May 14, 2021

What is Wrong with Mindfulness? (and what isn’t?)

Book Review

Is secular mindfulness an innovation on Buddhist teachings, or has something been lost in translation? Michael O’Neill, a Zen meditation teacher, gives his thoughts on this on going debate within the Buddhist community.

What's Wrong with Mindfulness (And What Isn't): Zen Perspectives

Edited by Robert Rosenbaumand Barry Magid


by Simon & Schuster

Mindfulness has become part of everyday language. The scientific literature on its effectiveness in stress reduction and in the management of maladies of all sorts grows daily. Headlines proclaim that scientists have shown that Mindfulness practice improves conditions from irritable bowel disease to major depression. The story often goes on to state the effect has been proved by a brain scan showing that a particular part of the brain lights up.

One can sign up for a 12-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme which promises to equip you with the techniques for dealing with stress. If you don’t have the time, shorter courses including weekend seminars will give an Introduction to Mindfulness. Attending a number of these courses, offers vary from 6 to 10 weekends will certify that you can now teach others the techniques of mindfulness.

Buddhist practitioners of meditation are challenged to respond to this surge in popularity. Is this simply the next step in the evolution of Western Buddhism shorn of it’s Asian cultural trappings or is it another quick-fix fad that will go the way of Beat Zen and Primal Scream Therapy?

As a teacher of meditation, I am often asked variants of the question that goes “Can we have the meditation without all the Buddhist stuff?”

Should teachers of Buddhist meditation adapt their programs to incorporate this new streamlined way of teaching meditation? Why should they object if it brings more people to meditation?

In What is Wrong with Mindfulness?,  the editors (Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magid) ask a selection of US-based Zen practitioners to explore their own particular experiences of encountering Mindfulness and to explore what is added and what is lost compared to a dedicated Zen practice. The book comprises a collection of essays dealing with various aspects of Mindfulness that have caused these Zen practitioners to reflect on Mindfulness and their practice.

The first essay by Mark Poirier,  entitled “Mischief in the Marketplace for Mindfulness”, begins by outlining 3 major aspects of Buddhist practice that are obscured in Mindfulness training. Buddhist training 1) requires a sustained effort over a prolonged period of time, 2)  acknowledges the usefulness of a community to stabilise and expand individual practice and 3)  is built upon the guidance of a respected and trusted teacher. All of these are effectively discarded from the outset in Mindfulness training. It is very much an individual endeavour and can now be learned on an App on one’s phone.

The first issue that Poirier tackles is the goal-directedness of Mindfulness training. This instrumentality has troubling consequences.Discoveries of the profundities of practice are less likely when the teacher articulates practice only in terms of short term gain”. The student will inevitably experience dissatisfaction as they encounter what comes up in Mindfulness practice. In a world full of many alternatives, the student will merely flit to the next cure-all, quick-fix technique.

The growth of this instrumental view of Mindfulness has led to it being something of a corporate and professional fashion. There are Mindfulness for Lawyers courses. Google offers a Mindfulness training programme to its employees which, in the words of their Inside Yourself programme, acts as a form of “corporate WD40, a necessary lubricant between driven ambitious employees and Google’s demanding corporate culture”. Indeed.

If we are honest, I think we all begin to meditate for a “reason”. We all believe that we have some kind of  problem and that we can become a better version of ourselves if we could just get some peace and calm in our lives. We might even believe that we can be “cured” of our problems. We might even wonder, after a few years of practice, why after hours and hours of sitting we have not achieved enlightenment. Part of bedding in to a structured and deep practice is to let go of these notions and this is where a teacher and a sangha can help most. Once you have paid for your Mindfulness course you are very much on your own. 

The commodification of the practice of Mindfulness training has a risk for the student in that it is now a service that is paid for. The teacher is now responsible for teaching Mindfulness to the client student. Buddhist training is based on a life-long relationship with someone whose duty it is to be open, honest and to drive you towards greater insight, no matter how uncomfortable that can be. This contrasts with a commercial transaction with a client on whom the teacher depends for income. Throughout Zen training the importance of the student's responsibility and experience (Karma) is stressed. The student is not a passive recipient of the teacher’s wisdom but a fully responsible and actively engaged follower of the way. 

