I have practiced mindfulness meditation for almost 20 years. I started practicing mindfulness meditation way back in 1994, after reading the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Being Peace.
Between 1994 and 2000, my sister and I gave each other Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, and we tried to apply his teachings on mindfulness to our lives. In 2000, my sister and I went on a retreat at Plum Village, the monastery where Thich Nhat Hanh lives and teaches. We were there for several weeks, and our experiences there were life-changing. I’ve written about the retreat in my post: Trying out Zen medicine.
I credit mindfulness meditation with helping me to become healthy again after years of struggling with debilitating flares of inflammatory bowel disease. With mindfulness, I learned to listen to my body and to my intuition in ways that supported my physical and mental health. I also learned how to relate to strong emotions, even if they still take me for a roller-coaster ride at times. Importantly, during some of the most difficult times of my life, I felt the support of the Sangha, the community of mindfulness practitioners.
I am something of a poster-child for how mindfulness can help people to experience less stress, less illness and more joy and freedom in life. But I want to be clear — especially with the upsurge of mindfulness as a panacea for just about every ailment in modern life — it wasn’t just mindfulness that helped me.
I have gone through mindfulness instructor training and I have taught mindfulness to people in my community for some years. In recent months, I have felt aversion when I hear the word “mindfulness” or read about it in the media. I perceive that mindfulness has become spa-mindfulness in a large marketplace. When I first left Plum Village, back in 2000, I thought about how wonderful it would be for there to be a mindfulness movement to help people to stop and breathe throughout the day. But now that there is a mindfulness movement, I find I am distancing myself from the generic mindfulness that has become a buzz word in society.
I believe that the difference between mindfulness grounded in Buddhism (or another ethical framework) and generic mindfulness is like comparing oranges on an orange tree with Tropicana orange juice. There are so many expectations and misunderstandings about what mindfulness is, and people involved in other wellness professions seem to be adding mindfulness to their repertoire haphazardly.
I’m not alone in this aversion. There are quite a few Buddhists out there who have similar feelings. Some mindfulness pracitioners say that the Buddhists can’t seem to get over how mindfulness has become secular, and we Buddhists have got to let go. I think also there was nothing to hold on to in the first place. Westernerns have chosen “mindfulness” as a word for “smrti” or “sati,” which did not exactly mean “mindfulness” in Sanskrit and Pali (read more here).
Westerners have also focused on mindfulness as being non-judgmental and involving bare attention, and yet mindfulness does involve a form of judgment, discernment (especially between wholesome and unwholesome states of mind). We choose ethical behaviors based on right mindfulness. So if mindfulness is reduced to a stress-reduction technique, the world loses out.
I’m all for people having less stress in their lives, and now that I am a mom, I understand the unique stresses involved in child-raising. Being a mom and dealing with physical challenges (even if I am in remission) makes stress management even more important in my life. I understand why mindfulness has become so appealing on a mass scale.
I’ve also worked in public health. I know the stats on women’s health. We are more prone to chronic illness and chronic pain and depression than men are. So why not learn mindfulness instead of taking pills or getting surgery, which might not actually be necessary?
As a form of seventh generation medicine — that is, a form of medicine that has little to no impact on the environment — mindfulness is tops. We now have a mind-body technique that is sanctioned by western medicine, and even prescribed by some physicians. There are randomized controlled trials and meta-analyses and all that jazz that shows that mindfulness meditation seems to help many people with a wide range of conditions, from people with anxiety to people with cancer to people with ADHD.
So why do we need anything more?
I like Tropicana orange juice. It quenches my thirst. It is relatively tasty for orange juice that is not freshly squeezed. It supports my health with electrolytes and important vitamins such as vitamin C and folate. But I’d still rather eat a whole orange that I’ve picked off of a tree.
I define mindfulness and teach mindfulness in a way that keeps it tethered to an ethical and philosophical framework. We are dependent upon one another, wherever we are in this world, and we have responsibilities as global citizens. Right mindfulness can be a guiding force in our decisions and activities. It can help us to reach outside of ourselves and feel part of something larger, whether that be a community or a family or a world of beings. It can also help us do right by others.
Interestingly, the research on mindfulness meditation has focused almost exclusively on individual-level factors, and yet mindfulness is usually taught in groups. Maybe it is not just the mindfulness practice, but the mindfulness practice in combination with being together, that makes it most effective. Indeed, Thich Nhat Hanh has long stated that we can easily lose our practice without a community, which is called a sangha in Buddhist practice:
“A practitioner who leaves the sangha is like a tiger who has left the mountains and gone down to the plains. If the animal does that, he will be killed by humans; and if the practitioner of meditation does not take refuge in a community, in a sangha, he will abandon his practice after a few months. Thus a sangha is absolutely necessary for continuing one’s practice.”
We need more than mindfulness to be healthy. We need more than mindfulness to reduce suffering in the world at large.
We need each other.