Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mindfulness is not a Get out of Hell Free Card

Mindful Smoking
Mindful Smoking, Jbeil, Lebanon, 2005

I have an aversion for buzzwords. At work, it's "cloud computing" nowadays. Everything has to be "in the cloud" whether it makes sense or not, and whether it's really the case or not. These buzzwords irritate me because usually the original concept is a meaningful and useful one, but turning it into a buzzword robs it of meaning; makes it just a vague synonym of "something desirable somewhere in that direction."

One of the Buddhist buzzwords that grates on me is "mindfulness." The original concept is highly useful, and I think it means something like this:
Mindfulness means intentionally cultivating an awareness of the situation, one's actions in the situation, one's motivational dispositions, and the consequences of one's actions.
What gets to me is when people turn mindfulness into a "get out of hell free" card – as in "mindful drinking" or "mindful smoking." Blake Wilson had a very entertaining rant about this on Elephant Journal, with links to a couple of examples.

Mindfulness is morally neutral. I have no doubt that it's entirely possible to torture kittens mindfully. That makes no difference whatsoever to the motivational dispositions or consequences of that action. You're still torturing kittens, no matter how exquisitely aware you are of the suffering you're inflicting on them, and the consequences of that suffering for yourself and others.

The only point of contact between mindfulness and ethics is that it can—but does not have to!—direct your future actions. To paraphrase Markus "Uku" Laitinen, "if you want to be an asshole, be an asshole—just pay attention to what happens, and maybe you don't want to be an asshole the next time around." So mindfully torturing kittens is ethically meaningful only if what you learned from being aware of the motivations and consequences stops you from torturing kittens the next time you get that particular urge.

I have been doing some of this over the past year.1 It's something of a side effect of zazen, I think, and it's certainly what I'm doing when I'm attempting to bring my practice to my daily life, which is another often-stated goal of Zen practice. I'm not very good at it, but I have learned a bit of it, and it has had some outward consequences as well.

To take a trivial example from everyday life: I find it relatively easy to stop eating when I'm no longer hungry, because I've cultivated an awareness of the consequences of overeating. I'm aware that another helping of food will give me relatively little pleasure, while making me feel uncomfortable immediately afterwards, and, if turned into a habit by reinforcement, will have grave long-term consequences for my well-being, and by extension the well-being of my loved ones.

Sometimes I mindfully deviate from what I've learned. The other day, I ate a big slice of greasy pizza with cheap salami on top. It made me feel awful all afternoon. Being mindful of what I did did not alter the consequences of eating that pizza one whit. However, cultivating awareness of the consequences of that slice strengthened my desire to avoid that kind of food whenever feasible.

Mindfulness is not a substitute for reasoning, ethical or otherwise. Only buddhas are perfectly aware of their motivating dispositions and the consequences of their actions, and (so excommunicate me) I'm not certain that a being as perfectly enlightened as that has ever walked this earth, or ever will.

For us imperfectly enlightened beings, mindfulness can help provide better data for ethical reasoning, and can help us make more nuanced calls in complex situations instead of acting according to rigid moral imperatives, chasing blind desires, or running away from blind aversions. In and of itself mindfulness makes no difference at all to the ethical—or karmic, if you will—charge of an action. It can help us make better decisions moment to moment, but only if we want to. Mindfulness is not a "get out of hell free" card.

1Mindfulness. Not torturing kittens.


  1. Hi Petteri,

    Nice article, especially for those like me, who are totally ignorant of this kind of things :).

    I'm an old follower of your photography Pontifications site, so yesterday I was really happy to see in my RSS reader that you are still pontificating somewhere else in the Internet.
    Keep articles like this coming!


  2. Thanks, Miguel. I write on this blog like I wrote on if I feel like it. Lately, I have been feeling like it, and I have at least a few more articles in the pipeline, so there will be more, for now.

    But if I stop feeling like it, I won't force myself to post "just because." Thanks for reading, I do appreciate it!

  3. Sometimes people misconstrue Zen as a sort of "do whatever the hell I want" card. They will say, "Everything is Zen." What they are leaving out is the effect our actions have on other people. Our personal liberty has collective consequences, too, as when you breathe my second-hand smoke or when conversation has to stop in our home because someone is playing their car stereo so loud.

    Real mindfulness is an important personal practice, but by itself it is leaving out social function -- and leaving things out is not the point of mindfulness. Aha.

  4. Totally agree. I have run into this and brought it up on a couple Buddhist blogs. Entering the world of Buddhist Blogs is new turf for me -- perhaps it makes the jargon stand out all the more.