The Buddha of Mindfulness. A Stress Destruction Programme

Ever since, Buddhist monks, nuns and Dharma teachers from the Theravada tradition brought mindfulness/meditation to the West, it has been received with open arms. A variety of retreats, course and programmes, residential and non-residential, take place throughout the West week in, week out.

These retreats give the participants real tools to work with heart, mind and body in their daily life. The practices contribute immensely to the reduction of physical pain, the capacity to work through fear, grief and despair. Practitioners find a genuine sense of their inner worth, a new found confidence and the capacity to face the demands upon themselves from within and without. For some, serious retreats have led to an awakening of something deep and spiritual that stays with participants throughout their lives.

We can only applaud the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness and his linking of mindfulness to a comprehensive path. Perhaps a million or two people in the West, as well as Westerners in Asia, since the 1970’s, have benefitted from the Buddha’s instructions in his much loved talk on the Four Applications of Mindfulness, namely mindfulness of body, feelings, mental states and the Dharma. Countless numbers of individuals can give testimony to the impact of mindfulness/meditation on their lives.

An important offshoot of this aspect of the Buddha’s teaching shows itself in the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction)  programmes. These short courses on mindfulness once again provide citizens from all walks of life with tools to reduce stress and the capacity to cope with change. Our stressed out society needs every tool available to save people from drowning in problematic circumstances.

Some orthodox religious Buddhists, privately and publicly, suspect that there is a “watering down” of the Buddha’s Dharma. I am asked regularly my views on this. I feel religious Buddhists sometimes miss the point. The Buddha’s teachings have a single priority, namely the resolution of suffering. Mindfulness courses, retreats and programmes make a contribution for inner change for individuals for peace of mind and the sense of well-being.

Every human being can benefit from the disciplines and practices of mindfulness regardless of their history, including those utterly detached from empathy, even to the extreme, such as those who sanction war on people, terrorists, rapists, paedophiles, the cruel and the corrupt. Dedicated mindfulness practice can make a contribution to authentic transformation providing the individual motivates himself or herself to practice mindfulness in a dedicated way.

Mindfulness reaches out to a wide variety of people in working life. A whole swath of different mindfulness programmes have become available in the banking industry, the private sector, public sector, education, hospitals, prison, health clinics , and at tsports facilities. Once again, the benefits stretch far and wide. I listen regularly to reports of mindfulness teachers offering various programmes of the immense benefits that practitioners receive. I run an online mindfulness course, based on the Buddha’s teachings, and am the mentor for around 35 mentors world-wide in our programme. Excuse the plug (www.mindfulnesstraningcourse.org). Mindfulness practice empowers the individual.

It is important to be crystal clear that the current mindfulness programmes serve the benefit of the individual. These courses are constructed primarily to reduce stress, regarded as the biggest problem in the workplace in the West.

Mindfulness in Businesses with Questionable Values

I hear of mindfulness consultants offering their trainings to a wide range of businesses including those businesses where greed, aggression and delusion cause harm to people, animals  and the environment. I believe mindfulness consultant should not take the moral high ground and refuse such invitations but nevertheless be extremely clear of the limits of what they can offer.

While there are numerous companies who support humanity and the Earth, there are certain powerful businesses/organisations, often with the backing of governments, who have a great deal of soul searching to do due to their  harmful products, exploitation of factory workers, support for surveillance of citizens,  tax evasion that harms benefits for the poor and so on. Here is a very small sample:

  •  Alcohol industry
  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Bankers,
  • Bio Research
  • Coca-Cola, Pepsi cola
  • computer companies,
  • farming industry
  • hedge fund managers
  • junk food industry,  
  • market speculators,
  • Monsanto,
  • motor industry
  • Nike
  • oil industry
  • pharmaceutical industry
  • Starbucks
  • tobacco industry,
  • US Army
  • venture capitalists

Mindful courses in such companies certainly can help to reduce stress, deal with anger management, cultivate listening skills and improve the capacity for co-operation and teamwork. As presently conceived, mindfulness does not appear to offer more than that nor should we make demands that it should offer more.

There is no available evidence to show that the mindfulness courses challenge the obsessive demands on management, staff, the competitive drive or the very products of a company. The most common definition of mindfulness, namely  the ”paying of attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way” leaves individuals in the company grappling with their stress while ignoring the larger picture of corporate politics as expression of need for change may appear judgemental..

