Is there a harmful side to mindfulness as it is practiced in Western materialistic/capitalistic cultures?

Clearly the modern mindfulness movement has been very successful, but I'm wondering if that's at the expense of losing its spiritual core. And it concerns me that what we are left with is just another kind of narcissistic solipsistic selfishness. Is there any validity in my concerns, or am I worrying about nothing?

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    I do see a "?" in there, but are you sure this is a question? – tkp Dec 20 '14 at 18:25
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    OK, cool. Your question is too long for me to attempt a rewrite without killing your intent. So I think there are two issues I could point at you could fix. First, your question is coming across as being rhetorical. You seem to think that there currently is a problem with mindfulness as displayed in the West. Second, the whole thing is just too long and, if I may, wordy and technical. (Are you a philosophy grad by any chance). I think it would read better if you put your question right at the top, and then gave at most a paragraph of explanation below it. I'll attempt it below your words. – tkp Dec 20 '14 at 18:34

The Mindfulness practice that is taught in a secular fashion in the West is based on the Buddhist Satipaṭṭāna-vipassanā practices, but it is a bit different. For one, in Buddhism, vipassnā is meant to be practiced within a certain framework of Buddhist thought and forms only a small part of the overall practice. Second, the "nonjudgemental awareness" you find in secular Mindfulness is something you won't find in the Buddhist Satipaṭṭāna practice. In the discourses the practitioner is instructed direct the mind away from unskillful states and direct the mind towards skillful mental states, so there's definitely an evaluation going on. See Bhikkhu Analayo's "Satipaṭṭāna: The Direct Path to Liberation" text for an in-depth discussion on this.

As a result of the above, the experiences of Mindfulness practitioners can only be loosely connected to what we find in the Buddhist texts. In the discourses, the awareness of impermanence is said to lead to this:

“Bhikkhus, when the perception of impermanence is developed and cultivated, it eliminates all sensual lust, it eliminates all lust for existence, it eliminates all ignorance, it uproots all conceit ‘I am.’" - SN22.102

Buddhist meditators who practice is within the traditional framework certainly experiences these things (it takes a good deal of concentration - i.e. calming of the mind - to get to this point), but do Mindfulness practitioners do as well? And if they do, is that really what they hoped to get out of it?

Most practitioners of Mindfulness do it with the expectation of receiving benefits for their everyday lives. But in Buddhism Satipaṭṭāna practice has usually been the domain of monks and nuns living an ascetic lifestyle. The texts never claim, to my knowledge, that it would make a person more ready to go through the hustle and bustle of a daily layperson's life.

According to Guy Armstrong, a meditation teacher at Spirit Rock, for a while he found that could not relate at all to the Buddhist texts with regard to this meditation practice. But later after his practice deepened and his emotions stabilized, he realized that he was practicing for "emotional healing" but the Buddhist texts were not aimed at that purpose.

So in summary, the secular Mindfulness practice taught in the West today, while having origins in Buddhism, is a 1)slightly different practice and 2)aimed at a different purpose.


I have been thinking a bit about this question and have come to the conclusion that practicing mindfulness in this way may lead to suffering. Why?

Because it seems to me that in the western way of practicing mindfulness one is doing it for a specific purpose, meaning that one has expectations to the practice. One expects a result. One thereby has craving. In the buddhist way of practicing mindfulness one learns about the 3 signs of existence and the 5 aggregates. With proper practice that leads one to understand that there is no such thing as an eternal, permanent Self.

If one practice mindfulness with another purpose than the aforementioned one then one will not reach the understanding of the false idea of Self. One will instead reinforce the belief in a Self which in turn leads to further suffering and attachment.

The buddhist practice of mindfulness is all about training to see phenomena clearly, as they really are and in that way it leads to the giving up of craving.

It seems to me that the western way is the opposite and thereby it might lead to further suffering and attachment.

Another point i want to make is that i think the practice of mindfulness becomes more ineffective when taken out of the true context which is the buddhist way as described by the Buddha. One cannot just take such a profound teaching and turn it into something else. Its like having a puzzle with 1000 bricks and then taking out 5-10 bricks and trying to complete the puzzle with only them or like trying to drive a car without having a license.

I want to state that i have not tried the western way of mindfulness and i know noone who do it so i might be completely wrong about it.

  • Just for reference, not to make a point: Mindfullness is popular in the west at the moment for "treating" what we see here as low-level mental illness, ennui, and so on, which border on "our" idea of clinical. These ideas enter into the popular consciousness through magazine articles, government guidelines, and so on. This is a part of our society which is very prone to fad and fashion (like dieting) and a few years ago was CBT, before that SSRIs, etc. In a few years it will change again. Anything to avoid considering the underlying problems (self, greed, etc, as you mention elsewhere @Lanka). – Dan Sheppard Mar 20 '15 at 18:58

(I think it's likely this question will be seen as prone to opinion-based answers, but I'm going to offer some thoughts anyway, since I want to balance my comments critiquing your question :-) )

I'd say the basic answer is "yes", mindfulness when approached in the way you describe could indeed cause harm. I see at least three forms that harm could take:

  1. The "opportunity cost" incurred by a practitioner who spends a lot of time on the kind of denuded mindfulness you describe, thinking it's the Real McCoy, and as a result fails to ever find a truly fruitful complete practice.
  2. Actual harm in the form of an increased narcissism in the practitioner
  3. The kinds of mental trauma described by people like Daniel Ingram and Willoughby Britton (the so-called "Dark Night") which I think are arguably caused by people plunging too quickly and deeply into intensive (and unguided) vipassana-focused practice without a balancing practice in morality

All that said, I'd find it hard to impossible to say just how much of the above theoretically possible harm is experienced in practice. I'd guess (but based on my reading of Ingram, Britton, and also Shinzen Young and others) that the third point is rare.

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