Mindfulness goes corporate - and purists aren't pleased - Macleans.ca

Mindfulness goes corporate — and purists aren’t pleased

How the Buddhist tradition has been marshalled to grow profits and productivity

The battle for Buddha

Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

When Janice Marturano conducted the “mindful leadership experience” workshop last January at the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, she was hoping for an audience of 20—at most. “I was prepared for one or two,” the founder and executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Mindful Leadership admits. She needn’t have worried. There was a lineup; people were even turned away. More than 70 of the world’s most influential people crammed into the room, many standing for 90 minutes to learn “techniques for developing focus, clarity and compassion.” The next morning, Marturano led a meditation—a Davos first—that drew 40 people, two-thirds of whom had never meditated before.

The spectre of masters of the universe chanting Om at Davos serves as only one measure of how “mindfulness” has become the new Western mantra. The technique, linked to Buddhist practice, teaches being present in the moment, always attentive to, and accepting one’s thoughts and responses, without judgment. In a 1977 study, mindfulness pioneer Jack Kornfeld presented the approach as a remedy to Western excesses, or “the egoistic, hedonic treadmill of continually avoiding discomfort and seeking pleasure from outside sources that are ultimately unsatisfying and short-lived.”

Mindfulness entered the medical mainstream in the 1980s as a clinically proven method for alleviating chronic pain and stress. Since then, it has metastasized into an omnibus panacea—to help children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder concentrate, soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder recover and, now, Fortune 500 executives compete. In Paul Harrison’s upcoming documentary, The Mindfulness Movie, psychologist Guy Claxton frames the benefits in mercantile terms: “At the most basic level, mindfulness enables you to get value for money out of life,” he says.

What has gripped Western attention is mindfulness’s ability to improve performance—of Olympic athletes, parents, and even nations, as promised in U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan’s 2012 bestseller, Mindful Nation: How a simple practice can help us reduce stress, improve performance and recapture the American spirit.Institutions and companies are racing to adopt “mindful” practices—among them Google, the U.S. military and Monsanto. Jeff Weiner, CEO of the social-networking site LinkedIn, is a disciple, boasting that “compassion” and “listening to others” are now his central management tenets.

A mindfulness industry has taken root, seen in a boom in corporate coaching, “yin” yoga (which develops mindfulness by holding poses at a point of intensity for five to 10 minutes) and books such as Raji Lukkoor’s Inner Pilgrimage: Ten Days to a Mindful Meand 10 Mindful Minutesby actress Goldie Hawn, who runs a mindfulness foundation. The first mass-market magazine devoted to the topic, Mindful,has just launched; the first issue of the Halifax-based bimonthly bills itself as “your guide to less stress and more joy” with features such as “The science of changing your brain.” Publisher Jim Gimian says he wants to send “a very broad message that mindfulness is a lifestyle, a broadly appealing part of life and not something esoteric or foreign.” Even the ads are “curated” to reflect this message, he says; placing a full-page ad for women’s clothing line Eileen Fisher on the first page was strategic: the company also advertises in Vogue.

The trend to mindfulness would seem to signal mass recognition of the need to slow down and pay attention in a turbo-driven, reactive society. Yet its migration from ashram to boardroom is not without tensions. High-profile Buddhists are taking off the gloves, albeit thoughtfully; they say mindfulness is part of a continuum—one of the seven factors of enlightenment—not a self-help technique or “a path which can lead to bigger profits,” as the Financial Times put it. And long-time practioners worry that mindfulness repackaged as a quick fix or a commercial platform could in fact lead to mindlessness, and reinforce the very problems it’s trying to heal.

The embrace of mindfulness by a distracted, stressed, Lululemon-wearing, iPhone-addicted culture isn’t surprising: it combines Zen chic with the scientific imprimatur of the New England Journal of Medicine. Microbiologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, famed for his mindfulness meditation seminars, is credited with bringing the practice into health care: his eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction training program, established at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1995, is now taught in more than 200 hospitals. Its efficacy is supported by a growing body of scientific research, including studies that show it can alter brain patterns and behaviour, and be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild depression.

Business, too, has quantified the benefits. Mark Bertolini, chief executive of Aetna Insurance, became a mindfulness proponent after breaking his neck in a skiing accident; it helped him get off meds and return to work. The bottom-line incentive of reducing employee disability payouts and increasing productivity also didn’t escape him. Bertolini recently rhymed off the stats on CNBC: the most stressed-out employees’ health care costs are $2,000 higher than average employees’, he reported; “mindfulness” benefits, such as yoga classes, yield an 11-to-1 return on investment.

Toronto physician Patricia Rockman, who has taught “therapeutic mindfulness” for nearly a decade and is director of education at Toronto’s Centre for Mindfulness Studies, says mindfulness is entering the culture in “a tsunami,” noting her centre has just received a grant to train front-line social-service workers. “Mindfulness practice isn’t about fixing anything, or getting rid of pain and being happy and relaxed,” she says. “Those are nice by-products. But it’s about waking up to your life and enhancing mental and emotional resilience.” Mindfulness is “experiential,” she says, meaning you can’t do the work by talking about it or reading about it: “The effort comes in the development of a practice. It begins with self-discovery and becoming more compassionate to self, then ultimately toward others.” Currently, the field is unregulated—“anybody can teach a course,” Rockman says—though standards are emerging.

Rockman believes mindfulness resonates in an increasingly scientific and secular culture craving focus and meaning. “We’re so focused on acquisition, on stuff,” she says. As with many practioners, her approach is influenced by science and secular Buddhism, which she defines as “concerned with this time and this world and this place.” Spiritual need or transcendence is developmental, Rockman posits: “If we’re not evolving as a species, we’re devolving.”

