The Problem with Mindfulness
Mindfulness has become watered-down in its transfer to the West
Posted Jan 10, 2021
One of my life passions is mindfulness: not only the practice, but using it in my therapy with clients, reading about it, and writing about it, too. That said, there are issues with the current conceptualization and practice of mindfulness in the US. Not enough people are discussing negative experiences with mindfulness. It happens often and here I discuss part of what I see as the main problem.
It's no surprise that we live in a consumerist, capitalist country where health trends are vulnerable to commodification. Mindfulness isn't immune to this, and it's not all bad. Every week or two a new mindfulness app seems to emerge and many of them aim for monthly subscription money. Many of them, such as 10% Happier, Waking Up, Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer are very effective (it depends how you use them) and there's a lot you can do for free on them.
Mindfulness is also all over the news, magazines and now it's in many shows like Billions on Showtime. This is mostly good news; don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan. Mindfulness is a timely and valid public health revolution and can help many people as society at large live calmer and more connected lives. That said, it's time to acknowledge the impact of its constant repackaging, taking it further away from its true origins, like a game of "telephone."
Many mindfulness teachers, authors, and practitioners (including myself) have taken its culture-specific concepts and practices and made them our own. While this is part of effective teaching, it can have unintended consequences. For example, its well-known definition, cited constantly all over mindfulness literature, is "paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment with non-judgment, curiosity, acceptance & openness" (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, p. 44). This "westernization" of mindfulness is most notable when it's centered on one's own well-being (individualist) in the US, whereas in Asia, where it started, it's geared to the well-being of others (collectivist). For example, we find the practice of Naikan, a variation of mindfulness in Japan, which is based on other-directedness, and is thus actually a kindness/compassion practice, instead of egocentrism that can worsen suffering. Mindfulness in the US has become increasingly stripped from its original context of Buddhism in Asia; part of an overall philosophical and life doctrine of living morally and ethically in community, so it could survive and spread in appeal to a largely to a, individualist, secular, goal-driven, and capitalist public.
So, in its current westernized form, the following questions become germane: how has the Westernization of mindfulness altered its meaning? Can it really be transmitted cross-culturally without major problems? Mindfulness was meant to eliminate greed, hate, delusion, and cultivate wisdom and compassion, but this isn't this how it's usually practiced in the US. The Buddhist idea is that the path to enlightenment starts with recognizing the inevitability of suffering to being human.
Problematically, in the West, mindfulness is increasingly sold as a solution to suffering and answer to happiness as stated above. The consumerist and capitalist, neoliberal aspect of mindfulness we see in the US seems at odds with the goals of mindfulness and its Buddhist roots. There's an obvious tension between Western individualism that seeks to aggrandize the personal self and the Buddhist notion of the illusoriness and impermanence of Self. True mindfulness practitioners know that investment in a transitory self creates suffering, but this individualism runs rampant in the US. It behooves us to explore how to reconcile these two polarizing forces when practicing mindfulness in the West.
Kirmayer (2015) mirrored these points: “For Buddhism, the end lies in seeing through the delusions of self that is so deeply attached to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain” (p. 461). So if we overlook context and origin, we risk practicing and spreading a watered-down mindfulness. Context, I believe, is where its wisdom resides. In this way, mindfulness risks becoming a tool to pursue possibly unhealthy goals that can constrain consciousness (Kirmayer, 2015).
For most people who identify as Buddhist, Buddhism is as an ethical system and collective identity that routinely includes prayer and various forms of ritual and communal practice (Kirmayer, 2015). The myriad ways mindfulness has been packaged for individual consumption, in and out of health care settings, can fail to convey the essential background needed for mindfulness practice to achieve its purpose.
In sum, in the US happiness is often framed in terms of neoliberal consumer capitalism and efficiency; "feeling good" itself can all too easily become both commodity and goal. I believe this trap is what is often responsible for negative experiences with mindfulness because it can lead to a happiness trap of sorts that can invalidate any meaning in mindfulness practice beyond hedonic pursuit. This is not how mindfulness was intended to be practiced. Ultimately, mindfulness is more about caring for others, perceiving the way things are accurately, and getting better at feeling instead of a goal of individually feeling better.
Kirmayer, L. J. (2015). Mindfulness in cultural context. Transcultural Psychiatry. Vol. 52(4) 447–469. DOI: 10.1177/1363461515598949