I believe that this judgement, namely defining mindfulness as being in the present moment in a non-judgemental way, inhibits any deep questioning by the staff of companies whose policies exploit people and the environment. This popular definition of mindfulness would make the Buddha turn over in his grave. This single one liner places the responsibility of the stress, anger and despair on the individual while keeping any policies of a corporation free from inquiry. The major policies of a company can be a significant contribution to stress and personal conflict. Loyalty to a company, fear of being overlooked for promotion or fear of losing their job stops corporate employees from speaking up or whistle blowing. Authentic mindfulness of a situation generates an open mindedness, a fearless attitude and for some that includes whistle blowing.

Mindfulness includes our capacity to make judgements in the present and act wisely and directly on those judgements. For example, Google has a programme for staff called Search Inside Yourself (SIY) to increase productivity and creativity. The discourse on mindfulness of the Buddha directs practitioners to search the inner AND the outer (such as the policies of a company) from the standpoint of the truth of a situation. The Buddha frequently questioned Kings, powerful leaders, military generals and Brahmin priests on their ethics, values and actions.

Files released by Edward Snowden, the US whistle-blower, showed that Microsoft gave the National Security Agency the “keys” to its Outlook, Hotmail and Skype services. Snowdon provided The Guardian newspaper in the UK with files on Fairview, the ominous US global surveillance system which had the support of major technology companies. Snowden gave files to the newspaper showing that NSA gained access to the optical cables that carry internet data from the United States to the rest of the world and vice versa. It would certainly appear that Edward became incredibly mindful of the degree that citizens around the world were living under the dark shadow of a surveillance state. From becoming increasingly more mindful of what was going on, he  became instrumental in taking wise action and showed compassionate concern.

The Buddha warned the powerful of the suffering caused through taking what has not been given, exploitation of people and the impact on the individual and society of corruption, greed and selfishness.

It would be a bold mindfulness consultant/coach/teacher willing to stand his or her ground and address these issues with certain companies and the military.

Mindfulness of Corruption of Mind

Corporation often endorse ambition (a polite word for greed?), the pursuit of market share (another word for greed?), maximisation of profits (another word for greed?) without any deep investigation into such values while supporting a mindfulness programme.  When mindfulness consultants/coaches tell practitioners to look at the present moment in a non-judgemental way, the participants might well lose the opportunity to bring mindfulness to causes and conditions that contribute to stress, exploitation and suffering, near or far.

Being non-judgemental, practitioners then only look inside themselves. The policies of the CEO and Board of Directors, as well as expectation of shareholders, remain beyond reproach. No wonder mindfulness courses mushroom in the corporate world. No wonder certain politicians promote mindfulness programmes. Mindfulness only has the authority to reduce stress when isolated from the rest of the Path.

The Buddha spoke of greed, aggression and delusion as the three poisons of the mind. Corporate greed needs the support of aggression. Delusion includes the collision of greed and aggression such as aggressive marketing, aggressive pay increases for the privileged, aggressive determination to move up the corporate ladder and aggressive action to maximise sales.

From time to time, I know political/social/environmental activists working for justice, sustainability and compassion who hear about mindfulness in the corridors of power in the political/corporate/military world. Some activists with knowledge of the Buddha’s noble eightfold path imagine that the Dharma is entering these powerful worlds of influence. It isn’t. It is unfair to expect mindfulness coaches to  address deep issues.

We should not think for a moment that mindfulness courses will change the underlying ideology of people in power who seek to maximise gain and control. In fact, there is an argument to say that mindfulness programmes can remain subservient to the egos of big business by staying in the present moment in a non-judgemental way.

After a mindfulness programme, the individual in a company may feel his or her stress, unhappiness and doubts are entirely self made. The employer may feel that an stress reduction in stress  will release more energy for everybody to work harder, to be more productive, and to promote sales regardless of the consequences.

Mindfulness and the Military

I hardly need to mention to readers the role of aggression in the army, the slaughter of men, women and children, the ever increasing number of suicides among army personnel  wracked with guilt and terror over what they saw or what they did. There is the terrible suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) of men and women, many of them young, poor and powerless, sent off to kill, harm and terrify others, usually the poor and powerless, in a faraway land at the behest of the old, rich and powerful.. War and stress are as inseparable as wood and trees. The Buddha warned about the misuse/abuse of mindfulness (miccha sati).

In their excellent article title Mindfulness Revisited, Ronald E. Purser, Professor of Management, San Francisco State University and Joseph Milillo, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University, quote a key researcher for the US Mindfulness Based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT), Elizabeth Stanley, a former Army captain, who is a champion and key researcher for the MMFT program views mindfulness as quite compatible with the military’s existing objectives, as she states:

…incorporating mind fitness training into existing military training would not require much

additional time on the training schedule. For example, the military already incorporates

mindfulness training—although it does not call it this—into perhaps the most foundational soldier

skill, firing a weapon. Soldiers learning how to fire the M-16 rifle are taught to pay attention to

their breath and synchronize the breathing process to trigger finger’s movement, “squeezing” off

the round while exhaling.

