When mindfulness is a bad thing

No matter how good something is, when used in excess or in the wrong way, it will end up doing more harm than good.

Take mindfulness for example. I have written about how it can be useful in centering ourselves and help us be happier. However, mindfulness practice without the right perspectives can do more harm than good, not just for ourselves but also for society as a whole.

David Gelles, New York Times report and author of Mindfulness at Work, suggested that “Stress isn’t something imposed on us. It’s something we impose on ourselves.” This seems to imply that we are to blame for our own stress. It is our lack of mastery over our minds and emotional condition that is solely to blame for our suffering. It shifts the responsibility solely onto the individual and borders on victim-blaming.

While it is true that mindfulness practice can help us lessen (or even remove) our suffering by reacting positively to external stimulus, it should not be used as an excuse for other people to do nothing about external stimulus that causes suffering. Or worse, it should not be seen as us giving sanction to others to bring about external stimulus that causes suffering to us or those around us.

There are many things that are wrong with this world – climate change as a result of pollution due to greedy and reckless corporations that put profit above all else, trafficking and oppression of vulnerable refugees, children exploited as cheap labour working in abject conditions, and many more. Mindfulness practice alone does not and will not get rid of the suffering caused by any of these.

What mindfulness practice can do, is two things. First, it can help the victims of the many problems that plague our world suffer less. But it should not just be an opiate to dull their pain. Rather, it should form the basis of us working with the victims to remove the root causes of their suffering.

And that is the second thing that mindfulness practice, done in the right way, can do. Mindfulness practice can aid in cultivating an awareness of the contingencies of present reality that cause suffering, and thereby allow us to develop the capacity to intervene and remove those conditions that cause suffering. But to do that, we need to add one more element to mindfulness practice. And that is compassion.

The root word of compassion is the Latin word compati, which means “to suffer with”. For mindfulness practice to truly be useful in helping ourselves and others be rid of suffering, we need to be willing to suffer with others, understand their suffering, and feel for their suffering. Then with mindfulness practice as a strong foundation, come to view the suffering with calm equanimity, yet spring into action, guided by wisdom.

So. For those of us who practise (or intend to practise) mindfulness, let’s also add kindness and compassion to our mindfulness practice.


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