Why Mindfulness Fails

Using mindfulness to fix or gain something is doomed to fail, say Buddhist meditation teachers.

The practice of mindfulness, Western Buddhists argue, should be a sustained, quiet exploration and awareness of inside out, rather than a practice for gain of self, power, or control.

As Buddhism has been mainstreamed, its teachings have often been offered not as part of a religious, spiritual, or ethical whole, argues Magid and Poirier, Buddhist lay meditation teachers, but as a relief for pain, a way to build skills, or to better oneself.1

Practice as gain operates within a familiar frame of separate self, power, and control. …An ‘I’ seek to ‘fix’ something, whether ‘out there’ or ‘deep inside’, that is ‘broken’ or ‘unsatisfactory’, or to ‘gain’ something that is currently ‘missing’ [is what’s wrong with mindfulness]. p43

Buddhist lay-teachers: Critics of mindfulness

Barry Magid and Marc Poirier are critical of the Western mindfulness movement. Their essay, Three Shaky Pillars of Western Buddhism, appears in What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives [Read my post reviewing the book, What’s Wrong with Mindfulness: Zen Perspectives].

Barry Magid is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst practicing in New York City. He is a founding member of the Ordinary Mind Zendo in New York and author of several books, Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common ground of Zen and Psychoanalysis, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide, and Nothing is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans.

Marc Poirier (1952-2015) was professor of law at Seton Hall University Law School in New Jersey. He received lay entrustment from his teacher, Barry Magid, to teach meditation to students and faculty of his law school and was a longtime practitioner of meditation and active with Zen Teachers Association.

“McMindfulness”drive-through

Expecting meditation to produce a particular state of consciousness, that the practitioner hopes someday to be permanent, is doomed to failure writes Magid and Poirier. Why is it doomed to failure? The authors don’t directly say in this essay. However, the underlying Buddhist reasons for failure can be gleaned from other essays in What’s Wrong with Mindfulness.

Underlying reasons for mindfulness failure the book contends are: In Buddhism “nothing” is real and everything is impermanent. To expect anything to be permanent–especially enlightenment–is illusion and the path of suffering.

Magid and Poirier describe the “workshop” approach to meditation and mindfulness. Extracted from the religious and spiritual context of Asian Buddhism, mindfulness is being repackaged for mass markets and quick consumption, it is ridiculed by critics, including committed Buddhists, as “McMindfulness”.

[Read my article on Consumers of Meditation, Mindfulness, and Nirvana]

Buddhism repackaged for mass consumption?

Repackaging Buddhist meditation for mass consumption is counterproductive. The meditation technique, argues Magid and Poirier, needs its religious or spiritual context within Asian traditions.

Buddhist practices have, they argue, increasingly been adapted, simplified, and altered in the West. Often for the purpose of extracting meditation techniques from their Asian religious and cultural contexts.2. Extracting mindfulness from its Oriental roots puts the foundation of practice on shaky pillars.

Three shaky pillars of Western Buddhism

The Three Shaky Pillars of Western Buddhism described by Magid and Poirier are:

  1. Deracination,
  2. Secularization,
  3. Instrumentalization.

1. Deracination: Cutting off Buddhism at its roots?

Deracination is literally, “cutting off from its roots” the practices of mindfulness meditation from Buddhism. It has increasing led to a secularization (removal from religious context) of Buddhist meditation practices.3

Mindfulness and meditation techniques are being marketed and increasingly institutionalized as therapy and as personal transformation. p41

The mindfulness movement…

Threatens to obscure the fundamental nature of Buddhism itself. p41

2. Secularization: Buddhism that is areligious?

Secularization, removing the religious or spiritual context, has instrumentalized Buddhist practices as technique or therapy. Mindfulness or meditation becomes a commodified product for personal gain or self-improvement.

3. Instrumentalization: Mindfulness, instrument for gain?

Gain? The problem (of making mindfulness an instrument for gain), say the authors, is the value of the activity of meditation is not in the activity itself but in what it is to be gained. It’s commodified products or results.4

What’s the harm of removing mindfulness from Buddhism?

Removing Buddhism from its Asian cultural and religious contexts, say Magid and Poirier:

  • Obscures traditional practices [of Buddhism and distorts them].
  • Consequences [of practice ] are no longer considered sacred.
  • Loses lineages of Eastern tradition; mindfulness is no longer part of a religious container.

What is…

Most important is experience of awareness, of life as it is. Nothing is needed to be gained. p44

Meditation has always failed

Magid and Poirier argue that mindfulness is doomed to fail without a lifelong commitment to a practice, without a qualified instructor, and without a supportive religious Buddhist community. I ask: what is mindfulness meditation supposed to help us succeed at?

Mindfulness meditation, according to Fortune, is a billion dollar industry5. Many Americans are eager to consume mindfulness products, retreats, and workshops. Most consumers are not told that a lifelong or religious commitment is required for practice. The latter is the desperate plea from the authors of What’s Wrong with Mindfulness.

Last week a colleague confided with me that he has been struggling with depression and that he was considering using a mindfulness-based therapy. I cautioned him against expecting mindfulness or meditation to be beneficial. There are many adverse effects, read my posts on Adverse (Side) Effects, that are terribly underreported. I recommended he seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional to determine if meditation-based therapy might help.

We Americans can’t meditate away the problems we have behaved our way into. Meditation (and religion) has had more than 2000 years to prove itself as the ultimate solution to human suffering. Meditation has always failed.

Notes

1 What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives. (2016) Edited by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magid. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. p41

2 ibid p39

3 ibid p39

4 ibid p40

5 Meditation Has Become A Billion-Dollar Business. Fortune. 16 Mar 2016. Accessed 16 Jun 2017 at http://fortune.com/2016/03/12/meditation-mindfulness-apps/.

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