“This synchronization has two effects. The gross motor effect is to steady the soldier’s aim so that the round is more likely to hit the target.” (italics in original, Stanley, 2010, p.264)

Ronald Purser and Joseph Milillo write: “The MMFT program defines mindfulness as a “mental mode characterized by full attention to present moment experience without judgment, elaboration or emotional reactivity” (Stanley et al., 2011, p.566). This definition is derived from the standard operational definition of MBSR.”

Ä prominent leader of MBSR made the claim that “even if soldiers improve their professional skills, it will also nurture the innate compassion of their humanity.” I regard this as a naïve view; besides there is no such thing as “innate compassion.” Compassion emerges from  a  caring judgement, mindfulness, love, empathy for the other and the willingness to put aside the ideology of the nation state.

I have not seen any evidence whatsoever to show that any mindfulness programme for the military has brought about any such change of attitude from men and women in uniform resulting in an unwavering refusal of military officers or soldiers to support the killing and maiming of people.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that mindfulness courses, such as MBSR, can make a precious contribution toward the reduction of PTSD for soldiers who are  psychology damaged by warfare, military training, bullying and other expressions of stress inducing activities.. Such programmes do not question the morality of the nation state to inflict its destructive will on people or forms of abusive application of mindfulness by the military to inflict PTSD on men, women and children, as well as maim or kill people.

If there is evidence to show an utter change of heart within military personnel, then let those soldiers and military officers step forward.  Compassion starts, as the Buddha said, with the refusal “to take up the cudgel,” let alone the machine gun, the hand grenade, the bomb or employ the drone missile. The refusal to take up arms or support the taking up of arms to kill and maim is a very basic compassion for others.

Probably most readers will know a little of the basics of the Buddha’s teachings as summarised in the Noble Eightfold Path. People will say to me: “Aren’t the Buddha’s teachings all about inter-connectedness?” Well, yes, but the teachings and practices also go deeper than that.

Mindfulness of the Path

In the Buddha’s teachings, mindfulness is connected to the Path or the Way, often referred to as the Noble Eightfold Path. No link is more important than the other. Corruption, Greed and war and other problems of humanity reveal blind reaction owing to the absence of examination of cause and conditions. All unhealthy states of mind confirm delusion.  There is no authentic freedom unless it includes freedom from delusion. The Path of the Buddha addresses greed, aggression and delusion.

The Noble Eightfold Path for Politicians, Business Community, the Military and others.

1.  Right Understanding/Right View

This is the individual and collective exploration/reflection/inquiry of the four truths, namely there is suffering, the variety of causes and conditions that bring about suffering, the resolution and the way to resolve. It would require mindfulness consultants and practitioners to address the whole ethos of any organisation to establish wisdom and compassion in that organisation from top to bottom and dissolve the poisons of the mind. That would be a major undertaking.

2. Right Intention/Attitude.

This is an unwavering commitment to a non-injurious way of life. It means addressing every aspect of greed, aggression and delusion among employers and employees to ensure a fundamental change of intention and attitude.

3. Right Speech

It is to speak, as the Buddha said, what is “true and useful” leading to right understanding. It is to speak honestly and fearlessly about the inner and the outer necessities to change harmful policies that always employ distorted and manipulative speech for selling purposes and  marketing of goods. Right speech includes  an end to the slagging off of thoughtful critics and competitors, as well as end to putting down the poor and the marginalised.

4. Right Action.

Deep ethics govern action to show a real care for people, whether working in factories in poor countries. Ethics ensure a change of use of chemicals and other substances used in products and action that harm people. Right action is a constructive engagement with life not a destructive one. Respect takes priority over personal or company gain. Right Action brings an end to the variety of corrupt practices, avoidance of paying taxes, money laundering, the obese lifestyles of executives, exploitation of the trust of customers and suppression of information.

5. Right Livelihood

The Buddha rejected any livelihood causing harm and suffering to people, animals or environment whether feeding addiction (such as the tobacco industry), manipulation of consciousness through certain advertising campaigns, production of harmful chemicals and systematic destruction of the environment. Authentic mindfulness generates inner and outer change touching on the conscience of the individual and the collective with the willingness to work with integrity regardless of the personal cost.

