Why I Avoid Using the Word “Mindfulness”


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.

*   *   *

I certainly don’t mind if you send me donations!

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98 Responses

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  1. The Idiot
    The Idiot November 27, 2014 at 9:37 am |

    For smoking, maybe look into the five hindrances, in particular sense desire. As you probably know, these fall under the four foundations of mindfulness in number 4: Mindfulness of Mind Objects. Doesn’t it seem that the smoking can happen and you know it? You might even know the thought to smoke arising and still follow it. So maybe also rope in Right Effort stuff. Good luck and please post the article if it’s public. I’m helping someone who wants to quit.

  2. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer November 27, 2014 at 9:39 am |

    It’s hard to figure out whether a stick of shit is a good thing or a bad thing.

    On the face of it, having the skill and patience to form an actual stick made completely out of shit would be pretty amazing. Getting shit with the right texture to hold together as you carefully mold it into stick indicates someone who has the necessary discipline to follow the path of zen.

    However if the stick is just a wooden stick covered with shit then that would indicate a pretty easy task to complete. Not as much promise there!

    Another possibility is that the stick under discussion is more of a log and we all generate such structures on a weekly (if not daily) basis. From the dualistic point of view nothing special…

    This “stick of shit” concept requires more attention. Adding pride to the mix adds even more interest.

    Maybe I will solve this koan during my next sitting.


  3. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote November 27, 2014 at 9:56 am |

    A. Tzelnic,

    “Whatever you wanted
    What could it be
    Did somebody tell you
    That you could get it from me
    Is it something that comes natural
    Is it easy to say
    Why do you want it
    Who are you anyway?”


  4. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote November 27, 2014 at 9:57 am |

    Just kidding, A.! Welcome to the fold.

  5. Inge
    Inge November 27, 2014 at 3:19 pm |

    I never thought about the word “mindfulness” that way. I also read some of Jon Kabat Zinn’s essays and don’t have a problem with his point of view. I think anyone who is attempting to bring positive energy to others is “ok” in my book. One of the cancer patients I visit told me she is doing a lot of “thinking” lately and shared her “revelation”… 90% of what we think is fact is really just opinion. Most of what we say or believe is based on opinion. I know you base your belief on what Zen masters write, but what if it is only their opinion? For example; those who say they know about the afterlife are really just giving their opinion, even though they really believe it to be true. Nobody really knows for sure what happens after we die. Just because we believe something doesn’t make it true.

    I see where you are coming from though. I see mindfulness as being aware of my behavior and my surroundings. My mindful practice includes keeping my opinion to myself and listening to what others think. I mean really listening and not waiting to add my 2 cents. It means asking lots of questions. It means trying to understand someone else’s point of view. It means me responding and not reacting to something I find offensive. It doesn’t always work out for me but I keep trying.

    I guess the most important thing for me is to follow my gut, to not follow the crowd and believe everything I read and hear; to look deeper… it takes a lot work but I think its worth it.

  6. Michel
    Michel November 28, 2014 at 4:58 am |

    Alan Sailer: Rinzai’s shit stick is only the practical thing which they used in China at the time to wipe their arses. Like the desert people would use pebbles for the same purpose. We use paper, but I remember my little nephew calling me for help once in Lebanon because, in the toilets, he only had a hose and didn’t know how to use it. So I had to wipe his arse with my hand and the water from the hose…

    Wiping one’s arse is one important thing, for which different cultures have different approaches (Dogen mentions an elaborate system with a set of clay balls), but we always get down to the point that we need to clean our arses, be it elegant or not.

    It’s an action, not a thought…

    1. Fred
      Fred November 28, 2014 at 10:54 am |

      Yes, wiping your ass with mindfulness. The bridge is flowing; the river is still.

  7. Mindfulness
    Mindfulness November 30, 2014 at 4:16 am |


  8. minkfoot
    minkfoot December 6, 2014 at 1:01 pm |

    On the other hand, a stick of good shit . . .

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