Your Practice is Not All about You

I’ve found myself thinking quite an awful lot lately about two articles that appeared recently and have been discussed elsewhere in the Buddhist blogosphere of late: “Beyond McMindfulness” by Ron Purser and the great David Loy for The Huffington Post, and “The Morality of Meditation” by David DeSteno for the New York Times.

Purser and Loy’s piece speaks prophetically to something that has proven to bring as many problems with it as possibilities: the commodification of Buddhist mindfulness. They write:

Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context is understandable as an expedient move to make such training a viable product on the open market. But the rush to secularize and commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique may be leading to an unfortunate denaturing of this ancient practice, which was intended for far more than relieving a headache, reducing blood pressure, or helping executives become better focused and more productive.

While a stripped-down, secularized technique — what some critics are now calling “McMindfulness” — may make it more palatable to the corporate world, decontextualizing mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics, amounts to a Faustian bargain. Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.

DeSteno (a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he also directs the Social Emotions Group), meanwhile, reports on the findings he made with neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes and Willa Miller (Buddhist lama and co-editor of The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work, Wisdom Publications’ recent book for which I contributed a chapter), and which will soon be published in the journal Psychological Science: that meditation seems to dramatically increase our likelihood of responding compassionately to others.

I’ll have more to say about DeSteno’s piece and his findings shortly. First, though, I’d like to spend some time with the ideas in Loy and Purser’s piece. It’s hard for me to describe how grateful I was for what they had to say: their piece is the incredibly insightful, perfectly articulated assessment of where we are with the “mindfulness” movement that I’ve long  been waiting for. I think they’re right on, and that we all in the Buddhist world could learn a lot from them. It’s the kind of wake-up call we’ve needed for a while now.

As regular readers know, I’m an enormous admirer of Sulak Sivaraksa, Thailand’s preeminent social activist and one of the titans of the modern engaged Buddhist movement. Sulak once said something that has stayed with me since I first encountered it:

Buddhism is not concerned just with private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings… Any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is fundamentally a mistake. Until Western Buddhists understand this, their embrace of Buddhism will not help very much in the efforts to bring about meaningful and positive social change, or even in their struggle to transform their ego.

More and more each day, I feel the essentiality and urgency of this lesson as a student and teacher of Buddhism in America. For all the things we get right and contribute as practitioners, I believe, like Sulak (and like Loy and Purser), that there is a general tendency among many to understand Buddhist practice apart from its social dimension. Or maybe we do remember this in our hearts, but for whatever reason this recognition is not as fully realized as it could be. Or maybe, as DeSteno’s work seems to indicate, we come to understand some of this incidentally. At the very least, it seems to me that we are not especially good at demonstrating a clear understanding of Sivaraksa’s lesson in our discussions about Buddhist practice here in the U.S.

Take, for example, our approach to conversations about Buddhism and technology. Technology is a big theme in the mainstream Buddhist magazines this month. For Shambhala Sun’s July edition, Sumi Loundon Kim discusses concerns that led her to leave Facebook (“I realized…I had been living my life through ‘Facebook status possibilities,’ rather than just being in and enjoying the moment”). In addition, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review’s Summer 2013 issue features an entire section dedicated to “Buddhism and Technology” that includes a couple of pieces which similarly give us food for thought about the myriad possibilities for (as well as obstacles to) practice in the world of gadgets and social media.

In other forums, the subject of Buddhism and technology gets yet more attention. Noah Schatman’s feature “Enlightenment Engineers” in the latest issue of Wired, for example, looks at the various meditation teachers who have become influential fixtures in Silicon Valley. The Huffington Post’s Religion section also recently posted a piece of Shambhala Buddhist lineage holder Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s new book The Shambhala Principle, in which he speaks about “the karma of smartphones” and how “we can use technology to awaken our discipline and dignity, instead of letting it take over our lives.”

But aside from a few fleeting references in the always on-target R.J. Eskow’s piece “My Technology, My Self” for Tricycle, nowhere in these articles will you find any engagement whatsoever with the weighty and important questions of morality and social responsibility that come with our fancy devices and corporate online communities. How are our laptops and phones produced? What’s in them, and how are those materials acquired? Who puts them together, and how are they treated? What are the manufacturers of our devices and the CEOs of social media companies doing with the vast fortunes we have given them? Is our money being used to do things that harm or benefit others? In light of these other questions, what are our responsibilities as Buddhist practitioners and consumers?

