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Mindful : October 2015
MYTH 3 Mindfulness is just Buddhism in disguise Mindfulness is a basic human inheritance and capability, and it’s not owned by any group, religion, or philosophy. As a capacity of the human mind, mindfulness can be trained with practices and disciplines, just as one can become a more skilled violinist through long practice or build one’s strength through weight training. Buddhist practitioners have done deep research on the subject and the many Buddhist traditions offer myriad insights, but that doesn’t mean Buddhism owns mindfulness any more than Italians own pasta or Greeks own democracy. Ironically, two concerns surround the rela- tionship between mindfulness and Buddhism: Some Buddhists are concerned that mindfulness ripped from its moorings in Buddhism is sham mindfulness; another group of critics is con- cerned about the opposite: that mindfulness—in a hospital or school, for example—is stealth Buddhism that will pop out and ensnare partic- ipants once they’re trapped in its web. Both of these assume mindfulness is inexorably married to Buddhism. It is a central practice in Bud- dhism, but the Buddha would not have claimed to have invented mindfulness, just as Newton would not have claimed gravity as his invention. Some say it’s simply wrong to take mindfulness out of the context of Buddhism. They arg ue that it can be ineffectual—or even harmful—without two supports they feel are essential to medita- tion practice: ethical action and wisdom. Yet, the notion of ethical (or beneficial) action and seeing things clearly were also not invented by the Bud- dha, nor did the compassionate Buddha regard them to be part of a closed system. It’s unfair to deny the benefits of meditative practice to people because they’re not Buddhist and presume they can’t discover their interdependence with others and find ethical conduct and wisdom within themselves and the communities they’re part of. For most of its history, mindfulness was not a word in wide use. This made it ripe for the picking when translator T.W. Rhys Davids decided to use it to render the Pali word sati, a Buddhist term for one of the key elements of meditation practice. Some commentators like to make reference to this event to establish the true meaning of mindfulness. But words don’t have “true” mean- ings. They grow and change and enter new contexts. Semantics is tough enough for concrete words, but when you venture into describing aspects of mind, you’re in a whole nother mess of bother. Words fail you. Mindfulness today is no longer only the English translation of sati. It has also become a general term to describe qualities and vir- tues that arise from meditation, including compassion. Buddhism is a healthy and grow- ing tradition with a long history of dedicated meditation practice and insights that have been contributed to the world. But mindfulness, both the innate human ability and the practice to cultivate it, are open source. → Newton didn’t invent gravity, nor did the Buddha invent mindfulness. October 2015 mindful 37 mindfulness