The Heart of Mindfulness: A Response to the New York Times
Mindfulness is attracting a large U.S. following. A recent New York Times article, “Mindfulness: Getting its Share of Attention,” details how techies, business owners, educators, and even the U.S. Marine Corps. have turned to mindfulness as a way to quiet the mind. However, the particular brand of mindfulness that is gaining widespread acceptance serves to bolster long-standing systems of power: making them more efficient, potent, and acceptable under the pretext of inner peace. Ron Purser and David Loy have examined the pitfalls of “McMindfulness” — a practice that falls under what the Buddhist Pali texts identify as “wrong mindfulness,” or micca sati. This approach, while superficially appealing, negates the heart of mindfulness: the call to social engagement.
The Times article credits Thich Nhat Hanh as “the Vietnamese Buddhist leader who introduced mindfulness to Westerners.” Yet, the article leaves out how the Zen teacher has been pivotal in the Engaged (more recently, “Applied”) Buddhism movement. In fact, mindfulness, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, is engagement with the world:
When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time… You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. 
In 1965, while exiled for speaking out against the ravages of the Vietnam War, he wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., encouraging him to publicly denounce the war. “You yourself can not remain silent,” he said. 
Mindfulness, then, is an instruction for action.
TEACHING AWARENESS: IS MINDFULNESS IN EDUCATION INCOMPLETE?
As a former public school teacher and beneficiary of dharma practice, one might expect that I’d be excited to see these mindfulness trends take off in the education world. Mindfulness as a practice of inward instruction lends itself easily to the classroom. The Times reported a lineup of speakers for the 2012 Wisdom 2.0 conference (on technology and mindfulness) that included Congressman Tim Ryan and his discussion of “using mindfulness to transform education.” Indeed, an increasing number of organizations have been established to promote the use of mindfulness in education, touting its positive effects on developing “attention and concentration,” “body awareness and coordination,” and “calming and self-control,” amongst many other skills.
Mindful awareness is winning attention and praise for its social benefits, too. A recent study found that when implementing their mindfulness curriculum for six weeks in schools in Oakland, CA, students in the treatment group demonstrated improvements in the four measured areas: Paying attention, Calming/self-control, Self-care/Participation, and Showing care for others. The schools participating in the program were noted for being located in high crime, low-income neighborhoods of Oakland, adding to the merits of the results of the mindfulness curriculum.
While enabling students to develop these individual skills is an important element of both mindfulness and schooling, we must ask with pressing compassion, “What of the central tenet of mindfulness—social justice—in this curriculum?”
How does this form of mindfulness in schools address the historical reality of segregation and recent, related trends of gentrification in Oakland?
How does it speak to the daily, lived sufferings of low-income South East Asian refugee families living in these neighborhoods, as a direct result of the displacement of war?
How does it heighten awareness of the racist War on Drugs, and other systemic practices that funnel black male youth from schools into prisons?
Such questions, such modes of awareness, do not seem to make it into the majority of “mindfulness in education” programs.
Mindfulness does not need to be taught in its religious context to be “right mindfulness,” or samma sati, but it must retain its essential heart: the teaching of non-dualistic interbeing and social action. As educators seeking to incorporate mindfulness into formal education, we must be acutely aware of how we apply our mindfulness so that it does not serve to delude us from the persistence of suffering around us. Integrating mindfulness in schools is a commitment to engaging with the systems of power and domination that contribute to suffering in our communities. Let’s think about how we can do this in schools, not just to make calm test takers, but to enliven our students’ hearts so that they are stirred to creating the world that they deserve.
What might a right mindfulness pedagogy look like in the classroom?
Mindfulness comes ripe with the opportunity to deeply investigate cause and effect. One lesson we might offer our students, for example, could be to encourage them to think and feel critically, with awakened hearts, about what it means that the U.S. Marine Corps. is using “mindfulness” techniques to optimize Marines’ performance under high stress situations. If part of the duty of a Marine includes killing, what effect will this cause? How might this affect the lives of others? And finally, What actions can we take in our daily lives to promote a just society? Then, we can plan with our students to take our list of ideas and do them. We engage with the world to relieve suffering.
As educators, we hold a unique potential for challenging the efficiency trend of McMindfulness. We can work with students to develop a critical, right mindfulness so that they are prepared to identify and respond to the pressing needs of their communities. In doing so, they might see for themselves how mindfulness has the potential to change many lives, instead of just individual lives. As educators and students living amidst the fad to quiet our minds so that we can function better under the present structures of suffering, we can insist on right mindfulness—not as a process of shaming our participation in systems of oppression, but as an awakening to the realities of our actions and the resultant global/local suffering. Because you, practitioner of mindfulness, “You yourself can not remain silent.”
A quiet mind is not a silent mind.
 Malkin, John. In Engaged Buddhism, Peace Begins with You. Shambhala Sun.