PBS Mindfulness Goes Mainstream

A few nights ago, I watched a new PBS documentary Mindfulness Goes Mainstream.  The program explores the spreading mindfulness movement and the transformative power of mindfulness practice.  It features remarks from such people as singer Jewel, journalist Dan Harris, “mindfulness” pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, Don Siegel,  Jack Kornfield, and clothing designer Eileen Fisher.

Viewers will learn about how many different sectors of our society are embracing mindfulness.  For instance, the NBA, NFL, corporate America, US Marine Corp, and law enforcement.  There’s also a nice summary about the scientific evidence behind mindfulness benefits.

The modern mindfulness movement has received criticism for being a diluted form of Buddhist meditation.  I am more or less in agreement with this, and yet, I find it hard to disparage the idea of so many diverse groups learning to calm their minds.  Police officers using mindfulness to resist anger and stress seems a very positive thing.   I am inclined to agree with Dan Harris who remarked, “I do believe that if you get a broad enough swath of people to do this it has the potential to change the way we are as a society.”

It did bother me that the program did not once mention the Buddha, Buddhism or dharma.  I feel that a sort of creative commons license applies to mindfulness and other aspects of the teachings – you are free to use any portion you like as long as you attribute it to Buddha-dharma.

And while I’m all in favor of corporate America getting mindful, I do wonder if the real purpose isn’t just to make more productive employees.  To me, they have some warped notions.  One person, Chade-meng Tan, former “Jolly Good Fellow” at Google, talked about mindfulness in corporate American and made the argument that compassion leads to better business.  He said, “The way to do that is align compassion with success and profit.”

Right.  Two values the Buddha routinely affirmed were success and profit.  So, here is one of the possible dangers of mindfulness sans Buddhism, distortion.  What is intended to dispel illusion because a creator of illusion.

Another problem I had with the program was that the filmmakers seemed to oversell the practice. Several time they tell viewers that mindfulness can change “every aspect of your life.”  And in as little as 2-8 weeks.  While studies have shown that short periods of exposure to mindfulness practice can produce neurobiological changes, improve concentration, reduce stress, and so on; to change every aspect of your life, to affect lasting change in how we think and feel and how we deal with persistent life tendencies, takes patience and a real commitment to the practice.

Mindfulness Goes Mainstream is the kind of show you’ll find on 20/20 or Dateline NBC.  It struck me as representative of the mindfulness craze itself.  Kind of lightweight.  However, to be fair, it was a lot of ground to cover in one hour.  Viewers would be better served if each segment of the show were a 30-60 minute episode.

Watch it if you’re looking for a pleasant way to kill some time.  You may be encouraged by some of the personal stories.  But if you’d like a more detailed and realistic explanation of mindfulness, you would be better off reading a book like Henepola Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English.  The first chapter of the book begins with these words:

“Meditation is not easy.  It takes time and it takes energy.  It also takes grit, determination and discipline.  It  requires  a  host  of  personal  qualities  which  we  normally  regard  as unpleasant  and  which  we  like  to  avoid  whenever  possible.  We can sum it all up in the American word ‘gumption’.  Meditation takes ‘gumption’.  It is certainly a great deal easier just to kick back and watch television.”

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6 thoughts on “PBS Mindfulness Goes Mainstream

  1. You raise some interesting points around it being used to simply produce better employees and more business. I’ve thought about this too, and my thinking is this. First of all, to be honest I care mainly about people’s experiences and happiness (in the meaning of contentment). If they are feeling happier, more content, more at ease, that will automatically lead to a better world. So whatever business believes it’s gaining with mindfulness – I don’t really care.
    It shifts things like ethics too. People will start making different decisions, setting different priorities, experiencing more empathy and understanding. I think in the end it will indeed be good for business, in the objective and not the subjective sense. It is a great addition for the world. Business will be changed by it. It is a sort of autolysis.
    I’m very interested in spirituality. Not just buddhism, but also advaita, taoism. I personally don’t care so much about the acknowledgment of where mindfulness came from or what it is based on though. I think that would be a pretty clingy/attached attitude. What is important is the practice, not who invented it. Don’t we care mostly about moving towards a better world? If that’s what we are achieving I’m a go.

    1. You make some good points too, Ricardo. If mindfulness helps improve corporate American’s mind-set, that’s great. And you are right, ultimately it does not matter where the mindfulness comes from. But at the same time, it is rather unseemly to rip off a spiritual discipline and use it as your own, often for profit. It’s a form of spiritual plagiarism or something. Ethical folks don’t mind liking back to the source.

  2. I agree with you. The Buddhist path lists mindfulness as just one of eight required components for cultivating wisdom – here, wisdom is described as eventually leading to “the end of suffering.” The following article explains this well:

    Karunamuni, N., and Weerasekera, R. (2017). Theoretical Foundations to Guide Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to Wisdom. Current Psychology.

    Learning the context in which mindfulness falls within the Buddhist path to liberation can be of enormous benefit to anyone who wishes to engage in these practices – for example, it can help one to go beyond the initial excitement of blindly engaging in these practices (i.e., blindly assuming that mindfulness will solve all their problems).

  3. Just watched the PBS special, and ran across your blog post while doing some associated research – I copied it for later consideration. I agree that there can be a tendency to be possessive about mindfulness practice, because the Buddha taught it first! I was thinking that as I watched, and then realized it may be a thought that I need to sit with.

    The other thing I wonder/semi-worry about is, when does it go from Mindfulness to Buddhism? To me, when they say mindfulness leads to compassion, they’re across that boundary. And if someone gets too far into their meditation, are they prepared if they have is some form of enlightenment experience?

    Thanks for your thoughtful take on the subject. Sincerely,

    1. It probably is a form of possessiveness. Nonetheless, there are quite of few people who are concerned that the mindfulness movement is appropriating Buddhism. I am not on the bandwagon as far all this talk about cultural appropriation. Buddhism belongs to no one. Not to any region of the world or to any race of people. Actually, those folks who are making these claims about Western appropriation should take a good look at their own understanding of Buddhism. To base things on “East is East and West is West” is, to my mind, having preferences and making distinctions as Seng-ts’an cautioned against in the “Heart Mind Inscription.”

      Compassion, too, is owner-less. If mindfulness sans dharma helps make people more compassionate, that should be welcome to all. All I am saying is give some credit where credit is due.

      Is anyone prepared if they have an enlightenment experience?

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