How We Ruined Mindfulness

5 minute read

Roman Krznaric, a social philosopher in the United Kingdom, is the author most recently of Carpe Diem: Seizing the Day in a Distracted World.

Breathe. Be in the moment. Live in the here and now.

Those are familiar words, I’m sure, because we are living through a mindfulness revolution. Mindfulness courses have swept the world, with hundreds of thousands of people taking classes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and other meditation techniques in community centers, schools, hospitals, prisons and businesses. Moreover, a multitude of studies have suggested that mindfulness is a near-miracle cure for everything from anxiety and depression to heart disease.

But a growing number of critics have been putting mindfulness under the microscope. It may not be the revolutionary panacea for human wellbeing that many of us have come to believe.

One of those critics may surprise you: the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, one of the world’s most famous mindfulness experts. I recently asked Ricard what he thought of the popular secular versions of mindfulness such as MBSR and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which have been described as “Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism.” As someone who has spent four decades in mindful meditation in the foothills of the Himalayas — and is reputed to be “the happiest man in the world” — I fully expected him to be a keen advocate. His response shocked me.

“There are a lot of people speaking about mindfulness,” Ricard told me, “but the risk is that it’s taken too literally — to just ‘be mindful.’ Well, you could have a very mindful sniper and a mindful psychopath. It’s true! A sniper needs to be so focused, never distracted, very calm, always bringing back his attention to the present moment. And non-judgmental — just kill people and no judgment. That could happen!”

Ricard was only half-joking about the sniper. He and other critics know that mindfulness courses have become popular in military training (with real snipers), while it has also swept the corporate world, a “McMindfulness” that helps stressed-out Wall Street traders maintain calm and focus in the midst of market turbulence and high-stakes deal-making. You will often find the founder of MBSR, Jon Kabat-Zinn, running morning mindfulness classes for top CEOs at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos.

Ricard’s point is that the secular mindfulness movement typically offers mindfulness without morals. It’s a “me me me” mindfulness that might be good for you, but doesn’t necessarily make you good. In contrast, he believes the ancient Buddhist tradition offers a much-needed ethical framework that integrates concepts like compassion, empathy and caring. The secular courses could easily include this wider value-based perspective, but most fail to do so — they’re too busy packaging mindfulness for our age of hyper-individualism.

But the rampant misuse of mindfulness runs deeper: It has also hijacked the ancient ideal of carpe diem — “seize the day” — which goes all the way back to a poem written in 23 B.C. by the Roman poet Horace. ‘Even as we speak,’ he wrote, ‘envious time flies past; seize the day and leave as little as possible for tomorrow.’ Based on this message, for centuries the primary meaning of carpe diem has been about grasping fleeting opportunities in life, whether it is the chance to change career or to rescue a crumbling marriage. (Remember Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society?)

Yet my research, based on analysis of thousands of original sources (from personal blogs to political speeches) reveals that around 20% of people now associate the idea of carpe diem with being mindfully in the here and now. This is historically unprecedented. A more than 2,000-year-old phrase is losing its true meaning.

And beyond that, mindfulness has also dominated the culture so much that it has crowded out other ways of being in the present moment. Focusing on the breath is certainly one way of entering into this state, but there are at least three alternative and valuable ways that human beings can enter into the “now,” for those seeking greater presence in their lives.

Flow — which is where you are so engaged in an activity that all sense of time disappears, and you are utterly in present moment. It often involves a physical or creative challenge (or both at once, such as an intense, high-speed basketball game), and is very different from calm mindful breathing.

Exuberance — where people may have a bubbling joy and zest for life, and almost can’t help living in the now. Think of Teddy Roosevelt, who was always bursting into roars of laughter and chasing his kids around the White House. “You must always remember,” said one British diplomat, “the President is about six.” Some 6–10% of the population share this exuberant personality trait, according to psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison.

Ecstasy — a term that comes from the ancient Greek ekstasis, meaning to step outside of the self. There are plenty of ways we do this in daily life, from having sex to dancing to pulsating music at a rave. And part of the magic of such ecstatic experiences is that we unconsciously enter into a state of present moment awareness.

So should we abandon mindfulness? Not at all. But we shouldn’t let it monopolize our ways of being in the now. Instead, we should cultivate flow, exuberance and ecstasy as equally fulfilling ways of seizing the present moment. At the same time, we would be wise to recognize that mindfulness is far from morally innocent.

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