There’s mindfulness and there’s mindfulness. One is a billion-dollar global business disseminated through apps and modules, promising time-bound, systematic transformation. The other is a slow process of inner work, with nothing to “do” and no time frame in which to achieve—often free and non-certifiable. Misconceptions arise when the commercialized form of meditation co-opts the language of the unstructured form.
Mindfulness is an attentive practice of Mahayana Buddhism. It was popularized by the Zen school, influenced by Daoism in China and Japan. Mahayana’s other school is Vajrayana, a tantric manifestation in Tibet.
Mindfulness can be Nen, direct unobstructed experience, which has several stages: Shonen is right mindfulness, pristine reflection. Zazen is simply sitting. Shikantaza is silent illumination. Differences depend on the masters.
The Theravada school of meditation, popular in India and Myanmar, follows Shamata, calming, and Vipassana, insight, which itself has multiple stages. Mindfulness is stage four of 16 of vipassana in Buddhagosa’s Visuddhimagga text. Mahayana and Theravada overlap in some stages. Their differences range from metaphysical hair-splitting to meditative techniques. Theravada doesn’t subscribe to divinity. In Mahayana, the Buddha is divine and liberated beings, boddhisattvas, help you out. The Tibetan mystical school has deities, powers, mantras and superstitions. Some masters teach each school as stages of one progression.
These differences are glossed over in canned mindfulness. Why is it important to know them? Because Buddhism requires that you don’t believe anything you haven’t directly experienced. If you don’t subscribe to divinity, you shouldn’t follow the Mahayana school and your practice will change accordingly.
Vipassana is rigorous but systematic. Modular Zen sells on its ease, “just sit”, but it is harder to tame the mind without a focus. Satori, seeing, is a long way away. Most practitioners graze the beginner’s mind, Shoshin, without advancing to any real transformation.
Modular mindfulness grew out of the post-war US of the 1960s, when Buddhist monks toured America. Subsequently, the wellness industry adapted the work of American monks like Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg to its fast-paced needs. Mindfulness has only recently been studied for its psychological influence. The Universities of Massachusetts, US, and of Oxford, UK, have mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or cognitive therapy (MBCT) labs.
According to the study Adverse Events in Meditation Practices and Meditation‐based Therapies: A Systematic Review published in August in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavia, 33% of the practitioners of mindfulness reported anxiety, 27% depression, and 25% cognitive anomalies. However, these studies only take into account decontextualized practices. In its original form, mindfulness extends into ways of seeing, doing, speaking, and living.
There is harm in DIY mindfulness from a module, book or TED Talk. To simply know is not to be aware. To be aware is not to resolve. Reddit and Quora are filled with practitioners facing trauma, anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. Some also face irritability and insomnia.
Meditation, like therapy, is a process of delving into the subconscious mind. The aim is to bring more of the unknown into the known, and traditional systems ensure that the experienced supervise students. The mind is a trickster that superimposes and detracts from reality. There are immense peaks and valleys in this process. Insight can hit hard, expose flaws, patterns, or the full extent of our abuse.
This is why the sangha, the gathering, is important. Meditation can feel isolating. Though practised in silence, it is important to be established in a group. The individual exists within the collective. The Buddha followed “Buddham sharanam gachhami” and “Dhammam sharanam gachhami” with “Sangham sharanam gachhami”: I seek refuge in the Buddha, in the code, and in the gathering. These protect us.
The moral code is also necessary. Intoxicants can cause reactions ranging from seizures to outbursts, depending on addiction or withdrawal. Hence clean eating and living are essential. Mindfulness practised in only one aspect is inadequate.
There are many corrections that experience confers. Right posture, breath, gaze, hand placement, bodily sensations. Don’t meditate outdoors, on bare ground. Your teacher will tweak what comes up as you go along. No two practitioners have the same experience.
Modular mindfulness sells you scenery and boutique lodgings. Inquire if you will get a quiet space, an energized space, and guidance instead.
Without the framework, modular meditation opens a Pandora’s box of the subconscious.
To compare, a therapist may divert a session if she senses you are not ready for the insight; for instance, a repressed realization of childhood abuse that you are too fragile to handle right now. They equip you with coping mechanisms and use interventions for closure. You have to be ready and willing to process your stuff.
Mindfulness is like that. Some of my best teachers have been meditating for over 45 years and still won’t call themselves experts. Robert Thurman explains in a podcast, “The Tibetans have a proverb: 'The best guru is one who lives at least three valleys away,' which means you receive the teaching and some initiatory consecration and then you don’t hang out with that person to see how ordinary they are.” A good teacher never cultivates dependency. There are no certificates. You get there when you get there.
Ten minutes of body scans for a few weeks cannot certify you as mindful. Attained right, mindfulness can allow us to re-perceive life.
A good way to mitigate potential harm if you only have access to a modular course is to undertake counselling alongside. Mindfulness is not a blanket solution. Be mindful about the mindfulness you seek.
Gayatri Jayaraman is the author of Sit Your Self Down (Hachette India), a mind-body spirit counsellor, and a student of Buddhist psychology.