One-track mindfulness

1-1-1If I were to string together all the silver bullets I’ve collected in the vain pursuit of becoming an elite runner, I’d have an ammo belt that would make Rambo blush. The promise of being able to unlock my full running potential by changing just one part of my training has made a sucker of me time and time again.

A magazine article once had me convinced the key to speed was racking up miles. Run at least 50 a week, no matter how slow, and your feet will catch fire come race day, the writer assured.

It didn’t work for me. Fortunately, another article – same magazine, different issue – set me straight. Turns out the reason I was going so slowly was that I was running too many miles and not doing enough speed work.

So I changed things up. It helped, but it wasn’t the singular secret to ultimate performance I’d hoped it would be. Neither was switching to minimalist shoes, taking up yoga, wearing compression socks, becoming vegan, upping my pre-run stretches, doing lunges on cross-training days or crossing my fingers for good luck.

The list goes on. Many were fads, some were superstitions, and some were solid training practices that, as part of a well-rounded approach to running, have been a great help.

I had to learn the hard way, though, that following a single, narrow avenue in pursuit of miraculous results is a dead end. Focusing on speed or mileage alone won’t help you reach your potential if you’re totally ignoring sleep and nutrition.

The allure of the easy fix isn’t unique to running, of course. It’s the meat and potatoes of the diet industry – just the meat if you’re counting carbs – and it seems to have crossed over quite successfully into spirituality.

Mindfulness is the self-help sector’s hottest property. It’s a pillar of spiritual practice for millions of people. For just as many, it’s an excruciating buzzword that should have been put out to pasture years ago. It has become as overexposed in popular culture as Hey Jude has on classic rock radio.

But the backlash I’ve seen – most recently in a New York Times piece by Ruth Whippman – targets more than the mindfulness movement’s ubiquity.

Whippman suggests mindfulness, as it’s often presented, is saddled with a kind of “moral-shaming.” She writes: “The implication is that by neglecting to live in the moment we are ungrateful and unspontaneous, we are wasting our lives, and therefore if we are unhappy, we really have only ourselves to blame.”

Further, she writes that focusing only on the present moment, without leaving any room to contemplate the past or future, limits our potential as human beings.

I wouldn’t argue either point, though I wouldn’t go as far as Whippman seems to in dismissing the value of mindfulness.

Because mindfulness is so often packaged and sold as a self-contained philosophy, it’s not surprising that some are left feeling unfulfilled or disappointed by it.

Mindfulness is an integral part of my spiritual life, but it is a part. It is not the whole of the practice.

The Buddha considered mindfulness important enough to include among the eight steps that lead to the cessation of suffering. He did not give teachings on the One Noble Truth or the Onefold Path, however; he figured out there was more to the picture.

I’ve written previously about how paying attention to what’s going on around me has helped me avoid hazards while out for a run. Mindfulness does have its own proven worth, separate from anything else.

That said, mindfulness can’t cut it on its own as an approach to orienting one’s life.

Neither, from a Buddhist perspective, is it meant to put blinders on practitioners, preventing them from considering the past or future.

For example, other steps on the Eightfold Path – Right Action, Right Speech and Right Livelihood – encourage practitioners to act in ways that won’t harm others. Doing so requires not only an awareness of one’s conduct in the present moment, but also the ability to consider the possible consequences of that conduct.

As helpful as I’ve found mindfulness to be in its own right, only as part of a fuller practice has it allowed me to recognize opportunities to better serve myself and others.

I’m in no way suggesting that those engaged in mindfulness practice outside a spiritual context aren’t doing enough, or that Buddhism has some sort of monopoly of mindfulness – mindfulness plays an important role in other religious traditions as well.

But I’m curious whether those who have been disappointed by their experiences with mindfulness were promised something the practice just can’t deliver on its own.

I wonder, too, if they’d see more benefits if there were fewer expectations blocking the view.

They might find there’s less – and more – to mindfulness practice than they thought.

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