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 The Muddied Meaning of Mindfulness - from NYTimes Magazine

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: The Muddied Meaning of Mindfulness - from NYTimes Magazine   Tue Apr 14, 2015 10:34 pm

The Muddied Meaning of ‘Mindfulness’

APRIL 14, 2015



Most newly stylish coinages carry with them some evidence of grammatical trauma. Consider “affluencer,” “selfie,” “impactful.” Notes of cynicism and cutesiness come through. But every now and then a bright exception to this dispiriting routine appears. A rookie word makes its big-league debut, a stadium of pedants prepares to peg it with tomatoes and — nothing. A halfhearted heckle. The new word looks only passably pathetic. Maddeningly, it has heft.


“Mindfulness” may be that hefty word now, one that can’t readily be dismissed as trivia or propaganda. Yes, it’s current among jaw-grinding Fortune 500 executives who take sleeping pills and have “leadership coaches,” as well as with the moneyed earnest, who shop at Whole Foods, where Mindful magazine is on the newsstand alongside glossies about woodworking and the environment. It looks like nothing more than the noun form of “mindful” — the proper attitude toward the London subway’s gaps — but “mindfulness” has more exotic origins. In the late 19th century, the heyday of both the British Empire and Victorian Orientalism, a British magistrate in Galle, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), with the formidable name of Thomas William Rhys Davids, found himself charged with adjudicating Buddhist ecclesiastical disputes. He set out to learn Pali, a Middle Indo-Aryan tongue and the liturgical language of Theravada, an early branch of Buddhism. In 1881, he thus pulled out “mindfulness” — a synonym for “attention” from 1530 — as an approximate translation of the Buddhist concept of sati.
Might workplace

mindfulness — in the
cubicle or on the court
— be just another way
to get employees to
work harder for nothing
but airy rewards?

The translation was indeed rough. Sati, which Buddhists consider the first of seven factors of enlightenment, means, more nearly, “memory of the present,” which didn’t track in tense-preoccupied English. “Mindfulness” stuck — but may have saddled the subtle sati with false-note connotations of Victorian caution, or even obedience. (“Mind your manners!”)

“Mindfulness” finally became an American brand, however, a hundred years later, when the be-here-now, Eastern-inflected explorations of the ’60s came to dovetail with self-improvement regimes. In the 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist in New England and a longtime meditator in the Zen Buddhist tradition, saw in Rhys Davids’s word a chance to scrub meditation of its religious origins. Kabat-Zinn believed that many of the secular people who could most benefit from meditation were being turned off by the whiffs of reincarnation and other religious esoterica that clung to it. So he devised a new and pleasing definition of “mindfulness,” one that now makes no mention of enlightenment: “The awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Under cover of this innocuous word, Buddhist meditation nosed its way into a secular audience bent on personal growth and even success strategies. The idea that people might overcome psychological and physiological shortcomings with self-induced comforting thoughts had already taken hold by other names: positive thinking, the recovery movement, self-help. In her scathing 1992 critique of this idea, “I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional,” Wendy Kaminer might have been describing the dissemination of mindfulness as a kind of shorthand for betterment when she talked about how to write a self-help book: “Package platitudes about positive thinking, prayer or affirmation therapy as surefire, scientific techniques.”


In the years that followed, Kabat-Zinn published a series of books on mindfulness that indeed played like erudite self-help, notably, in 2005, “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.” Current books by Kabat-Zinn and scores of others now drop the word “meditation” altogether and propose mindfulness as the pharmakon for a heterogeneous deck of modern infirmities. Recent volumes in the same genre include “Mindful Work,” “The Mindful Way Through Depression,” “Mindful Birthing,” “Mindful Movements,” “The Mindful Child,” “The Mindful Teen,” two books called “Mindful Eating,” and “The Mindful Way Through Stress.” In these books, mindfulness has come to comprise a dizzying range of meanings for popular audiences. It’s an intimately attentive frame of mind. It’s a relaxed-alert frame of mind. It’s equanimity. It’s a form of the rigorous Buddhist meditation called vipassana (“insight”), or a form of another kind of Buddhist meditation known as anapanasmrti (“awareness of the breath”). It’s M.B.S.R. therapy (mindfulness-based stress reduction). It’s just kind of stopping to smell the roses. And last, it’s a lifestyle trend, a social movement and — as a Time magazine cover had it last year — a revolution.