Not everyone views the current path as enlightened, however. Donald Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan, calls “secular Buddhism” an oxymoron: “Buddhism has always been a religion,” he says. “To see it as a way of life is a modern conceit that disparages the lives and religious practices of Buddhists over thousands of years.” The author of The Scientific Buddha, published in 2012, says belief that “mindfulness” is an ancient Buddhist practice is a fallacy: “There’s a cachet that comes from saying some ancient sage a millennium ago in India invented these things,” he says. Lopez traces mindfulness as we know it to a quest to preserve Buddhism in Burma after the British occuptation in the 19th century; they deposed the king and destroyed the hierarchical Buddhist institution: “Some monks saw the British arrival as a sign of approaching apocalypse,” he says. “So they disseminated Buddhist philosophy and practice through the population.” That included meditation, traditionally done only by monks. “It was totally about self-preservation.”

Rockman counters that there is “territoriality” in the field. “There has been tension because people traditionally in the dharma field say it’s being diluted and stripped of meaning. But I would say they don’t know what we’re doing, either.” She sees mindfulness unbundled from religion as a plus: “It means anyone can buy it.”

That includes the U.S. Marine Corps, which is now using mindfulness to create more effective soldiers through “mindfulness-based mind-fitness training,” or “MBMFT for warriors.” Training includes “brain-calming” exercises to improve performance while being immersed in a mock Afghan village with screaming actors and controlled blasts.

Snipers could also benefit from mindfulness training, notes Ronald Purser, a professor of management in the College of Business at San Francisco State University and a practising Buddhist: “It would enhance attention, concentration and aim. Terrorists would benefit from it, too.”

And therein lies the other part of the problem. Purser is of mixed mind about the mainstreaming of mindfulness. “Kabat-Zinn created an extremely stripped-down, secularized technique to make it palatable to the scientific and medical community,” he says. “And that’s fine; it has benefits in terms of stress reduction and relieving chronic pain.” But the focus on “attention-enhancement” is problematic, he says: “Mindfulness in Buddhist tradition is to transform one’s sense of self; it’s not about attaining personal goals attached to personal desires; the goal is to liberate oneself from greed, ill will and delusion, not to achieve stress reduction.”

Purser’s major concern is the institutional readiness to adopt mindfulness: “In their rush to secularize it, they’ve turned it into a technique divorced from ethical responsibility or commitment,” he says, drawing comparisons to “human relations,” a developmental theory-based movement in business in the ’40s. “It was trying to make employees happy and supervisors feel warm and fuzzy. But it was also criticized as ‘cow psychology’—as in ‘happier cows give more milk.’ ” He wonders if emphasizing “mindfulness” will allow corporations to gloss over problems: “Is it a means of helping employees adapt to a toxic culture, rather than calling into question the fundamental reasons why stress is being generated in that toxic culture?”

American Zen teacher, academic and author David Loy agrees. Loy recently posted online a letter he’d written to Harvard professor William George, an advocate of mindfulness in the corporate realm. Loy took issue with George sitting on the boards of Goldman Sachs, Novartis and Exxon Mobil, corporations that have been accused of ethical-practices breaches. In an interview with Maclean’s, Loy said he’s pleased mindfulness is helping so many people reduce anxiety and pain. “And if somebody wants to do better on their SATs [U.S. college-admission tests], I have no objection to that,” he says. But he sees a blurring taking place: “The real focus of Buddhism is on awakening, on coming to some insight or wisdom about our true nature. Without that, we can’t get at the real source of our dukkha, or suffering,” he says. Institutional dukkha exists, as well. “The mindfulness movement is good for adjusting certain types of dukkha, but from the Buddhist perspective, it’s not addressing the most deep-rooted and problematical forms of dukkha. In fact, it seems to be reinforcing the kind of self-centred individualism that seems to be our more basic problem.”

There’s a definite spirit of survivalism in the current mindfulness mania, a recognition that self-sufficiency is paramount, should systems—be they economic, institutional or religious—fail. People are seeking an alternative to technological or pharmaceutical fixes, says Jim Gimian, the publisher of Mindful. Mindfulness is elemental, he says: “You’re bringing your mind and body to respond to challenge, and to find a way to cope.”

Former monk Stephen Batchelor, the author of Buddhism Without Beliefs, has famously compared the mainstreaming of “mindfulness” to the Trojan Horse, in the sense that people don’t know what they’re getting, not unlike taking yoga for toned arms and also discovering spiritual enlightenment.

Loy is wary. If mindfulness is to make true cultural change, it must look beyond personal needs for serenity, good health or success, he says. “People say that, as people do mindfulness, they will become involved in something deeper, or look for more, or even turn to Buddhism. Or maybe they will find becoming more compassionate is changing them. These are possibilities. But it could also be the other way around. I’m not always sure which is Troy and which are the Greeks.” Right now, what we know for sure is that we’re all under siege.


Mindfulness goes corporate — and purists aren’t pleased

  1. Interesting article.

    One small point: Dr. Lopez is not in the “dharma field”, he’s one of the most respected scholars of Buddhism (in the western tradition of scholarship, not Buddhist ones) in the world. The way you’ve followed your paragraph on him with that label (“people traditionally in the dharma field”) makes it sound like that applies to him, which it doesn’t.

    The issue as I see it is that when you take a particular element of a culture out of its original context(s), it doesn’t mean the same thing or work the same way anymore. That’s not inherently good or bad. We should just be aware that when people are doing meditation in a business or in the army, it’s a totally different practice than what Buddhists do. The context changes both the meaning and the function.

