Ideally, mindfulness would make us more conscious of the world around us and more sensitive to the way our actions affect others. But is that necessarily so?
Mindfulness doesn’t always lead to “goodness.”
Here are some possible ways that a mindfulness practice might not lead to greater ethical sensitivity and making the most responsible choices. These ideas may not all hold up to examination; I’m just throwing them out there for your consideration.
1. Emotional detachment. Mindfulness detaches feelings from action and teaches just noticing feelings without being moved by them (feelings as distraction). Yet as both philosophers and neuroscientists know, we need feelings to guide our ethics. For that matter, you can do very bad things mindfully (in cold blood, or as an automaton).
2. Reduced brain power. Mindfulness uses up cognitive resources by making your brain spend energy on being aware of what you’re aware of, so there’s even less attention to direct towards things you weren’t already aware of. If you’re not already attuned to others’ feelings and experiences, you may now be even less likely to notice them.
3. Emphasis on the senses. When mindfulness isn’t being linked to a broader context, some valued bigger picture, it can promote a prioritization of hedonism and sensual pleasures over responsibility and a connection to larger, self-transcending sources of meaning. When you’re being mindful, you can get caught up in your senses, and as I described last time, you may be less attuned to the “big picture.”
4. Lack of guidance. Mindfulness doesn’t tell us how to set up the ordered list of tasks for which we’ll be mindful, the meta-level of structure in which mindfulness operates. If you want your life to be in service of some bigger picture, you have to bring that in from outside of the mindfulness process. (Maybe it’s part of the wider framework of Buddhism, I don’t know, but if so, that’s separate from a mindfulness practice).
There are many times when we should probably prioritize mindfulness over, say, acting on auto-pilot. When we’re interacting with loved ones, patients, clients, children – probably any interpersonal encounter is a good time to be attentive and open and self-aware. When we’re doing something that requires thoughtful decision-making, or careful focus – well, whenever we’re trying to be responsible, there’s a place for mindfulness.
But mindfulness is not enough. Suppose you’re a monk in a monastery, or a visitor on a retreat, and someone else has already decided the entire ordering of your day’s activities, and all you have to do is move from one physical task to another. Then, mindfulness could work very well for you – you could be fully present in each of those activities, or at least you could aspire to it, and that would be fine. But you’re not making any choices; you’re just moving from one anchor to the next. Someone else has set all of your priorities for you.
But if you’re living in the everyday world, and if your life has any complexity whatsoever, then you’ll need to make decisions. It’s great to be mindful when you’re deciding about how to spend your time, of course – mindfulness can help you notice where you’re enthusiastic and where you’re reluctant, and to not get caught up in either one to the extent that you aren’t meeting your priorities, but the priorities themselves come from outside of the experience of mindfulness. Mindfulness itself does not create any input or structure, and it cannot give you any goals; it’s just a mode of awareness and reaction.
5. Less responsiveness. If we do have this structure, these anchors from which to operate, then whenever we’re using one of these anchors, we lose some responsiveness to changing situations.
Martin Buber, the author of I and Thou and one of the leading philosophers on the ethics of relationships, gave an example from his own experience. Just before World War I, a young man came to him for advice, and Buber responded in a friendly fashion, but “without being there in spirit.” He himself was still focused on his own morning’s spiritual practices, which had been intense and emotionally engaging. Later he learned that the young man had died in the war, having put himself in harm’s way in an act of despair. Buber believed that he had failed in his responsibility to the visitor, that if he had been more fully attentive to him, rather than distracted by his morning’s activities, he may have helped him. (Between Man and Man, p.13-14; Friedman biography, p.7-8). Of course, being mindful in his encounter with the young man would have been one way to be more fully attentive, but the encounter was unexpected and not part of the structure of his day. His mind was still on the topic he had designated for being mindful of.
6. Potentially self-deluding about openness. Although mindfulness requires openness to the world, it may do nothing to actively cultivate our awareness of the ways that we don’t have the answers and don’t know others totally and that we harm them by making the assumption that we do. Mindfulness is more passive about openness – it encourages us to accept the unexpected, but it doesn’t push us towards seeing the unexpected. We may think we’re being more open than we actually are.
When you’re mindfully having a conversation with someone, you’re attending to the thoughts and feelings going through your head, and to your impressions of the thoughts and feelings that are going through the other person’s head, but that only works if you assume you know the person so well that your complete rapport is effortless. And that’s taking a lot for granted. It’s kind of denying them the freedom to be unpredictable, or for there to be aspects of their life that you can’t completely get.
The more effortful form of empathy called “perspective-taking” involves an imaginative leap into their experience, and there’s an ethical component to that, or at least there should be, where we recognize that our own experiences and biases will influence our imagination such that our ideas will always be incomplete and insufficient for fully understanding the other person. I should know, as a privileged white American, that I can never fully imagine what it’s like to have dark skin, but if I’m just taking for granted that I know how a dark-skinned person feels based on our common humanity, without ever taking an imaginative leap into her perspective, then I’m missing out on something ethically vital.
I’d like to think that really skilled mindfulness practitioners would have the ability to keep another person’s possibly very different perspective in mind at the same time that they’re highly focused on their own experiences and responses, but it seems that it would be really difficult. And mindfulness may help us to notice when another person is uncomfortable, but it doesn’t push us to make an imaginative leap to wonder why, or help us know how to respond.
To sum up – the teachings on mindfulness that I’ve come across, whether Buddhist or Western, encourage people to learn to live in the present moment, and that can have considerable value… but! An emphasis on mindfulness can also teach people to curtail a really vast and important part of human experience, which is our ongoing involvement in imaginative worlds that are not our present moment. And in doing that, I think the practice of mindfulness has the potential to lead some people to be excessively self-involved and less aware of others, especially others who are different from ourselves.
I do encourage you to learn more about mindfulness and to experience it for yourself. But whether you see it as a tool or as a way of life, it’s important to remember that mindfulness is only a method. We won’t find substance nor meaning in mindfulness – for those, we need connection and engagement with things we value.
And that’s all I have to say about mindfulness for now. Please let me know what you think!
This post is one in a four-part series:
Mindfulness – Four Caveats
Part I: Why Mindfulness?
Part II: “Always Be Mindful” – Good Idea?
Part III: When Mindfulness Sets Us Adrift
Part IV: Making Choices – Ethics and Mindfulness
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Great series! I think the point that mindfulness doesn’t make you “good” is an excellent one — I think one could argue even that Buddhist “enlightenment” doesn’t make you good; it just makes you “not bad”.
The “perspective taking” you talk about is, I believe, a fundamental part of being compassionate; in many Buddhist traditions, compassion is a practice that is distinct from mindfulness and complementary to it. (Many Tibetan traditions, for instance, practice Chenrezig meditation, which is a visualization practice focused on the bodhisattva of compassion Avelokitesvara.) I’d say that in this framework, mindfulness (especially the kind that goes all the way to the realization of no-self) makes you “free” while compassion makes you “good”.