I have an opinion that many people don’t agree with.

You might be on the same page. You might not. But you’re definitely going to want to hear me out.

I think that Mindfulness is Bullsh*t. I don’t believe that it does what it promises to do.

But hold on a second. Before any mindfulness junkies reading this article mindfully spit out their coffee and mindfully slam their laptops closed, hear me out.

Let me clarify my opinion; I think modern mindfulness is bullsh*t.

A brief history of mindfulness

If you haven’t heard of mindfulness by now, you’ve probably been living under a rock. But just in case, I’ll introduce a brief definition.

Mindfulness is the state of directing one’s awareness to the feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations that are being experienced in the present moment. This also includes acknowledging and accepting them without judgement. It is commonly used as a therapeutic technique to manage emotions and reduce stress.

Modern mindfulness (which I will now refer to as McMindfulness) has largely taken over from Vipassana, at least to the degree that it is far more well known in the West. Vipassana (aka Insight Meditation) is a serious practice. In fact, beginner vipassana courses are usually 10-day silent retreats. Insight meditation requires intense effort, which is absolutely necessary for real change.

Mindfulness, however, when applied outside of a traditional Buddhist context, is typically taught as a continuous ‘light’ effort. Try to “be mindful” or “be aware” of your daily activities. The instruction that is given is not the same – in either context, practice or outcome – as a punctuated, committed effort, as used in Vipassana.

The word mindfulness comes from sati in Pali. Originally, it was not considered a stand-alone meditation technique; it was an indriya, a faculty or quality you’re supposed to have in vipassana. It loosely translates to remembrance, that is, the remembrance to be fully aware of the contents of experiences.

So how did it become distorted?

MIT professor Jon Kabbat-Zinn brought mindfulness to the West after having studied meditation under serious teachers, including the widely known Thich Nhat Hanh. He went on to establish the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, where he developed the now famous Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.

Note that it is a ‘mindfulness-based’ program. Zinn’s attempt to remove any Buddhist framework was understandable; he was trying to introduce a novel and somewhat radical approach to Western medicine. At the time however, it was impossible to predict what effect MBSR would have on the culture of meditation.

The problem is not in mindfulness itself; it is in the fact that what we are exposed to in the West varies greatly in degrees of authenticity. What is clear however is that an Insight based practice that has been stripped of all Buddhist framework is inherently flawed.

“Mindfulness has become pernicious, diluted, and distorted by the prevailing narcissism of our time. The problem has somewhat less to do with how it’s practice and more to do with how it’s promoted. People aren’t necessarily learning bad breathing techniques. But in many cases they are relying on breathing techniques to deliver magical benefits. And all the while they are tediously, non-judgmentally focused entirely on themselves.” – Thomas Joiner

Another concern is that as mindfulness continues to be misused, it will go through a hype-cycle. First there will be an over-promise, then it will be a fad, later it will be discredited, and finally it will be forgotten. This is a huge pity, because the degree to which a number of styles of meditation could benefit Western culture is still largely untapped, and our fast-paced consumer society is largely at danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.



How to Practice Real Vipassana and not McMindfulness

There are a few things you can do to assess the quality of your mindfulness and make sure that what you practice will make a real difference to your life.

Attend an official retreat. This is the quickest and most effective way to have an authentic experience. Retreats typically run for 3,5,7 or 10 days. If you’d really like to know what meditation is about, attend a 5 day or longer retreat. Though they can be a challenge to novice meditators they have the benefit that the monkey mind tends to go through cycles of overactivity, tiredness, and deep calm – so you truly get to see what meditation is about.

Understand the context. If you have a well-respected meditation teacher in your city or state, then most useful you can do is learn from them directly. However, this isn’t always possible, so the next best thing is to read some books. The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh is a good starting point, as is anything by experienced American Buddhists such as Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Pema Chodron.

Hold yourself accountable. This is the trickiest thing to do for beginner meditators. With that said however it’s the most useful skill to have because it’s something you’re going to use for your entire life. Basically, you need to act as an internal auditor to your own experience with the question “I am truly being mindful right now?” This means, am I really completely engaged in the experience or am I only half-heartedly being aware.

