Mindfulness: Panacea or Hucksterism?
The human organism doesn’t distinguish between psychology and spirituality. Our psychology reveals our longing for Spirit. Spirituality reveals the cracks in our psyches.
We in America are quietly assaulted with messages generated by an industry behemoth. The estimated worth of the mindfulness industry is projected to be 2 billion this year. “Spirituality” is cool. It’s a catchall term, covering everything from yoga as a fitness modality to the most austere Buddhist practice. What used to be dismissed as “New Age” is now mainstream. Christian churches don’t just rent their community rooms to outside meditation teachers, along with AA chapters. Now they encourage meditation, albeit with a Christian spin. The domain of “religion” is popularly understood as focusing on outward conformity, rules, and ethics, while “spirituality” has to do with our inner experience. In reality, the two are closely twined. In the words of the American spiritual teacher, Adyashanti, “This is what spirituality is really all about — evoking in you a direct experience of what the outer forms of spirituality are pointing toward.”
There’s good reason for this — as a culture, we need renewal and healing. We need Spirit. The air we breathe today is tainted by our history. America’s “greatness” was forged from the brutality of chattel slavery, from Native genocide, from the breaking of Asian, Latinx and white immigrant bodies in the service of expansion.
This legacy has left Americans confused, angry, spiritually starved and individually traumatized. The shakeup of the religious institutions that promoted and practiced these injustices left a vacuum, into which have rushed practices generated long ago in the East.
The mainstreaming of mindfulness and its power as a money generator riles skeptics just as organized religion did a generation or two ago. While advertising does drives the mindfulness industry, millions of us have already benefited from practices that promise, and often deliver healing.
Of course, there can be a big difference between promise and delivery.
Within contemporary spirituality are two poles. Yoga-as-body-toning lies at one end, at the other meditation as a path to awakening. It can be confusing to sort out what’s what in a world where meditation teachers have to charge for their services. In the East, monastics traditionally beg for every meal, living out their renunciation of wealth. Here, it can be hard to keep up with the rent.
One way of understanding these polarities is how they view the self. There’s a continuum, of course, but at the “fitness” end is spiritual practice as a self-improvement campaign. It promises a Better You. At the other end is spiritual practice as a way of completely upending the self. We don’t hear much about it today, but the Christian mystics of old and today’s Zen masters trod the same path in their zeal for union with God.
Are you feeling “Zen?” The popular notion is that this means feeling mellowed out and chill, the spiritual equivalent of a wine buzz. Sit a little Zazen regularly, and your stress will evaporate. Actual Zen practice, though, can be extremely rigorous. Rev. Zesho Susan McConnell, vice president of the San Francisco Zen center, describes it as “both difficult and dangerous.” The mind “fights really hard for its self-oriented ways.” It confronts practitioners with the utter futility of all the mind’s strategies to categorize, understand, and ultimately control life. Those who obtain realization have been through hell — or were at least willing to.
When we lament the monetization of spirituality, contemporary American spirituality can look like a kind of ping pong match, pitting a scowling Buddhist monk against a leggy, privileged yoga teacher. It’s not a new conflict. Long ago, Jesus of Nazareth harassed the moneychangers who were turning a handsome profit off the devotion of common people, to the point where the profiteers fled the Temple.
There is a middle ground, and it’s too often overlooked at both ends, just as it it’s been too often overlooked by organized religion. A very wide territory is encompassed within the word “healing.” Psychological trauma manifested as physical symptoms can drive us to practice yoga or seek acupuncture, or its pain can drive us to seek God or spiritual awakening.
People with trauma histories aren’t well-served by facile promises of a better life through drop-in yoga classes or a quick meditation seminar. And people with trauma are also not well-served when high-minded spiritual teachers discount the heavy and complex emotional baggage some of us tote into the meditation room.
Spiritual practice does make things better to the extent that it changes us on the inside. It changes us not by bypassing our humanity, but through the knit-together fabric of our bodies and minds. When we meditate, we become aware of what’s going on inside — of truths we may have spent our lives trying not to feel or remember. It’s not about turning off the mind, but with compassion, allowing the mind to be just as it is. Inside us, in the gut, brain, and muscles, is where our trauma histories are stored. The interior landscape is a wonderland, but it can also be a scary place.
