So you’re at the office, and life is simply miserable. One of your co workers, let’s call her Jessica Stein, trots by your cubicle and tells you that some dude’s leading a mindfulness workshop after lunch. Mindfulness? you ask. Yeah! she says, we’re going to meditate and, like, get in touch with ourselves and whatever! Rad, you think, I’ll be enlightened before I Prius it back to my duplex!
While this has never happened to me (I’ve avoided offices since 2010), I’ve heard many a tale of professional folks taking meditation courses to help them with productivity and supposedly getting in touch with themselves. As well, lots of moneyed people are spending their cash on yoga courses and other like-minded practicums that promote sunshine and rainbows, a selling point of the whole Western Buddhism mindset, which, according to lots of people with working brains, is bad news (yoga and pilates, when done right though, goddamn work).
Shawn Van Valkenburgh of Salon wrote last month that there’s a problem with businesses utilizing Western Buddhism as a means to a merry, money-making end. He intelligently commented that “rather than helping yogis become more socially conscious spiritual warriors, Buddhist meditation can get hijacked by the status quo. It only brings us a shallow peace that makes us less likely to question what counts as normal.” So, beautiful spiritual practices boiled down and corrupted.
Valkenburgh is correct in suggesting that our poor Jessica Stein will only achieve a selfish self-awareness and shallow understanding of Eastern spirituality. Poor Jessica Stein. Also, Jo Confino of The Guardian conducted an interview with the meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh, who reminded the Internet-reading community that mindfulness is not about self happiness, but about awareness of everything outside the perceived self. Helping others and legitimately practicing compassionate warriorship. Abject, materialistic success and Buddhism aren’t supposed to be connected.
The Western Buddhist movement, it seems, has bred cynics. It’s difficult to understand Buddhism and Zen and other meditative practices because they don’t compute easily with Western ideas of happiness, and subsequently folks shrug off these paths because of their new association with love and peace (dude). If you actually meditate, you find that you’re not any happier in the Western sense, simply more aware, and possibly sadder, more empathetic. True awareness of the world around you is very saddening, and makes you compassionate. It’s not about smiling through your miserable day.
If you’d like to try meditation, and you’re cynical because of what I’ve highlighted (or you’re like, “psh, I could be Zen”), then I’ve written up this handy little guide for you, with no sunshine or unicorns included.
Plant your ass on a firm cushion and assume a half lotus. Straighten up your back, and put your palms on your knees. Gaze straight ahead and defocus those eyeballs.
Take a relaxed, deep breath into your belly, without raising your shoulders. That should be with your nose. Then, let it out through the mouth. EASY.
So you’re sitting there and then suddenly there are so many thoughts about your car and mother and ex and a sandwich and this magazine article and the Internet and how you hate yourself and how you left the sink on and stop, label each thought compassionately as a thought, and release it via the breath out. Don’t hang on, whether the thought be happy, sad, awesome, or crushing.
Just sit down, shut your face, be mindful of your thoughts and don’t pretend you’ll achieve anything today, tomorrow, or in a thousand years. Just sit and breathe.
Meditation does not whisk you away to a fantasy land, nor is it designed to make you the next CEO of Douchebag LTD. If you consider yourself a Buddhist, take into account just how you are using mindfulness, because you could be part of the population that’s messing with the core of Zen. Leave Jessica Stein out of the Excel spreadsheet of spirituality (there is no Jessica Stein).