Recently, I read an article in Buddhist magazine, Tricycle, about the Buddhist practice of Mindfulness and the concern that it is becoming little more than a self-help technique or a coping mechanism within western societies and especially within psychology circles.
For those of you not familiar with the term Mindfulness, it is a central feature at the heart of Buddhism and considered to be of great importance on one’s path towards enlightenment. Buddha suggested that one should develop ‘mindful awareness’ in day-to-day life, not only to be ‘present’ in each moment, not lost in perpetual daydreams or worries but also to be calmly aware at all times of one’s mind, feelings, body and the reality of all things.
Essentially one’s quest towards enlightenment is to overcome the suffering caused by this world, known in Buddhist philosophy as Samsara and more importantly the delusion of self. Attentive awareness of the reality of all things, allows us to observe and release the habitual thinking that fosters a separate sense of self and helps us to accept things as they really are, rather than judging everything by our own subjective opinions.
This discipline and it is a discipline, is also practiced with one’s thoughts. Within mindfulness, we learn to observe our thoughts without attaching importance to them. We do not seek to like or dislike them, to judge ourselves for having them or any of the other common delusions that only serve to cause one pain and suffering. We simply observe the thought that has entered our minds with a non-attached approach and just as simply let it go. As someone one once said, thoughts are like the waves at sea, they come and they go.
It is therefore understandable that mindfulness will have come to the attention of psychotherapy in the west. Now widely used and often called Mindfulness CBT, it has had positive results whether working with people to release negative emotions and thought patterns or when working with people with diagnosable mental health issues. Now offered on the NHS, patients are sometimes offered an eight-week course of Mindfulness CBT and the results, according to NICE (The National Institute for Health Research) have been positive, with an improvement in people’s mental health and research so far suggesting it can prevent relapse in patients suffering from depression.
If Mindfulness helps another human being, then I am not going to suggest that it should not be taken advantage of, that certainly would not be the Buddhist way. However, coming back to my first paragraph, is mindfulness becoming a technique, a self-help tool, a gimmick even? Is the real meaning of Mindfulness becoming lost?
I have had conversations with people who see mindfulness as nothing more than a self-help tool, taught by therapists, for when their thoughts became problematic. They know little or nothing about Buddhism and mindfulness for them is a one-dimensional concept, a go-to when things get tough. In seeing it, in this rather crude way, they miss the profundity and greatness of a practice that is based upon conquering and going beyond the anarchic and chaotic existence of the self as well as being wholly ignorant to the peace and joy that disciplined mindful practice can bring as described by the great monk, Thich Nhat Hanh;
“Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognised, and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves. The tangerine I am eating is me. The mustard greens I am planting are me. I plant with all my heart and mind. I clean this teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath. Nothing should be treated more carefully than anything else. In mindfulness, compassion, irritation, mustard green plant, and teapot are all sacred.”
Though it is not just the complete misunderstanding or ignorance of mindfulness that saddens me, it also the commercialisation of Buddhism. How often have I heard the mutterings of people happily buying a happy smiling Buddha, often with a rather rotund belly, look on hopefully, as they declare that a rub of his protruding belly will bring great wealth? The real message of Buddhism and the fact that Buddha’s philosophies were about overcoming Samsara and getting past the delusions of greed and desire are lost amongst the need to keep up with modern society’s demands upon the individual’s ego.
Someone close to me, a stout Catholic, recently lamented on how she could not find a gold Buddha statue, as she admiringly cast her eyes around my home, whose central feature is Buddha’s. I like to feel a proximity to Buddha at all times, so as to not only be aware of his gaze watching over me in a benevolent sense but also to be constantly connected to him, as he acts as my faithful anchor in this world. He is my constant reminder of the journey I am partaking; a reminder to not forget my path and a reminder of how far I have come but also and more crucially, how much more I have to learn in this life.
Therefore, it was whilst looking at my Buddha’s, that I wondered why this member of my family wanted one. Was it to place him sedately on a coffee table or mantle piece for others to admire and if so, is it to get a jump on the Jones’ or simply to keep up with the commercialisation of mindfulness with Buddha as its misinterpreted spear head. Why specifically a gold one? Is it the perceived value?
There is something altogether Roman about the modern Buddhist revolution and its re-writing of history.