One final point from this contributor was the challenge to Mindfulness’s insistence on external scientific validation. Hundreds of studies of widely varying scientific quality now claim to support the effectiveness of Mindfulness. While this is a useful marketing tool for proving the effectiveness of a particular course or approach, it has little to say about the truth of the experience of the practitioner. No number of brain scans showing before and after differences in meditators’ brains will make the least difference to how I deal with the subjective experience of awareness and the experiences that arise from the practice in everyday life. 

Another essay is a dialogue between Gil Fronsdal and Max Erdstein, both of whom moved from Zen to Vipassana. Gil Fronsdal records his discomfort at how Zen discounted, ignored or even forbade discussion of “enlightenment” while Vipassana allowed him to incorporate these profound transformative experiences into his practice. In their discussion Fronsdal and Erdstein delve into the Vipassana understanding of Mindfulness not as a technique or a practice but as a fundamental faculty to be cultivated. Buddhas meditate because it is what they do. They need none of the “benefits of Mindfulness” and still they meditate for hours every day.

Several of the contributors address the issues raised by the exclusive focus on meditation at the expense of other aspects of Buddhist training. Many Zen students are aware of “being drunk on meditation “, or even the “stink of Zen” when too much is channelled into the sitting and the vibrancy of the lived daily life practise is lost. The fact that the US Army teaches Mindfulness to better equip personnel for the stresses of combat and its aftermath raises the issue of Mindfulness without the ethical framework that is at the very heart of Buddhist practice. The focus in Mindfulness practice on “Happiness” as if this is somehow the sole goal in life is at odds with the fundamental Buddhist insight of “Dukkha”- that there is an irreducible anguish at the core of human existence. If Mindfulness is a first step in dealing with life and its woes, it is a small step. Mindfulness training, if it stays at that first step, risks building the very sense of “I” that Buddhist practice helps us to shed. The military programme to develop mindfulness skills devoid of compassion will only make better killers, not better human beings.

Robert Sharf offers a useful corrective to the largely a-historical view that Buddhists can often take of their practice. We tend to assume that our traditions are constant, immutable transmissions from an ancient past. Concentration on meditation even in Buddhism is a relatively recent phenomenon based on reforms begun in Burma in the 19th century with Mingun and continued by Mahasi Sayadaw Thera, and in Japan with the revival or reform of Zen Buddhism after the Meiji restoration (1868). Many of the same arguments made against Mindfulness now were made against these reforms at the time. The concentration on meditation as opposed to sutra study, cultivation of ethics and the practice of ritual and devotional practices was deemed to be a dilution of the tradition.

This discussion and a number of other contributors delve into what exactly is being taught in Mindfulness courses as to whether we are dealing with sati or smriti as awareness or attention and recollection. These discussions are too complex and subtle for me to summarise here, but clearly Mindfulness is actually offering a composite and possibly even varied offering without exploring deeply enough issues that have been debated in Buddhism for centuries.

Grace Schireson offers another balancing discussion dealing with what many Westerners find difficult about following traditional schools of Buddhism, which she identifies as the cultural and social prejudices that come as part of the package. In particular she recounts her experiences of the overt sexism and her attempts to challenge it with her Master in Japan. She is able to record some shifting in the position of her teacher, which she is too subtle and nuanced to claim as a victory but the warning is clear. That much of what is traditional or even inherent in Buddhist teachings only serves to alienate large numbers of people in the West who would otherwise derive enormous benefit from the teachings could be one of the key underlying reasons for the success of the secular Mindfulness approach.  Westerners and particularly younger people are much more alive to these issues than older (male) practitioners of my generation. We ignore these voices at our peril. 

(What is Wrong with Mindfulness ?(and what isn’t?)  Zen Perspectives by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum and Barry Magid Eds Wisdom Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-61429-283-8 ebook ISBN 978-1-61429-307-1)

Dharma Centre

We have just launched our online Dharma Centre. All are welcome...

Join our Community!


The virtue of generosity, charity or giving. Your donations are welcomed.

Learn more