Lost in (Mindful) Translation
Posted January 19, 2017
I began a mindfulness practice three years ago when I lived alone in Japan for work. Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. For example, a person could observe and describe that they are hungry but not evaluate whether this is good or bad. I followed the exercises in Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. A White psychologist from Oregon had recommended this book. I wanted to make the most of my time in Japan by focusing on the moment. Instead, I became mindful of how much I missed my family, who were in Oregon. The mindfulness exercises proved only to be a temporary distraction from my longing to be home.
It was ironic that I practiced Western mindfulness in Japan. Western mindfulness is self-focused. In contrast, Japan has a Buddhist mindfulness tradition that emphasizes social connection. Although my maternal grandparents were from Japan, I never learned Japanese. Despite these cultural roots, I was not much more than any other Western tourist in Japan. I could not access Buddhist mindfulness traditions via conversation. The Japanese psychologists who spoke English were trained in Western psychotherapy. Although they were Japanese, they could not help me access Buddhist mindfulness traditions. They were a product of Western culture. And so was I.
Western psychotherapists like to point to the Buddhist roots of their mindfulness approaches. But like tourists to Japan, many Western psychotherapists have selected the aspects of Buddhism that they understand. These tend to be the self-focused aspects of Buddhism. In so doing, they have lost the other-focused aspects. For example, loving-kindness meditation involves directing compassion and wishes for well-being toward others.
Although self-focused mindfulness may reduce depression and anxiety, it is not without limitations. There is some evidence that the mindful process of describing one’s experiences is associated with narcissism. Many are unhappy with the narcissism of President-elect Trump. However, the individualistic focus in the United States may be a breeding ground for narcissism. Thus, mindfulness needs more than self-focus.
Some Western mindfulness interventions have successfully incorporated loving-kindness meditation. Their purpose is to:
- develop greater compassion for others
- develop mindfulness in relationships
- put others first
- increased positive emotions
- less depression
The incorporation of self- and other-focused mindfulness may seem incompatible. But it is consistent with the Buddhist Middle Path that offers integration of seemingly opposing viewpoints. A better balance between being self- and other-focused may be a small step toward reversing narcissistic trends in our nation.
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