6.Right Effort

Right effort implies a creative energy to develop and maintain what is beneficial (such as all eight links to establish a noble way of life) and to overcome and abandon all what obstructs a noble way of life

7. Right Mindfulness

Sati (the Pali word for mindfulness) implies present and past. It is the capacity to look at the present, look at the conditions leading up to the present and make clear judgements in accordance with the spirit and letter of the Eightfold Path. Mindfulness belongs to the eightfold path just as the arm belongs to the body. Mindfulness has the capacity to track circumstances, to see and follow what is unfolding and be mindful of consequences, effects and fruits of action. The practitioner develops the capacity to stay steady, clear and calm in the present as well as see  the relationship of past, present and future.

8. Right Concentration

Samadhi, the Pali word for concentration, includes genuine depths of meditation, a knowing of deep happiness and inner peace showing true wealth is within, a unified mind and a capacity to stay concentrated on every link in the Eightfold Path as the true expression of one’s dignity as a human being.

A noble human being lives with dignity and genuine freedom. It is a joy to hear very occasionally of a hedge fund manager, a Monsanto employee or a soldier take real steps to live a noble life after participation in a mindfulness course. He or she knows that they have liberated themselves from enslavement to a political ideology, to corporate ambitions or the military objectives of the army. These transformations do happen in mindfulness programmes. But it is rare.

Mindfulness and its Limits

Integrity and dignity matters far more than the ambitions of the nation state, the desire for corporate supremacy, the craving to maximise profit and influence or the determination to subjugate others to a political/military ideology. I shook my head in disbelief when I read that mindfulness “almost subversively intends to create much greater transformation toward wise action, social harmony and compassion.”

To such claims, I would respectfully ask: “Show me the evidence of a political party, a single corporation or army unit that has truly transformed itself in terms of action, workers/families’ rights and compassion due to a mindfulness course in the past 30 years of mindfulness programmes.

A US based conference in titled Wisdom 2.0 conference on mindfulness in business held for 2000 business people including mindfulness coaches, executives, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and technologists in the business world,  had the subtitle “How do we live with greater awareness, wisdom and compassion in the digital age?” We can only but applaud the theme but from a Dharma standpoint, it would require such a root and branch change in business as the Noble Path makes clear. Certain consultants and coaches in the mindfulness industry need to be mindful to not hype mindfulness beyond its station.

Allow me to reiterate my open paragraphs.

Mindfulness programmes certainly make a wonderful contribution towards the reductions of stress and pain for the individual. The mindfulness practices, methods and techniques contribute to a culture of calm and co-operation. I feel incredible appreciation to all the mindfulness consultants, coaches, trainers and therapists who give such support to people at home, in the office, in hospitals, civilian and military, prisons, schools as well as abbots and teachers in Buddhist monasteries and retreat centres.

We must remember that it is not within the remit of mindfulness programmes to question the modus operandi of the corporations who employ the services of mindfulness consultants. Buddhists and activists need to be clear on this point.

We cannot expect such consultants to help change a single core belief of a company.

Yes, mindfulness belongs to a path of inquiry, of examination of causation for suffering, of awakening, of compassion which leaves no stone unturned. It is an eight-fold path not a one-fold path (mindfulness).

MBSR and similar programmes reduce personal stress. That is the remit of MBSR. Its authority is tied to that. MBSR states honestly what it does. That is to its credit.

Activists, scientists, social critics, educationalists, researchers, journalists, Dharma teachers and numerous others have the responsibility through inquiry and insight to get to the roots of the matter of suffering, as the Buddha advocated, and inquire into any level of corruption of mind. It is unreasonable to expect mindfulness teachers offering a course to a company to have the skilful means to investigate the underworld of big business.

Let us address to our best capacity the entire path, the inner and the outer. Our life is short. We may never be back. If we do not work to change the inner and the outer, there may be nothing left to come back to or nothing much left but a hell realm for future generations because we said nothing, wrote nothing and did nothing.

Together, we have the capacity to experience the destruction of stress through  dedication to ethics,  a caring mindfulness in actions, great and small,  knowing the emptiness of ego and associated political, corporate and military ideology.  We have the capacity to know a liberating wisdom and a dedication to the welfare of others, near and far.

 May all be free from greed, aggression and delusion

May all in politics, business and the military

know the transformation of the inner life

 May all live with wisdom and compassion

 



  • The Snowden comment is suspect. His intentions may have been good, however his actions had mixed results. It’s great that we the people know about surveillance, however his actions will or have caused loss of life. I’ve only met one teacher who understood the complexity of compassion or acceptance. People just blindly throw around compassion, sadly some acts which seem compassionate, and even with good intentions cause severe harm. I’m a secular atheist, I can tell you that with no dogma I could give people more insights than any lama I’ve ever met.


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