Mindfulness: The Monk in the Machine. Newsletter #21.

This week’s newsletter continues last week’s discussion of tradition.

Some years ago, when I was a graduate student, I mentioned to a maverick cognitive scientist that I was beginning to look at Indian philosophy as a way of breaking through some of the conceptual puzzles in cognitive science. I had Bimal Matilal’s book on perception in my hand, which I handed over to him. He handed it back to me after a minute and said: “but this is too analytic; isn’t Indian philosophy more about sitting by the river side and watch the river go by?”

Eastern men in robes have had a long run of making history in the west. It probably started with Vivekananda, Suzuki and Dharmapala in the late nineteenth century, succeeded by Gandhi and Tagore and a few decades later, the various gurus from Chogyam Trungpa to Osho. The combination of eastern mysticism and western science has proven itself a surefire bestseller.

Unfortunately,mysticism always lives in counter-culture, not in the mainstream. In fact, bringing meditation to the mainstream has required an explicit disavowal of anything mystical, or for that matter, anything to do with the Indian sources that it came from. Consider the immense success of mindfulness. Just take a look at the graph below, a google n-gram of the use of the term “mindfulness” between 1950 and 2008. Do you see a trend?

If graphs aren’t your thing, you might be better persuaded by the recent popularity of mindfulness on network tv or the increasing number of celebrities and rich people attributing their success and sanity to mindfulness. Here’s a quick check of its effectiveness. Take any daily life activity — let’s call it X — and prepend ‘mindful’ in front of it, making it mindful X. In other words:

  1. Mindful eating
  2. Mindful work
  3. Mindful learning
  4. Mindful %$*

Doesn’t it sound so much better when it’s mindful? If you eat all the time you’re a pig but if you eat mindfully, you are a babe. Like yoga before it, mindfulness has traversed the hype cycle from niche to buzzword to suburban staple. I don’t have a problem with that; may you be happy in your endeavors. If the meditation cushion is a stairmaster for the mind, more power to cushions. I start having problems when mindfulness becomes a theory of change. For example:

Before: Workers don’t have rights so they fight to unionize.

After: Workers don’t have rights so they enroll in mindfulness classes.

The first is an effective way of changing the world. The second, not so much. You might be thinking, what about that Buddha, didn’t he change the world through meditation? Well, the Buddha did change the world for the better. He did meditate. But did he change the world through meditation? What is meditation anyway?

We think of meditation as one thing. Like science. But there are thousands of meditative practices, just as there are thousands of scientific techniques. Some of these practices are broadly of the kind we would term mindfulness. Others are quite different — prayer, analytic reading of texts, tantric visualizations and so on.

We wouldn’t take a scientist seriously if all she knew was matrix multiplication. Why is meditation any different? It’s a little bit like teaching people multiplication tables and assuming that they will be able to model the motion of planets. It doesn’t work that way.

So my real problem with mindfulness is that it is immensely reductive and in being so, it lends itself easily to appropriation by powers that are anything but mindful. We don’t need any more drugs that blind us to the disasters unfolding everywhere. Especially not those that give the illusion of making the world a better place. Let’s meditate by all means, but let’s also inquire into the human condition, think critically and engage with others. In other words, do all the things that the Buddha did when he wasn’t meditating.

As for those of us who are interested in the value of Indian texts and sources, the success of mindfulness is a cautionary tale: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Think of science as google, a universal index of what’s valuable. Just as google can make your website very popular and then destroy your business model when its algorithms change or it makes its own version of your product, an over-reliance on science to validate your tradition can lead to trouble.


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