    One of the most important elements of the Buddhist context is the motivation for practice, which in the Mahayana/Vajrayana traditions is to accomplish buddhahood for the benefit of all beings. Of course, people don’t start with this motivation fully developed; nurturing it is a key part of the practice. So the way mindfulness meditation is situated within a wider context of practice (i.e. going for refuge, generating the mind directed toward awakening, dedicating the merit of practice to the benefit of all beings, etc.) totally changes the meaning, purpose, and results of the practice. That’s what Dr. Lopez is getting at, at least in part.

  2. I’ve been practicing mindfulness for many years following the teachings of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. While Buddhism may be a religion for some, buddhist mindfulness practice is not a religion at all. Rather it is a methodology to train your mind, open your heart, and see what’s going on underneath your thoughts, feelings and sensations.

    The historical person who came to be known as Buddha never said he was a god or that anyone should pray to him. He said just the opposite, that we each need to find our own way out of suffering. With the West waking up to the benefits of mindfulness practice, hopefully a lot more people will do just that!

  3. Btw, if anyone’s interested in seeing and hearing Thich Nhat Hanh in person, he’ll be giving a public talk at the Sony Centre in Toronto on August 17. He is one of the most loved and respected mindfulness teachers in the world. Details at tnhtoronto.ca.

    • how much does that cost?

  4. mindfulness for sale. meditation is really not so complicated that one needs to spend much money to learn. google it ..read some about it …. then do it. not much learning to it. its big business though.

  5. Ironically, while mindfulness may be taking the corporate world by storm, its use for health-promoting practices and stress-reduction isn’t really well supported at all.

    In fact, Buddhist monks who come to this country as refugees from Tibet, are often found in Western therapy for PTSD because their decades of meditation practice are disrupted by painful flashbacks.

    Likewise, the research, when evaluated objectively, on how mindfulness and most other meditation techniques, affect things like hypertension, shows inconclusive or even contradictory results.

    Ironically, last Monday, the American Heart Association issued a scientific report, published in Hypertension, saying that MBSR and almost all other meditation/relaxation techniques, lacked sufficiently good and or consistent research to recommend in clinical practice for the treatment of hypertension.

    The only exception was TM, which was found to have a “modest effect on lower blood pressure.” The report went on to call for head-to-head studies between TM and other forms of meditation to verify whether or not TM was really more effective than other techniques. Thus far, researchers into mindfulness have refused to include TM as part of their studies of the effect on meditation because they don’t believe TM researchers’ claims that TM has unique effects that have any meaning from a Western (read, “Buddhist”) perspective. Perhaps now they will be compelled to be a bit more Buddhist, er, open-minded, in their attitude.

    Likewise, recent studies on TM and PTSD have showed not just a statistically significant effect, as is the case with other meditation practices and PTSD, but a massively clinically significant effect on PTSD. Again, it will be interesting to see if Buddhist researchers are willing to face facts and study things that have easily measurable effects in the real world, rather than things that have subtle, hardly detectable effects in behavior, which can only justifiably be studied as intensively as they are due to religious bias.

    • Unfortunately TM and its Maharishi lost a lot of credibility over the whole “Yogic Flying” thing.

      • You’ve never done Yogic Flying I take it?

        A lot of fun and does exactly what is claimed for it: teaches you to simultaneously and spontaneously maintain a meditation-like state while engaged in activity -in the case of Yogic Flying, rather vigorous physical activity, although legends say that “hopping like a frog” eventually leads to “sitting in the air” in the most advanced stage. Regardless of what stage you are in, the point concerns affecting the behavior of the nervous system in the direction of enlightenment. Floating, should it actually be possible, is merely a long-term side-effect of this, and not the main reason to be practicing (after 28 years of not-floating, I’m still practicing, so obviously I’m getting something out of the practice besides floating).

        Carefully screened-for-the-media “graceful and dignified” Yogic Flyers giving a demo to some TV camera crew or another: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLXL_q50ymo

        A more typical view of what Yogic Flying looks like when not setup for TV shoots: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=SZgisNTJ1-A#t=499s

        That second video is taken at a private school in Mexico. About 65,000 kids are scheduled to learn Yogic Flying over the next year or two in various schools in the region. The administrators of the schools are very happy with the behavioral and scholastic outcomes from having their students learn TM, and are willing to see what happens when they learn Yogic Flying as well.

    • ” its use for health-promoting practices and stress-reduction isn’t really well supported at all.” This is simply not true. There is a substantial body of research supporting mindfulness. PubMed has more than 2500 articles examining the effects of meditation.

      • actually, the American Heart Association did a very careful pubmed and google search concerning the effects of various practicies such as meditation on hypertension and found that no meditation/relaxation technique besides TM had sufficiently good and/or consistent research available to recommend it for clinical treatment of hypertension.Just being found in a pubmed search isn’t good enough. It had to meet the standards of the American Heart Association:


        Summary and Clinical Recommendations

        The overall evidence supports that TM modestly lowers BP. It is not certain whether it is truly superior to other meditation techniques in terms of BP lowering because there are few head-to-head studies. As a result of the paucity of data, we are unable to recommend a specific method of practice when TM is used for the treatment of high BP. However, TM (or meditation techniques in general) does not appear to pose significant health risks.32 Additional and higher-quality studies are required to provide conclusions on the BP-lowering efficacy of meditation forms other than TM.

