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The Subtle Agression of Mindfulness

I have a knee jerk reaction to the word mindfulness. It's used quite a bit. Its ubiquitous nature feels snug like spandex.  

There is a story in the book Thank You and Okay about a tall monk from Texas living in a Japanese temple with a short Japanese monk. This texan monk keeps banging his head on this low hanging beam above the bathroom door. After an outburst, the Japanese monk serenely offers, "This is to bring you mindfulness."

The texan offers, "Well, why don't I go get the chain saw and lower it 6 inches so it can bring you mindfulness, too!"

What is mindfulness? I have no idea. In our tradition, we have forms like Oryoki, Zendo ettiquite, and robes. My teacher, Kosho Zenrei, calls that last one "robe torture." Ripping, sticking, catching, hot and cold robes. Oryoki is 45 minutes of fussing with your bowls and chanting, 6 minutes or so of eating. Zendo ettiquite is always evovling; the latest is not to bow from gassho at the end of our refuge chant, but just to turn and stand in shashu.

Our tradition approaches  Buddhism, mindfulness included, as something we already are, suddenly and completely. We don't sit Zazen because we need to become Buddhas; we sit Zazen because we are Buddhas, this is what the Buddha looks like when she sits. It's very ceremonial, and all of these ceremonies are for what we already are. This spills into our life.

I use tricks, too, like breathing in someone's emotion, and breathing out compassion at them. But this is a trick. It makes life more bearable, like the 8 fold path, but it's not necessary for awakening, because you already awakened.

I'm getting the feeling that mindfulness in the Theravadan tradition is something really different. I'm also hearing that it's something to get.

In our school, there is nothing to get. Your deluded self is there to study, your mindful self is there to study.   Kosho Zenrei says, "Sun faced Buddha, moon faced Buddha. What you like is Buddha, what you don't like is Buddha."

How do we say this in a sincere way? Buddhism is more than self help. Self help may be what gets us through the door, this desire to end our suffering, but how do we point out that mindfulness, Zen practice, Buddha dharma are also things that you can crave, hate, and delude the self with?


  1. Delusion, especially of the self, is the arsenic in the seed of an apple. Necessary for the new tree, new growth, new fruit. But deadly if consumed in great quantities.

    Mindfulness...why does its learning seem to require blunt force so often?

  2. I so enjoy reading your blog! This one is just wonderful. "We don't sit Zazen because we need to become Buddhas; we sit Zazen because we are are already awakened." Yes! As Adyashanti would say - the ego can claim anything for its own purposes, even "spiritual practice", so that even practice ends up serving the ego - the small mind... What beautiful insight you have!

  3. The Vipassana teachers that I most respect would say that mindfulness is kind awareness. It's not a thing to get, but a way of relating to our experience. The simplest translation of sati - the Pali word that's translated as mindfulness - is "to remember." At the beginning of every sitting I say to myself, "May I meet whatever arises with kindness and curiosity." Remembering to do that is the hard part. How much effort does it take to know that I'm sitting here typing this? Not much. But again, remembering to know... that's the trick.

    Which isn't to say that I can't turn it into something to get, because that's what minds do. We turn mindfulness into an object, externalize it, decide it's missing, and try to grab hold. There may be different schools, but it's the same minds.

    But I completely agree that "mindfulness" is misused way too often. One retreat center I was at had little signs in the rooms, "Out of respect for others, please move about your room mindfully." Mindful = quiet? I don't think so. It made we want to crash things about with great awareness. But for the people who buy into that conflation, it helps strengthen the idea that mindfulness is something special, that can only happen when you're quiet and moving very slowly.

  4. Robina has a great talk on mindfulness. Do you know her?

    I like this word sati- during Zazen, it seems like we try not to get invovled.

    Miss you Amy!

  5. Loved _Thank You and Ok_, wonderful book.
    So yes there has been somewhat of a commodification of the term "mindfulness' in various contexts which seems most pronounced when the term is used to distance meditation from Buddhism (of amy tradition). So that such a practice of awareness will not seem too foriegn or esoteric. Examples would be when it is used in health/wellness, or when brought into the sphere of business/corporate programs for employees.
    From one perspective I'm all for whatever gets people to practice. From another there is the desire for clarity of vocabulary that promotes greater clarity of mind.

  6. Once a concept is embraced by a culture outside of its original context the concept will inevitably be changed. I think that's what has happened with mindfulness. People now use the term "mindfulness" to refer to a lot of different things, many of which in no way resemble its original meaning.

  7. I sit so I can be awakened more of the time.


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