On the Different Uses of Mindfulness in the West

Throughout our discussion of mindfulness and its evolution in the Western world and as a secular practice, I was reminded of an article that came out last year called “Abusing the Buddha: How the U.S. Army and Google co-opt mindfulness,” by Michael Stone. In the past few years, many companies and organizations (Stone names “Google, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Monsanto and the U.S. Army”) have been adopting meditation and mindfulness practices in order to create a stronger workforce. Stone takes particular offense at the cooptation by military and police forces, which he calls “institutions of organized violence.” Rather than teaching mindfulness and meditation for the purposes of better being able to follow the dharma, the military is stressing the benefits of mindfulness for readiness and awareness in combat—basically, making better fighters. This view of secular meditation echoes the Westernized practices that Chogyam Trungpa brought to the US in the 1970s, not connected religious or ethical principal, but rather giving the individual a feeling of “nowness” (Midal 25). It is this feeling that the military is currently finding incredibly useful.

This article furthers our discussion of the isolation of mindfulness by involving violence and other unjust behavior that owes itself to a larger political power structure. Many of the points made in class discussion questioned whether it was essential to be aware or follow the monastic or Buddhist tradition in order to benefit from mindfulness practice—if mindfulness and meditation is making individuals and communities a better place, isn’t that essentially achieving the dharma, even if these people do not have a conceptual understanding of it? While the use of other cultural practices without knowledge of that practice is less than ideal, it did not seem to be hurting anyone and in fact seemed to be spreading a beneficial message of compassion and awareness on the international level. It could be seen as part of the idea of pampara—the natural linking and evolution of ideas.

So what happens when these practices are taken so far out of context so as to be used by larger political structures? Stone brings up the incredibly important idea of karma and that most meditation focuses interconnectedness in the world. What is the focus of this meditation if it is not on the interconnectedness and subsequent emptiness of the world, or on loving kindness?

The use of meditation by publicly funded organizations goes against many Buddhist teachings on the importance of community in Buddhism. In the relationship between the monastics and the laity that the Buddha laid out, monks and nuns are supported by the wider community in order to get closer to enlightenment. This relationship implies a sort of “social contract. It becomes [the monks’ or nuns’] responsibility to live in a certain way” (Gethin 94). Thus meditation is part of a wider program of holy living—it is intricately tied to these values. If meditation is seen by most scholars as something that is not by definition a religious practice, I argue that it is still very much an ethical one. In this way, many of the companies with questionable labor practices and the military go against the underlying values and goals of meditation. The fact that mindfulness is strengthening these institutions is at the very ironic and very disturbing.

Works Cited
Gethin, Rupert. “Chapter Four.” The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. N. pag. Print.
Midal, Fabrice. “Chapter One.” Chögyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision. Boston: Shambhala, 2004. N. pag. Print.
Stone, Michael. “Abusing the Buddha: How the U.S. Army and Google Co-opt Mindfulness.” Salon. N.p., 17 Mar. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

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2 Responses to On the Different Uses of Mindfulness in the West

  1. Lily says:

    This was a very interesting post that brings our discussion about the potential misuse of Buddhist practices to a whole new level. I think it definitely becomes a problem when concepts such as mindfulness are dropped into a setting with people who know very little or nothing about its origins are expected to use it for something it was not created for. While I think the ideas of mindfulness can be used in different contexts, it is important to have an understanding of where they came from, because those origins do matter, especially to the people who use it the way it was initially meant to be used. It can also potentially become something they (the soldiers and people who work at companies who are employing these practices) choose to adapt into their lives outside of their work in the future.

  2. Emma says:

    I completely agree that the flagrant co-opting of mindfulness by the U.S. Army is disturbing and ironic. I do wonder, however, whether there is any possibility that mindfulness training even when put to the wrong (or originally unintended) uses might eventually start to have some of its intended effects. How many elements of mindfulness and meditation practice are preserved? What if soldiers start to realize interdependency and selflessness? I realize that this is unlikely because of the nature of the mindfulness practice used by the army, but it is interesting to think about. Is there no concern that a tool so often used for peace might ultimately undermine military objectives?

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