If it’s a revolution, it’s not a grass-roots one. Although mindfulness teachers regularly offer the practice in disenfranchised communities in the United States and abroad, the powerful have really made mindfulness their own, exacting from the delicate idea concrete promises of longer lives and greater productivity. In January, during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Kabat-Zinn led executives and 1 percenters in a mindfulness meditation meant to promote general well-being. Many in pinstripes and conference lanyards also took time away from panels on Bitcoin and cybersecurity to communally breathe, and to attend a packed session called The Human Brain: Deconstructing Mindfulness, led by Thomas R. Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

“There’s a mindfulness-training program that’s very logical and very calm, quiet, and we’ve started the process with this team,” announced Phil Jackson, the president of the New York Knicks, last year. When Amar’e Stoudemire, a power forward then with the team, was asked whether he thought mindfulness training would help him, he replied: “It will definitely help, for sure. It just keeps you focused on the task at hand. It keeps you in tune.”

Mindfulness as “keeping in tune” has a nice ring to it. But it’s “focused on the task at hand” that appeals to managers, like Jackson, who are conscious of performance goals. Might workplace mindfulness — in the cubicle or on the court — be just another way to keep employees undistracted and to get them to work harder for nothing but airy rewards? In this context of performance enhancement, “mindfulness” seems perilously close to doggerel from the same playbook that brought us corny affirmations, inner children and vision boards.


Maybe the word “mindfulness” is like the Prius emblem, a badge of enlightened and self-satisfied consumerism, and of success and achievement. If so, not deploying mindfulness — taking pills or naps for anxiety, say, or going out to church or cocktails — makes you look sort of backward or classless. Like driving a Hummer.

As usual with modish and ideologically freighted words, this one has also come to inform high-minded prescriptions for raising children. Evidently they’re no longer expected to mind their manners; we are expected instead to mind their emotional states. Recently, Hanna Rosin, in Slate, argued that mindful parenting might be a Trojan horse: Though the mindful mother claims to stay open-minded about her child’s every action and communication, she ends up being hospitable to only the kid’s hippie, peacenik side — the side she comes to prefer.

In Rosin’s example, a mother supposedly mindful of her son’s capacity for violence nonetheless doesn’t rest until he gives a peaceable, sympathetic explanation for it — that he was hurt and overreacted. “I was mad, and he had it coming,” which might be the lad’s own truth, doesn’t fly. The mother’s “mindful attention,” rather than representing freedom from judgment, puts a thumb on the scale.

It’s profoundly tempting to dismiss as cant any word current with Davos, the N.B.A. and the motherhood guilt complex. Mindful fracking: Could that be next? Putting a neuroscience halo around a byword for both uppers (“productivity”) and downers (“relaxation”) — to ensure a more compliant work force and a more prosperous C-suite — also seems twisted. No one word, however shiny, however intriguingly Eastern, however bolstered by science, can ever fix the human condition. And that’s what commercial mindfulness may have lost from the most rigorous Buddhist tenets it replaced: the implication that suffering cannot be escaped but must be faced. Of that shift in meaning — in the Westernization of sati — we should be especially mindful.
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PostSubject: Re: The Muddied Meaning of Mindfulness - from NYTimes Magazine   Mon Apr 20, 2015 8:59 am

From the New Yorker:

 

Currency

April 18, 2015

The Long Marriage of Mindfulness and Money

By Michelle Goldberg

       
Last month, on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” Deepak Chopra described the usefulness of meditation for people on Wall Street. Speaking about a friend who manages a hedge fund, he said, “His entire staff meditates. I know many others now on Wall Street that we teach, actually. It makes them much more productive, because they’re centered, they’re not distracted.” Chopra was appearing on TV to promote a free twenty-one-day online meditation course that he offers with Oprah. Its theme is “Manifesting True Success.”

Meditation, like yoga before it, has been fully assimilated into corporate America. Aetna, General Mills, and Goldman Sachs all offer their employees free in-office meditation training. In January, the Times reported on a packed panel at Davos where members of the global élite “professed that meditation gave them a competitive advantage.” Speaking to Bloomberg, a meditation instructor at Goldman Sachs recalled a trader she works with who “gets a twinge in his gut when he senses a move in the markets.” With meditation, the instructor said, he had found an edge “by tuning into that sensation more reliably.”

The Bloomberg article (called “To Make a Killing on Wall Street, Start Meditating”) described how mindfulness meditation, which has roots in Theravada Buddhism, a predominant school in Southeast Asia, works for corporate types: “If a dog barks, you might register it before quickly refocusing on inhaling and exhaling. Mental intrusions are treated the same way: Thoughts such as ‘book NetJets’ or ‘offload bitcoins’ quickly pass like leaves floating on a stream.” The point, of course, isn’t that you will no longer care about your bitcoin returns but that, by developing greater calm and attention, you’ll ultimately get better ones.