        The writing group conferred to TM a Class IIB, Level of Evidence B recommendation in regard to BP-lowering effi- cacy. TM may be considered in clinical practice to lower BP. Because of many negative studies or mixed results and a paucity of available trials, all other meditation techniques (includ- ing MBSR) received a Class III, no benefit, Level of Evidence C recommendation Thus, other meditation techniques are not recommended in clinical practice to lower BP at this time.

        • Interesting. What they actually say is “The overall evidence supports that TM modestly lowers BP. It is not certain whether it is truly superior to other meditation techniques in terms of BP lowering because there are few head-to-head studies… Additional and higher-quality studies are required to provide conclusions on the BP-lowering efficacy of meditation forms other than TM.”

          I think your confirmation bias has run away with you. The authors are moderately and cautiously positive about TM, and refrain from drawing conclusions about other kinds of meditation. In fact the discussion in the paper does not deal with other forms of meditation at all because there are no detailed studies related to hypertension and blood-pressure. This may simply be because MBSR studies are focussed on other outcomes – like perceived pain, anxiety and depression.

          So really what you comments reflect is a bit of wish fulfilment on your part. You’ve clearly misunderstood the scope and method of the researchers and overstated the conclusions of the paper, in order to favour TM. Yawn.

          • You said:

            So really what you comments reflect is a bit of wish fulfilment on your part. You’ve clearly misunderstood the scope and method of the researchers and overstated the conclusions of the paper, in order to favour TM. Yawn.

            Hnnn… I could swear…

            Yep (what was that you said about confirmation blindness, er, bias?):

            “Recent studies have also evaluated the effectiveness of con- templative forms of meditation, including mindfulness medita- tion and MBSR. Two trials were conducted in children and randomized participants in groups (eg, by class). One random- ized trial compared breathing awareness meditation with lifeskills training and health education in 166 black ninth grade

            students with elevated resting systolic BPs.40 Interventions were conducted by teachers in health education classrooms for 1 semester (ie, 3 months). Breathing awareness meditation produced a greater decrease in 24-hour systolic BP (3.1±1.0 mmHg) compared with the other treatments and a 2.0±0.8- mmHg decrease in diastolic BP compared with life skills training. The other trial compared 3 months of daily mind- fulness meditation with health education in 73 seventh grade students with normal blood pressure.36 Meditation produced a larger decrease in resting systolic BP (−2.7 mm Hg) compared with the increase (1.1 mmHg) observed in the health educa- tion condition.”

            Not to mention:

            “Three small, randomized trials evaluated the effects of slightly different forms of meditation, 2 in individuals with normal blood pressure that did not demonstrate any effects on BP39,41 and 1 in individuals treated for hypertension.42 The first 2 trials involved 4 weeks of body-scan meditation or mindfulness meditation in university students with normal blood pressure and were compared with no intervention or guided imagery, respectively.43 Both trials did not demonstrate differences in BP compared with control interventions. The trial in nonmedicated individuals with hypertension involved randomization to 8 weeks of meditation or no intervention.42 Reductions in resting clinic systolic BP (median, −15 mm Hg) and in ambulatory systolic and diastolic BPs were reported in the meditation group. Finally, 2 nonrandomized studies evalu- ated the effects of completing an 8-week MBSR program on BP in individuals with cancer. The first was a preintervention- versus-postintervention comparison of BP in 59 individuals with cancer at 6 time points (for up to 12 months).44 A small decrease in systolic BP (2.1 mm Hg) was observed from pre- testing to postintervention assessments. The second study was a wait-list controlled study comparing the MBSR program and no treatment in 76 women with cancer.37 MBSR was not asso- ciated with reduced BP by the end of the 8-week intervention, although subgroup analyses suggested that MBSR may have reduced systolic BP in women who initially had higher levels.”

            Finally, the results of a well-designed trial randomizing 101 untreated adults with stage I hypertension to an MBSR program versus a wait-list control were recently presented.45 After 12 weeks, the BP differences between groups measured by ambulatory monitoring were not different (0.0±7.2/0.4±4.7 mmHg). The investigators noted that prior studies reporting positive findings were conducted among individuals treated for hypertension and that the benefits related to an MBSR intervention may have been derived from superior medication adherence. Nonetheless, these important findings do not support a direct BP-lowering effect of an MBSR program over a 3-month time period.”

          • You added this after my previous responses to you. I was commenting on the study that you misrepresented. I stand by that comment.

          • You said:

            ” In fact the discussion in the paper does not deal with other forms of meditation at all because there are no detailed studies related to hypertension and blood-pressure.”

            The discussion of the paper includes an entire column devoted specifically to the effects of mindfulness on hypertension.

          • OK well I’ve said what I’m going to say about this. The article can speak for itself.

    • Saijanai, your information is incorrect. I spent time last year studying Mindfulness-based research at Oxford with Professor Mark Williams (who also co-wrote ‘The Mindful Way Through Depression’ with Jon Kabat-Zinn, and there is volumes of substantiated and empircal proof of the efficacy of this practice researched and well-documented. While it’s true that there are substandard results in certain ailments (such as Fibromyalgia and PTSD), it has been shown to be remarkably powerful in many area’s of emotional, mental and physical duress. This is not only being proven by case studies in research, but also showing up in neuroscience, and has promoted exciting new developments in cognitive neuroscience and projects such as Christopher Descharms new fMRI. The reason why it’s exploding is because, quite simply, it works.

      • The question is: how well?

        On any stress-related illness, there are much more effective mental techniques out there then mindfulness.

        • See above. You have misunderstood the research you cite and misrepresented their findings. It’s called confirmation bias.

          • See above. It is called confirmation *blindness* when you miss an entire column that discusses research on hypertension and mindfulness.

