A commonplace in the discussion of Buddhism as it is taken up by Americans and other Westerners is the flattening out and commodification of the practices. And indeed this is happening and will continue to happen. Zen and mindfulness have become buzzwords that are used to sell soft drinks, potato chips, jewelry, and stationary, among other things. And don’t get me started on tantra. Words like ‘Theravada’ and ‘vipassana’ are just a bit too difficult on the American tongue to find their way onto wine labels and tennis shoes – but that is just a matter of time.
So there is this ‘pull’ from the part of Western consumeristic society and culture to appropriate Buddhist concepts, ideas, and words. Part of my deep appreciation of the critics of the ‘Mindfulness Movement’ is the highlighting of this pull, this act of appropriation which brings with it a quality of destruction. A lot of the people in this field draw from the experiences of Marxism and Liberation Theology of the later half of the 20th century. These were, at least in large part, compassionate movements seeking to help the poor. But both were, by and large, swallowed up by American culture. Liberation Theology lived on in pockets and more deeply in South and Central American countries (where it was often fought, violently, by American interests). The iconic symbol of their failed movement is the face of Che Guevara on a t-shirt at Walmart being sold by underpaid workers.
So too, the worry goes, Buddhism may be swallowed whole and in 20 or 30 years we’ll have small pockets of practice around a society filled with classes on “mindfulness of jello-shots” and “mindful binge-shopping.” Indeed, Buddhists concerned with Mindfulness Marketing is in the headlines today for good reason.
Here, the “mindful sniper” is so transformed by his practice that he becomes not a better sniper, but abandons the military life entirely. As he says of his time in the Marine Corps, “The main thing that supports the military mindset is that there is this idea of separation, that you are different than me, your country is different from my country,” and later, ” I was very much a control freak, I had to have everything my way. That part of me doesn’t seem to exist any more.”
After discussing some of the judgments and difficulties of contemporary life, Mengis says of mindfulness:
Why we think our thoughts are good or bad. That’s what creates the problem, suffering. If we just allow them to come up and to go away, it becomes quite peaceful… To do mindfulness, just do it. That’s all you have to do. And whatever comes up, comes up. And whatever happens next time happens next time. But there’s no agenda when you sit down to practice.