Opinion: This is what your mindfulness practice is missing

If you’re not practicing mindfulness, I bet you know someone who is. From Oprah Winfrey to the Silicon Valley startup crowd, it seems as though anybody who is anyone is practicing mindfulness.

Even though mindfulness has technically been around for thousands of years, it wasn’t until more recently that Americans became obsessed with mindfulness, capitalizing on laser focused branches of mindful living such as mindful sex, mindful eating, and mindful cooking. But why now? I have no doubt that Americans need mindfulness in their lives today more than ever, but the necessity isn’t the only thing driving the desire for mindfulness.

I believe that the emphasis on science and secularity in combination with the rejection of spirituality is really what has caused the gigantic jump in its popularity.

Western mindfulness practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it as “an awareness that arises throughout paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

The secularity of western mindfulness is rooted in an incomplete, watered down definition of traditional eastern mindfulness. Westerners disregard key spiritual aspects of the ancient practice, instead choosing to view it as a scientific tool. In fact, scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn’s clear dissociation of mindfulness from Buddhism likely caused the boom of western mindfulness in the first place. Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness is published on Mindfulness.org, a database for secular mindfulness, and defines the practice as “an awareness that arises throughout paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn is seen at an event on October 11, 2013. (UW Health via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s audience is seen at an event in October 11, 2013. (UW Health via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

But mindfulness is more than just a sense of “awareness” that can be turned off or on. Traditionally, it’s a way of life that is intended to lead one to ultimate liberation and freedom of the mind. In other words, the secular practice views mindfulness as a “state” while traditionalists refer to mindfulness as a “trait.” But based on traditional Buddhist mindfulness, merely becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings is not the goal of the practice.

“Knowing the mind” is only the first step of the traditional three-part process. Secular mindfulness lacks the multi-dimensional depth of traditional mindfulness. Because the fundamental definition of western mindfulness is limited, Americans may not be able to experience and receive the plethora of benefits.

Mindfulness is traditionally practiced to accomplish greater things than merely an increase in focus.

Western mindfulness utilizes a measurable, goal-oriented approach to the practice that eastern mindfulness lacks. This one-track-minded approach doesn’t always allow the meditator to experience the multitude of life-changing benefits. For instance, if you practice mindfulness with the intention of gaining focus, you may be able to garner more focus. However, if you’re too focused on gaining focus, you may lose yourself in the bliss of the mindfulness meditation because you’re so focused on focusing. Mindfulness is traditionally practiced to accomplish greater things than merely an increase in focus.

There are two additional stages of traditional mindfulness that westerners don’t acknowledge whatsoever. Those stages are known as “training the mind” and “freeing the mind.” They take place sequentially after the first stage, “knowing the mind.”

“Training the mind” is when you’re taking responsibility for your thoughts and feelings and making a conscious effort to change them. The last stage of mindfulness is definitely the hardest and only fully obtained by those who devote their entire lives to spirituality. This stage is when you unattach yourself to your body and mind and instead identify yourself solely and completely with what Buddhists refer to as your “true-self,” known more commonly as your soul or spirit. Separating your identity from your mind and body is extremely difficult, but one can find a sense of relief and freedom.

Artwork by Maya Bingham

The market for mindfulness products in the United States is enormous. A wide range of mindfulness products are sweeping the nation from mindful magazines to mindful mayonnaise. It seems as though you can buy the “mindful” version of any product nowadays.

This capitalization is expected, especially since many Americans are notorious for throwing down wads of cash on the latest and greatest products and experiences. But the thing about mindfulness is that no matter how much money you spend on mindfulness, you aren’t guaranteed to truly experience it. No world-renowned guru or gypsy can force you into a mindfulness state. It’s a personal state of mind that cannot be bought, no matter how much westerners would like it to be otherwise. It’s something that is personal and can only be experienced through and of itself by oneself.

Even though the secularization of mindfulness is what is thought to have caused mindfulness to take off in the west, the most incredible benefits I have experienced from traditional mindfulness meditation cannot be documented through data. The feeling of my chest filling up with love and compassion, the feeling of all my worries being washed away and replaced with a sense of stability and rootedness, and the feeling of connecting to the totality of the universe are some of my most inspiring, profound experiences that I most likely would not have been able to endeavor without a spiritual outlook on my practice.

I am not trying to discount the fact that mindfulness meditation has helped millions of individuals overcome physical, measurable issues such as high blood pressure, instead, I am just trying to point out that in order to radically transform and free one’s mind, one must dive deep head first into traditional mindfulness instead of merely getting one’s feet wet. Great changes can occur from practicing secular mindfulness, but even greater changes can occur from practicing spiritual mindfulness. Observing the mind and the mind’s patterns is essential for transformation, but it is merely not enough.

While I am ecstatic that mindfulness is no longer stigmatized as an activity exclusively for hippies and monks, I believe that a large sector of mindfulness meditators do not have a strong grasp on what the traditional practice consists of and why it matters. While secular mindfulness may serve as a great introductory to one’s spiritual journey, failing to fully embrace mindfulness in its purest form inhibits meditator from experiencing the true strength and power of mindfulness.

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Top image: Artwork by Maya Bingham

Natalie Raphael
Natalie Raphael has been writing for USC Annenberg Media since she was a freshman. Along with that, she dabbles in writing music reviews for a few small indie music blogs as well. In her free time, she enjoys doing yoga, meditating, and making burrito bowls.