If you focus on the benefits of mindfulness, is it still mindfulness?
Big Think has mentioned before how great mindfulness meditation is for you. Reducing stress, helping to make you a better person, and helping us to better understand ourselves is all in day’s work for mindfulness. Recently there has even been evidence that mindfulness can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It is increasingly popular across the world as millions seek the potential benefits of quietly observing their minds, focusing on their breathing, and living in the moment.
But some of the reasons we might cite for doing it are strictly modern reasons; people like Gautama Buddha could not have known that he might have been delaying Alzheimer’s when he began to meditate, and Zen monks have been practicing Shikantaza meditation, focused on the moment and observation of the mind, for a millennia. So why do we practice mindfulness? What was the original reason?
In his book You Have to Say Something, Dainin Katagiri, a Buddhist monk of the Zen tradition, offers us an answer. When discussing why people bother practicing zazen meditation he says “Because Zen is everyday life, to live day by day.” He goes on, “For this, all you have to do is concentrate on your hands, your feet, your eyes, your mind – in this present moment.” He goes on to say that, “Zen practice is to be fully alive in each moment.” One reason to meditate is to reset ourselves to attentiveness in the moment.
So I can practice meditation to help live in the moment and help to prevent Alzheimer’s? What a deal! However, Dainin offers us a warning against using meditation as a tool in this way. Saying that it is an end in itself, and that if we focus on it as a means to an end then we not only misunderstand but stand to not benefit much at all from doing it.
To his way of thinking, the benefits of meditation are side effects of adopting a mindful way of being. If we try to obtain those benefits without fully grasping mindfulness, we are liable to fail. On the other hand he feels that focusing on meditation as an end comes naturally.“When mindfulness, thoughts, and views all work together as one, this is zazen. If you truly realise this, you can’t be using zazen as a means to a happy future. You can only do zazen itself.”
Mindfulness has many benefits, but to focus purely on the benefits is to miss part of the point. We benefit from a new way of thinking about how and why we act. If we apply only ‘means end’ thinking to mindfulness, we are likely to lose out entirely.
Katagiri, Dainin, and Steve Hagen. You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight. Boston: Shambhala, 1998. Print.
Larouche E, Hudon C, Goulet S (Jan 2015). “Potential benefits of mindfulness-based interventions in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease: An interdisciplinary perspective”.Behav Brain Res. 1 (276): 199–212.