Based on an interview with Brother Phap Dung, a senior Plum Village Dharma teacher, we explore the question: “What is McMindfulness?“
Thich Nhat Hanh published The Miracle of Mindfulness in 1975, a time when the word mindfulness was seldom-used in the West. Fast forward 45 years to 2020, it is now a word we find everywhere. Is that a good thing? Not everybody thinks so. The word McMindfulness has been coined as a criticism of a commercial form of mindfulness separate from its Buddhist roots that critics say is doing more harm than good.
How did the term McMindfulness come about?
In our modern society, there is a tendency to commodify things and to make a business out of it. Mindfulness is no exception.
In 2011 Dr Miles Neal, a Buddhist Psychotherapist published an article entitled McMindfulness and Frozen Yoga in which he argued that:
“We are losing the rich and sophisticated psychological context underpinning the practices of yoga and mindfulness, and that by reuniting them with their original matrices we can turn the yoga boom and mindfulness fad into a spiritual revolution unlike any we have seen in our young country”.
He observed that yoga was ahead of mindfulness in its trajectory in the west and we could look to yoga to see where the western adaptation of mindfulness is heading.
Ron Purser, a professor, and Korean Zen Teacher then used the term in 2019 as the title of a book: McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality.
He is highly critical of what he sees as McMindfulness as “it says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live.” He feels McMindfulness can make us passive and accepting: trying to adapt to unjust and unhealthy societies rather than proactively changing them.
Thich Nhat Hanh and McMindfulness
Thich Nhat Hanh has worked to make mindfulness become more accessible and available in the West.
In 1989, Jon Kabat Zinn published the book Full Catastrophe Living based on his experiences of teaching meditation to people with chronic pain. This was a groundbreaking moment for secular mindfulness and it was Thich Nhat Hanh who offered the preface.
Thich Nhat Hanh has offered talks at large corporations such as Google, given talks at Parliaments, offered retreats for teachers and police officers. He has also encouraged creative uses of technology to help people practice mindfulness.
Yet, Thich Nhat Hanh has warned against McMindfulness without using the term directly. In a retreat in 2014, he offered a talk that explored when and how it is appropriate to teach mindfulness. He used the question of whether teaching mindfulness to the military is the right thing to do as an example to explore this question. He distinguished between “Right Mindfulness” and “Wrong Mindfulness” and emphasized strongly that mindfulness is a way of life rather than a tool or an instrument or a means to an end.
What is Wrong Mindfulness?
To answer this question we have to take a step back and look at where mindfulness comes from. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Old Path, White Clouds, he paints a picture of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, as a real person with real struggles.
In his Four Noble Truths, Siddhartha Gautama offered a diagnosis of human problems and a prognosis for healing. The First Noble Truth is the existence of ill-being or suffering. The Second Noble Truth is that path that leads to ill-being or suffering. The Third Noble Truth is that happiness is possible and the Fourth Noble Truth is the path that leads to happiness.
That path that leads to happiness is called the Noble Eight-Fold Path. One element of this path is Right Mindfulness:
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
- Right Insight
- Right Thinking
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Diligence
If there is Right Mindfulness, there must be Wrong Mindfulness. Wrong Mindfulness is where mindfulness is separate from the rest of the Eight-Fold Path. Where mindfulness is separate from Right Action or Right Livelihood.
If we are clear-minded and focused, but we ignore whether or not our actions are causing harm, that is Wrong Mindfulness. If someone in the army learns mindfulness so that they can be more effective at pulling the trigger and become more effective at killing people, that is Wrong Mindfulness.
Nowadays when talking about the concept of ‘focus’, people use mindfulness as mindfulness has become a trendy word. Just learning to be more focused is a very superficial form of mindfulness.
Wrong Mindfulness, can also be associated with bypassing. This is what McMindfulness warns about: using mindfulness to passively accept a livelihood that is causing harm or contributing to suffering through our consumption.
If you consider mindfulness as a means of having a lot of money, then you have not touched its true purpose. It may look like the practice of mindfulness but inside there’s no peace, no joy, no happiness produced. It’s just an imitation. If you don’t feel the energy of brotherhood, of sisterhood, radiating from your work, that is not mindfulness.Thich Nhat Hanh
How do make sure we are avoiding McMindfulness and are practicing Right Mindfulness?