          • No. It’s called reading the whole article and paying attention to the method and the conclusion of the authors and accurately reporting them.

        • Who, but the individual, can determine ‘how well’? If one is shown techniques which offer reprieve from pain and suffering in any area, I would think it was ‘well enough’, at least for them. It’s a generalization to say there are much more effective mental techniques, and highly inaccurate because healing is a uniquely individualistic process. As far as stress-related illnesses, particularly those with relapse in depression, it has proven to be extremely effective, even surpassing applications of anti-depressants in long-term group case studies showing that mindfulness cuts the recurrence of depression in half. This has now lead to a currently estimated 30% of GPs referring patients to mindfulness meditation courses
          on the NHS to help with depression, anxiety and chronic pain management. It has offered hope to millions who struggle with this often debilitating condition.

          • Mindfulness might indeed work better than TM on depression, but how many GPs refer patients to mindfulness training for the treatment of hypertension despite the lack of evidence that it actually helps?

            The fact that 9 out of 10 dentists who recommend that patients who chew gum mention a well-known brand name in a survey doesn’t mean that the evidence supports using one form of gum over another.

            If you ask most GPs if all meditations work the same and have the same set of benefits, I’m betting that far more than 30% are going to say “yes,” even though there is a great deal of research out there that says otherwise.

          • I don’t think anyone is saying that all ‘meditations’ work the same, This article is actually about mindfulness, not meditation (although that does tend to be a component). I’m perplexed as to your comment on ‘a great deal of research’, as there are volumes currently available that prove otherwise.

          • One thing I have noted in my 40 years of monitoring research on meditation, is that individual researchers and True Believers (such as myself) are usually overly optimistic about how well research is perceived by the mainstream scientific community.

            After 40 years of research on TM and other forms of meditation, the research is finally getting good enough for the major medical organizations to take it seriously, at least with respect to hypertension.

            Which major medical organizations have endorsed any form of meditation for the treatment/therapy of any category of illness, other than hypertension?

            The criticisms in the 2007 AHRQ meta-analysis about the lack of quality of meditation research weren’t just limited to hypertension research. Their criticisms were leveled at every bit of research on every form of meditation.

            So… most of those “volumes of research” on mindfulness, TM, etc., are not good enough to make evaluations for clinical use, at least as of 2007. Obviously, the quality and quantity of research on every aspect and type of meditation is improving, but is it really to the point where you can say that any technique has a clinically relevant effect on most issues that have been studied thus far?

          • Saijanai, I think you might be responding to a different article. Not once in this one, has TM (I’m assuming you mean ‘Trancendental Meditation’, not ‘therapeutic mindfulness’) been mentioned in this article. In fact the word ‘meditation’ is only mentioned once in reference to a taught course to depict a growing interest, but is not the foundation of it’s content. Mindfulness is a completely separate element. You might want to reread the article. I only know of major medical organizations (like the one I quoted earlier) endorsing mindfulness practices and mindfulness based cognitive therapy. MBSR is taught in almost all major hospitals in the America’s for pain management. If you reread, you will also note the author’s statement of extra funding being granted in Toronto within the content.

  6. The author here is bending over backwards a bit to tell a story of conflict (corporate mindfulness for sale versus compassion- and awareness-awakening Buddhism). But there isn’t a conflict at the base level. Mindfulness done right will awaken compassion and self-awareness in the most hardened Exxon board member, and that would be a great thing. If it’s done wrong, well, it isn’t mindfulness and we needn’t worry. But the idea that meditation could be put to malign use is almost laughable. I have a hard time imagining some banker from Goldman coming out of a wonderfully effective hourlong session and going directly to fleecing his clients more efficiently.

    To the person worried that companies will use mindfulness training rather than solving root problems, I’d say you’re missing the point of the Buddha’s teaching that life *inevitably* involves suffering/dukkha, and that Buddhist practice is about accepting and moving through that, not egotistically thinking that you can solve the world’s problems or even your own.

    For what it’s worth, I’m an atheist, very much so, but the mindfulness work I’ve done (not enough) has been very good for me.

    • Re “the idea that meditation could be put to malign use is almost laughable” – stop laughing and read Brian Victoria’s Zen at War.

  7. Fortunately, this article’s frantic cynicism evaporates upon calm reflection. While meditation is a spiritual practice, there is no reason to see that as threatened by its utility in simpler goals of personal improvement — especially since, as Batchelor argues, the latter often grows into the former. If you really think your spiritual use of meditation is “under siege” by people who use the same breathing techniques to improve their health, then you are dangerously close to claiming ownership of something that can’t be owned, just as exploitative corporations do.

    • Right on, Jarrett! That’s what I thought.

      • Fantastically said, my friend!

    • Why is here a difference between improving health and spiritual practice?

      A genuine spiritual practice should work on all levels simultaneously, regardless of what specific reason a person is practicing it.

      Spiritual and Material Values

      “Every experience has its level of physiology, and so unbounded awareness has its own level of physiology which can be measured. Every aspect of life is integrated and connected with every other phase. When we talk of scientific measurements, it does not take away from the spiritual experience. We are not responsible for those times when spiritual experience was thought of as metaphysical. Everything is physical. Consciousness is the product of the functioning of the brain. Talking of scientific measurements is no damage to that wholeness of life which is present everywhere and which begins to be lived when the physiology is taking on a particular form. This is our understanding about spirituality: it is not on the level of faith –it is on the level of blood and bone and flesh and activity. It is measurable.”