For example, when you initially start with exercise, everything feels like a workout. However, once you’ve gained some experience, you can tell the difference between a real workout and a half-baked effort. Ask yourself what can convince you that you’re really being mindful? What does it feel like from a bodily sensation?

In the pilot episode of the Deconstructing Yourself podcast, long-term Vipassana practitioners Michael Taft and Kenneth Folk dive deep into this process, it’s definitely worth a listen!

Here’s a guided Vipassana meditation by Tara Brach

The key difference between this style of Vipassana and concentration meditation is that in insight meditation, holding awareness of either the bodily sensations or thoughts or awareness of the breath is fine. As long as you are aware of the contents of the experience, and not lost in mind-wandering, you’re following the instructions of the practice. The main focus is that you remain aware of the experience in the moment and don’t get lost.

In concentration meditation, the attention is directed exclusive towards the breathe, and awareness of other feelings or thoughts should be met with a re-directing of the attention back to the breath.

There are dozens of ways you can practice mindfulness. As long as you focus diligently and non-judgmentally on the sensations of an experience, you are engaging in vipassana.

Other examples of Vipassana

Some Insight meditations you may want to experiment with are:

Rising and falling. In this practice, you notice the sensations associated with the rising and falling of the abdomen as you breathe. Simply place your attention on the motion of rising and falling of the breath from the beginning of the inhalation to the end of the exhalation. Don’t judge or describe them, simply feeling the experience from a purely sensory perspective. You may notice that the abdomen stops for a split second at the end of the inhale.

Mental noting. This is the most common technique used in therapeutic contexts and has been proven to be effective for dealing with anxiety. Simply watch closely what feelings, thoughts, and sensations arise, and give them a short name before letting go of them.

Some notes you may want to start with are: hearing, feeling, thinking, seeing, touching. As you gather more experience you might want to use more specific labels such as; fear, anxiety, anger, joy, surprise, heat, cool, hard, soft, smooth, rough, remembering, planning etc.

Walking meditation. If you have any issues with your back or other physical pain, walking meditation is going to be a great ally.

Here’s a basic walking meditation from the Vipassana Dhura Meditation Society.

 

  • Observe the standing posture, noting “standing” for a few moments. This means to focus awareness on the posture of the body as you stand (for a more detailed description of how to observe posture, see Exercise 4). If this is difficult you can choose one point to focus on, such as the soles of your feet, being aware of the feeling of pressure from touching the floor.
  • Before moving, note “intending to walk.” (Don’t skip this step).
  • Slowly lift the right foot and place it down, taking one step. This should be a single fluid motion without breaks. Be aware of the entire arc of movement from beginning to end. As you do so, label the step “placing” (remember to label while the motion is happening, not afterwards). The left foot should not have moved and the left heel should still be on the ground. After placing the right foot down, stop completely for a moment.
  • Slowly take a step with the left foot, noting “placing.” Stop.
  • Continue walking, making sure to stop completely after each step. Only move one foot at a time.
  • When you reach the end of the walking path, place your feet together on the last step, noting “stopping.”
  • Note “standing” for two or three moments.
  • Now you will begin to turn, in four steps. Note “intending to turn.”
  • Lift the toes of your right foot and pivot on the heel, turning to your right. At the same time, say the mental note “turning.” The right heel should stay on the ground. Be sure to keep your head in line with your torso. The left foot should not move. Stop.
  • Lift the left foot and place it down next to the right, while noting “turning”. (The left foot doesn’t pivot, but steps.) You should have moved about ninety degrees. Stop.
  • Pivot on the right heel again, noting “turning.” Stop.
  • Lift the left foot and place it down next to the right, noting “turning.” By now you should be facing in the opposite direction, having turned one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.
  • Repeat steps 1-12 as many times as you wish.

 

Practicing Vipassana Meditation with intention and diligence can lead to real insight, which is why it is such a fundamental part of Buddhist teachings.

