The Real Reasons Mindfulness Meditation Doesn’t Work

I have been a big proponent of mindfulness meditation for a while now. In fact my first dissertation study idea was to study the impact of mindfulness on empathy and compassion. But in the past 2 years I have significantly changed my thoughts about the topic. I have decided that I agree with some who argue that psychology should butt out of this whole meditation business and return Buddhist meditation to it’s purest form.

What is Mindfulness Meditation

The legitimacy and popularity of mindfulness can be largely attributed to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction for patients suffering from chronic health conditions. Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way.

Mindfulness meditation has two components: bringing one’s attention to the current experience, a physical sensation, a feeling or simply one’s breath with a purposeful suspension of the usual analytic engagement, with curiosity, openness, and acceptance.

Although not all mindfulness meditation is Buddhist meditation, the core principles come from Buddha’s teachings. But somewhere along the way, mindfulness got so far away from those teachings that it is now hard to know what people mean when they talk about mindfulness meditation.

Is Mindfulness Really Good For You

To make matters worse, psychology has taken it upon itself to look at some of the most profound spiritual practices of Buddhist meditation and conclude that they can be harmful. In a blog in Psychology Today, Utpal Dholakia (who is actually a marketing professor), wrote about the little-known harmful ways of mindfulness. He quotes psychiatrist David Brendel:

“Some people use mindfulness strategies to avoid critical thinking tasks. I’ve worked with clients who, instead of rationally thinking through a career challenge or ethical dilemma, prefer to disconnect from their challenges and retreat into a meditative mindset.”

I had a similar discussion come up with one of the my clients recently. The question was, once you engage in meditation, how do you know that you are not ignoring or neglecting life’s problems?

This a fair question and I will attempt to answer it. But first I must clarify a fundamental premise of Buddhist meditation that modern mindfulness carelessly (and dangerously) ignores. And that’s what Buddha’s teachings see as the root of all our problems:

self-grasping ignorance.

Ancient Wisdom

For the past 3 years I have studied the teachings of Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, world-renowned Buddhist teacher and meditation master who’s written over 22 books on meditation. These teachings are pure Buddha’s teachings passed down through oral transmission (and now through books) for the past 2500 years, since Buddha Shakyamuni attained enlightenment.

One of the most profound teachings in these books is the wisdom realizing that phenomena does not exist in the way that they appear. The self we normally see and all the other phenomena we refer to in our modern world like “career” and “problems” appear to exist from their own side, independent upon our mind. But this is just an appearance and nothing else.

Yourself, your job, your problems exist in dependence upon your mind not outside your mind.

Because if something were outside your mind, then how do you know it?

How do we understand or know things? With our mind. We can only know something through conception and feeling. Although social constructs like self, job, career are a part of our mind, they are not the mind itself, because the true nature of our mind is pure clarity.

From this perspective, the self we normally see, protect, defend, adore, doesn’t actually exist at all, it is merely a creation, a construct.

Therefore, there is no inherent existent career to neglect. Nor is there a challenge to disconnect from.

There is no psychology outside of the construct that we create with our language. Everything we know is conventional truth but ultimate truth is the emptiness of all phenomena we see and perceive. Meditation taught me that and it’s been the most liberating piece of knowledge I have ever received.

Everything is Empty of Inherent Existence

Emptiness in Buddhism is profound wisdom that is hard to understand. But without this wisdom, mindfulness meditation becomes useless, even dangerous because it is based an a complete misunderstanding of the nature of our mind. 

It is ironic that mindfulness meditation practiced outside Buddhism claims to work with the mind while being somewhat ignorant to it’s nature. And the nature of the mind is not based on religious belief or doctrine rather uncovered through meditation (a.k.a scientific method, through investigation and experience).

It is important not to think that nothing exists. This is one extreme. Things, people, phenomena do exists. We can see them, touch them, feel them and they function. But the way in which they exist is very different from the way they appear. This is called wrong view or mistaken appearance.

The true nature of things is emptiness because if we search for them with wisdom they are unfindable, they simple dissolve into empty space.

Try it.

If the Self you normally see really existed in the way that it appears to you, then where is it?

You can search within your body, your mind, the collection of body and mind and outside your body and mind but all you find are non-self things. You can not find the self anywhere. Plus if the self possesses body and mind then it can’t be either body or mind nor can it be completely separate from them. Contemplating in this way, the image of the self we normally see disappears and all is left is emptiness.

This is the true nature of the self you defend, protect and enhance daily. This is the self that has wants, desires, opinions and who gets offended. And it does not exist. So ask yourself. Who is embarrassed, ashamed, joyous, successful, good, bad?

Furthermore, if your self really existed everyone would have an image of you that is the same as your image of you?

But they don’t, do they?

If we don’t search for the things we normally see they appear clear as day, existing from their own side. This is because the appearance and it’s emptiness are inseparable, always together.

So although we function, we do not have to take ourselves so seriously. Ultimately, we don’t exist. If we understand this, mindfulness meditation works. Otherwise, we are all meditating to feel good about a self that doesn’t even exist.

Furthermore, mindfulness without moral discipline is useless. For Buddhists, the practice of doing no harm is a profound spiritual practice that fuels meditation so an ethical dilemma would never be ignored or put to the side for the sake of chilling out. The stripped-down, sterilized, psychology-driven version of mindfulness meditation doesn’t work because it is missing the fundamental practice of moral discipline (do no harm).

What makes mindfulness meditation work

The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to experience the true nature of our mind and to understand how things really are. Meditation is supposed to make our mind more still, peaceful and happy. If you try meditation and that’s not happening, it’s not your fault. Your method is ineffective.

Sometimes the purpose of mindfulness meditation is to cultivate more love and compassion. If you feel more love in your heart after a mindfulness session then great. You’ll be happier for it. But remember, without wisdom we may end up doing more harm than good to ourselves and others, no matter how good our intentions.

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