It is a genuinely wonderful thing that the idea and application of mindfulness has swept across the globe as it has. Anything that empowers individuals to take control of their wellbeing and reduce their stress levels can only be beneficial – for community health as well as individual health.
A great deal of its popularity is down to that most inspirational man Jon Kabat-Zinn, who set up clinics across America to teach MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a very effective mode of calming oneself and being present. His book Wherever You Go There You Are has lived permanently by my bedside for more than 25 years now. I dip into it frequently, even though I know it by heart.
We know that it can radically affect one's health, and the quality of one's life, for the better. How can that be anything other than good?
Can you hear a 'but' coming?
When I hear the term, I squirm a little; partly because that's my reaction to anything that becomes a cultish trend, but partly also because mindfulness divorced from its ground of being is like naming anything laid out on the page in 3 lines of 5, 7, 5 syllables respectively a haiku; or confusing an acorn with a forest.
I don't mean that to sound dismissive. It's just that, in the Zen tradition specifically and the Buddhist tradition generally from which the concept comes, mindfulness meditation is about so much more than a 'feelgood factor'. It's about how we live: the thoughts we have, the words we say, the things we do. It's about the practice of kindness. It's about waking up.
It's about waking up, too, to the fact that everything we say and do has consequences for others as well as for ourselves, and if mindfulness doesn't make us more aware of these things then arguably its huge potential for collective change (as a society is only as good as its individuals' levels of awareness and self-awareness) is wasted.
So yes, it's about consciousness.
As Zoe Williams in her column in the Guardian weekend magazine of 11.11.17 said so well (and this is what focused my mind on a topic to which I return often in my thoughts, as a Zen practitioner): 'The problem with mindfulness is that it spread across the world unhinged from the philosophy of human goodness that was supposed to underpin it.'
Yes, exactly that.
I've written before here of my Zen teacher Ken Jones' words: 'Meditation begins when you get off the cushion.' Ken was the founder of the Network of Engaged (that is socially and environmentally active) Buddhists, which will tell you something.
Meditation is of course a turning inward, and that in itself is a fine thing in a very outer-focused society. Inevitably, if you practice with enough intent, over time you will come up against your demons, your failings, your weaknesses, your reactivity, your attachments to having things your way, the way your desires and aversions drive you. This is an unrivalled opportunity (OK, it is rivalled by other things, actually, like good therapy) to examine your unconscious beliefs, habits and drives, and then to challenge them.
I am reminded of a four-day Zen retreat I went on some years back. As we were packing to leave at the very end of the retreat, I could hear from outside one of people responsible for leading some of the dharma talks bawling his partner out at the other end of the house. It's not my intention to judge him and we all lose our cool, but after such a period of quiet calmness, intense concentration, kindness and discussions of our insights on the meditation cushions it ripped through those of us who heard it like emotional cannon-shot.
So if it doesn't change how we live in relation to everyone and everything with whom we share this planet – and of course the planet herself – and how aware we become of our own small contributions to the ignorance and suffering of the world and what we might do about it then it remains focused only on our own wellbeing.
Is there a problem with that, you might say? Well, no, not per se; but it could go so much further. This is what disturbs me about the way it's touted.
Coupled with personal insight, sensitivity and self-examination, plus a willingness to change oneself, mindfulness from the standpoint of Zen is a very powerful tool for changing the world.
As Zoe says, 'Mindfulness has to be principled, otherwise it’s just a guy in California eating a raisin really, really slowly.'