If the discussion in popular media is any indication, our interest in Buddhism and technology extends only as far as our personal practice and whether or not our oh-so-delicate meditative equipoise is disturbed or enhanced by all things digital. What’s out there on the subject deals almost exclusively with how technology relates to our own private, quite privileged destinies; how our use of technology affects the destinies of so many others is rarely (if ever) treated. Sure, we might talk about others in terms of our relationships to those around us — how our mis/use of technology affects our loved ones and/or sangha — but, again, it’s really all about us and our “mindful” use of particular devices, platforms, and apps. Forget any conversation about Buddhist ethics and our responsibilities as consumers in light of the working conditions for Chinese laborers at the FoxConn factories that make our iPhones (and lots and lots of other popular gizmos); the simultaneous rise in the proliferation of mobile devices and horrifically bloody war in the Democratic Republic of Congo — the place where we get minerals necessary to make these devices; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s group and its support for the Keystone XL pipeline project, which is being opposed by climate scientists, Corporate Ethics International, the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club,, the National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Rainforest Action Network (among many, many others); or a host of similarly serious issues around technology that affect the lives of so many others. “My Technology, My Self,” indeed!

Let me be clear: I say all this not to pick on any particular article, author, or publication; the pieces I’ve mentioned are hardly the first (or last) such pieces to deal with technology in this way, and are all worthy of consideration on their own merits. What’s more, I see them as a reflection of where most of us are right now in terms of thinking about Buddhism and technology. (There’s also a strong case to be made that it’s where many non-Buddhists are with technology too: a recent opinion piece for the New York Times by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who, as far as I know, is not a Buddhist, sounds a lot of the very same notes.) I also don’t mean to ignore or marginalize all the good work of socially-engaged Buddhists, who tend to get a lot less “air time” than other kinds of teachers. Nor am I suggesting that there isn’t room to discuss the mindful use of technology; on the contrary, I sure think there is. What troubles me is that this is all that we’re seeing; how our consumption of technology affects others, and what our responsibilities might be as consumers informed by Buddhist wisdom and values, almost never comes up. If, as Rinpoche suggests, “Generally, the best approach with technology is to consider our dignity and concern for others,” then why aren’t we talking about those things?

My intention here is to point out the apparently very narrow scope of our collective interest in Buddhism and technology, and what that might say about Buddhism in America. I’m struck that this conversation and others like it never seem to move us past the exact kind of “individualistic” and “consumer-oriented” understanding of Buddhist meditation that Loy and Purser are rightly concerned about. We have to do better than this.

You might not agree with Loy and Purser, but I think you would have to agree that it’s certainly pretty easy to see how they might arrive at their conclusions. Or why, say, Owen Flanagan would provocatively refer to many American Buddhists as “Bourgeois Buddhists”. Or why Joshua Eaton might find Buddhists mostly “absent” from participating in service efforts following Hurricane Katrina or during Occupy Wall Street, or even hosting outside community groups at temples and centers. Or why Bhikkhu Bodhi worries that “the ultimate liberative goal of the Buddha’s teaching, and the active compassionate application of the Dharma to the alleviation of socially caused suffering, are at risk of being pushed to the sidelines in favor of a ‘feel good about yourself’ version of Buddhism, or a Buddhism that functions as a mere existential psychotherapy.”

If you are inclined to agree with Loy and Purser, DeSteno’s New York Times article should offer at least a glimmer of hope, though, right? In a way, it does. He writes:

Although we don’t yet know why meditation has [the effect of boosting compassion], one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected. The psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I have found that any marker of affiliation between two people, even something as subtle as tapping their hands together in synchrony, causes them to feel more compassion for each other when distressed. The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us.

So, on the one hand, it sure is great if even a stripped-down mindfulness meditation tinged with individualism and consumerism will nonetheless adventitiously, inevitably lead us to increased regard for others and compassionate action just so long as we’re practicing; on the other hand, though, imagine what the result might be if we taught “Buddhist-inspired” meditation techniques that included explicit attention to the social dimension of the Buddha’s teachings.

