Is Mindfulness Meditaton BS or Not? Yes

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Speaking of moments: One phrase that hasn’t occurred in this piece so far is “living in the moment.” This may seem strange, since this theme is so commonly associated with mindfulness, and so emphasized by meditation teachers. Indeed, The New York Times recently defined mindfulness as the “desire to take a chunk of each day and simply live in the present.” Stop and smell the roses.

There’s no denying that deep appreciation of the present moment is a nice consequence of mindfulness. But it’s misleading to think of it as central to mindfulness. If you delve into early Buddhist writings, you won’t find a lot of exhortations to stop and smell the roses—and that’s true even if you focus on those writings that contain the word sati, the word that’s translated as “mindfulness.”

The ancient Buddhist text known as The Four Foundations of Mindfulness—the closest thing there is to a Bible of mindfulness—features no injunction to live in the present, and in fact doesn’t have a single word or phrase translated as “now” or “the present.” And it features some passages that would sound strange to the average mindfulness meditator of today. It reminds us that our bodies are “full of various kinds of unclean things” and instructs us to meditate on such bodily ingredients as “feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.” It also calls for us to imagine our bodies “one day, two days, three days dead—bloated, livid, and festering.”

I’m not aware of any bestselling books on mindfulness meditation called Stop and Smell the Feces. And I’ve never heard a meditation teacher recommend that I meditate on my bile, phlegm, and pus, or on the rotting corpse that I will someday be. What is presented today as an ancient meditative tradition is a selective rendering of an ancient meditative tradition, in some cases carefully manicured.

But that’s OK. All spiritual traditions evolve, adapting to time and place, and the Buddhist teachings that find an audience today in the United States and Europe are a product of such evolution. In particular, modern mindfulness teachings retain innovations of instruction and technique made in southeast Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But the main thing, for our purposes, is that this evolution—the evolution that has produced a distinctively Western, 21st-century version of Buddhism—hasn’t severed the connection between current practice and ancient thought. Modern mindfulness meditation isn’t exactly the same as ancient mindfulness meditation, but the two can lead to the same place, philosophically and spiritually.

What’s more, they start at the same place. The Satipatthana Sutta—the Bible of mindfulness—begins with instructions that will be familiar to a modern meditator: Sit down, “with legs crossed and body erect,” and pay attention to your breath.

The text then enjoins the meditator to pay attention to lots of other things—feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells, and much, much more (yes, including pus and blood). Then, at the end, it makes an extraordinary claim: If you practice mindfulness assiduously, you are following “the direct path for purification of beings” and so can achieve nirvana. Sufficiently diligent mindfulness meditation, apparently, can lead to true awakening, complete enlightenment, and liberation.

Of course, that other Buddhist text I’ve mentioned puts the story differently. It says that what leads to enlightenment is the apprehension of not-self. I hope by now it’s clear why these two claims coexist easily: Mindfulness meditation leads very naturally toward the apprehension of not-self and can in principle lead you all the way there. And the reason it can do so is because it’s about much more than living in the moment. Mindfulness, in the most deeply Buddhist sense of the term, is about an exhaustive, careful, and calm examination of the contents of human experience, an examination that can radically alter your interpretation of that experience.

Most meditators don’t give much thought to going all the way down the path toward this radicalism. And many meditators, like me, would love to go all the way but aren’t optimistic about making it to the end. Which leads to a question: Why keep meditating if you suspect that this path won’t realize your deepest aspiration, won’t lead all the way to full enlightenment?

The easy answer is that meditating can make your life better—a little lower in stress, anxiety, and other unwelcome feelings. But that’s the therapeutic answer. The spiritual answer—or at least my version of the spiritual answer—is more complicated.

It begins with one of the more striking claims made by Buddhism—that enlightenment and liberation from suffering are inextricably intertwined. We suffer—and make others suffer—because we don’t see the world, including ourselves, clearly.

One common conception of this relationship between truth and freedom is that you see the entire truth in a flash of insight, and then you are free. Sounds great! And what a time-saver! I’m not just being sarcastic here; there are people who seem to have been blessed with the “spontaneous” apprehension of not-self, and an attendant sense of liberation. But the more usual experience is incremental: A bit of movement toward truth—a clearer, more “objective” view of your stress, for example—leads to a little freedom from suffering.