Some traumas so much a part of our history, they are woven into the global fabric of “me.” Without my trauma, I as I know myself wouldn’t exist. We might grow up unaware of the extent of trauma’s reach. Instead we blame life for being hard, we blame ourselves, we scapegoat others. Painful as these messages are, they offer the illusion of control — if I’m to blame, maybe I can become better through berating myself. If I blame forces outside myself, I stand separate from life. Like a child playing king of the hill on a pile of dirt, I cling to the autonomy that life seems to deny me. As we open up our hearts in spiritual practice, we begin to feel this reality as it becomes available in an opportunity for transformation.
But transformation can mean feeling what we’ve tried so long not to feel. It can be painful to drop blame and simply feel life, in its raw state, coursing through the body. We might experience flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or difficult body sensations. It’s important to strike a balance. On the one hand, we can become overwhelmed by what comes up. It needs to be more emphasized that this is not a failing, because trauma itself can leave us feeling stamped as failures. People who persist in spiritual practice in this context should be celebrated and encouraged.
The other extreme is a spiritual bypass — using spiritual practice to avoid pain before it’s transformed. We can try to disassociate from our trauma through addictions like alcohol, drugs, or workaholism, but we can also do it through meditation. Mindfulness practice instructs us to recognize thoughts for what they are — phenomena that arise in the mind, but not inherently true. “It’s just an empty thought” when applied to a painful memory is certainly accurate, but at some point the body will let you know if it doesn’t buy the message. If you manage to pull off a spiritual bypass and spend your days floating in a state of bliss, your loved ones will let you know they don’t buy it!
One vital aspect of spiritual practice can be overlooked by both ends of the continuum. We miss an opportunity whenever we relegate “healing” to the realm of psychology. On one end, the secularists offer quick fixes and suggestions to find a good therapist, leaving healing out of the equation. On the other end, purists, awash in the Ultimate, might view healing as unnecessary or less worthy than spiritual practice, rather than as part of it.
The human organism makes no such distinction between psychology and spirituality. The word “heal” come from the Old English root hælan, “to make whole.” Our psychology reveals our longing for Spirit, and our spirituality reveals the fissures in our psychology.
Indigenous spiritual practices, developed independently all over the world, embraced the totality of individual humans, their place in the community, and the community’s place in the world. It would be unthinkable, even laughable, for a Native American medicine man to embrace atheism yet practice as a healer in his community. The Western zeal for conquest, which separated native people from their land and their culture, also divided human beings into component parts, manageable by and subject to, specialists of all stripes. Just as we have cardiologists, psychiatrists, and religious leaders, we have yoga teachers, therapists, and spiritual teachers.
Obviously, specialists aren’t going away any time soon, and the benefits of things like yoga and cardiology, psychiatry and therapy, can be very real. Yet each encounter a client has with a practitioner is a co-creation that affects them both. Even the most passive patient, submitting to the “expert,” shapes that encounter.
Spiritual teachers and practitioners of all stripes need to examine whether they’re leaving something essential out of the equation. People who already feel fragmented need to be embraced and loved as whole people, not just sent off into the maze of a health care system that already views them as broken. What this may mean in practice will look very different from teacher to teacher, community to community. But it does mean that everyone who offers healing or spiritual guidance, from the chiropractor around the corner to the person in the pulpit to the abbot of a monastery, should continually strive to be trauma-informed. At the very least, spiritual teachers, read Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (where you can learn, for instance, how yoga heals, and why it sometimes doesn’t). Watch the film about SNL actor Darrell Hammond called Cracked Up. Read My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem.
People who engage in spiritual practice also have a responsibility. We need to take it seriously if teachers or practioners say things that discount our experience. We can remind them that transformation has to do with the whole person. We can honor their growth, and our own, by speaking of our healing in the same breath as our spiritual journey.
None of us, teachers, practitioners, or students, needs to view the inclusion of healing in our awareness as an add-on to spirituality or religion. Growing this capacity is more about recalling what’s innate within our beliefs or our practice than it is about learning a new (potentially expensive) set of skills. Healing is a natural process that’s inherent within all the practices that get lumped together as “the mindfulness industry.” Sure, some people are probably in it for the money. What we do with what they offer is up to us. Whether our interest is in casual yoga or concerted spiritual practice, the potential for inner transformation is beyond price.