Indeed, a focus on what Bhikkhu Bodhi terms “the ultimate liberative goal of the Buddha’s teaching, and the active compassionate application of the Dharma to the alleviation of socially caused suffering” might even produce greater happiness, peace, calm, and whatever else those practicing a minimalist form of mindfulness meditation for its benefits are after. At the moment, though, those hungry for the fruits of meditation are, as Loy and Purser suggest, seeming to move in almost the complete opposite direction. The Wired piece, for example, introduces us to a tech community that wants “return on its investment in meditation” in the form of a scientifically-validated path to less stress and greater productivity, and dismisses things that would likely fall into the realms of Buddhist philosophy and ethics as “hippie bullshit.” Well, it’s not just Sulak who might say that jettisoning the things they regard as “hippie bullshit” won’t help that return. And it’s not just Loy and Purser who might question the wisdom of their resistance to “social and organizational transformation,” or the practice of mindfulness solely for the purposes of “self-preservation and self-advancement.” In fact, scientists are beginning to show us how our acquisitive, self-interested tendencies actually work against us, and how there might just be something to that “hippie bullshit” after all. Consider this, for instance:

Across multiple studies, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have found that being in the upper-class predisposes individuals to acting unethically.

Studies conducted by psychology professor Paul Piff found those who drive luxury cars were less likely to stop for pedestrians, those with more money were more likely take candy from children, and the wealthiest among us were more likely to cheat in a game with a $50 cash prize. Researchers at UC Berkeley have also found lower-class individuals are more physiologically attuned to the suffering of others than their middle- and upper-class counterparts.

In light of this, if the path is, as the Buddha himself said, fundamentally all about understanding and alleviating suffering, then Loy and Purser are quite right to express misgivings about mindfulness becoming a tool for the purposes of “subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and…keeping attention focused on institutional goals.” Instead, it would be ideal — both for the betterment of all humanity as well as our individual growth and development — to consider the kind of “social and organizational transformation” to which Loy and Purser allude as we approach practice.

I’ve said a lot, but ultimately I have one point to make, I think: however it makes sense for us, we need to each metaphorically look into the mirror and say, “My practice is not all about me.” At the very least, we also need to make sure we’re explicitly thinking and talking about others in our practice and in our teaching (because we’re sure not doing a great job of the latter right now). And, better still, we should try to do things to benefit others. I’ve never much cared for the unofficial American Buddhist slogan, “Don’t just do something…sit there.” It is important to do our contemplative practice, yes, but there are also so very many beings who could benefit from our efforts off the cushion as well; looking at the state of the world, it’s clear that she’s calling out for all hands on deck. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”

Earlier in the post I said that it’s a happy accident indeed if we do become more compassionate as practitioners of even a very individualized, privatized, stripped-down form of meditation…but imagine if we aimed higher. Imagine if we really and truly sat down on the cushion with the attitude, “My practice is concerned not just with my own private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings.” Then, I think, we’ll see a Great Turning of the Wheel of Dharma…

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  • Ian Prattis

    A very incisive examination of “pop” Buddhism. My blog attempts to push the pendulum in the other direction

  • Leonard Poole

    I don’t pigeon hole myself as a “Buddhist” per se, but in my 40+ years as an adult I have been drawn to the ethical perspective that Buddhism offers, ever since reading Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” in the early 70′s. This blog posting clarifies, yet again, what draws me here. It is not about me, yet it is all about me, as it helps me unravel the mystery of why I periodically catch myself caught in the trap of thinking it is all about me. Thank you for this.

  • Keith Warren

    It might be that practicing for all beings is too ambitious an initial goal. How about practicing for our children? For our friends?

  • lownslowav8r
  • Guest

    My teacher’s words come to mind in response to this thought-provoking piece.

    “Peace in oneself, peace in the world” – Thich Nhat Hanh

    “My dear friends, peace is not something we can only hope for. Peace is something we can contemplate in our daily life by our practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, embracing our fear, our anger, producing the energy of understanding and compassion. And with that element of peace in us, we should be able to support our government, our Congress.

