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.”


The Bull Moose and the Buddhist

I’ve been watching The Roosevelts An Intimate History on PBS this week. I have DVR’d each night’s installment but am a couple of nights behind, so what I have seen so far has dealt mostly with Theodore Roosevelt, an energetic and immensely vital man, with a few disturbing sides to his very large personality.  Not to put too fine a point on it but he was a war monger, and he sometimes lived recklessly out of a need to constantly prove himself.

TR in 1917
TR in 1917

When America entered WWI in 1917, a 58 year-old, half-blind Roosevelt went to then-President Woodrow Wilson and offered to not only raise a division of volunteers but to also lead them into battle.  It was absurd and Wilson declined the offer.  Speaking of TR after their meeting, Wilson said “He is a great big boy. There is a sweetness about him. You can’t resist the man.” One of Teddy’s nicknames was “Bull Moose” because he was the founder of the Bull Moose Progressive Party. It was an apt description of the man.

I am always interested to see if figures like that have any connections with Buddhism. I did some research on my own and found out that Teddy had a Buddhist bud! In fact, they were close friends. The documentary mentions that at one point TR became interested in jujitsu. The person who introduced him to that martial art was a man named William Sturgis Bigelow, a long time friend who often entertained TR in his Boston home. Bigelow was a doctor, graduated from Harvard Medical School, who lived in Japan for seven years to study Buddhism, and became a collector of Buddhist and Oriental art.

In 1908, Bigelow gave a lecture at Harvard titled “Buddhism and Immortality” that was later published. It is a lengthy piece full of the rather stilted language of the time. Buddhist thinking from Westerners during this period is always a mixed bag. Sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t. In this short paragraph from the lecture, Bigelow closes in on the former:

William Sturgis Bigelow in Japan, c.1884.
William Sturgis Bigelow in Japan, c.1884.

Consciousness is continuous. Therefore, there is but one ultimate consciousness. All beings are therefore one; and when one man strikes another, he strikes all men, including himself. Just when and where and how in terms of space and time he feels his own blow depends on circumstances, but sooner or later he will. A good deed comes back to the doer in the same way.”

You can read the entire lecture at Archive.org and learn more about TR’s BBF (Best Buddhist Friend) at the Bigelow Society