Let’s Be Mindful About Mindfulness

by Philip Goldberg

A great deal of print and digital space has been devoted to “mindfulness” recently. The word appears on magazine covers, lifestyle reports in newspapers and television, and when research uncovers another health benefit of a mindfulness practice, it appears not only in scientific journals but is reported in the mass media.

All this attention that mindfulness currently commands can only be considered a good thing. The more people are aware of the crucial importance of cultivating beneficial mental states the better. At the same time, much of the coverage of mindfulness has been rather mindless, and it detracts from the larger purpose when incomplete information spreads and misconceptions become common wisdom. So, I’d like to make a few points.

2014-02-07-Time020314-thumbFirst, it’s important to have a historical perspective. Time magazine, for instance, published a cover story a few months ago titled “The Mindful Revolution.” The fact is, the revolution began more than a century ago. That’s how long yogic mental practices from India and the Buddhist cultures of Asia have been coming to the West. And the public excitement and scientific interest is also not new. Time itself published at least two previous cover stories about the value of Eastern spiritual disciplines. In 1975, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi adorned the cover, with the headline “Meditation: The Answer to All Your Problems?” That was when startling scientific research findings moved Transcendental Meditation from the counterculture to the mainstream. And in 2003, actress Heather Graham decorated a Time cover, meditating with her eyes closed and her neckline plunging to her heart chakra. That headline read: “The Science of Meditation,” accompanied by this reading line, “New Age mumbo jumbo? Not for millions of Americans who meditate for health and well-being.” How different is that from this year’s cover, with another attractive, albeit anonymous, meditator gracing the cover, and the copy reading, “The science of finding focus in a stressed-out, multi-tasking culture”?

Countless other publications and TV shows have delivered the same message for decades now: Scientific research shows that practices adapted from Asia’s yogis, monks and sages are beneficial adjuncts to modern life. The details change over time, as techniques come into and out of vogue and investigative tools get more and more sophisticated. But the message is basically the same. I’m not complaining, mind you: while it may seem old hat to many of us, the message needs to be refreshed from time to time for each new wave of stressed-out, tensed-up, sleep-deprived citizens—not only in the West, but in the fast-rising cultures where these practices originated, which are embracing Western economic and technological models without necessarily considering the side effects. I only wish that the coverage had some historical perspective instead of making it seem that the “mindfulness revolution” began yesterday.

My other concern is perhaps more significant. Mainstream reporting on the subject on inner directed mental practices – and on yoga in general – is careless. In fact, it always has been. And while we expect that reporters, with their limited knowledge and limited space and time, will fail to make crucial distinctions, it is unfortunate that scientists do as well.

Nowadays, to be specific, the word “mindfulness” is being used as a catch-all term for every method involving the use of attention. The assumption is that all such practices involve focusing, e.g., making an effort to concentrate on some object of perception. There are several problems with this.

First, a wide variety of practices are being subsumed under the umbrella term “mindfulness.” In truth, these disciplines are practiced differently, and therefore they can be expected to yield different results. To assume otherwise is a fallacy, yet the techniques are described as if they are all pretty much the same. That is misleading at best, and damaging at worst.

Some practices that are properly labeled mindfulness are done while the practitioner is actively moving about; some are performed sitting or lying down quietly; some are done with eyes open; some are done with eyes closed. The objects of attention employed also vary: inanimate objects; human beings; sounds, sights, and tastes; breath; thoughts and feelings; mantras, etc.

Some methods demand intense focus on the object of attention, while others call for a gentler kind of concentration. The spectrum of effort reflected in the instructions is much wider than the average person would imagine, and that very important nuance is rarely mentioned in the media coverage.

Another source of confusion is that the word “mindfulness” is now being used to describe every type of meditation practice, even those for which the term is a bad fit. Mindfulness implies focusing on an object of concentration, and some forms of meditation do not require that at all. In fact, it is more accurate to call them mindemptiness practices, because they are meant to take the attention beyond sensory and mental experience to the realm of absolute silence. And that is the highest purpose of yoga, is it not? As I interpret it, the key verse in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yogash chitta vritti nirodhah (1:2), points to the complete cessation of mental activity, not focusing attention on a sensory object or a thought, which is after all a mental activity.

That’s why some yogic meditation practices specifically counsel against focusing the mind. Take, for instance, the now-familiar use of Sanksrit mantras. Not only are different mantras used in different teaching traditions, and not only are they assigned according to different sets of criteria, they are also used differently. Some practices demand rigorous concentration on a mantra; others are less intense, and treat the drifting mind gently; and still others are so effortless as to involve no concentration or focus at all. Indeed, teachers of the best-known mantra-based practice in the West, Transcendental Meditation, repeatedly instruct students not to concentrate, and not to focus.

Now that “mindfulness” and “meditation” are household words in the English-speaking world, it is important that we understand the differences among the various techniques we’ve imported from the Hindu and Buddhist repertoires. It should also be assumed that differences in practice will lead to differences in outcome, and until recently even scientists studying these disciplines assumed the opposite. Fortunately, that is changing, and those nuanced differences are being sorted out in laboratories. One hopes that the media will catch on soon.

Those of us who teach and write about yoga should be vigilant in making sure the public has a clear grasp of the value of mental practices and the differences among various methods. Only then will we be able to adapt them to the modern way of life without distorting, diluting or corrupting them. And only by being well-informed and discerning can practitioners make the best use of these precious teachings.

philip_goldbergAbout Philip Goldberg:

Philip Goldberg has been studying India’s spiritual traditions for more than forty years, as both a practitioner and an author. He is the author or coauthor of nineteen books, including Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path and his latest, American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, which was named one of the top ten religion books of the year by both the Huffington Post and the American Library Association’s Booklist. For his work on American Veda, Philip was given an Award of Special Distinction by the Uberoi Foundation. As a public speaker and workshop leader, he has given presentations at venues throughout the country and has appeared in national media. An ordained Interfaith Minister and spiritual counselor, he blogs regularly on the Huffington Post and Elephant Journal. His websites are www.AmericanVeda.com and www.PhilipGoldberg.com.

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