Image source: ILBF - Photo: 2016

Buddhists Concerned About Mindfulness ‘Marketing’

By Kalinga Seneviratne*

This article is the eighth in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

BANGKOK (IDN | Lotus News Features) – Mindfulness, the meditative practice, which has its roots in Buddhism as Vipassana Bhavana, encourages people to focus on the present, rather than on the anxieties of the past or future.

In the previous decade, however, it has become somewhat of a fad around the world. Particularly in the U.S., it is now everywhere: in schools, law firms, banks, governments, and even in the U.S. military. They are all offering mindfulness sessions to staff.

But Buddhists are worried about ‘secularisation’ of the practice that pays little heed to its moral and ethical aspects.

While welcoming the fact that a 2500 year old teaching that originated in Asia is now offering a panacea for Westerners and others around the world to overcome the stressful life they have created for themselves, they fear that it could be used for the wrong purpose such as making military officers become better snipers by improving their concentration or corporate bosses better exploiters of their workforce to increase productivity.

Buddhist scholars and monks attending the 8th International Lay Buddhist Forum (ILBF) from August 19 to 23 in Padang Sidempuan, North Sumatra in Indonesia recently expressed these concerns.

“Personally I rejoice over the fact that the ancient techniques passed down by the Buddha are being shared around the world,” noted Dr. Christie Yu-Ling Chang, ILBF President. “That is the positive side,” she said, adding: “On the other hand I do share concerns (that) using techniques without understanding of the context. If you don’t have ethical principles, the mindfulness will be abused.”

German Buddhist, Dr. Bee Scherer of the Canterbury Christ Church University in the UK, an executive committee member of ILBF, said in an interview with Lotus News Features: “I’m worried, if we take the sila (Buddhist teachings on morality) out of mindfulness, it could become a tool in perfecting capitalist exploitation so as to make people become better employees by doing their job more mindfully.”

Dr. Scherer, who presented a paper at the Forum on mindfulness as a Buddhist response to addressing the excesses of capitalism and consumerism, argues that Buddhist mindfulness is not ethically neutral and that focusing on therapeutic side-effects of mindfulness could distract from its main purpose in Buddhism of attaining insight and cultivating compassion.

“It (mindfulness) can challenge values of profit maximization, economic materialism, competitiveness and individualism by counteracting greed, hatred and the delusion of an independent self (as understood in Buddhism),” he noted, adding: “Mindfulness is becoming part of the disease that it ought to cure. It is seen as a source of competitive advantage, a means to progress in life, thus loosing its rationale”.

Since 2005, there have been over 15 programs introduced to the U.S. public school system to train students in mindfulness that claims to improve working memory, social skills and regulate emotions to better self-esteem.

Its secular application includes practice of mindful meditation that typically consists of directing attention to a specific focus, such as breath, sensation or feeling. It is in the area of feeling that the Buddhist concept of loving kindness could come in – in a secular setting.

Buddhism is a rationale philosophy that does not require you to have faith in a divine power. There is no need to convert to become a Buddhist to practice its teachings known as the ‘dhamma’.

As Venerable Nyanabhadra, an Indonesian Buddhist monk who has taught mindful meditation in France explains: “A lot of Catholics and Muslims come to practice mindfulness … the word ‘meditation’ is not confortable to them, but when I say mindfulness they are eager and positive. We can share mindfulness practice without using any Buddhist terms. We can share the practice without the need to covert them to Buddhism as long as their way of thinking, speech, behavior conforms to dhamma no matter whether they are Buddhists or not.”

Emma Barnett, in a BBC Radio feature produced in 2015, observed that mindfulness has become an industry in the West with a growing amount of research indicating that it works as a cognitive therapy. About 30 percent of British General Practitioners are believed to be referring patients with mental anxieties for mindfulness-based treatment.

“Some companies I visited spoke dreamily of improving their employees’ productivity and happiness with these new lunchtime sessions of “workplace wellbeing” (even though the two outcomes could well be deemed diametrically opposed). And yet, this snack-sized approach won’t sort people out, it will only ever be a sticking plaster if the root cause of the stress isn’t being addressed,” argued Barnett in an article in The Telegraph.

“Twenty minutes of inhaling in a boardroom is pointless if a lawyer is going back out on the floor to complete a 16-hour day, endlessly interrupted by emails. It also jars that an essentially peaceful practice is being used to help train soldiers to kill with greater precision, as well as cope with debilitating PTSD at the other end of combat. What would Buddha say?” added Barnett.

“For, It is our lives and how we lead them that really needs to change if we are to improve our mental well-being. Ironically this is what the Buddhist version of mindfulness teaches – a moral and ethical world view – as opposed to this new corporatised McMindfulness – which in the long term will do as much as a McDonald’s Happy Meal to sate a person’s gnawing hunger for a richer life.”

Dr. Scherer warns: “As Buddhists we must say it is good you want to use our techniques but please understand what is the foundation of these techniques. Mindfulness without compassion is nothing. It can be a tool for evil.”

“The diabolic nature of mindfulness must be understood very carefully,” argues Indian Buddhist leader Gauthama Prabhu. “In mindfulness meditation what we are focusing is on 5 hindrances and if these 5 hindrances are being understood then your mindfulness practice is in pure nature.”

The five hindrances Prabhu refers to, include sensory desires, inactivity, and developing hatred. Self-doubt is another problem. The hindrances need to be addressed by developing loving kindness. “If you do not realize the implications of what you are doing, you end up to become like machine,” he argues. “Any Muslim or Christian can practice it … the essence of mindfulness lies in morality creation of harmonious society.”

Taiwanese neuro-scientist Dr James Wong is also worried about the one-dimensional approach to mindfulness. “We cannot say any training is mindfulness because the attention and meaning is quite different,” he told Lotus News Features. “People just closing their eyes and thinking of nothing or controlling breathing is not mindfulness.”

“Mindfulness,” argues Dr. Wong, “is something positive … meditation must involve understanding other peoples’ feelings, that’s compassion… when you do imagery training that’s a different area … Imagery training is not mindfulness.”

Dr. Christy is happy that the popularity of mindfulness in the West is arousing interest among Asian youth who have been drifting away from Buddhist teachings, viewing these as not relevant to their modern lifestyles. “They (in the West) are very skillful in putting together a package to relieve personal suffering. Asians can learn from that approach,” she argues, and asks: “If they are using mindfulness why don’t we top on that?”

The Taiwanese educationist who has lived in the U.S. for a long time points out that instead of saying you are not doing the right thing; Asians can top on that by introducing the Buddhist sutras (Buddha’s sermons) to young Asians through mindful practices.

“Many of my American students were introduced to Buddhism via mindfulness…. We got to strengthen our own practice of mindfulness and be ready to share Buddha’s teachings on common ground … it’s is in our hands how we can help,” she argues. [IDN-InDepthNews – 01 September 2016]

Image source: ILBF

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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