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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Eat The Rich? To Whom Does Mindfulness Belong?

There are more than a few Buddhists who are upset that mindfulness is finding its way into corporate America. Recently protesters disrupted the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco in protest of Google using mindfulness trainings with its employees, apparently feeling that mindfulness can be somehow corrupted when not taught with "Buddhist values." It's a refrain I've been hearing a lot lately, sometimes even from Buddhist teachers. The fear is that somehow corporate America will use mindfulness techniques in their employees to make them more loyal cogs in the machine, better able to concentrate on their duties and tasks and turning them into even bigger automatons than they already are. They say that without the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path mindfulness becomes some sort of value neutral concentration technique that can be used for good or evil, depending on the will and motivations of the teacher.

This sounds an awful lot like fundamentalism to me.

What does mindfulness do? Essentially, mindfulness puts us more directly in touch with reality, with our thoughts and feelings. We see the reality of our circumstances more clearly, and are better able to make responsible decisions and take responsible actions because we aren't responding in a knee jerk way to distorted impressions of reality - at least, that's the eventual goal. It's fair enough to say it takes more than a couple weeks of practice to see dramatic changes in our decision making ability. It has also been said that we see more clearly the suffering in the world, both our own and the suffering of others, and so become motivated to respond compassionately to suffering wherever we encounter it.

None of this is dependent on Buddhist ethics, because mindfulness and meditation predate Buddhism. The Buddha didn't invent mindfulness, mindfulness meditation was a part of the Hindu tradition in which he was raised. We don't see Hindu adepts running around criticizing Buddhism for "stealing" meditation from them without accepting the entirety of the Hindu cosmology! What's more, mindfulness and meditation are a part of every major religious tradition, though perhaps under a different name. One could argue that for as long as there has been spirituality there has been a desire to sit in the silence and pay attention to what is happening in our mind.

Even Thich Nhat Hahn, when asked about meditation in a corporate setting in the winter 2013 edition of The Shambhala Sun, has said that mindfulness in corporate America is a good thing because as people become more mindful they will be less willing to take action that harms people or the environment. In other words, such values are innate human values and they will emerge from mindfulness regardless of the spiritual context (or lack of one) in which it is practiced!

There is something inside of us called ego that wants to mark our territory. It leads us to build institutions around our religions so that we can protect and preserve them just as they are - and in doing so we strangle the life from them. The people objecting to mindfulness in the boardroom are simply trying to trademark their "technique," perhaps so that people will have to come to their meditation group if they want to learn mindfulness. It's the same faulty thinking that led the Roman Catholic Church to declare itself the "one true church," no matter how many people left it and found authentic church elsewhere. There is something very western about all of this, and also more than a little irony that in a spiritual tradition that recognizes the need to dismantle ego a cadre of "true believers" has arisen to keep mindfulness out of the hands of the heathen - no matter how much it might benefit them and society. Can a mindful person dump toxic waste? I doubt it.

We all would do well to hold our spiritual traditions, values, and techniques loosely. They don't belong to us because we didn't invent them, we simply appropriated them along the way - just as corporate America is doing with mindfulness now. We cannot really control where our traditions go or how they evolve. Believing we can is a rejection of the Buddhist concept of impermanence, that everything changes all the time. It would seem that those who are upset about the use of mindfulness without Buddhist teaching and values are forgetting more than a little of that teaching themselves!

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