      -Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

  8. With all due respect to Donald Lopez, his quoted assertion that “Buddhism has always been a religion” is superficial and misleading. In fact, it ignores the rather more interesting features of Siddhattha Gotama’s teaching and community (sangha): during his lifetime they were specifically presented as alternatives to the religious and metaphysical traditions of his day. For example, he is remembered as having repeatedly decried deity-centered religious practices such as the brahmin sacrifices, and urged his hearers to be self-reliant and pragmatic, to test the ideas and practices of others (including his own) instead of following them on faith.

    Gotama reportedly described his sangha as ‘fourfold’, including male and female(!) lay followers as well as ‘beggars’ (bhikkhu) of both genders. He is said to have freely shared profound and radical teachings with decidedly non-religious types such as Ambapali, a noted courtesan, and the ambitious young raja Ajatasattu, as well as countless wandering sadhus and outliers of all types and persuasions.

    About those ‘monastics’: though we generally render ‘bhikkhu(ni)’ as ‘monk (nun)’, it would be a mistake to project later notions of monasticism, especially Judeo-Christian attributes, to Gotama’s monastic followers. In the beginning there were simply no rules – it took many decades for the outlines of Vinaya to form. No worship of any sort was required of bhikkhu(ni), nor allegiance to any god or comparably untestable principle.

    While there can be no doubt that most Buddhist traditions today are religious by nature, I would say that Gotama’s career represented the ‘secularization’ of its day: it improved upon the yogic ‘technology’ of earlier times and reframed it as a proto-scientific form of self-inquiry, which he endeavored to make ever more widely available. ‘See for yourself’, he’s remembered to have said, “see for yourself”.

    • “Alternative”, yes, but alternative *religion*. History is against you on this. Like most other Westerners you are presenting a pre-packaged version of Buddhist history which carefully trims out the religious aspects and then claiming that it never was a religion. I find Westerners often don’t even know they’re doing it, because the secular version of Buddhism is so widespread. It has been happening since they 19th century. But Lopez is right that, until it came to the West, Buddhism was always a religion. He is one of the pre-eminent scholars of Buddhism in our time and he knows what he is talking about.

      However we need not agree with him that secularisation – a movement that began in the 1880s – is a bad thing. It’s just another transformation of Buddhism adapting to it’s time and place. In a secular society it is inevitable that Buddhism is presented as secular.

      • So many assumptions, Jayarava – all of them smug, unexamined, and off the mark. Perhaps it would be best to take them one by one:

        “History is against you”.

        Neither you nor I nor anyone else has the last word on history. To claim otherwise is pompous hogwash.

        “Like most other Westerners…”

        You don’t know anything at all about me, especially where I and my ideas come from.

        “…you are presenting a pre-packaged version of Buddhist history which carefully trims out the religious aspects and then claiming that it never was a religion.”

        What condescension. Like you, I read Pali, translate texts, and have made the study of early Buddhist teachings and history a significant part of my life’s work for decades, along with the practice of awakening. There is nothing ‘pre-packaged’ about the points I made above – they are the result of long research into the milieu of the samanas, brahmanas, ajivikas, jinas, samkhyakas, and diverse other yogins of Gotama’s day.

        There’s an irony here, because a key focus of my work has been the crystallization of early Buddhist recitations and recollections into the variously surviving canons. In other words, I study the ‘packaging’ of what was remembered, often so differently, about what Gotama said and did. There are ample clues strewn throughout the fanciful stories and catechisms of the canons, especially the Pali, that suggest Gotama taught and lived somewhat differently than Buddhists came to believe within a short time of his passing.

        Aren’t you aware, Jayarava, of the way docetism and the insidious inroads of brahmin religiosity shaped the sensibilities of subsequent generations of Buddhists after Gotama’s demise, influencing the tenor of the canons themselves? My sense is that unless one understands this, it is impossible to resolve the stark contradictions, almost too numerous to catalog, between Gotama’s fierce and relentless rejection of ‘views’ (ditthi), for example, and the dogmatics of the Buddhist ‘church’ scant generations later.

        Failing to grasp the difference between Gotama’s own sensibility and later Buddhist theologies seems highly problematic to me, but certainly not to many others. Perhaps it’s a bit like thinking that Paul’s ‘Christianity’ was identical to the Jesus movement, or that the Immaculate Conception was veridical: one’s views on the matter either depend on faith, or they don’t. (By faith, I don’t mean the phenomenon called ‘sraddha/saddha’, which never was used by Gotama to mean faith in untestable notions, but something more akin to ‘bhakti’.)

        “I find Westerners often don’t even know they’re doing it…”.

        You seem to be mistaking me for a religionist of a different sort than yourself, Jayarava – a ‘Protestant Buddhist’ unaware of his tradition’s provenance. I am no such thing, in fact. I am reasonably well-informed, though, about theories regarding PB’s development and import.

        “[Lopez] is right that, until it came to the West, Buddhism was always a religion. He is one of the pre-eminent scholars of Buddhism in our time and he knows what he is talking about.”

        Ah. With respect to Professor Lopez, his scholarly work has not focused at all on the period we’re talking about. Apart from even later Buddhist developments, he has mainly studied Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism, both of which came many centuries after Gotama and had a religious orientation from the start. So, his assertion that ‘Buddhism has always been a religion’ is fair enough in regard to the Buddhism he knows most about, but woefully misleading about nascent Buddhism.

        Besides, many other scholars, including those who actually are preeminent in the study of the earliest milieus, might well take issue with Prof. Lopez’s assertion.

