So, mindfulness is apparently, once again, a thing. I wasn’t aware that it had made a comeback until last month when I saw a story promoting a network news anchor’s books on the subject. But the comeback is a big one: Google, Aetna, and Goldman Sachs have all had mindfulness programs for a while—in fact, several sources report that mindfulness training is now a billion dollar industry. That means this method is going to eventually filter down to the level of school districts and municipalities and hospitals and big-box retailers, and that, for the next decade or so, any group that needs to fill up a few hours with some sort of ‘professional/personal development’ will be taught how this technique can help them achieve “calm, focus, and happiness.”
But I’m old enough to remember the last time this fad came through. It was back in the mid-seventies. I was in college, and I think it was in a sociology class that I was required to read a very brief paperback on what was then called ‘transcendental meditation’ or TM. This practice was pretty much the same thing as mindfulness—learning how to pay attention to this particular moment—but it involved the use of a mantra or sacred word, and the folks who were promoting this technique claimed that, if enough people would practice TM, the entire planet would experience peace and harmony.
Best I can tell, the folks who are currently pushing mindfulness have dropped the whole peace and harmony thing. They appear to be happy with lower blood pressure. Also, the sacred word or mantra seems to have disappeared. Instead, the advocates of mindfulness are making a big deal out of the fact that their version of the technique is “totally secular” and that it requires no formal religious beliefs. So the 21st century repackaging of this method is way more market-savvy: its claims, while impressive, are completely conventional, and it is also designed to appeal to as many people as possible.
Of course, it’s hard to object to this kind of product—and let’s not kid ourselves, when there’s a billion dollars involved, that’s what we’re talking about, a product. Nevertheless, what could possibly be wrong with a commodity that makes it possible for everyone to experience enhanced creativity, increased productivity, and a decrease in their stress levels?
Several things: To begin with, while mindfulness is supposed to be thoroughly secular, the advocates of this method have forgotten that secularism is every bit as much a religion as Islam and Shintoism and Christianity. The big difference between secularism and the organized religions of the world is that where other religions have a deity, or god, secularism leaves a blank space, and that blank space is filled in with whatever a particular person happens to worship. And everyone worships something: some people worship a political party; some people worship a sports franchise; some people worship a specific lifestyle.
But there is one thing that we all worship: ourselves. Try as we might, we cannot free ourselves from our own perspectives, our own desires, our own prejudices. Anyone who tells you that they have achieved that kind of freedom is completely unaware of just how devoted they are to the idol that is The Self. However, it is that idol which is at the very center of the practice that is called mindfulness. Because the technique requires a person to sit in a comfortable position and focus on their body and then on their breath and then on their thoughts and thereby become aware…
Of what? The Self. Which is, you have to admit, more than a bit weird. If you don’t appreciate just how creepy that is, consider this: When Orthodox Christians pray, we are always interacting with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, there is actual communication going on; we are opening our lives up to the Most Holy Trinity.
And since prayer is, for us, a genuine encounter—since it is, in fact, the most intimate of encounters—down through the centuries, Orthodox Christians have often used marital imagery, drawn from Holy Scripture, to describe that encounter. For example, in The Song of Songs we read these words:
I am my beloved’s
And His desire is for me. (7.10)
That verse is frequently used to express the intensity of what is experienced in prayer—and that’s actually a very, very PG example: some of the Biblical language that we Orthodox apply to prayer is downright racy.
But if prayer is an encounter that can be described with marital imagery, what kind of sexual imagery would accurately describe a practice that has us focus on ourselves? Right. Not the kind of thing you can explicitly spell out in a family publication.
That’s why mindfulness is creepy. Because in its 21st century formulation, the only thing of which it makes us aware is ourselves. And, yeah, OK, if that awareness leads to clarity and honesty and a new and improved version of ourselves, that’s great. But idols are down-right resistant to change, and The Self is just about the biggest idol we will ever have to confront.
Nevertheless, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are more powerful than any idol. And, through prayer, the Most Holy Trinity will help us become, not just improved versions of ourselves, but genuinely new people.
But on top of that good news, it’s also helpful to know that prayer is not a fad that’s updated every few decades; it’s not a product, and it’s not the center piece of a billion dollar industry. It’s 100% free, and I’ll be happy to teach you how to do it; just give me a call, or send me a note, and we’ll get started on that.