The Case Against Mindfulness

In an earlier article, I wrote about why mindfulness is not sufficient, by itself, for personal change. Further reading (this article specifically) and reflection on the philosophy of Buddhism has lead me to believe that perhaps actually mindfulness, while useful in some contexts, inherently has some problems or limitations.

First of all, there are at least six related but distinct concepts all referred to by the name “mindfulness”:

1. Mindfulness as consciously paying attention to what one is doing at all times, aka the opposite of mindlessness.

2. Mindfulness as slowness — doing things very slowly so as to be very aware and careful and present.

3. Mindfulness as a method of savoring — paying close attention so as to enjoy and feel more pleasure.

4. Mindfulness as intense, single-pointed concentration on an object of meditation (usually the breath) to cultivate jhanas (aka, shamatha).

5. Mindfulness as nonjudgmental, detached awareness and/or analysis of one’s direct experience in the five senses (aka, vipassana).

6. Mindfulness as psychotherapy — effectively, being present with one’s feelings by noticing them and yet remaining somewhat detached, or one of many other methods of simultaneously noticing yet distancing one’s self from one’s thoughts or feelings.

Each concept has limitations or problems that lead me to believe that while “mindfulness” can be good in certain contexts and for certain goals, it is not universally a good thing.

1. Mindfulness as consciously paying attention to what one is doing at all times, aka the opposite of mindlessness.

When someone is experiencing sympathetic nervous system arousal, they are less aware of certain things because they are attuned to potential threats in their environment. My direct experience of this is that I become forgetful, as if parts of my brain aren’t functioning (which is true). So mindfulness in this sense is automatically increased by simply inhibiting the sympathetic nervous system by doing NLP style brief change work. In this case there is no reason to directly practice conscious, willful paying attention all the time. Consciously focusing on being present and mindful at all times however can become a kind of problematic compulsion. And aware of what exactly? Whenever we are aware of one thing we are necessarily not aware of something else. If we focus our attention on sensations, we are unaware of or repressing thoughts. If mindfulness were unconscious and automatic, I’d be in favor of it — which is what I experience when I am not in sympathetic nervous system arousal as opposed to when I am. But it is inherent in this definition of mindfulness that being mindful requires continual conscious, that is to say willful, attention. Perhaps with practice it becomes automatic. But from what I can tell, the general instruction is that we ought to continue to consciously attempt to be aware of things, not rely on that automatic learned behavior. The alternative to this is to simply open and relax in all situations, more of a Dzogchen style perhaps. I think that could be a good thing, but I’d call it more like “naturalness” than “mindfulness” as it’s not really trying to pay attention any particular thing in any specific way.

2. Mindfulness as slowness — doing things very slowly so as to be very aware and careful and present.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and peace advocate, has encouraged slowness as mindfulness practice. Moving or doing things very slowly can have numerous positive benefits and be very relaxing to the nervous system, especially when coordinated with the breath as in yoga, tai chi, or chi gong. That said, there is no reason to think that doing things very slowly is the only or best way to live generally, nor even the best way to practice for any specific person at any given time. Nor are other speeds of activity generally bad or wrong. It’s all a matter of what purpose one is doing something for.

3. Mindfulness as a method of savoring — paying close attention so as to enjoy and feel more pleasure.

Strangely, the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, which in its original form decried the senses and sense-pleasures as inherently corrupt, has in our modern age been appropriated by anti-Buddhist Hedonism and Epicureanism to mean a process by which we indulge more fully in the sense pleasures. If we leave the conflict in philosophy aside for the moment, savoring by means of paying close attention to sensation can indeed increase pleasure. It can also deconstruct the sensations of pleasure into meaningless bits of information. I’ve found that mindfulness with the intention to increase pleasure is unreliable at best for this reason. I’ve also found that whenever I’ve consciously increased pleasure, it has lead to a roller coaster of pleasure and pain, increasing both equally. Perhaps your experience differs from mine however. I’ve also noticed that the most reliable way to increase pleasure is to abstain from super-pleasurable activities for a time, then indulge in them. It could be however that I am just an unsuccessful hedonist. Assuming one could successfully increase sensory pleasure without a corresponding increase in pain, that could certainly enhance one’s life to some extent, however it is not clear how this would make like more meaningful — in fact it might lead to an over focus on pleasure with a corresponding decrease in meaningfulness or fulfillment, a real risk of Hedonism generally.