        One last comment: in considering the notion that Gotama’s own teaching was secular, it is not sufficient to point out that he taught his hearers to let go of worship, magic, and sacrifice. It is also not enough to show that he was a pragmatist, a yogin who taught practices for developing (bhavana) one’s potential for insight and compassion. It is even insufficient to show that he eschewed all resort to divine or human authority, to ritual, and to untestable principles.

        In an important sense, the very question of Gotama’s ‘secularism’ hinges on the meaning of ‘secular’, from ‘saeculum’ and referring to one’s own life. There can be no question that Gotama taught others that one could awaken in this very life, and that this was how to live properly. There need be no deferment to any afterlife, nor to a future birth – indeed, the earliest, ‘unpackaged’ recollections of his teaching on ‘conditioned arising’ (paticca samuppada) suggest he was referring to a single life, and never meant to include earlier or later births. One was to open the ‘dhamma eye’, and open it to this: the nature (dhamma) of the very life unfolding before and within oneself. Only then, he seems to have said, was the real work being accomplished.

        This may not be what ‘Buddhism’ came to be about, or how it came to be practiced by the many, but it seems to have been at the heart of the Buddha.

        • Buddhism is and, as far as their is reliable historical evidence (from the 5th AD century onwards), always has fitted well within the category “religion”. The vast majority of people who have practised Buddhism through history have looked and sounded like religious people engaged in religious behaviour. Thus your comments seem quite divorced from reality, and your approach to the question seems to offer you little assistance in that regard.

          My generalisations arise out of many years of meeting and talking and practising with Buddhists of a wide variety of flavours from around the world. It is backed up by some years of scholarship and inquiry. What I write is generally true as far as I can tell. Though I’m open to persuasion.

          I don’t mind at all if you disagree with me and wish to express that. I do find it pathetic and contemptible that you feel insults and personal attacks are appropriate.

  9. Good article. Timely and necessary.

    It is interesting to note that the concerns that the article raises also highlight the shift that took place when we changed the term “meditation” (spiritual focus) to “mindfulness”(secular focus).

    It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Kabat Zinn’s MBSR program started the ‘rephrasing’ and re-application of meditation to mindfulness – though that is not meant as a judgement against him or the MBSR program

    But the really interesting stuff occurs right on the boundary between the two, where someone comes to mindfulness but ends up experiencing something ‘other’ that leads them from mindfulness experiences (e.g reducing anxiety) to meditation experiences ( e.g expanding sense of self and awareness and love of self and others,). That’s where the juice is..

    Also remember meditation is not solely Buddhist practice. We seem to forget that meditation practices also occur in mystical Hindu, Islam and Christianity.

  10. There are a number of issues here. Buddhism has always emphasised the importance of Right Motive, and the view that the motive with which one does something is the key to its karmic result. So, being ‘mindful’ for the purposes of being a better soldier or making more money does not tally with this. Moreover, the English word ‘mindfulness’ actually translates a number of terms, one of which is ‘sati’ or ‘smriti’, which refers to recollectedness and bare awareness of phenomena. This is the kind of mindfulness normally emphasised in secular circles, and can be very beneficial. However, other dimnesions of mindfulness also exist in Buddhism, which are often overlooked when making the transition to secular practice. These are sampajanna, meaning ‘clear comprehension’ especially of context, especially with regard to ethics, and also ‘apramada’, which means a kind of mindfulness of the ethical or unethical nature of one’s mental states. So, if ‘mindfulness’ were taught in this fuller sense in the secular context, this would be much more challenging, and much less open to being used for unethical ends, such as being a better soldier, corporate or otherwise.

    • Hey Tejopala, Howsit? I think you’ll find that KZ teaches a wide range of practices under the rubric of “mindfulness”. Certainly more than we teach in our introduction to Buddhism classes, eh.

  11. Around the world, most Buddhists don’t meditate, or seek enlightenment, or even genuinely aspire to “transform their sense of self.” These are deeper aspects of the tradition practiced by a small number of monks and committed lay practitioners. Yet the popular influence of the religion in Buddhist cultures like Tibet imbues the culture with a much deeper sense of compassion, non-aggression and freedom from materialism than we have in the west. A widespread appreciation for even superficial mindfulness training is a problem we should have. It will begin to shift the conversation about what matters in a useful way, and there will always be a deep path available for those who want to go beyond the superficial. For the rest of us, stopping to notice how our minds actually work is good for the world.

  12. I’ve studied Buddhist history for many years now.

    I can say with some confidence that Buddhism has never become established as a major force in a country unless and until the ruling classes have adopted it. Admittedly most of the countries Buddhism has spread to in the past were feudal states. There really is only one Buddhist movement which is reaching out beyond the middle-aged middle-class to change the minds of people who make the decisions about how we run our countries. And that is the Kabat-Zinn inspired movement. Kudos to KZ. Buddhism to the masses is less important than Buddhism to the elite in historic terms.

    Over more than 2000 years Buddhism has reinvented itself many times. In each case the innovation has focussed on a particular aspect of Buddhism and emphasised it. Indeed this is often what distinguishes present day Buddhist schools. There is nothing new in this.

    What happens very often is that orthodox bitch and moan about the innovators – “they are not Buddhists”, and “what they teach is not Buddhism” blah blah. History disagrees.

    On the other hand the innovators tend to produce polemical tracts denouncing the orthodox as preaching a “merely provisional truth” that has now been superseded. This has yet to happen in the case of mindfulness based approaches, but no doubt at some point it will.

    Many, very many times the Buddha of the Buddhist scriptures intimates that he thinks that mindfulness (of one form or another) is the whole of the spiritual life. So why not?

