Could You Be Doing Mindfulness Wrong?

The use and misuse of mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective.

Posted Feb 04, 2020

 With permission and thanks to Prasanth Inturi/Pexels
Mindful bliss
Source: With permission and thanks to Prasanth Inturi/Pexels

“The motives that draw you to spiritual practices have a lot to do with what you get out of the practice.”  —Ram Dass

Mindfulness is having its moment. Search “mindfulness,” and countless pages tout the benefits of mindfulness practices for anxiety and stress reduction, improved mood, increased productivity, and even heart disease.

Mindfulness traces its roots to the teachings of the Buddha, though mindfulness is not a religious practice. Given the Buddhist origins of mindfulness, you might be surprised to learn that many of the modern ways the public is encouraged to use mindfulness run counter to the very purpose of the practice. Indeed, the use of mindfulness solely as a means to an end (e.g., to reduce anxiety) can actually substantially limit the potential benefits of the practice.

Buddhist Mindfulness

Mindfulness is simply the practice of bringing nonjudgmental awareness to the present moment. This can be done through a formal practice, such as meditation, or informally, by directing our attention to the present at any time. The purpose of engaging in mindfulness, according to Buddhist teachings, is to increase our awareness of what is occurring in the present moment. That is, to drop out of what is sometimes called the “conditioned mind” and bring fresh eyes to the present, allowing full recognition of what is.

Take, for example, the pile of clothes in the corner of your bedroom you walk by every day — it has become scenery that you no longer consciously acknowledge. Or, think of the immediate irritation/worry/anger you feel when you see an email from your boss/mother-in-law/ex — you have an automatic reaction to an email you haven’t even read! These are just two examples of how we often operate on autopilot in our day-to-day lives.

Our minds become “conditioned” to see things a certain way or to think or feel a certain way, based on our experience. This is an evolutionary necessity, of course: we habituate to the status quo so that we can focus our mental energies on novel stimuli that require attention. Nonetheless, it means that we often overlook, make assumptions, and misread situations and circumstances. Mindfulness helps us to remove the ‘veil’ from our eyes so that we can see things as if for the first time, free from our conditioned perspectives. Without the veil, we can see accurately what is there and, in a mindful state, with full acceptance. This is the core of what mindfulness offers practitioners: acceptance of what truly is, and freedom from battling against life. 

The Contradiction and Limitations of “Quick Fix” Mindfulness

The countless apps, therapies, and books that promise improved functioning through mindfulness create an interesting conundrum for those of us who have studied Buddhism and mindfulness. The use of mindfulness to change one’s state — to reduce depression, for example — is antithetical to Buddhist teachings. Mindfulness isn't practiced to get something or to change things; rather, it is done to be fully present for what is happening. To accept, rather than avoid. Thus, the “quick fix” mindfulness movement is a rather misleading sales pitch for those truly seeking to understand the practice. 

To be fair, there is no question that daily meditation and mindfulness benefit people, regardless of their intentions and goals for practicing. There is no downside to practicing mindfulness, even if you are doing so to change yourself. I would posit, however, that you are greatly limiting the potential benefits of your practice by staying on the narrow path. The benefits of mindfulness, in the spirit outlined by the Buddha, go well beyond what’s demonstrated in clinical trials and touted in headlines.

Mindful awareness of the present moment increases our understanding of ourselves and the world. In time, it allows us to accept life as it is, without demanding it to be otherwise. Symptoms of anxiety become just that - symptoms that come and go - and not markers of an underlying defect. Conflict becomes an opportunity to learn compassion for yourself and others, rather than something that can ruin a day. Each time we drop the veil and see what is, fully accepting it all, we get closer to finding peace with this life.

Reconciliation: The Middle Path

So how do we move forward now that we’ve exposed the contradiction inherent in narrow, goal-driven mindfulness approaches? For starters, in the spirit of acceptance, it’s important to recognize and value any and all mindful efforts, even if they fall in the “quick fix” category. Accepting ourselves, and our readiness to dive into mindful living is an important component of mindfulness. And if you are satisfied with your current practice, stick with it — you don’t need the Buddha’s stamp of approval! But if you find yourself underwhelmed by your mindfulness practice and seeking more, know that you needn’t ditch what you’re already doing or convert to Buddhism. There is a middle path and part of mindfulness is also about non-judgment of where we are. 

One way to start is by reframing specific mindfulness goals as intentions. Goals are external achievements, while intentions specify how we want to be in the world. For example, if you adopted a meditation practice to increase productivity, consider adopting an intention to be more present, perhaps at work, in addition to completing your daily meditation. Being present may have the by-product of increased productivity, but being present will also allow you to engage fully with your work and coworkers, leaving you more fulfilled and satisfied. Or, if your goal is to reduce anxiety, you could set an intention of being curious about and accepting of your anxious thoughts as mindful practices. Being curious will enable you to pick up on patterns and nuances of anxious symptoms, thereby helping you to better understand yourself. Acceptance of yourself — anxieties included — can help you bounce back from anxious moments more gracefully, resulting in more confidence and less worry. 

As the Buddha taught, freedom from suffering arises through accurate insight and acceptance of what is. Mindfulness, in any form, is a step on this path; however, by not limiting yourself to the types of goal-driven approaches that fuel the “quick fix” mindfulness movement, you may just find that you get the benefits you are seeking, and a whole lot more.