Commodifying Mindfulness

I attended a presentation last week on the use of mindfulness in marriage and family therapy. I don’t know a lot about Buddhism and would never claim to be an expert. What I do know of Siddhartha Gautama leads me to view his writings as moral writings. In other words, I do not see them as a guide to the good life but as a guide to how to be good. I may have missed the point here, and I’m glad to be corrected, if anyone reads his words differently. I also realize there is room for interpretation. Nonetheless, I don’t think his goal was to teach people to have a more pleasurable existence or to achieve greater success in business. I also wonder as to whether he intended to help people improve their marriages, considering that he abandoned his wife and son when he left for his journey to confront suffering in the world.

Statue representing Siddhartha Gautama.
Statue representing Siddhartha Gautama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The presenter I saw began by mentioning Siddhartha. He said, correctly, that there were four noble truths, but he did not mention what the first three were (they have to do with life as suffering or sorrow, the causes of sorrow, and the extinction of sorrow). The fourth truth is Siddhartha’s dharma, or teaching of “the way.” The word “dharma” is not specific to Gautama. Anyway, Buddha suggests we can achieve enlightenment by following an eightfold path. The presenter I saw mentioned only the seventh fork on the eightfold path, which is mindfulness.

By doing this, he ignored all the negative precepts of Buddha’s teaching. He left out the stuff about avoiding sexual misconduct (interpret how you will), lying, gossiping, killing animals (vegetarianism seems recommended), and a number of other things. Now, Buddhism, as I understand it, has no commandments, so no one is obligated to be a celibate vegetarian who never speaks, but these are suggestions as to how one might find enlightenment, the goal of which is extinction of individual consciousness. Once we are freed from the cycle of samsara, we will pass into a state of universal awareness, which negates the awareness of any individual.

Given that Buddhism does not recognize the existence of individuals and views all sorrow as universal sorrow, it seems unlikely that Gautama intended to help people achieve individual fulfillment. Indeed, when we take action to relieve suffering, the good of the action is not the good of an individual but the good of the universe. Similarly, the suffering of an individual is only (!) the suffering of the universe. To be freed from this suffering, we must no longer think of the individual, we must not think of our selves. So long as we do, life, which is sorrow itself, will continue.

A universe without suffering is a universe without life in it, least of all life that is conscious and driven by individual needs and desires. In Buddha’s scheme, mindfulness is one tool to help achieve this ego-less state. It is a moral guideline. It is not a way to focus on our goals and what is keeping us from them. It is not a way to relax. It is not a way to be happier. It is a way to be good and right. While I am not a Buddhist and will most likely never become one, I still respect the efforts of people to be better people. Buddha abandoned his family and friends to try to save the universe. Maybe he made the right choice, and maybe he did not, but I feel using mindfulness in a superficial manner is disrespectful of the effort. Using Buddha’s teaching to make money is even more offensive to me, but I suppose I’m easily offended.