[Note: This is a slightly revised version of a previous post with the same title.]

Ok, so mindfulness discourse is full of warnings about the sheer awfulness of life without mindfulness, consistent with one quarter of the ideological square:

  • Emphasize Their bad things
  • De-emphasize Our bad things.
  • Emphasize Our good things
  • De-emphasize Their good things

Let’s move on to “de-emphasize Our bad things”.

What bad things? To ideological adherents, the bad things associated with their ideology is mainly a matter of deficient understanding, not deficient ideology.  So it is within the mindfulness community.

When I read potential criticism or reservations about mindfulness, the responses from adherents seem to assume that since mindfulness is steeped in ancient wisdom and the mindfulness vision has been revealed by masters and/or deep religious experience, any apparent fault must be in the critic not the criticized.

For instance, in the article  “Is Mindfulness Harmful?” by Judson Brewer the author addresses research that mind wandering promotes creativity and problem-solving, which appears to contradict the common notion that mindful awareness and mind wandering are mutually exclusive.* But, no, according to Brewer, novices may find mindful awareness effortful and incompatible with mind wandering, but for experienced practitioners, mindfulness involves effortless awareness. Brewer concludes that mindful awareness may co-occur with mind wandering, aview compatible with the idea that mindful awareness exists as a parallel mode of experience and is not in a zero sum relation to other types of neurocognitive activity.

Then what about all this talk within mindfulness community about “monkey-mind”, a term that comes from Buddhism (e.g., Taming the Monkey Mind, by Thubden Chodron):

“The monkey mind (kapicitta) is a term sometimes used by the Buddha to describe the agitated, easily distracted and incessantly moving behaviour of ordinary human consciousness (Ja.III,148; V,445)….Anyone who has spent even a little time observing his own mind and then watched a troop of monkeys will have to admit that this comparison is an accurate and not very flattering one. …In contrast to this, the Buddha asked his disciples to train themselves so as to develop ‘a mind like a forest deer’ (miga bhūtena cetasā, M.I, 450). Deer are particularly gentle creatures and always remain alert and aware no matter what they are doing.”

It sure sounds like mindful awareness and monkey mind are exclusive ways of being. Although historically monkey mind was a broader concept than the tendency to mind wander and encompassed jumpy reactivity to both internal and external stimuli, it is common in contemporary mindfulness discourse to consider it more or less synonymous with mind wandering (e.g.,  Silencing The Monkey Mind by Don E. Brown II – note that the title conveys an image of chattering rather than jumping monkeys). And in Taming the Monkey Mind, Chodron specifically speaks about the “faults of day dreaming”).

Academia has picked up on the apparent incompatibility of mindful awareness and mind wandering, as can seen in this quote from the abstract of  Mrazek et al 2012  in Mindfulness and mind-wandering: Finding convergence through opposing constructs.:

“Research into both mindfulness and mind-wandering has grown rapidly, yet clarification of the relationship between these two seemingly opposing constructs is still absent. … Together these studies clarify the opposition between the constructs of mindfulness and mind-wandering …”

Brewer would counter that the above reflects an inaccurate understanding of mindfulness and is not supported by either the Buddhist tradition or experienced mediators. But since I’m exploring mindfulness as a form of discourse, and while allowing that discursive communities don’t speak in a single voice, I’m less interested in what may or may not be the “correct” understanding of the relationship between mindfulness and mind wandering and more interested in what appears to be a typical view, which is well-expressed in the popular bumper sticker, “Don’t Let Your Mind Wander – It’s Too Little To Be Left Alone”.

The example of mind wandering illustrates a theme that recurs among defenders of mindfulness: namely, that concerns about mindfulness are due to inadequate understanding. The typical argument is that it may take many years of mindfulness practice to fully realize its benefits; with accumulation of experience and growth of being, concerns will evaporate.

The idea here is that an experienced practitioner will have become so transformed through study, discipline and practice that he or she will ultimately achieve a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the “really real” and how it all works. Novices and outsiders are more likely to get stuck on seeming contradictions. Have doubts? Just wait. And, of course, continue to meditate.

Within mindfulness discourse, the “bad things” aren’t so much de-emphasized as dismissed. The religious nature of mindfulness ideology makes it easier to shrug off criticism. For many in the mindfulness community, their beliefs (convictions about the nature of reality) and practices aren’t derived from fallible human beings but have been revealed through religious experience and the teachings of masters. How can you argue with that?

Footnote: The use of “experts” is pretty common in academic research on the effects of mindfulness on the brain and body. So, in academia, what does it take to be an “expert” mindfulness practitioner? Just in terms of time commitment, a common figure bandied about is at least 10,000 hours of meditation (e.g., Perlman et al, 2010). This figure is based on the general “expert” literature – everyone knows it’s a convenient heuristic and that time alone devoted to an enterprise does not in itself make one anything, except maybe persistent. But let’s go with it for now and do the math. At 10 hours a week, that would be 1000 weeks, which would be almost 20 years. At 20 hours a week, that’s just about 10 years.


Taming the monkey mind By Venerable Thubten Chodron on Nov 7, 2002 in Applying the Dharma

Mrazek, Michael D.; Smallwood, Jonathan; Schooler, Jonathan W.Mindfulness and mind-wandering: Finding convergence through opposing constructs.  Emotion, Vol 12(3), Jun 2012, 442-448. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0026678

Perlman, David M.; Salomons, Tim V.; Davidson, Richard J.; Lutz, AntoineDifferential effects on pain intensity and unpleasantness of two meditation practices.Emotion, Vol 10(1), Feb 2010, 65-71. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0018440