By Brent R. Oliver
Mindfulness is everything and everywhere.
It’s bigger than the new black. It’s heathier than Paleo. It’s better for you than yoga and Cross Fit and cupping. It’s more widespread than STDs and twice as contagious.
Before reading this article, I bet you’ve already encountered the word “mindfulness” today, whether online, in a magazine or from the bubbly vegan microwaving something suspicious in the office breakroom. Of course, if you’re reading The Tattooed Buddha, you may be into that sort of shit so perhaps my imaginary stats are skewed. Either way, mindfulness has become one of the buzziest words out there and it’s been shoved into so many aspects of modern life that it threatens to lose meaning entirely.
When mindfulness first became popular, I was proudly disdainful. As a practiced scoffer, I had no trouble cranking up some self-righteousness indignation.
“That’s just one aspect of the Eightfold Path,” I said. “It’s not enough for liberation by itself. Where are the ethics? Where are the skillful means…the wisdom? Pffft.”
I acted all conciliatory, like “I see what it’s trying to do but…”
You know how people do that? Pretend to concede a point while just trying to seem gracious so they can wade in with their (obviously correct) viewpoint?
Yeah. That was me.
I was never under the ridiculous notion that meditation and mindfulness belonged solely to Buddhism. But using mindfulness to chill out and get ahead at work seemed a lot like using the Hubble to peep through your cute neighbor’s window when she’s undressing. I wanted enlightened motherfuckers running around, not slightly more laid-back motherfuckers.
Plus, I was jealous.
One day, secular mindfulness wasn’t even there; the next it was spreading like a middle-class plague. Every home in mainstream America suddenly had mindfulness running hot and cold, and pouring out of the TV and internet.
And yet Buddhism, which contained mindfulness and so much more, didn’t enjoy a similar boom in popularity. It just sat there numbly as mindfulness was excised from its body and vaulted to smiling superstardom. Buddhism remained in the corner—a forgotten organ donor.
I tried to get people into it without being pushy, which made me sound kind of like a weird-ass drug dealer.
“Hey, man, you into mindfulness? You should check out Buddhism, bro. It’s the whole package. I got some right over here.”
Alas, Buddhism remained a seldom explored commodity while Google, Aetna and the U.S. military scooped up mindfulness and peddled it to our consumer-fetish culture.
“Great,” I thought. “Ruthless, stress-free CEOs grabbing more cash and calm, focused snipers out there offing people.”
I huffed around for a few years, bad-mouthing modern mindfulness and its creeping, kudzu tendrils ensnarling everything. I wasted far too many Facebook posts, tweets and countless breaths trying to keep mindfulness in its place.
Then I realized it was already in its place.
Mindfulness may be just one tool in Buddhism’s toolbox, but not everyone who picks up a hammer wants to be a carpenter. They don’t have to lug the whole goddamn box around if they just need to pound a few nails.
I used to sneer at those picture-hangers, those casual repairmen, those Ikea meditators and their pre-fab system. I thought they were selling themselves way short by not trying to completely destroy their suffering and wallow in the pure, clear light of awakening. I also knew that meditation could be dangerous without adult supervision. It can lead you to some deeply dark places if you don’t have an accessible teacher or supportive community (it’s easy to get stuck in those dark places).
But most of all I was pissed at the faceless, soulless corporations that were offering mindfulness training to their employees to eke more productivity out of them.
They were using a handy trend to exploit overworked, highly-stressed people in order to improve their bottom line. And the employees themselves wouldn’t reap much (if any) reward for increasing their bosses’ bank accounts. Their payback would simply be a method to try to remain calm and focused while more anxiety and tasks came down the corporate pipe.
Frankly, this still pisses me off.
I simply can’t believe these enormous corporations legitimately care about the health and welfare of their employees and are providing this training out of that concern. We’ve all watched the horrors Corporate America has visited upon the rest of us over the decades. We’ve seen them lie and steal on a colossal level that’s almost unimaginable. We’ve seen them cheat people and destroy their lives, crash the economy, and use their leverage to control politics and legislation.
Fuck, we’ve watched them become people. And mindfulness is their newest way to keep the masses sedated so they don’t rise up and storm the towers. Happier slaves chained to heavier desks.
Mindfulness may keep the drones more focused and content with their lower-tier lot in life but it probably won’t generate the insights necessary to revolt.
That’s not the whole story, of course. Even though mindfulness can be used to buttress materialism, pacify employees and advance corporate profits, that’s not all it’s doing. I’m sure plenty of people have developed a deep and sturdy meditation practice after attending a mindfulness workshop at their job. I’m equally sure that, no matter the method of exposure, millions of people have benefited from contact with this stuff.
That’s because mindfulness and meditation are medicine.
They are methods of becoming healthy, and everyone needs a different dosage of that medicine based on their health goals. I’m fat and out of shape and I don’t want to be either. So I’ve started eating better and getting a moderate amount of exercise. I want to lose weight but not my breath when I walk to the mailbox. My goals are modest compared to someone who wants to run a marathon.
Likewise, people who do mindfulness meditation 20 minutes a day but have no interest in Buddhism or spiritual liberation have a humbler goal compared to my “get enlightened or die tryin” approach. They need a lower dosage. They could want to be happier with their job, which may or may not be of the crushingly evil corporate type. Maybe they want to be more focused in school, mitigate panic attacks, or treat chronic pain. If they’re having problems with their kids, maybe they feel mindfulness could help with that.
I think the modern mindfulness movement is ultimately doomed to spiritual mediocrity because it pursues goals and measures results, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Everyone has different needs.
Mindfulness can obviously reinforce the capitalist status quo and keep workers trapped in the cycle of suffering and greed, as I keep mentioning every few paragraphs. But it can also make them better adjusted, decent human beings. Even if they never quit the job that might be squeezing their spirit, they can deepen their essential happiness.
And that helps us all.
Meditation is all about finding the right dosage for us. Some of us need it to break through all our pathetic illusions and see the ground of reality for what it is and become fully enlightened mega-beings who teach others to be free. That’s a high dosage. Some of us need it to become better fathers, mothers, spouses, brothers, and sisters. Maybe we need it to get along better with our parents or coworkers or that asshole teller at the bank. That’s a lower dosage.
It doesn’t matter. Find your dosage.
Editor: Dana Gornall
Brent is a coach in Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system because it’s just such an approach. He works with individuals interested in everything from alleviating stress to pursuing classical enlightenment. He also coaches groups, and offers presentations to companies, schools, and organizations curious about the benefits of mindfulness. In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website brentpurpleoliver.com for more information.