    And let us remember that peace is in our hands. We can do something for peace every day. Let us practice as individuals. Let us practice as communities, as Sanghas, and let us give peace a chance.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, from a dharma talk given September 28, 2002

    “Say that one of our friends has been in the hell of sorrow for these past months and today she is able to smile. That is paradise, the opening of the door of paradise. Why don’t we celebrate that? Why don’t we celebrate our friend’s transformation? Then we will be able to protect our friend. Now you have been able to get out of these days of darkness, and I am so happy for you. And our brother is learning Chinese and is praised by the teacher. Even though my Chinese is not praised by the teacher, when I hear that my friend’s Chinese is praised I feel very happy. My brother’s success becomes my happiness, and that
    gives me energy, the energy of sharing the merit. All these happinesses, all these successes, of myself and of those around me, I bring and I transfer. I direct to a very beautiful goal called transferring the merits. Each step, each smile, every Chinese character I am able to learn, every affliction I am able to transform, all these things are merit. We should not offer up the merit of these things to
    something which is not worthy of it being offered to. We should find the most wonderful thing to offer up the merit to, and not offer it to small goals. We have to find the goal of our merit. There is a lot of merit, and the merit that we produce every day, that our brothers and sisters produce every day… what are we to offer it up to, transfer it to? It must be something worthy. This is the teaching of this chant.”

    Reciting the sutras, practicing the way of awareness
    gives rise to benefits without limit.
    We vow to share the fruits with all beings.
    We vow to offer tribute to parents, teachers, friends, and numerous beings
    who give guidance and support along the path.

    - Thich Nhat Hanh, dharma talk given April 2, 1998

    “May the fruits of our practice be of benefit to all beings, and bring peace.”

  • lownslowav8r

    Hi Danny, thanks so much for writing this. I’ve given a lot of thought to this issue, also and appreciate your perspective. Rather than putting in a large comment, I decided I’d write my perspective up in my own blog. It is located at


  • Erica Hamilton

    Danny, I wrote this response from the heart: . Many bows to you. I do hope that people see your post as a call to action.

  • Rica Eine

    Meditation is not just about taking your stress away or being mindful at all times. It is about knowing your inner self even more and communicating with God.

    travel pillow

  • Deborah Bowman

    A little known group to mostly white American Buddhists is the Tzu Chi or Compassion Relief organization. It was founded in Taiwan by the nun Cheng Yen and has over 10 million very active volunteers who do many service activities including disaster relief worldwide. This primarily Chinese group (with many US subgroups) gave more money to Katrina victims in the first year of the floods than any organization including the US government. They fly under the radar because they do not make a show of their Buddhism and respect the spiritual preferences of those they serve. Master Cheng Yen was actually inspired by Catholic nuns and monks and her organization is now bigger than the Red Cross. They have even been able to enter mainland China to offer significant service after the earthquakes.
    Tzu Chi represents a radical turn for Buddhism in the East. Are we willing to continue to follow their lead?

  • Lina Miny

    A lot of people these days buy this pop meditation techniques because they thought that this technique would help them ease their anxiety, stress and depression.
    Geld verdienen

  • John ‘Genryu’

    “Imagine if we really and truly sat down on the cushion with the attitude, “My practice is concerned not just with my own private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings.”
    I’m sure that there is a course in the US for just that. At an exorbitant price of course, requiring several weeks off from work in order to attend retreats – in other words only available to the already well off, not the average person. That’s part of why Buddhism in the US is so populated by those with little understanding of what many in the country have to get through just to survive. Add to that a culture that stresses individuality to a pathological extent, the lack of a sense of community – where the Buddhist perspective on just about everything from compassion to economics would be condemned as ‘Socialism,’ and it’s no wonder that the Dharma is often lost in the race to have the best ‘me Buddhism’ available.

  • nilsmontan

    I totally get what Danny is saying here and I basically agree with him, but, on the other hand, anyone quieting down through meditation and becoming a more focused and less speedy person is all to the good in my opinion. Some people will really clock into the full path of the Buddha Dharma and if they do, then I think that Danny, Loy and Purser have a lot to offer for these folks. If someone wants to distress and get help to try and adjust to our hard ass system, why should we judge them. I say, let’s all aim a little higher from our individual perspectives and leave the other people alone.

  • nilsmontan

    Yeah, you make some very good points here Mark. Not everyone is headed for the 10th Bhumi and even with the best aspirations, many of us stumble along the way. Who knows, someone who starts with a relatively low aspiration at a corporate retreat that teaches yoga and mindfulness, may just save the world someday. It’s all good.