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.”