Mindfulness has moved beyond its earlier status as a religious practice to become a multibillion dollar industry. The top app of 2017 on the Apple App Store was Calm, a meditation app; companies, sports teams, and the military utilize it to improve their performance; and Amazon lists over 1,000 books on the topic. Dr. Mark Epstein, who is both a Buddhist and a psychiatrist, has long been been both a practitioner and a proponent of mindfulness. He writes of the various ways it impacts both his work and his understanding of the mind in his new book Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself. Advice Not Given is organized around the Eightfold Path of Buddhism: Right View, Right Motivation, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. The book represents Epstein’s best efforts yet to describe a Buddhist psychodynamic psychology, and revisiting the religious roots of mindfulness offers both encouragement to those who find the practice difficult and a challenge for those who see it as only another means of boosting performance or increasing focus. The following three bits of advice are particularly pertinent for both beginners and seasoned meditators.
Mindfulness is a journey, not a destination.
Most of current mindfulness practice focuses on developing the practice itself. One begins with short bursts of time and works to integrate it into the rhythm of the day. Seen in this light, mindfulness can become analogous to a medication, taken twice a day for twenty minutes at a time to alleviate depression, anxiety, or a host of other ills. According to Epstein, though, within Buddhism mindfulness is never seen as a destination in itself. He relates a parable told by the Buddha that compares mindfulness to “a raft made of grass, sticks, and leaves that helps someone cross a great water. ‘What should be done with the raft once you have gotten across?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘Should you carry it with you for the rest of your life or put it down by the side of the riverbank?’” Mindfulness works best when it is seen as a means of living a full, contented life rather than another thing to add to a daily to-do list.
Being still with your thoughts is not the only way to be mindful.
While mindfulness is seen as a way to quiet the mind, all of us have at one point or another sat down only to find that our minds are moving much faster than we had anticipated. For those with anxiety especially, the idea of being alone with one’s thoughts can be overwhelming at first. Epstein does not recommend that one buckle down and push through such moments. Rather, he relates a story of discussing meditation induced anxiety with the Dalai Lama’s physician to find that Buddhism was quite familiar with the phenomenon. For those who find meditation to be suffused with dread, “Tibetan doctors have such afflicted patients do simple tasks like sweeping the temple halls or chopping vegetables in the kitchen rather than prescribing more meditation. They know that they treatment for meditation-induced anxiety disorders is less meditation, not more.” If the idea of meditating just seems like too much, bring the same focused attention to bear on doing your household activities, and in the process you will find your mind settling down to rest.
Inner peace can become another addiction.
We turn to mindfulness to turn down the noise of our lives, to reduce the cravings that beset us. It is only natural to grow attached to the feeling of all-pervasive calm that often results from mindfulness, but Epstein warns that this can also become an addiction. Epstein’s Buddhist teachers told him the story of a man who completed a three-month silent retreat to come running back to them screaming “It didn’t work, it didn’t work” once he returned to his everyday life. No matter how long we meditate, invariably we return back to the hurried rhythms of our daily existence. Mindfulness should not be seen as an escape from our daily routines but rather a way of being more present to our experiences that enables us to no longer feel overwhelmed by them.
Mindfulness has helped millions of people of all religious backgrounds, and Epstein would not disagree that this has been a good thing. Taking a look at the religious roots of mindfulness reveals that many of the problems that beset us in our mindfulness practices are not new but have been known for centuries. For those looking to explore the idea of a Buddhist psychology in greater depth, Epstein has been writing on the topic since his first book was published in 1995. Advice Not Given is one of his best to date and a perfect place to start.
Epstein, M. (2018). Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself. New York: Penguin.