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.