation, although I sometimes go for "mindfulness walks" in which I feel I can cultivate the state of mind associated with vipassana meditation (i.e. creating an inner observer and simply watching physical and mental phenomena rise and fall).  My form of meditation – Centering Prayer – is much closer to Soto Zen practice than it is to mindfulness.  

One of the biggest takeaways for me comes from the forceful critique of using meditation for some perceived higher personal end (i.e. to have less stress, to be able to concentrate more, etc.).  Meditation, and in my case Centering Prayer, is more about changing the way you see things than changing the things themselves.  Maybe it is inevitable that people will come to meditation practices looking for a way to benefit their lives.  We are driven in large part by self-interest.  The paradox is that the more you deepen your practice, the less it becomes about you. 

One other takeaway I had was a connection with a line in the book's first essay.  When discussing the dangers of having beginners to the practice with no long-term training become instructors over others, Marc Poirier warns that students "may experience insights or rushes of psychological turmoil that an inexperienced instructor may be ill-equipped to address or perhaps even recognize."  As I've written about before in Centering Prayer, TM, and Emotional Struggle, I rarely see those from the TM movement, or Zen/Mindfulness movements talk about the emotional turmoil that can result from these practices.  It was just mentioned in passing here, but it caught my attention as a point of contact.  

This book will appeal mainly to leaders in the mindfulness movement, and it will be interesting to see the reaction from popular teachers.  It is sure to provoke plenty of discussion.