If you’ve been struggling to get the hang of mindfulness for a while, it’s likely that it’s because you’ve yet to receive appropriate instruction or context. Try some of the practices I’ve mentioned above, or better yet, find an authorised Vipassana retreat.

What’s your experience with Mindfulness, Vipassana, or other styles of meditation? Let me know in the comments!

Ben Fishel

Ben is an author and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age. He has background in neuroscience and psychology.

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3 comments

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  • I think Rinpoche (from whom you got the name of your blog, I assume) would disagree with much of what you say in this post. Here’s my take on meditation (where a lot of it I think you’d agree with having read a number of your other posts). First and foremost, everybody’s mind is genetically and biochemically and experientially different. I teach, and have to deal with this literally every day, as my students have different learning abilities and disabilities and modes of most effective learning. A claim for any teaching practice being “the one” is a form of arrogance, and no one approach will be optimal for all people. Best practice for a near-autistic brain or LDHD brain is not going to be best practice for what a powerful visualizer with an excellent memory and a gregarious personality, whether they are learning physics (what I teach, among other things) or meditation (rarely, one of the other things).

    Second, to learn ANYTHING, a GOOD practice is to — practice. The single biggest obstacle to learning anything is the mix of devoted time, attention, practice, experience, “right effort” required, compared to the vast range of distractions (many of them not-optional ones like ensuring that one has a place to live, food to eat, health care, and has discharged one’s very real life obligations like caring for family and pets and paying the mortgage — all of those Maslowian constraints that quite rightly will interfere with practice of any sort, be it doing physics homework or meditating) available. The second biggest obstacle — which might be the biggest, for many people — is their near-inability to “sit still” or (for activities that are not still) “achieve focus”. The third is that while we are taught many things from babyhood on, one thing we are (almost) never taught is how to learn. We are expected to learn how to learn by learning, which has a certain paradoxical quality that is enormously frustrating for the maybe 1/3 of the population for whom this does not work. Somewhere in there is finding the optimum degree of organization — too little and learning is chaotic; too much and it is boring and slow and too close to rote memorization of things that may well be untrue or contain errors but that fit nicely into an organizational scheme anyway.

    IMO mindfulness practice can be enormously useful and helpful to many people that are afflicted with monkey mind specifically, that jabbering interior monologue that runs constantly in the background of our minds when we are anxious, stressed, worried, tired, distracted, judgmental, and so on. By “afflicted” I mean that it is a major factor in their DAILY life at times that there are no real stressors present, not that it happens to them once or twice a month, or a year, usually in the context of a real Maslowian concern. I suspect in many cases it is essentially biological, brains wired (whether genetically or from abuse or accident) with an oversensitive reticular activation system that kicks them into fight or flight mode with inappropriate stimuli and then holds them there with internal feedback, but hey, maybe it is just neurotransmitter imbalances or the effect of environmental toxins — it’s complex and not just one thing for all people no matter what. This seems to be what Rinpoche talks about when he refers to his own childhood struggles with “monkey mind”.

    All of which is a preface to the following observation. You and I both know that meditation/mindfulness practice is a powerful technique that can OVER TIME, WITH PRACTICE, in at least some cases, help people to reduce monkey mind and achieve a calmer, more productive, less anxious and probably happier state of being in their daily lives. It may not be a magic bullet, and lots of things can prevent it from working, but it’s certainly something to try. The biggest obstacle for these people, who often have a hard time with ANY practice, is the fact that yes, it is a PRACTICE, the very thing they would like to learn to be able to do more effectively (but they can’t because of their anxiety, their ADD, or the fact that they are working two jobs, smoking, and are functional alcoholics). It does no good to sit down and try to e.g. focus on the breath for ten minutes two or three times, maybe even feel calmer afterwards, and then return to the same cycle of anxiety (and maybe all of the other things) as before.

    For what fraction of people is this the experience, especially among those who NATURALLY have the shortest attention spans, the most anxiety, self-abusive habits or self-medication habits, who in principle need it the most? Nearly all of them? Half? Three quarters? Even people who TAKE a class (to my experience) and “commit” to it for long enough that they experience some real benefit tend to slide back into their prior behavior simply because watching TV or playing video games is easier and (so far) more rewarding than sitting and “doing nothing”.

