Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Misuse of Mindfulness

"Fresh Start"
- Sunrise at the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday while reading an article in one of my Buddhist periodicals, I came across something that really made me stop and think. The article suggested that nowadays the word "mindfulness" is used pretty regularly in our everyday conversations - the practice of mindfulness is not only socially acceptable but highly desirable, primarily used as a technique for stress reduction in a busy and chaotic life.   

Little children in elementary school are taught how to practice mindfulness, employees in high stress jobs, politicians and CEO business execs are trained in the technique of learning how to sit quietly, take some cleansing breaths, and without distraction, be aware of what's happening internally and externally in the moment. The problem is that the practice of "mindfulness" as it was originally used in the Buddhist literature goes well beyond promoting a convenient meditation technique or stress reduction practice. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness is a "way of life."

Yesterday's article suggested that the English word "mindfulness" is not actually a very faithful translation of the original word that is far better translated as "paying attention."  The Buddha taught his disciples that the path to mindfulness involved "paying attention." He taught that everywhere you are, in everything you do, in every moment in which you find yourself living every day, clear your mind and pay attention - the more you "pay attention" the more you will become aware of and enlightened to the truth that everything and everyone all belong to one anther.

Interestingly enough 500 years after the Buddha, the 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers conducted their entire lives under the rubric of one guiding principle: "Paying attention."

 New monks who entered the ancient community were told that above all else they were to cultivate the habit of "paying attention to life." The Greek word for this was prosoche - another definition of prosoche was deep watchfulness.  

Yes, 500 years after the Buddha, Christian monks in another part of the world were taught that deep peace and ultimate wisdom came from the "practice of mindfulness" - not a stress reduction technique but an overall attitude of deep watchfulness in every moment- watchful and attentive at work, at rest, at prayer, at play, eating a meal or sitting alone on a rock, in the heat of day, in the cool of night - deeply watchful. 

Abba Antony who is credited as being the "Father of ancient desert Christian monasticism" would teach his monks to:

Live as if you are dying every day

While this advice may sound somewhat morbid to our Western sensibilities, what Antony was really teaching was a method for cultivating deep watchfulness every day.  He taught how to live every day without spending time or energy thinking about what went on yesterday, without fearfully or anxiously thinking about what yet ought to be.  Antony taught his monks to approach every new day as a fresh start, a new beginning in which your mind and heart were so open, so free and so trusting that you lived fearlessly - ready to greet God at any moment. 

I often find myself falling into the trap of thinking that the 10 minutes of meditation I spend every day is what "practicing mindfulness" is all about.  Yesterday's  article was a helpful "wake up call" for me - an important reminder that if I am to be a mindful person, I must cultivate a life of deep watchfulness in the way I live every day. 

Out here at the Desert Retreat House, I am especially paying attention to the advice of Abba Antony, my spiritual ancestor.  I will try to live today as if I am dying.

French philosopher and Christian mystic, Simone Weil, once said:

The highest ecstasy is attention at its fullest.

Listen to my podcast: "Desert Wisdom"


  1. This was a very helpful article. It made me remember one of the parables of Jesus which he concluded by saying 'Watch and wait'. How much more meaningful it is to understand those words in the context that you have provided as opposed to searching the signs of the times in the news for Jesus to come.

    1. Yes-this quote is an excellent connection to Jesus' teaching

    2. When I think of my former teaching and understanding the phrase from Paul, I believe it was, 'cleansing your conscience (self-knowledge) from the dead-ness of your former ways' makes so much sense.