whats wrong mindfulness zen

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness: Zen Perspectives

Raising urgent questions, twelve essays offer critical, Zen perspective on mindfulness and meditation practices.

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives1 (2016) is a critical examination of what’s wrong, and what isn’t, with the mindfulness movement in contemporary Western society.

What’s unique about this collection of twelve essays is they are written by committed, lifelong Western Buddhist meditation practitioners and lay-teachers. The essayists are simultaneously pessimistic and cautiously optimistic about the long term impact of mindfulness in Western society.

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness?

This collection of twelve short essays was edited by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magid.

Rosenbaum is a psychologist and psychotherapist formally trained in Zen and Qigong. Magid, also a psychologist and psychoanalyst, is founder of a school in New York, the Ordinary Mind Zendo, that teaches Zen.

Along with Rosenbaum and Magid, other contributing essayists include: Janet Jiryu Abels, founder and coresident teacher at Still Mind Zendo in New York; Zoketsu Norman Fischer a poet, writer, and Zen Priest; and Gil Fronsdal, a Vipassana teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center; and seven other contributors–all contributors are Buddhist, Zen, or Vipassana meditation practitioners and ordained lay-instructors.

Below is my review of this engaging collection of essays.

Curative Fantasy

In Part One, Critical Concerns: Mischief in the Marketplace for Mindfulness, Marc Poirier, a law professor and lay Zen teacher, writes [I’m paraphrasing]:

The practice of mindfulness in popular culture is troublesome as it should not be a “goal-oriented technique”. That is, mindfulness is often promoted outside of a Buddhist context as a technique to gain [something]. For instance, Poirier criticizes corporations such as Google and law firms that train employees in techniques of mindfulness to help the company be more productive. To Poirier, and the twelve other essayists, mindfulness will not be useful, in the long term, when it is disconnected from its roots in an Asian-Buddhist  worldview.

The “curative fantasy”, writes Poirier, is symptom of a Western, Americanized, quick fix approach to solving problems. He explains that day-long or weeks-long workshops, retreats, and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight week intervention format, are problematic. When mindfulness is packaged for quick results, advocates leave out crucial components: sustained engagement, community, and support of qualified Buddhist meditation teachers. All these components, Poirier believes, are crucial for healthy and long term Buddhist or Zen practice.

The removal (secularization) of mindfulness from its Asian-Buddhist context deemphasizes the need for a sustained commitment to a lifelong practice within Buddhism.

What’s Wrong (and What Isn’t) with this book?

Firstly, I’m not an advocate for Buddhism, Zen, or meditation practices. Nor am I convinced by this book that I should practice mindfulness, especially within an Asian-Buddhist tradition. I remain skeptical of claims of superiority of meditation, Zen, or Buddhist systems.

However, I understood the questions raised and the concerns identified by the essayists, including:

zen mindfulness meditation
Zen, Michael Day, Flickr, CC by 2.0

Self is a movement, not a thing

Many benefits and fruits of Zen practice are real, but they are not to be gained, nor pursued. Just sit, regularly, for a sustained period, and see what is here right now. p27

Zen differs from mindfulness practice in placing less emphasis on training in modes of awareness. p34

Self is not a thing. It is a movement in time. p34

Awareness itself doesn’t make you a better person

“[Being] ‘more attentive’ while clinging to your sense of self [mind]…will not necessarily make you a better person.” Awareness itself does not offer a path forward to self-improvement.

The authors advocate that mindfulness practice (which they say is useless as an end or means to an end itself) should be tethered to a traditional Buddhist worldview, with a lifelong commitment to practice within an Asian spiritual-lineage, teacher and religious community.

In the epilogue, Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (And Why It Matters), Robert Sharf, Chair of the Center for Buddhist Studies at University of California-Berkeley, criticizes the popular idea that mindfulness can lead to “bare attention”.

mindfulness meditation zen critique
Zen Coffee Shop, Nguyễn Thành Lam, Flickr, CC by 2.0.

Critiques of Mindfulness as Bare Attention

The “mind” is not a blank slate or tabula rasa, writes Sharf. He says there is no such thing as bare attention. “Bare” (clean slate) attention is fake. Most of what occurs in our thoughts and awareness is unconscious, influenced by our unconscious conditioning: society, tradition, and genetics.

Proponents claim, says Sharf, that mindfulness practice is not “conditioning” but deconditioning or deconstructing of the mind or awareness. Yet, everything we are aware of is filtered through our unconscious conditioning. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t meditate. But it does raise the question about claims that meditation is somehow special in knowing our “true” mind or self.

You can be aware of being aware, and aware of being aware, and aware of being aware of being aware of being aware, and so on. p33

An underlying premise held by many practitioners of mindfulness or meditation techniques is that through practice one can actually “see” what’s going on in the mind or self.

But “mind” or “self” are mostly unconscious. Mostly vague, changing many “minds” or selves”. Not just one or fixed things. Since most of our mind or self is and probably always will be unconscious, we cannot really “know” mind or self. Mind or self is a movement, a relationship. Assuming that this is so, then there is no mind or self “out there” or “in here” to grasp.

Concluding thoughts

What’s most important is experience of awareness, of life as it is. Nothing is needed to be gained. p44

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives is engaging and thought provoking for students and persons interested in meditation and mindfulness practice. I recommend this book to learn more about what’s wrong and what isn’t with mindfulness or any meditation practice.

Read my other writings critiquing mindfulness and meditation:

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t) inspired the first three articles listed below.

Notes

Feature image: Zen by iggyshoot. Flickr. CC by 2.0.

1 What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives, Paperback. Edited by Robert Rosenbaum & Barry Magid. 2016.

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