The Misuse of Mindfulness

button-nowBack in the Jurassic Age when I was a college student, a boyfriend decided he was going to live a completely spontaneous life. He would make no plans but simply do what he felt like doing at the moment, he said.

And overnight he went from being a fun, if sometimes aggravating, boyfriend to being an utter pain in the ass.

Instead of calling ahead to make dates, for example, he would inform me where he was about to go and that he would drop by my dorm — in five minutes — to take me along if I wanted to go, too. If I was in the middle of doing laundry and couldn’t leave, that was too bad. The final straw came when he remarked that at least his dog was always happy to go anywhere and didn’t need time to get ready.

And yes, he was being a self-centered jerk even by college-age standards. But after all these many years I still think of him — not fondly — whenever I hear someone talk of “living for the moment.”

At the New Statesman, Steven Poole writes that somebody who actually lives a completely spontaneous life would have to be some kind of sociopath. “Truly living in the moment and embracing utter spontaneity would render you, for instance, unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others,” Poole writes.

It also makes it impossible to be in any but the most impersonal and casual relationships. You would always just be that guy who shows up sometimes. You’d never be part of anything beyond yourself.

Poole writes that “living for the moment” has become something of a cult, and spontaneity the highest virtue du jour.  And behind this, he says, is the trendy fad of mindfulness.

 Breath-centred mindfulness meditation is no doubt beneficial for many individuals, sharing as it does certain aspects with similar practices such as yoga and qigong. But it is tempting to suspect that official attempts to impose it on employees or schoolchildren have as one unspoken motivation the desire to create a more pliant individual. The more able you become to concentrate blissfully in the moment, the less troubled you will be by intrusive negative thoughts about your employer or government policy. And so mindfulness can become a counsel of passivity, as well as a mental medication to distract our attention from underlying problems. An institutional population may be offered the anti-stress benefits of mindfulness rather than the removal of the stressors that have made it stressed in the first place.

However, the Buddhist practice of  mindfulness meditation has nothing to do with blocking out intrusive negative thoughts. Just the opposite, actually. Mindfulness is being mindful of everything, including pain, stress, and negative thoughts. Blocking anything out, ignoring what’s actually going on in your body, emotions, and thoughts is the opposite of mindfulness.

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Mindfulness often is described as a whole body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. Sometimes people ask how they can be mindful and also make plans and schedules. But one can make plans and schedules mindfully.

Consider that Buddhist monastic life tends to be rigidly scheduled. All day long bells and drums signal when it’s time to get up, to assemble for meditation, to cook the next meal or begin alms rounds. But within that container of scheduling one can remain fully mindful, fully embodying the moment and the activity.

On the other hand, you can be as spontaneous as a leaf in the wind and still be oblivious to yourself and everything else. Living for the moment is not the same thing as living in the moment.

See also “The Four Foundations of Mindfuless.”

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