Mindfulness filled with love
Right Mindfulness is more than mere awareness: it is filled with love. When you are mindful of something, you appreciate and cherish it. It’s more colorful than indifferent awareness. If we are practicing Right Mindfulness, it is not separate from the rest of the Noble Eight-Fold Path so it will contain insight. It is not superficial.
Watch out for just the appearance of mindfulness
We should be wary not to get caught up in the outer signs or mindfulness. We might be walking really slowly “practicing” walking meditation or sitting in a very impressive cross-legged position. Yet there might still be a lot of tension and tightness within us. There might be a lot of striving and grasping. We might be taking our current habits and tendencies and bringing them into the way we practice mindfulness. If we are a perfectionist, we might be bringing our perfectionism into our mindfulness practice. If we are practicing in this way, it will not be sustainable.
Can’t ignore suffering and difficulty
In the Plum Village tradition, the emphasis isn’t looking at mindfulness just to be more effective at our jobs or for some superficial relief as McMindfulness offers. A crucial aspect is to look at our suffering. Some people arrive at a retreat and they don’t think they are experiencing suffering. Often it can be hidden, impacting us on a subconscious level. We have to stop and allow the mind to settle before we can see the suffering below the surface. After a few days of the retreat, people tend to be able to recognize and see their suffering clearly.
Maybe that doesn’t sound so appealing, but we can’t go straight to enjoying lasting happiness without looking at our suffering. It’s through embracing our suffering that we find liberation. With mindfulness, we learn how to suffer well. If we know how to suffer, we become a free person. Notwithstanding our suffering, we can find lightness, rather than being at the mercy of our difficulties. We can experience difficulties whilst not judging ourselves and not resisting the situation. If we can feel ok, in the midst of suffering, that is the miracle of mindfulness.
We can’t do it by ourselves
A key aspect of Right Mindfulness is practicing mindfulness with others, which can help us see ourselves more clearly. At Plum Village centers around the world, people sit in a circle with others and hear people speak mindfully and truthfully about their suffering and challenges. This is part of what makes people’s experiences transformational.
Mindfulness is not like going to the gym, where we can go on our own and do our reps with our headphones in and then go home, have dinner and go to sleep. To go beyond McMindfulness, our mindfulness practice must relate to our friends, our family, our parents, our communities, and our society.
Mindfulness makes us make changes
If you are practicing correctly, mindfulness forces us to look at things that are uncomfortable. When we stop and calm our mind with mindfulness, we might, for example, start to notice discomfort around our job. A feeling that we are not contributing to something positive or unease about the harm we might be causing. Right Mindfulness will help us go in the direction of Right Livelihood by making us aware of these feelings. But if we want mindfulness to make that discomfort to go away, we are probably practicing McMindfulness. Some people say jokingly that they regret coming to Plum Village: they got more than what they bargained for as they could not just go back to the life they had, they had to make changes.
As we become more mindful, we might notice the impact our words are having on people. We might notice that people feel judged by us. Again, this process might not be always pleasant, we might need to confront aspects of ourselves that we don’t like. We can become aware of our notions and our views and see whether they are helping us. Of course, through the insight of interbeing, we know we have inherited a lot of our ways of thinking, speaking, and acting from our friends, family, and society. That means we can be compassionate towards ourselves and yet at the same time see clearly where we can make changes for the good of ourselves and others around us.
A path, not a tool
That is why Thich Nhat Hanh concluded that we should teach mindfulness to the military if we are asked to. Mindfulness is a path and not a tool. Right Mindfulness is not separate from the Noble Eight-Fold Path, which is a path of ethics, responsibility, and love. People in the military suffer and deserve relief like everyone else. If mindfulness is taught as Right Mindfulness, it will stop us from falling into the trap of McMindfulness.
We’ve got a choice, we can practice mindfulness in a superficial way: continuing to pursue ego, status, and pride and bypassing difficult challenges including confronting the injustices in our society. Or we can embrace something deeper that points to the way to a powerful kind of freedom.
The Plum Village App combines the depth of “Right Mindfulness” connected to its Buddhist roots with an aspiration to make mindfulness available to more people.
We offer it freely to the world as a gift. You can support the app in the spirit of dana (generosity) so that it can continue to benefit people.