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Monday, November 17, 2014

Secular Mindfulness, A Buddhist Blind Spot?

There is much rumbling and grumbling in Buddhist circles around the so-called secular use of mindfulness with Buddhist ethical principles stripped away for what some Buddhists perceive to be unethical ends. Clark Strand, in a recent article on, recalls that during the 1970s and 1980s Buddhists didn't object to Vipassana meditation being taught outside of official Buddhist circles. Now, however, mindfulness is being taught to employees to help them work more efficiently (sometimes for lower pay), to the the US military both to teach them to be more efficient killers and to treat PTSD upon their return, and somehow being used by the 1% to control the outcome of elections and thereby the 99% of us.

I have three questions: Is he right in his assessment that there is a problem? Perhaps more importantly, is this abnormal or should these complaining Buddhists have seen this coming? Finally, is this something that can be controlled? I will address those questions one at a time.

Is he right that there is a problem? Frankly, my answer to that question depends upon which specific example one is talking about. I feel it's important to point out that his assessment that mindfulness training makes soldiers more efficient killers is biased, clearly springing from prejudice against the military. While I am no fan of war, I would submit that mindfulness is equally likely to keep soldiers alive because they become more aware of their surroundings and the danger that lurks in those surroundings. If we are going to send young men and women to war, aren't we obligated to do everything we can to ensure their safe return? Regarding elections, I feel an honest examination would reveal that campaign finances and the misleading advertisements placed on radio and TV have a lot more to do with unfairly influencing election outcomes than corporate mindfulness training ever could. Television and radio simply reach more people.

In the case of corporate mindfulness training, it may well be true that the goal is to increase productivity without increasing pay. Wouldn't, however, a mindful employee also more easily discern what their corporate employer is attempting to do to them and so be better equipped to refuse? Also, I find the assumption that since the Buddhist moral teachings are not included with secular mindfulness training the result is that you have an employee devoid of moral and ethical training to be more than a bit of a leap. It's not as if these employees were raised in a vacuum, after all. Many of them have had moral or ethical instruction from other sources in their lives, whether formal or informal, from parents, religious training, and other educational and interpersonal sources. Corporations would be hard pressed to hire people who are tabula rosa regarding morality.

Is this abnormal or should Buddhists have seen this coming? How many people wear Christian jewelry while having no current involvement in Christian practice? How many people, if only in times of stress, pray for relief - and how many of those people haven't seen the inside of a Church for years? How many people attend classical music concerts in which sacred music is played and enjoyed, yet have to interest in stepping in a church? There should be no surprise that the Buddhist mindfulness teachings have found their way to secular America. In fact, I want to say that I find the distinction between sacred and secular to be a false distinction, and those Buddhists who insist such a distinction exists are either Buddhist fundamentalists or haven't understood the Buddha's teachings very well. How ironic is it that Buddhists, who follow the Buddha and who often point out with pride that Buddha was silent on the notion of a creator God (which is fine with me, by the way) should object to their teachings being used in a secular context?

Our final question is whether or not this can be controlled. I would first like to say that those people raising these concerns seem to display more than a little attachment to the outcomes of these teachings, and from my understanding of Buddhist teachings, that's problematic. I don't believe that the trend can be controlled as long as it has the desired results among those that promote the teachings. If we don't like the teachings being promoted in secular settings without ethical teachings accompanying them, it would be more effective to start teaching ethics in a secular setting than wasting our energy trying to stop the mindfulness teachings. We should direct our energies toward what is possible and what will change the outcomes rather than stand around wringing our hands like a Christian fundamentalist who has just discovered their child listening to Ozzy Osborne music. We can only take that kind of effective action, however, when we let go of our attachment to outcomes. Anything less is the most impotent kind of fundamentalism that exists.

What is really happening here is a normal consequence of a religion gaining popularity in contemporary culture. Some practices and principles cross into the secular arena. Whether or not that is desirable, it is in fact normal. Rather than try to stop the trend, Buddhists would be better advised to consider how to respond to the trend in a way that reduces whatever damage they believe had been done. A good place to start would be by clearly saying that mindfulness in a Buddhist context is quite a different thing than what is being taught in other contexts and then working to educate people about the differences. That has started in some places, and should replace the wringing of hands in others.

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