Why Mindfulness is Not Enough for Personal Change

I am probably closer to being a Buddhist than any other -ist. I’ve practiced Vipassana meditation intensively on 10-day retreats in S.N. Goenka’s style and found it quite valuable. While I’ve never formally joined a Buddhist organization, I tend to think about life’s big questions in a Buddhist-inspired framework.

There is a concept in Buddhism and secular forms of Buddhism in the West that we refer to as “mindfulness.” The opposite of “mindlessness,” mindfulness is generally understood as paying attention to what is occurring in the present moment with a kind of non-judgmental awareness, versus checking out, denying what is occuring, or distracting ourselves from some difficult experience.

Most meditation techniques that come from Buddhism have this kind of mindfulness as a basis for practice. (Sometimes mindfulness is defined differently, as a state of complete absorption into an object of concentration. I define this as “concentration” or “jhana.”)

Mindfulness is often said to be not just useful when engaged in formal sitting meditation, but also in everyday life. In fact, there is seemingly nothing that can’t be enhanced by mindfulness. Clearly it is very often useful to pay attention to what is happening now, whether when solving a problem, or just enjoying the play of present-moment sensory experience.

The Mindful Mechanic

If we take a specific example, mindfulness for a mechanic might be listening to the sounds the car makes, popping open the hood and taking a good look at what one sees, smelling for gas or oil, and even examining different parts of the car to check to see if they are broken. If that doesn’t seem important, imagine if your mechanic was too frightened to even pop the hood, or too distracted to listen to the sounds the brakes were making. Clearly mindfulness is essential to fixing cars.

Mindfulness alone however was never meant as a cure for the problem of existential suffering, at least according to one of the Buddha’s first lectures famously titled the Four Noble Truths. The path to the resolution of suffering includes “right mindfulness” as just one of the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths outline a problem (life contains suffering) and propose a cause and a solution. Buddhism is in this regard both highly realistic and highly optimistic while also being pragmatic, providing specific practices and attitudes to address the existential problem of life’s difficulties.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Some Buddhist-inspired psychoprofessionals however seem to have interpreted mindfulness in terms of personal change as passively accepting one’s suffering without diagnosing or attempting to fully solve the problem. On August 3rd, 2013, Psychiatrist and Buddhist Mark Epstein published an opinion piece in the New York Times where he quotes himself talking to his mother saying “trauma never goes away completely.”

This is certainly not the message of Buddhism. Buddha frequently talked of his total and complete liberation from all of suffering. Nor should it be the message of psychiatry and psychotherapy.

Epstein goes on to say “I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder” In NLP terms, what Epstein is doing is what we call “future-pacing” a life of traumatic experiences…without equivalently putting into the future resources to successfully navigate them. This is what we call a strategy for anxiety!

Epstein also says “[t]he victims of the Boston Marathon bombings will take years to recover.” How does he know this? Has he interviewed them all? It is conceivable that many have already recovered. We know that while “over half of us go through some type of trauma, a much smaller percent develop PTSD.” So perhaps trauma isn’t always such a big deal, and people are generally more resourceful that we might give them credit for.

On the other hand, mindful acceptance is an excellent first step towards personal change. Epstein describes his mother feeling ashamed of her grief (she says guilty, but technically this is shame not guilt since it is more about embarrassment than hurting anyone else) for having lost her husband four years ago and still feeling bad about it.

She thinks she “should” have already “gotten over it.” But since she has never been taught a useful strategy for grieving successfully (and Epstein clearly doesn’t know one either), there is no reason she need feel ashamed for still experiencing her dead second husband as an absence instead of a presence. She was simply never educated on a better strategy for keeping an ongoing feeling of connection with him. (Here is an example of Connirae Andreas helping someone to resolve their grief in under an hour. Full disclosure: I work for Connirae. I was not paid to write this article and I don’t get any extra commissions or salary for promoting her work here.)

Unfortunately Epstein interprets this lack of education on a useful strategy for staying connected with her lost husband as a sign that suffering is forever. He goes on to say, “It [trauma] changes perhaps, softens some with time, but never completely goes away. What makes you think you should be completely over it? I don’t think it works that way.” If we go back to the mindful mechanic, I imagine this as a comparable scenario:

“Hi there, my brakes have been making this squealing sound for a while now and I’ve been very worried about it. I feel ashamed that I haven’t brought the car in sooner.”

“There is no reason for you to feel ashamed. All cars are composed of multiple parts and thus subject to the law of impermanence. When you notice your brakes making that sound, just listen to the sound without reacting. Accept the squealing.”

“So I shouldn’t have fixed the problem by now?”

“Why would you think that? Life is suffering, cars fall apart. People think they need to fix their cars, but what good will it do? Again the car will break, and again they will attempt to fix it. Simply accept this and you will be liberated from your car troubles.”

Obviously this seems absurd. I just want my car to be fixed, not to be accepted just as it is in all its broken perfection! Similarly, when suffering people come to a professional for help, I think it is an incredible disservice to not attempt to actually end the suffering. The worst thing a psychoprofessional can do in my opinion is to say that the suffering will last forever, to convey or install a belief that everyday life is traumatic, and to explicitly future-pace suffering into the client’s future without future-pacing a greater amount of positive resources to overcome those potential challenges.

Mindfulness: Necessary But Not Sufficient

That said, accepting what is actually happening now is a necessary, but usually not sufficient condition for personal change. A mindless mechanic might ignore sounds or smells your car puts off and thus not have the information needed to solve the problem. Your mechanic needs to be mindful in the precise sense of paying attention to what sensory data is available so that he can then do something to fix the problem.

Similarly, it is of the utmost importance that a psychiatrist, therapist, or coach develop a very fine sensory acuity in order to pay attention to verbal and non-verbal information that the client is communicating. This sensory acuity is not just for mindfully and compassionately accepting the client’s suffering, but for using that information to actually do something to make a positive change.

What I love about the field of NLP (as taught by Steve and Connirae Andreas specifically) is the huge toolbox full of useful methods to make personal changes. Many therapists when they are first exposed to NLP say things like, “wow, something I can actually do with my clients!” The excitement of being able to do things, often quite quickly, leads to a kind of optimism about what people are capable of.

Rather than a view of human capability that sees endless suffering in the future, the models and techniques of NLP allow us to envision positive futures of resourcefulness and creativity for people. We can be sure that challenges will face all of us, but we can also learn ways of preparing for and responding to challenges such that we grow and adapt as a result of them. While we might debate endlessly what the Buddha really meant, I think this optimistic and pragmatic view is also deeply aligned with the spirit of Buddhism.

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