  13. BTW The claim that “The real focus of Buddhism is on awakening, on coming to some insight or wisdom about our true nature” is wishful thinking – a lovely story we tell to inspire ourselves. Very few people ever took up Buddhism for this reason. In history most people were simply born into Buddhist families and raised with Buddhist values. Numerically, this is most likely still true. Most Buddhists are concerned with averting evil in this life and a better rebirth, and this is achieved through things like feeding monks, prayers and offerings.

    The idea that we should *all* meditate and seek insight is a Western innovation. It’s an historical aberration. At this point no doubt some are about to cite scripture. Yes, well I read Pāli and have studied our texts for many years now, and it’s clear that the Pāli texts are just stories. There is virtually no history in them. Another scholar Greg Schopen has commented that where we have archaeological evidence for how Buddhists lived it inevitably contradicts the textual accounts.

    Buddhism is, and always was, the things Buddhists do and say along with other Buddhists. At any point in history this has included a bewildering array of sects and cults; of practices and attitudes. The idea that Buddhism can be “watered down” relies on the idea that Buddhism is presently concentrated. It isn’t.

  14. Those are remarks about
    the commentaries to the article, not to the article itself, which may
    come latter.

    It is a very basic
    requirement, at least for those philosophically minded, that one
    cannot engage in serious discussions, even less debates, without
    first defining the terms one is using. Religion, Buddhism, those are
    vast domains, very problematic words to use. I occasionally work in
    inter-religious contexts and can become so puzzled at times when
    asked to say in one word what Buddhism is. I even get the strong
    feeling in those contexts that “Buddhism” does not exist, except
    as a word.

    So what about « religion » ? Take
    any definition (or Wiki) and see if it doesn’t apply to communism for
    example, or any funny sect, or to Greek philosophic sects even : a
    mix of beliefs, rites, myths, behaviors but also investigations into
    the reality of things, however strange they may appear.

    What about « Dharma » ? Is Zen
    “Buddhist” ? I personally don’t think so, despite the fact that
    some masters and lineages were. Are Mahayanists Buddhists in
    Theravadin’s eyes ? Not quite. Do Theravadins understand shunyata in
    Tibetan’s eyes ? Not quite. Is Yoga a religion ? Not quite. Taoism ?
    Not quite. Adepts of the Nastika style, such as Buddhist ? Not quite,
    even though Buddhism, whatever that means, became a religion
    sociologically speaking.

    Remember the elephant parable ? There it is in case
    some of you forgot :

    That Donald Lopez or whoever is a scholar doesn’t
    mean they speak the truth in all regards. Scholars disagree all the
    time anyway, and it is a good thing because science wouldn’t exist
    otherwise. I know of his (and many others, a very good account in The
    Work of Kings. The New Buddhism in Sri Lanka by anthropologist
    Seneviratne) theory of how 19th and 20th
    century Theravada Buddhism is an historical invention linked to an
    effort for south-Asians people to regain supremacy after centuries of
    colonialism. But there are frankly limits to this historical
    reconstruction, number one being that it is a reconstruction as well.

    It was a shock when I discovered those accounts
    because my first Dhamma teacher and meditation guide was Sinhalese (in 79)
    and I could see some of his opinions (that didn’t appear as opinions to me
    at first) were reflected in this reconstructed ideology. But by now I
    think it doesn’t cover up the whole story. You go back to the roots
    (as far as they are available to us, because there were no Buddhist
    “scriptures” for over four centuries) and check by yourselves.
    Does it matches wiki’s statement for example : “The typical
    dictionary definition of religion refers to a “belief in, or the
    worship of, a god or gods”or the “service and worship of
    God or the supernatural”.

    You read, study and meditate the Satipatthanasutta
    and tell if it’s religion or not.

  15. I don’t think it is being a purist to point out that mindfulness should be used as part of a more comprehensive world view and practice. It doesn’t take more than a moment, a true moment of reflection, admittedly, to realize this. The truth isn’t the truth unless it is the whole truth.

    Meditation and mindfulness divorced from the ethics of compassion and loving kindness leads to this.


  16. “The willed-but-not-yet-achieved omnipotence of The Market means that there is no conceivable limit to its inexorable ability to convert creation into commodities.”
    Harvey Cox, The Atlantic Journal 1999

  17. Interesting article. Lots of meat here. As a buddhist and as a business person, I have no problem with meditation or mindfulness being adopted increasingly by the secular or corporate cultures. It does get watered down in those environments, but to me that is okay – the derivative benefits of people being “more mindful” (or whatever you want to call it) helps the world as a whole.

    The adoption that makes me uncomfortable is the training of mindfulness to make someone a better trained killer (read: sniper and Marine MBMFT training). I understand the need to keep soldiers safe, but I can’t reconcile the hybrid of buddhist-based training with improved killing. I’m a proud veteran who served in Iraq, also, if that matters.

    • Ben, sniper who has more focus, greater emotional regulations and greater empathy will be a better sniper because he will make better choices when he pulls the trigger. He will be more effective in killing the enemy and less likely to kill non-combatants. Furthermore he is more likely to do the right thing, whatever that is.

  18. It’s disappointing to hear someone has received a grant to teach Social Workers about Mindfullness. From the sounds of her bio she’s not qualified. I’m a Social Service Worker student and a practicing Buddhist for over 20 years. I’m interested to see how the “industry” is going to try to regulate teaching meditation, seeing as the industry has very little knowledge or experience.

    • Is it your position that mindfulness can not be taught except in the context of Buddhism?

  19. No one chants OM

  20. Thanks so much Anne for an insightful and intelligent piece!

  21. I’m surprised Marsha Linehan and DBT weren’t mentioned.