Yesterday a guy contacted me because he’s writing an article about whether or not Buddhists should smoke cigarettes. When he asked my opinion I said, “Nobody should smoke cigarettes!”
He wanted to interview me as a Buddhist teacher anyway and he sent me some questions. Rather than getting me thinking about cigarette smoking, though, two of his questions got me thinking a lot about the concept of mindfulness.
The questions were:
“Is smoking cigarettes inherently unmindful?”
“Can mindfulness help people quit smoking?”
The Japanese word that’s usually translated as “mindfulness” is up there in the graphic I posted. It’s pronounced nen. The character consists of two parts. The top part can be its own separate character, which is pronounced ima and means “now.” The bottom part can also be its own separate character and is pronounced kokoro or shin when it is. This can be translated as both “mind” and “heart” depending on the context. The concepts of “mind” and “heart” (not as in the organ in the chest but the more conceptual meaning) are usually considered to be the same thing in Japanese.
This idea of “nen” (or “smirti” in Sanskrit) is an important concept that has been used by all forms of Buddhism since the very early days of the movement. But the word “mindfulness” as it’s used these days seems to be something very different.
It appears to me that when people I encounter use the word “mindfulness” or its variants like “mindful,” “mindfully,” and so on, they mean one of three things. These are:
1) The commercial meditation products created and endorsed by Jon Kabat Zinn and marketed under the names Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindful Living Programs which are taught through an organization called the Center for Mindfulness based in Massachusetts.
2) Sort of, like, y’know, being, like, kinda, present and in the moment and stuff and, y’know, like, kinda thinking about what you do and whatever…
3) Some Buddhist thing that’s good for you but I don’t know anything else about it.
This is why I’ve been avoiding the word “mindfulness” for the past few years. I don’t know anything much about Jon Kabat Zinn’s thing. Though I get kind of annoyed when people pick up some aspect of Buddhism, trademark it and then make a fortune selling a watered down version to a public who assume the folks who own the trademark made the thing up themselves. It’s like if I trademarked Just Sittingâ„¢ and made a fancy logo then sold it to folks in the form of 8-week courses with associated books and paraphernalia (hmmmm… that’s actually a good idea… watch this space!).
I mean, I suppose it’s better than selling people heroin or game shows. I’d rather see people doing mindfulness courses than, I dunno, beating up random folks on the street. Still, I wonder what’s really going on.
Nishijima Roshi, my teacher, commented about this trend back in 2008 on his blog. There he said, among other things, “many people … think that the idea of ‘mindfulness’ is very important in understanding Buddhism. But I think that such interpretation includes very dangerous misunderstandings. Therefore I have been thinking for many years that we should understand the true meaning of ‘mindfulness.’ We should never misunderstand that having ‘mindfulness’ is a kind of True Buddhism. The idea of having ‘mindfulness’ may be an example of idealistic philosophy. The isolated reverence of ‘mindfulness’ can never be Buddhism. It is only idealistic philosophical thought.” He suggested that we use the word “consciousness” instead.
I’ve already edited that quotation a bit to try to make it clearer (I used to do that for him when he was alive, so I don’t think he’d mind), but let me try and explain a little further. Nishijima often talked about “True Buddhism.” I’ve tended to shy away from using that phrase because when I have people reacted badly as if the next step was going to be suggesting that we burn all those who were not True Buddhists at the stake or something.
Instead of that, what I want to hone in on is the part where he says “the isolated reverence of ‘mindfulness’ can never be Buddhism.” In other words, we can’t just remove mindfulness from its context. Well, we can, I suppose. But it would be like the difference between engaging in a full course of good diet, healthy exercise and adequate amounts of rest, or just doing a bunch of push-ups every morning and continuing to eat your normal bag of Doritos and a Twinkie for every meal.
Mindfulness is not a synonym for Buddhist practice. Lots of people, including the guy who sent me those interview questions, appear to think they’re the same thing. They’re not. In fact, I kind of wonder what this “mindfulness” thing even is that people are talking about.
Like Nishijima Roshi, it appears to me that the word indicates some kind of idealistic, intellectual process. It sounds to me as if people might be being taught to get really, really into their heads. Even if that’s not what’s going on in the MBSRâ„¢ courses, the general tone of whatI hear whenever the word comes up appears to indicate a very “heady” sort of thing.
In the context of Buddhist training, mindfulness is one of the Noble Eightfold Path. The full list is:
1) Right View
2) Right Intention
3) Right Speech
4) Right Action
5) Right Livelihood
6) Right Effort
7) Right Mindfulness
8) Right Concentration
Slicing just one of these out and presenting it by itself is not the worst thing you could ever do. They’re all good. But the Buddha regarded them as equally important parts of a full system. The physical ones, like speech, action, livelihood and effort, are just as important as the mental ones like view, intention, mindfulness and concentration. Notice that there are four of each.
To get back to the questions that initially got me thinking about this, I do not teach mindfulness, so I can’t say whether mindfulness would help someone stop smoking. Maybe it would. My dad used to hypnotize people to get them to stop smoking. So I know that works sometimes. As to whether or not smoking is “unmindful,” I just don’t know what that question means at all. I’ve tried and tried but I can’t come up with anything coherent.
I picture a guy smoking a cigarette and really concentrating hard on it, really tasting the smoke, really feeling the burn in his throat and lungs, really getting into his cigarette. I suppose it could be done. When I see people smoking, they usually seem pretty absent minded about it. Then again, when I see people eating they generally seem to be more involved in something else. We’d all be better off if more people got more involved in what they were doing, I think.
But this word “mindfulness,” I just want to stay away from it.
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I certainly don’t mind if you send me donations!