Mindfulness: New Age Fad or Old as Buddha?

Mind Over Matter in the Present

Posted Apr 11, 2014

If you already knew what "mindfulness" was, you were way ahead of me. I just read about it recently. At first I wondered if "mindfulness" was the opposite of "mindlessness." But apparently there's more to it than that.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I understand this much: Mindfulness is a popular meditative practice that can help those in stressful situations to find solace. What stressful situations? Things not going well in a relationship, too much to do and too little time to do it, children out of control -- in today's world the list seems endless.

So how does it work? Or does it? Critics dismiss it as a fad, while others contend that it is a life-changing skill. But first they say that you must train your mind to focus on the present and respond with reason, rather than emotion. That sounds easier said than done, to me, and this is where it gets complicated. In focusing on the moment, you supposedly become aware of how you are responding to a situation. You might say to yourself, "I'm about to lose my temper," rather than actually losing it. To some of us whose emotions are, either by nature or nurturing, "on a hair trigger" that sounds like a tall order. If I were able to do that (step back from a situation and think before I erupt in anger) I would have done it a long time ago, and probably saved myself a peck of trouble. I just wonder if that is really something a person like me can learn to do.

There are plenty of opportunities to learn. Medical schools are incorporating it into many a curriculum, and it is even being taught in schools, K-12 in some states. (What's this? Teach a Kindergartner to meditate before hitting back?) For the rest of us, mindfulness is being taught in stress-reduction courses in all kinds of venues, from churches to hospitals, to community centers. They are also available online (what isn't, these days?) and there's even "an app for that." One of them is called "Buddhify."

Some claims seem too good to be true, but they come from some respectable physicians and psychologists. One of them is slightly more moderate in praise, saying that it is "not a cure-all, but can help to focus on how we approach and deal with stressful situations." To my untrained ear, that sounds like a rehash of "mind over matter," or the use of willpower to overcome physical problems. 

So what are some other claims for mindfulness? Everything from alleviating back pain, curbing depression and anxiety, even eating and sleeping disorders. Those who learn to use it effectively say they are able to cut back or even stop taking antidepressants and other medications which tend to have significant side effects. And if that's not enough, there's more: rather than simply helping to cope with stress, those who believe in it say that it can inoculate against stressful situations arising in the first place.

There you have the case for mindfulness, as I understand it. And let me say that I believe whatever we think  will work often does. As proof of that, people in drug trials who are receiving only a placebo often claim great health benefits. So if you think this will work for you, it probably will. But for myself, I'm skeptical. I may have missed the point altogether, but what bothers me most is the emphasis put on focusing on the present. Take this quote from Buddha that is often mentioned in connection with the concept of mindfulness: "Do not dwell in the past; do not dream of the future; concentrate on the present."

With all due respect to Buddha, I like this quote from George Santayana better: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And this one from Socrates: "The unexamined life is not worth living." In my books I am always examining past lives -- mine as well as others. Concentrating on the present seems like a waste of time to me. And the future? That belongs to the young, and it's rather a good feeling to know that I don't need to worry too much about it.