The corrupting of mindfulness and yoga

A while back we posted about Google’s use of mindfulness training.

Now, as if in answer, and not in a friendly, hey that’s great kind of way, comes this essay in MacLean’s. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan’s website for the find.) You can tell that from this excerpt:

The embrace of mindfulness by a distracted, stressed, Lululemon-wearing, iPhone-addicted culture isn’t surprising: it combines Zen chic with the scientific imprimatur of the New England Journal of Medicine. Microbiologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, famed for his mindfulness meditation seminars, is credited with bringing the practice into health care: his eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction training program, established at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1995, is now taught in more than 200 hospitals. Its efficacy is supported by a growing body of scientific research, including studies that show it can alter brain patterns and behaviour, and be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild depression.

That’s pretty much the tone.

But beyond that, what’s fascinating is how it traces the history of “mindfulness training,” which the author claims doesn’t go back all that far:

Not everyone views the current path as enlightened, however. Donald Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan, calls “secular Buddhism” an oxymoron: “Buddhism has always been a religion,” he says. “To see it as a way of life is a modern conceit that disparages the lives and religious practices of Buddhists over thousands of years.” The author of The Scientific Buddha, published in 2012, says belief that “mindfulness” is an ancient Buddhist practice is a fallacy: “There’s a cachet that comes from saying some ancient sage a millennium ago in India invented these things,” he says. Lopez traces mindfulness as we know it to a quest to preserve Buddhism in Burma after the British occuptation in the 19th century; they deposed the king and destroyed the hierarchical Buddhist institution: “Some monks saw the British arrival as a sign of approaching apocalypse,” he says. “So they disseminated Buddhist philosophy and practice through the population.” That included meditation, traditionally done only by monks. “It was totally about self-preservation.”

You may be on to my point at this point. That sounds like another version of the yoga-religion debate, with the nice twist of yoga’s commercialism / Western embrace thrown in for good measure along with the various notions of the origins of modern asanas as some type of reaction to British colonialism.

And we can take it one step further:

American Zen teacher, academic and author David Loy agrees. Loy recently posted online a letter he’d written to Harvard professor William George, an advocate of mindfulness in the corporate realm. Loy took issue with George sitting on the boards of Goldman Sachs, Novartis and Exxon Mobil, corporations that have been accused of ethical-practices breaches. In an interview with Maclean’s, Loy said he’s pleased mindfulness is helping so many people reduce anxiety and pain. “And if somebody wants to do better on their SATs [U.S. college-admission tests], I have no objection to that,” he says. But he sees a blurring taking place: “The real focus of Buddhism is on awakening, on coming to some insight or wisdom about our true nature. Without that, we can’t get at the real source of our dukkha, or suffering,” he says. Institutionaldukkha exists, as well. “The mindfulness movement is good for adjusting certain types of dukkha, but from the Buddhist perspective, it’s not addressing the most deep-rooted and problematical forms of dukkha. In fact, it seems to be reinforcing the kind of self-centred individualism that seems to be our more basic problem.”

Substitute the yamas and niyamas in there, and you have a way of thinking about how yoga is spreading — perhaps especially in the top yoga cities in America.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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