In attempting to formulate what I have meant by mindfulness, and its possible benefits, I have like any other dutiful plodding academic—stoop shouldered, threadbare elbows in my imitation Harris tweed coat, staring fitfully and distractedly into some ill-defined middle distance—had recourse to what others have written on the subject. Only to discover that the literature is mind-numbingly bloated.
I have been fortunate enough, however, to come across one very useful, deeply informed and well-modulated essay—Georges Dreyfus, “Is Mindfulness Present-Centred and Non-Judgmental? A Discussion of the Cognitive Dimensions of Mindfulness,” (Contemporary Buddhism 12.1 (May 2011): 41–54). Dreyfus examines the contemporary representations of mindfulness as found in the therapeutic mode, which we may note is much the same as that found in the business administration, and self-help modes. Taking as just one of any number of similar definitions, he quotes the work of S. Bishop, et al. (“Mindfulness: A Proposed Definition,” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 11: 230–241) to the effect that mindfulness is “a kind of nonelaborative, non-judgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is” (43).
What Dreyfus’ essay helps to untangle is that this kind of definition does capture the character of initial instruction in meditation, a kind of foundational version of practice. As Dreyfus indicates, “It is only in certain contexts, particularly but not only at the beginning of one’s practice, that mindfulness can be assimilated to the bare noticing of whatever arises in the present moment” (52). This, however, is only a narrow part of the range of significance of the concept of mindfulness that Dreyfus finds in the classic literature of Buddhist thought. Although Dreyfus focuses his attention in this essay to a comparative analysis of what I’ve called elsewhere modernist mindfulness with classic Indian and Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of sati/smṛti, definitions of mindfulness such as the one Dreyfus quotes are the historical consequence of the decontextualization and dehistoricization of Buddhism undertaken by some apologists in the first half of the twentieth century.
Turning to descriptions of the mental process of attention found in the abhidharma literature, Dreyfus identifies the stages as (1) orienting (manasikāra), which turns attention toward an object, (2) mindfulness, which “retains the object and keeps the mind from losing the object” (49), and (3) concentration (samādhi), which is “the ability of the mind to remain focused and unified on its object” (49). He describes mindfulness and concentration as complementary parts of the process of attention. Concentration stabilizes the mind by constricting it to a particular object, while mindfulness is expansive, allowing one to be aware of the qualities of the mental process (caitasika) as distinct from the object of attention.
This broader scope of the use of “mindfulness” indicates that it signifies the cognitive ability to retain an object, either in present attention or in memory. He refers to this as “mindfulness proper,” to distinguish it from the evaluative function that is also part of mindfulness in Buddhist thought, as found for example in the Questions of King Milinda. This latter evaluative dimension of mindfulness, which Dreyfus refers to as “wise mindfulness” involves distinguishing between “wholesome and unwholesome mental states” (44), which is itself only possible if one has developed mindfulness proper. Thus, as used in classic Buddhist literature, mindfulness is not exclusively present-centered, nor is it non-judgmental. It is, rather, the ability to hold awareness steadily on an object, whether present now or in memory. Particularly important in this is one’s own mental process in order to evaluate the ethical status of one’s thoughts, impulses, desires, inclinations.
One of the aspects of Dreyfus’ essay that I think is particularly valuable is that he sets his analysis in the framework of taking classic Buddhist speculative psychology seriously as a description of cognition. Mindfulness in this sense is one aspect of normal mental processes, but an essential one and one that can be developed through practice. Dreyfus makes it clear that we are not dealing here with some magical mental power that leads to “higher states of consciousness.”Mindfulness proper is the cognitive basis of the more explicitly cognitive wise mindfulness, which is central to the practice of mindfulness as understood by the Buddhist tradition whose goal is not to attain higher states of consciousness through the practice of concentration but to develop a clear understanding of one’s bodily and mental states as impermanent, suffering, and no-self so as to undo our suffering-inducing habits” (50).
More broadly, Dreyfus here affirms a point that I have long thought ought to be obvious, but seems to be almost entirely overlooked in much of the discussion of mindfulness. In Buddhist thought, these capacities are not an end in themselves—particularly not in the minimal introductory form of meditation instruction to pay attention to what is actually going on. And, it is the formulation of the goal of developing these capacities of retention and evaluation that may be what most clearly distinguishes Buddhist mindfulness from its therapeutic, business management and self-help cousins. Dreyfus, again, “In classical Buddhist scholastic terms, this means that mindfulness and concentration are developed for the sake of gaining insight (vipaśyanā, vipassanā) into the impermanent, suffering, and no-self nature of our bodily and mental aggregates so as to free our mind from defilements” (51). Confrontation with impermanence should be both unsettling and empowering. As a goal, this is rather different from stress-reduction or enhanced creativity. These latter, though doubtless valuable in their own right (I mean who can actually be in favor of stress or of being uncreative?), are however distinct from the goal of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, which is awareness of impermanence.
At the same time, however, such personal motivations for practicing mindfulness are not at all similar to the corporate or other institutional appropriation of mindfulness. In such deployments, not only is there an imbalance of power, but there is also a tendency toward blaming the victim. The individualized and privatized nature of contemporary, neoliberal conceptions of subjectivity reinforce a focus on the individual person as solely responsible for their own situation. The strain of idealism, which can be traced through late nineteenth century New Thought to the present self-help culture, maintains that a person has full control of their emotional reactions to situations, and therefore full responsibility for how one feels about any situation. And, according to this dogma, once one has adequate control of their own emotional reactivity, they can then take charge of their own life situation—a conception of subjectivity that provides an ideological basis for blaming the victims of poverty, childhood malnourishment, emotional abuse, warfare, or any other life situation for failing to overcome those conditions: “If you don’t succeed, it is your own lack of will power, or perseverance that make you a failure.” This individualized conception of the self explains the mystification of will power as an autonomous, non-physical causal force in some strains of self-help literature, evidenced for example by the interpretation of neuroplasticity as proof of the power of will. (See for example, Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, (HarperCollins, 2002); it is perhaps not merely coincidental that at the time of writing this book, Begley was a Wall Street Journal author.) This hyper-individualism then provides the ideological link between corporate spirituality and neoliberal social and economic policies. It doesn’t matter that the Google executives responsible for Mindfulness 2.0 are well-intended. Just like any other motivational speaker or workshop marketed in the world of business, corporate spirituality is both supported by and supports neoliberal social and political ideology.