March 06, 2009

The Worst Buddhist in the World

Judith Warner of the New York Times writes on the feeling of abandonment when a friend gets into all that "mindfulness, the meditation and life practice that’s all the rage now in psychotherapy, women’s magazines, even business journals, as a way to stay calm, manage anger and live sanely."

She then discusses Mary Pipher's new book:

“It helps to realize we are not alone,” the psychologist Mary Pipher writes in her new book, “Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World,” an account of how mindfulness meditation helped her recover from the depression and self-depletion that followed the surprise success of her huge 1994 hit, “Reviving Ophelia” and subsequent bestsellers. “One thing I like to do is send my silent good wishes to people all over the world who have problems exactly like my own. Contexts may change, but emotions are universal.”

I have no doubt that this meta-connectedness feels real, and indeed is real, in the abstract at least. But in real-life encounters, I’ve come lately to wonder whether meaningful bonds are well forged by the extreme solipsism that mindfulness practice often turns out to be.

Mindfulness, she says, is "stultifyingly boring." Plus, your friends won't like you if you suddenly turn sane.

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Nancy Tamarisk's picture

Ms. Warner does not say that "mindfulness practice" is boring she actually says "as an experience to be shared, it’s stultifyingly boring."
That is very different.
As I read her blog, I wondered if she was identifying the possiblity that mindfulness practice, having become a commodity to be purchased (via books, CD's, seminars), is now for some a status symbol, like reading the right books, listening to trendy music, or buying expensive eco-chic clothing. So instead of (or along with?) a means for personal growth, mindfulness practice can be a topic for idle cocktail-party chatter. In such cases, stultifying indeed!

Marie  Lloyd's picture

"Meta-connectedness real, in the abstract, at least"...I wonder what this excerpt means. I wonder if our writer knows. Whatever could abstract connectedness be?
Abandonment is a discomfiting feeling, and our columnist has chosen the route of simple pique. Perhaps her pique leads her into discrediting this "all the rage" meditation medicine. If she wants to stick there, fine. If not, there's always mindful investigation...

ID Project's picture

We have a long discussion going on our blog about the pros and cons of Judith Warner's blog:

Rebecca's picture

I read Judith Warner's column in the NYT regularly and gnerally find them thought-provoking. I think Warner reveals in this column that she really just doesn't know enough about mindfulness and that she's dealing with friends who are beginners, too. At least she has the courage to raise an issue that many who are not very familiar with mindfulness concepts think but don't ask. A good starting place.

Lyn's picture

Melissa, not doing it right? How can that be?

Melissa Maples's picture

Meh, there's nothing to argue about here - she thinks mindfulness is boring, which means she's either not doing it right, or she's at the intelligence level that requires the presence of shiny objects in order to be engaged. There's so much in her statement that indicates a clear misunderstanding of mindfulness practice, which of course is true of about 99.9% of the population, so I don't understand why people would be upset about that. She doesn't get it, so what?

Chog Fest's picture

As a regular reader of Judith Warner's column, enjoy reading her postings regarding mental health, and I disagree with Gianna's assessment that JW's views on psychiatry are "hard-core pro-pharma;" indeed, Judith seems to have a skeptical and thoughtful take on the issues.

I respect Judith's point of view in her posting on the subject of mindfulness, and can relate to the discomfiting feeling of being around "pod-people" who appear to be rejecting a lot of their own experiences in favor of peaceful feelings. I know, because I have had friends respond to me that way in the past -- wondering, "who are you, and what did you do with my friend?"

In my continued practice, I'm discovering that rejecting the "dark corners" of ourselves and our world, including our own unpleasant emotions and ickiest fears, can be a clever way of carving out a cozy place to hide from pain. Perfectly human thing to want to do. But how is getting comfortable and cozy helping me to "wake up?" Sure, boredom can maybe be more interesting than Judith allows -- even "stultification" is an admittedly pretty rich term -- but isn't she reacting to the fact that her mind is sharp, fertile and rich, full of discernment and wisdom, and that it would be a shame to throw it out so you can sit around savoring one raising after another for the next 30 years?

The tricky thing is, people have lots of different reasons for deciding to practice "mindfulness" or meditation and other contemplative practices. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche teaches about locating your own motivation, asking yourself each day what your motivation is to practice, and behave in certain ways. In my case I basically came to meditation just to feel better, less depressed -- to seek shelter. My motivations have expanded and grown over time, causing me to become more brave and curious about others and myself, warts and all. But plenty of days, I sit in meditation as a way of checking out from my crazy mind. Other days, I am more able to be friendly with what can get pretty nasty.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche stresses that it's not like we have to reject our "small" motivations -- the selfish or ego building inclinations that lead us to the cushion -- it's just good to be aware of it. It's a starting point, after all.

If Judith Warner finds her friend creepy for making nice with jerks or finds herself being dishonest while reciting platitudes like "it'll be OK," it appears to me she's identifying "idiot compassion."

Mindfulness-awareness practice in meditation or post-meditation doesn't mean becoming a pod person. If my house catches on fire during practice, I'm gonna get off the cushion and react...

JVR's picture

It's disappointing to see the number of Buddhist blogs responding defensively, even attacking this woman and denying her experience.

Meditation in Movement's picture

I think this stems largely from the continue assumption that meditation is something you do sitting in a remote place away from all worldly distractions. The fact that mindfulness and meditation can be done during any activity needs to be more widely taught. If sitting meditation was all there was, then I imagine it could be stultifying after a bit.

Bob Zane's picture

I'm impressed with anyone who uses the word "stultifyingly" Personally I've been to many church services that left me stultified. I guess if I'm being mindful I would say, "stultification is like this...."

Gianna's picture

well I'm a hard-core mindfulness practitioner and I still have plenty of edge and insanity!! I read this earlier on the NYTs and she annoyed the hell out of me and I was quite mindful of just how annoying she was...

I'm hardly disconnected from reality...she simply doesn't get it.

Of course the woman routinely annoys me about all her attitudes about mental health and her basically hard-core pro-pharma stance...that she conveniently adjusts when politics dictates it might be better for readership...

oh, I'm such a nice, peaceful, zen-like, mindfulness practitioner, aren't I?

Just blissed out and not at all bothered by her nonsense.