I posted this on my Facebook status:
We are The Holy Relic of the Misappropriated Matcha. Our rituals include eating Green Tea Ice Cream to show our unmitigated devotion to all things sacrilegious. In a “not-yer-mamma’s-non-duality” way, of course!
It’s a response to a series of posts from various places. The first series was in reaction to Wisdom 2.0 which berated secular forms of mindfulness programs (here we go again). These posts by various Buddhist teachers and organizations expressed concerns that mindfulness taught in profit-centered corporations would serve only to create worker drones and therefore lead to more oppression than liberation. This one’s been argued with accompanied flogging of the blindly-accepted prediction that teaching mindfulness in places of ill-ethical repute will end badly for the 99%.
Because I tend to believe that we, as purveyors of secular mindfulness programs, need to be clear on our own ethics which would guide who we serve, I also believe that we can discern when offering mindfulness programs may or may not be a good thing. It’s that nonduality thing. Samsara/Nirvana. At the same time, I do wish that those in the know – meaning those Buddhist scholars and teachers who are vehement about NOT bringing mindfulness programs to corporations who practice unwholesomely – would offer me some clear evidence that this oppression is a real outcome and not a theoretical one. It’s that science thing. You know, evidence. Because without evidence, I’m likely to not get in my car and drive to work each day because the stats say more people die from vehicle accidents than anything else (yes, yes, fossil fuels but my horse is too old to be galloped into the city).
So, please. Send me the facts. Or at the very least a well articulated argument for NOT delivering such a program. You know, it’s that risk analysis thing.
Well, a bit further up my Facebook feed was this picture from Sharon Salzberg’s Facebook page and attributed to DeviantArt(ist) Chopen. It was underscored by the quote:
When we experience dissatisfaction at work, which everyone does we can use our disappointment as fuel to wake up.
from Real Happiness at Work
Image by Chopen
Really? Really. The post boasts 15 shares and 51 likes. Really. Women in what one commenter called an “alienating job” being linked to the idea of “dissatisfaction at work”… which everybody feels… and the idea that it can be transcended by seeking to use it as a tool to wake up.
I once worked in a factory much like this one. It was the only way out of the Montreal slum-like housing and to stay in University. The 11PM to 6AM shift which required waiting in the dark at a bus stop by the Metropolitan underpass. I didn’t have the luxury of feeling dissatisfied. I did wake up. Not waking up was not an option because after catching the bus at 6:30AM I had to get home, sleep an hour, and get to classes. But enough about me. In all the shares and comments there was only one that asked the burning question: Are you saying that being oppressed is an opportunity to wake up (I assume in the Buddhist sense of attaining liberation)?
Well heck. In that case, let us all descend on the corporations and encourage this oppression through misappropriated mindfulness because that might work better than good old fashioned Buddhism!
I’m not being rhetorical because I do wonder why that post and its implication did not draw the ire of dhamma purists. Maybe because it comes from within the dhamma circle and so is acceptable? Could it be that all this mindfulness practice does have a suppressing effect on our discernment of when something just plain is not right? Maybe these are not politic questions to ask.
However, I do ask why so many intelligent Buddhist scholars and practitioners are jumping on this bandwagon of bashing secular programs when they have the wisdom and knowledge to do better. I don’t have an answer for that however I think some of the critiques – not criticisms because many of those are just wildly histrionic – are important to consider. So here are my two questions for the Buddhist scholars:
What’s up with this term Mindfulness? It’s not an easy concept and comes with a boatload of interpretations whose perspectives depend on the particular Buddhist tradition. What’s worse is that the secular Mindfulness, as in MB+something, is a mash-up of Theravada meditation systems, Mahayana philosophical concepts (like non-dualism), and some yogacara thrown in for good circulation. Good luck trying to line that up to some pure form of the Dhamma/Dharma. When Jon Kabat-Zinn put all this together he truly believed it was a working model and that scholars in time would work out the kinks. All I can say is the kinks have come home to roost and scholars are not happy about it. And it would be nice if, in the popular press, we spent more time understanding that “Mindfulness” is no more monolithic than Buddhism.
What’s up with this need for ethics and that damned sniper who is clearly doomed to Buddha Hell? Buddhists, interviewed about secular mindfulness, trot this example out: without ethics, a sniper whose fully-focused attention would be seen as mindful is not because the intent of his actions are unwholesome – i.e., he’s going to kill someone. Well, that’s true… but only partially so. Peter Harvey has a terrific section in his book on ethics¹ about who can break precepts and under what conditions. It’s not so clear-cut as it turns out. There are all kinds of contingencies but the bottom line is “it depends.” Killing is wrong, period. However, the agent of the killing is not, in Mahayana perspectives, immediately consigned to rounds of poor rebirth. It depends and (spoiler alert) it requires cultivating clear comprehension through sila. I’m no scholar but I sure would have liked to see this aspect pounded out in the criticisms of secular mindfulness and the implications of not having an ethical framework in its curriculum.
Why? Because it helps to provide a sound rationale for making changes in a practice model that may not be as good as it could be.
And because saying “You’re wrong, Just do it our way” is authoritarian and has a snowball’s chance in the Sahara of getting people to listen. Especially, scientistic materialistic types like me. Not to mention that it triggers retorts like “If all things are impermanent then accept this change in your dogma.” Or “If there is no fixed self then doesn’t that mean mindfulness is not just one thing?” Or “I feel for your dukkha. Here’s a brochure of my next course; it might help deal with the stress.”
I don’t worry about misappropriations. Green Tea Ice Cream was my last rant over the evil use of good matcha. Before that, I railed against the way psychiatrists used therapy as a quick-fix for their medication fails. And before that, I railed against physicians doing psychotherapy because they were burned out from their overloaded family practices. If you think you own something and are defined by it, you are going to see someone as taking it away and being incompetent at it. But that’s different from holding them accountable for learning how to be competent at it.
That’s what’s missing in this lop-sided furore over the use of mindfulness and the dire consequences thereof.
All right. I’ve ranted enough. I want to acknowledge the following scholars for their forward-looking attitudes: Bhikkhu Bodhi in his article in Contemporary Buddhism, Robert Scharf in his video on how Insight Meditation came to the lake, Richard Payne for his insightful comment on the reality of corporations and not thinking we can teach them ethics, Seth Segall for his post that we not lose sight of the good that is possible even if these programs are seen as half-measures.
¹An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues By Peter Harvey