Mindfulness or Mindlessness?
Tom Pepper



This is the title of a talk given by Robert H. Sharf,  at the Advanced Study Institute at McGill University this past summer.  I’ve posted a link to the talk below, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in Buddhism in the West, but also for anyone who is at all affected by the new “mindfulness” craze in education and psychology.  It is a half hour well spent, and raises some very important questions about the trend of using mindfulness to “cure” everything from ADD to PTSD, from depression to addiction.

I want to make just a few remarks about the talk, and I hope that it can spark some useful discussion here.

Sharf reiterates what other historians of Buddhism have been saying for some time now: that the understanding of “sati” as “bare attention” which requires “non-discursive, non-judgmental attending to the here and now” is a quite recent invention, dating from the 20th century.   Furthermore, in Buddhist philosophical thought this idea of an awareness outside of all cultural and cognitive conditions is far from generally accepted.  In many schools of Buddhist thought such bare awareness would be assumed to be impossible, and the idea seems to depend on a Western epistemology–particularly empiricism and the Cartesian/Lockean idea of a cognition-free “consciousness” that is the consciousness of the “soul.”  (Sharf points out that Nyanaponika Thera, who popularized this understanding of sati, started out as a German student of phenomenology).

Furthermore, in attempting to make Buddhism into a “science” which will give us a “more emotionally fulfilling and rewarding life,” the mindfulness craze has eliminated an important aspect of Buddhism that goes all the way back to its earliest days: “Buddhism involved,” Sharf reminds us, “a critique of mainstream social and cultural values and held that liberation was not possible without a radical change in the way one lived.”  Sharf also points to other instances of such popularist and at the same time politically quietist movements in Buddhism (in Chán and  Dzogchen) and explains that they were also criticized in their time for rejecting fundamentally important aspects of Buddhist thought and practice.

There are two points on which I would want to extend Sharf’s discussion of mindfulness practice.  One is when he simply sets aside the question of the efficacy of mindfulness in light of the body of “empirical evidence” supporting it.  I would suggest that it can, in fact, have an effect on the practitioner—but that the effect it has is not at all the one it is assumed to have.  In this regard, we need to question the “empirical data,” and not concede that it proves the efficacy of mindfulness.  Certainly, as a social practice, convincing oneself that one has reached a state of “non-conceptual consciousness” can function as a kind of support for the ego, cathecting mental energy and helping to reify and naturalize one’s socially constructed construal of the world.  In a word, so long as one is convinced of the dual ancient and scientific power of this practice, and participates in the social institution of mindfulness, it is possible that it can serve to more fully interpellate the individual into the dominant ideology, of which empiricism and belief in a transcendent soul are powerful components.

The second is Sharf’s claim that the underlying, but unnoticed, “metaphysical commitment” of the mindfulness proponents is the belief in perennialism.  This does seem to be one such assumption, but I would suggest that perennialism itself is part of a more pervasive and subtle assumption: the belief in the atman.  People often ask me why it is I always assert that mindfulness assumes the existence of, or reinforces the delusion of, an uncreated and eternal “self” or atman.  Simply put, to be able to achieve “bare awareness” assumes that there is some kind of mind or consciousness that is uncreated by, not dependent upon, the phenomenal world, and which can therefore become aware of this world “as it really is,” separate from this radically dualistic mind that does not affect and is not affected by it.  On this understanding, all of our cognitions are part of this phenomenal world, but our “pure consciousness” is not.  (Sharf refers to this as the “filter theory,” in which language and cultural conditioning “filter” or obscure the eternal mind’s direct access to the reality separate from it.)  Locke seems to have believed in such a pure consciousness (he suggests that the soul “thinks” outside of language, for instance), but it is antithetical to much of Buddhist thought, which assumes that consciousness and object arise dependent upon one another (as well as upon other conditions).

My suggestion here would be to listen to this talk, raise questions about it, and if you know anybody who is climbing on the mindfulness bandwagon, send them the link.  As more and more people are being forced, in various institutional settings from schools and prisons to addiction rehabs and psychiatric hospitals, to submit to this practice, it is increasingly important to let them know that not only are they being asked to pretend do what is actually impossible, but that even the pretense is little more than a form of ideological indoctrination.

My last post argued that renunciation was, in the time of Early Buddhism, an openly political act.  This talk reminds us that even the supposedly personal and individual pursuit of mindful bliss is also a political act, albeit a reactionary one which denies its own political nature.