Importantly, this incremental progress can work in the other direction: a bit of freedom can let you see a bit of truth. If you sit down and meditate and loosen the bonds of agitation and anxiety, the ensuing calm will let you observe other things with more clarity.

Some of these observations may seem trivial. Had I never started meditating, I’d never have realized that the monotonous-seeming hum generated by my office refrigerator actually consists of at least three distinct sounds, weaving a rich (and surprisingly pretty!) harmony. But sometimes these observations have larger consequence. If you view your wrath toward someone with a bit of detachment, you may realize that the irate email you’ve written to that person—the one sitting in your drafts folder—will, if sent, create needless turmoil.

And if you carry this kind of calm beyond the meditation cushion, you may find you’re less likely to label someone a jerk just because he’s at the checkout counter fumbling for his credit card and you’re behind him and in a hurry. Which I’d say qualifies as movement toward truth, since it’s logically contradictory to consider someone a jerk for doing something lots of people you don’t consider jerks—including you—have done.

Indeed, according to Buddhist philosophy, not seeing this person as a jerk is, in a certain sense, movement toward profound truth. The Buddhist doctrine of “emptiness”—the one Jack Kerouac cryptically alluded to—would take eons to explain fully, but one way to put the basic idea is to say that all things, including living beings, are “empty of essence.” To not see “essence of jerk” in the kind of people you’re accustomed to seeing “essence of jerk” in is to move, however modestly, and in however narrow a context, toward the apprehension of emptiness.

Here again, ancient Buddhist philosophy gets support from modern psychology. In many circumstances, it turns out, we do tend to project a kind of “essence” onto people. We may naturally conclude, upon observing a stranger for only a few seconds, that she is a rude person, period—rather than entertain the possibility that she’s had a stressful day that led her to behave with uncharacteristic rudeness. This tendency to attribute behavior disproportionately to “dispositional” factors, and to underemphasize “situational” factors, is known as the “fundamental attribution error.” To commit the error, as humans seem naturally inclined to do, is to see a kind of essence—essence of rude person, in this case—where one doesn’t actually exist.

Anyway, the key point is this: The two-way relationship between enlightenment and liberation—the fact that a slight boost in either may boost the other—can create a positive feedback loop that doubles as a spiritual propellant, pushing you down that slope toward deeper exploration. If sending fewer incendiary emails and spending less time fulminating in checkout lines reduces the amount of agitation in your life, maybe this effect will be so gratifying—so liberating—that it encourages you to meditate for 30 minutes a day instead of 20. And maybe that will lead you to view more of your emotional life with greater clarity—lead to more enlightenment—and this enlightenment will further reduce the needless suffering in your life and further deepen your commitment to meditation. And so on. Before you know it, you’ve gone on a meditation retreat, absorbed some Buddhist philosophy, and are driving the Adam Grants of the world even crazier than more casual meditators drive them. Well done.

But does this really qualify as a spiritual endeavor? After all, upping your investment in meditation certainly has its therapeutic payoffs. I’d say the answer depends partly on how far you go—how far toward not-self, for example—but also on how you think about the exercise, what you take away from it. When you’re standing in that checkout line, judging that credit card fumbler more leniently than usual, is that just a fleeting effect, the welcome byproduct of a particularly immersive morning meditation session? Or is it part of a sustained effort to be mindful of how casually and unfairly we’re naturally inclined to judge people—and how those judgments are shaped by self-serving feelings that, actually, we don’t have to consider part of our selves?

And when you’re getting some distance from stress and anxiety and sadness, is the ensuing comfort the end of your practice? Or is there ongoing and deepening reflection on the way feelings shape our thoughts and perceptions, and on how unreliable they are as guides to what we should think and how we should perceive things?

For many of us—myself included, I fear—pursuing enlightenment is doomed to failure if we think of enlightenment as a kind of end state—if we hope to eventually attain the elusive apprehension of not-self, of emptiness, and sustain that condition forever, living wholly free of delusion and suffering.

But you can always think of enlightenment as a process, and of liberation the same way. The object of the game isn’t to reach Liberation and Enlightenment —with a capital L and E—on some distant day, but rather to become a bit more liberated and a bit more enlightened on a not-so-distant day. Like today! Or, failing that, tomorrow. Or the next day. Or whenever. The main thing is to make progress over time, inevitable backsliding notwithstanding. And the first step on that path can consist of just calming down a little—even if your initial motivation for calming down is to make a killing in the stock market.