By John Author
I stood there smiling when the new book arrived. I cracked it open and took a deep whiff of the crisp pages. There’s nothing quite like the smell of a fresh book.
I took my nose out of the book and perused the cover. It’s adorned by a little guy wearing a tie. He’s sitting cross-legged, and there’s a delighted grin on his face. There are also several wires hooked to his head connecting him to monitors or TVs. He’s flanked by curious scientists who are possibly trying to see the effects of meditation on the brain.
The book is What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t). It was edited by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magid, and features essays from 13 different writers.
The first part of the book focuses on potentially toxic mindfulness practices. The authors all agree that mindfulness can be useless, or potentially dangerous when taken out of a Buddhist perspective.
Mindfulness outside of a Buddhist context can easily fall prey to gainful thinking. It’s easy to slip into greed and aversion if there isn’t a close-knit Sangha, or reliable guide on hand.
Therapeutic mindfulness carries with it the shadowy delusions of attainment as well. However, the writers treat therapy more kindly than the New Age and McMindfulness movements. The New Age movement tends to offer the practitioner a buffet of practices, each one applied for a short period of time. The buffet approach stifles the cultivation of mindfulness, which is supposed to be a lifelong practice.
The McMindfulness movement is largely a manipulative device used by employers to get more bang for their buck. The employer’s focus is on time management and efficiency, so they don’t really care if the practitioner doesn’t have everything they need to flourish in their practice. The second part focuses on personal experiences people have had with mindfulness. The essayists recount their mindful journeys along the Path.
Part one is more informative, but I prefer part two because the essays have an almost intimate atmosphere to them. If part one is like a lecture hall presentation, then part two is like a quiet corner table conversation.
Also, the authors’ views on what’s wrong with mindfulness each tend to orbit the same stance; their views on what’s right with mindfulness tend to be more diverse.
The writers come from many different intellectual and spiritual backgrounds, so there is something for everyone in this book. I’d recommend it to all mindfulness students whether you’re a monastic, lay Buddhist, or secularist.
Even though they target the potential risks involved in the secularization of Buddhist practice, most of the authors feel that Secular Buddhism is the shape Buddhadharma is taking in the West. If practitioners are mindful of the risks involved in this acculturation, then maybe we can create something beautiful.
I was actually on the fence about Secular Buddhism before reading this book and speaking with a Secular Buddhist friend. I desperately clung to the traditional elements of Buddhism, yet Buddhism changes wherever it goes. Buddhism always experiences growing pains when it takes root in a new culture, but some of the writers hope that these growing pains will push us into a fresh approach to the Buddhadharma.
The major risk is separating mindfulness from its Buddhist roots, which includes severing it from its ethical standards. Mindfulness can be a detrimental practice if it’s devoid of ethics. If we take the Buddha out of Buddhism, then we’re leaving ourselves open to all kinds of setbacks, selfishness, and spiritual materialism.
What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t) does a fantastic job of detailing these setbacks and offering a clear picture of what earnest practice looks like.
Photo: Wisdom Publications
Editor: Peter Schaller
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”