    For most of these people, adding ANY obstacle to the practice is a bad idea. Propagating the idea that in order to meditate, you have to have things “just right”, or that you have to travel to a special place and be taught by a special master or that you need aspecial yoga mat and have to sit in a special posture or use a special practice — these are all obstacles! This is why I always try to play Rinpoche’s video for any student I am trying to teach mindfulness to — meditate anytime, anywhere, nothing “special” or mysterious or difficult, just the simplest of practices. No, you don’t need to wear special clothes, sit in a special posture, be in a special place, have a special master or any master at all, and there are many practices that might be useful, here’s one that is very simple but if it doesn’t work for you here are several others to try but above all, they won’t work if you don’t, in fact, PRACTICE. Regularly. Without quitting.

    Why are the phone apps for guided meditation that have appeared lovely? Because they increase the likelihood that someone will actually stick with the practice to where they DO actually get the benefits, which are subtle (especially for a beginner) and take time to accumulate to where they are undeniable. Why does taking a class sometimes work? Because it is a commitment, not because there is anything in the class that you could not learn yourself with an equal commitment. This isn’t to disparage the value of teaching — the same is true for physics, you could learn it yourself if you devoted the time needed to learn it and had access to decent resources to learn from, but having a teacher can certainly help you overcome obstacles and frustration and having the “responsibility” of doing your homework, attending class, and so on encourages one to commit to the process enough to (hopefully) make progress. I found your site searching on feedback on the Muse device, not because it is likely to enable “McMeditation”, but because by making it a game and providing easy feedback for beginners, just MAYBE it will facilitate the PRACTICE. (Besides I’m a physicist, and it sounds REALLY COOL to be able to self-assess a full range of objective indicators of body/brain state whether or not one is seeking to “control” them via biofeedback or meditation practices:-).

    We live in a culture where a ten day Vipassana retreat simply isn’t a viable option for most people. Even a Muse device is expensive enough that I’m thinking hard about whether or not to buy one. But anybody can learn to become aware of the breath, and meditate sitting in an easy chair in their den wearing the same clothes they put on to go to work. With practice, they can meditate even if the neighbor has put on loud music or the kids are watching TV in the same room or if they have to get up and go to work at the end of ten minutes. With practice, they can meditate for five minutes sitting in their office chair in the middle of their work day, or while riding the bus to their job downtown, or in the middle of doing their homework. With practice, they can learn to (almost always) clear their mind and bring monkey mind under control the minute they start to hear the monkey yammering or feel that their attention is jumping all over the place inappropriately.

    The goal, to the extent that meditation/mindfulness has a goal or object or reason to be practiced at all, is to LIVE in the state of “flow”, to be centered all of the time, to become one with the monkey, even without the actual daily practice. The whole point of practicing the direction of one’s attention to “just one thing”, being in charge or our own awareness, is to learn to be in charge of our own awareness all of the time, to always live in and be fully aware of the moment and avoid the attachment to the past and anxiety over the future that make the monkey yammer incessantly, to make us MORE capable of coping with the real pain and suffering and poverty and loneliness and boredom of life, not more capable of avoiding them.

    Before Enlightenment, we not only chop wood and carry water, we worry constantly about not having enough wood to stay warm or that the well will run dry, we regret the time we stole our neighbor’s wood or that we peed in our enemy’s well, and are so busy doing this that we not infrequently don’t have enough wood for the winter or water for washing because it interferes with our ability to do the work. After Enlightenment, we simply chop the wood we need and carry the water we need, and are free to actually be mindfully prudent and act intelligently and plant more trees and repair and improve our well without giving way to regret that we let the well fall into disrepair or fear that eventually we will run out of trees interfere with the very actions that might prevent them. With any luck, we learn to compassionately give our neighbor wood when their own trees run out and share our water even with our enemy, whose well has mysteriously been corrupted with urine.

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