The Mindfulness Illusion

In recent days popular news organizations in the United States have picked up a story on how mindfulness practice and its benefits are hyped to the point of misinformation.  In a series of stories and reactions, people across the internet are weighing in on the question: is mindfulness meditation an effective method for transforming our lives?

In the magazine Psychology Today, Peggilee Wupperman writes about the situation, stating that “It depends.”  The article offers insights into the difference between mindfulness training and psychological counseling as methods for dealing with problems in our lives.

The original peer-reviewed article establishes that, in fact, the claims of some mindfulness practitioners are hyped beyond the actual benefits of the training.  The article states, “Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed.”  In a nutshell, claims of a peaceful, stress-free experience through mindfulness meditation is limited and, in some cases, dangerous.

While my limited experience with these topics does not even compare to the thousands who practice mindfulness meditation, what I do know is that meditation does not lead one to some peaceful, gracious place of bliss.  Quite the contrary, meditation brings up all sorts of demons hiding in our minds, opening us to some of the worst (and best) experiences that we often relive by breathing and sitting on a cushion or in a chair.  Some of the worst mental experiences of my life have been when I was in the midst of some form of meditation.

Too, the benefits of mediation as taught by some mindfulness practitioners are completely detached from the source of mindfulness training and the whole purpose behind it: to become aware and awake so that we can take on the suffering of others.  Meditation and mindfulness has as one of its goals the expression helping everyone BUT ourselves.  That the entire point of mindfulness is not even our own mind!  Sure, our mind does have something to do with it, but the whole point of training is not about our own experience, selves, or, frankly, anything to do with us.  It’s about helping those who are suffering.

The truly powerful goal of meditation and mind training is to care for those around us and in the world (all sentient beings).  As Dilgo Khyentse said in Enlightened Courage, “Enlightenment will be ours when we are able to care for others as much as we now care for ourselves, and ignore ourselves to the same extent that we now ignore others.” (29)  This giving and taking is a central part of meditation practice and is the one thing that appears to be missing from the mindfulness training that so many promote.

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Dilgo Khyentse from Shechen.org

Digging a bit deeper, the root text of this teaching comes from Chekawa Yeshe Dorje.  Living in the 12th century in Tibet, this teacher expounded on the view that the heart of mahayana practice and Buddhist meditation was in the practice of Bodhicitta.  In that practice one exchanges oneself for others.  The idea can be a literal exchange, offering your body in exchange for someone else, or through meditation exchanging someone’s suffering for your happiness.  The idea  here is that self-cherishing, protecting oneself over others, is one root cause of our own suffering.  Once we let go of self-cherishing we can find the freedom we seek.  We no longer cling to the idea that we are a unique self; in fact, we become one with those who suffer, taking on that suffering and freeing them from samsara.

This one passage in the root text offers some perspective:

To free yourself from harm
And others from their sufferings,
Give away yourself for others;
Guard others as you would protect yourself.

Chekawa’s description of helping yourself is to “give away” yourself in a very specific and rational way.  Stories abound in Vajrayana and Buddhist teachings about people giving away parts of their body to help others; to carve off a piece of flesh for a starving dog, for example.  These stories tell us that we can give away ourselves in service to others, thereby aiding their suffering and serving the purpose of reaching a state of being in which “self” becomes meaningless and care of others becomes primary.

Of course, we all struggle with this idea.  I imagine that if mindfulness meditation teachers starting espousing the idea that we give ourselves completely to someone else’s suffering many would not attend those meditation sessions.  And, the truth is that wouldn’t be surprising.  How many of us (me included) are not constantly worrying about ourselves?  Our health and well being; hell that’s the whole point of what many of us know as mindfulness meditation!  We are helping ourselves overcome stress and achieve a state of calm.  What a terrible thought that what we think we are doing is, in fact, the very opposite of what we need to do….to give away ourselves rather than nurture it!  Yikes!

As I’ve tried to navigate these waters for the past few years, I take heart in the words of Dilgo Khyentse, Dzongar Jamyang Khentsye and Sogyal Rinpoche who talk about giving and taking, who have taught the tonglen and Lojong practices, and have opened the door to a different way of seeing meditation.   I owe a huge debt of gratitude to those teachers who offered a perspective that goes against the grain of mindfulness and actually opened my mind to a process and practice that, while very difficult to accomplish, is nonetheless powerful and transformative.

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