4. Mindfulness as intense, single-pointed concentration on an object of meditation (usually the breath) to cultivate jhanas (aka, shamatha).

Focusing extremely intensely and blocking out all other sensory activity by concentrating on the sensations of the breath can be a very powerful trance experience. When done aggressively however, it can lead to headaches, psychosis, and a strange rigidity in the mind and body, as one aspect of self ruthlessly dominates all others. If done more gently, softly surrendering and releasing the thoughts and distractions, it can be very powerful and wonderfully pleasurable and peaceful. However, to get to this deep level takes sustained practice in a cloistered environment away from work, family, social life, television and other entertainment, with a complete and utter singular focus for many months at a time. It is probably impossible to reach the deepest levels of shamatha in daily life even with many hours of practice a day, so this kind of experience is reserved primarily for a yogic class of society who has the leisure or structure to practice at this level of intensity (see The Shamatha Project). Perhaps there is still benefit to the lay practitioner, although it is unclear to me if the benefits are worth the cost of daily practice for 1-2 hours or more every day. The concentration benefits do not seem to generalize into daily life, nor do they necessarily resolve ADHD kinds of attention problems, and they require 1000s of hours of practice to develop, and seemingly ongoing daily practice to maintain. One exception might be that sufficient shamatha might be a pre-requisite for effective vipassana (there is some debate as to what makes shamatha sufficient to do so).

5. Mindfulness as nonjudgmental, detached awareness and/or analysis of one’s direct experience in the five senses (aka, vipassana).

Nonjudgmental, detached awareness of one’s direct experience in one or more of the five senses can certainly be a powerful practice, and seems to be relatively effective for part-time yogis who have jobs and career, etc. It isn’t clear to me exactly what it is effective for, despite my own practicing of vipassana for thousands of hours (including 100s of hours of retreat time). But it does do something which may or may not be useful off the cushion (it doesn’t turn you into a perfected being or a saint as far as I can tell). If anything, the increased awareness does seem useful in case one decides to do any actual change work later, an activity which is distinctly non-Buddhist and operates from a completely different philosophy altogether from Buddhism in terms of the origins and resolution of suffering. Probably one does not need to be enlightened or have great facility with Vipassana to get sufficient self-awareness to successfully do NLP-style change work however.

6. Mindfulness as psychotherapy — effectively, being present with one’s feelings by noticing them and yet remaining somewhat detached, or one of many other methods of simultaneously noticing yet distancing one’s self from one’s thoughts or feelings.

Being present with and feeling one’s feelings, or expressing them is an utterly distinct activity from changing the structures which are generating any unresourceful responses. In particular, being aware or present with or feeling one’s feelings is unlikely to ever lead to a change by itself. (That was certainly true in my personal experience.) Often times psychotherapists and their clients however mistake the good feelings of catharsis or being empathized with when one is feeling bad with structural change. Changes in mood are not at all the same as changes in patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior. On the other hand, before any change work can take place, the client must necessarily have some awareness of what is going on inside, and for some people that might take quite a bit of practice to get to an adequate level before they can start – perhaps even a few hundred hours. Of course this practice can be easily done in groups or on ones own. It is a very ineffective use of facilitator and client resources (time and money) to do lots of 1-on-1 sessions to teach/learn basic self-awareness (visual, auditory, kinesthetic internal and external, observed/remembered/constructed). Also mindfulness by itself rarely teaches clients how to actually make the change. Instead it teaches clients how to bear their suffering with awareness, which is slightly better than nothing but not nearly as good as actually changing. (See Steve Andreas’ excellent article on OCD. My previous article also touches on this.)