Those who are bringing meditation to the American business world often hope that the practice will help workers tune into something a little more transcendent, which itself has become a cause for concern. In a recent Harvard Business Review piece, the executive coach David Brendel wrote, “Mindfulness is close to taking on cult status in the business world. But as with any rapidly growing movement—regardless of its potential benefits—there is good reason here for caution.” Brendel’s fear is that meditation might make executives too mellow and compassionate; he described one client who asked for assurance that she could embrace Buddhist meditation and still fire people. Brendel expressed hope that “mindfulness culture” will remain focussed on “optimizing work performance,” so that people can achieve “genuine happiness and fulfillment.”

Brendel needn’t worry. American capitalism has had a long and durable romance with Eastern spirituality, and the latter has hardly undermined the former. For well over a century, business-minded Americans have been transforming Hindu and Buddhist contemplative practices into an unlikely prosperity gospel.

These adaptations started with the New Thought movement, founded in the nineteenth century by a Maine clockmaker and hypnotist named Phineas Quimby. Quimby was immersed in the popular spiritualist culture of his day, but he eventually became convinced that the true agent of healing was not the outside forces that spiritualists proclaimed but an individual’s own beliefs. This faith in the power of the mind to shape physical reality has had a deep effect on American culture, from the New Age movement to motivational business literature. Quimby’s most famous disciple was Mary Baker Eddy, who merged his ideas with Christianity to create Christian Science. Another student, Warren Felt Evans, incorporated concepts derived from Hinduism and Buddhism into the movement.

Hindu and Buddhist contemplative traditions are also concerned with harnessing consciousness, but in New Thought and its variants the desires you work so hard to let go of are ultimately fulfilled. William James, who appears to have regarded the movement with affectionate skepticism, wrote about New Thought in “The Varieties of Religious Experience”: “Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent to what becomes of it all, and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing.”

Then as now, there was a great deal of interplay between motivational business writing and what was presented as the eternal wisdom of the East. Consider the work of Yogi Ramacharaka, whose popular and influential books included “The Hindu-Yogi Science of Breath” (1903) and “Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism” (1904). Writing in Advanced Thought, a New Thought magazine, Ramacharaka emphasized that his ideas coincided with those of its editor, William Walter Atkinson. “The editor of this magazine has frequently told you that the Touchstone of any teaching is this: ‘Does this make me Stronger, Better and More Efficient?’ I cheerfully support him in this statement, for the same truth is given (in other words) in the best Hindu teachings—in fact, as he, himself, would freely admit, he obtained the idea from such sources.”


Its not surprising that Atkinson and Ramacharaka claimed the same Hindu sources, because they were, in fact, the same person. Ramacharaka was one of Atkinson’s several noms de plume, and, as the historian Carl T. Jackson points out, Atkinson was “by no means the only New Thought writer to masquerade as an Oriental teacher or to offer an ‘authentic’ course in Eastern wisdom.” These writers genuinely believed that they were attuned to the wisdom of the East, but Eastern wisdom, refracted through New Thought, tended to sound a lot like practical business advice. Jackson notes that one New Thought book, “Karma on the Job,” by Frank Fall, interpreted karma as the principle that businessmen “get exactly what they earn.”

A similar alchemy has made mindfulness meditation—once an esoteric, monastic Buddhist practice aimed at renunciation—suitable for Davos. According to Jeff Wilson, the author of “Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture,” mindfulness in traditional Buddhist commentaries was “presented as a strenuous, lifelong task, one that occurs within a framework of renunciation and detachment.” It is meant to put distance between the monk and his experience. “In the premodern Theravada tradition, it was decidely not a process of inhabiting the present moment so that one connects with the immanent wonder of the sacred,” Wilson writes.

Mindfulness as we know it today was born out of a meeting of pragmatic, modernizing Asian teachers looking to make Buddhism accessible to the West and Western seekers who fit the practice into an Occidental psychological framework. (Particularly important among the latter was Jon Kabat-Zinn, who, in 1979, founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which offered an eight-week course on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.) A technique once meant to help monks grasp the unreality of the self became the inspiration for a new sort of self-help tool, and from there it was just a short leap to mindfulness becoming a business tool. By all accounts, mindfulness does help people feel more focussed and less frazzled, but it resembles New Thought far more than it does any Eastern religion.

“With business meditation, we have a practice that is extrapolated from Buddhism and secularized so that all of the theological underpinnings are swept away,” Catherine Albanese, the author of “A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion,” says. “So we have Buddhism stood on its head. Mindfulness meditation has been brought into the service of a totally different perspective and world view.” By now, that’s part of a venerable American tradition.
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