The computer bag on the Buddha’s lap: How the mindfulness debate misses its point

A few day ago, I had dinner with friends at an Indian restaurant in Hamburg. In the center of the restaurant looms a larger-than-life Buddha statue[1]. A little into our meal, one of my friends pointed out that somebody from the party sitting right next to the statue had deposited their computer bag on the Buddha’s lap. We all turned our heads, smiled, and frowned. We had a brief exchange about the reactions that might be seen in a Bavarian Biergarten in case a visitor from Asia would hang their camera onto the crucifix on the wall. Then, everybody returned to their chaat, dal, paneer, and chicken 65, and the conversation drifted back to other topics.

Reflecting on this episode, I find the image of the computer bag on the Buddha’s lap a fitting simile for the widespread debate around the use of mindfulness in the modern (in particular: business) world. How so? Just like, in this case, the question is not what’s inside the computer bag, whether it was clean and smooth enough to be put on the statue without damaging it, whether it could’ve been placed somewhere else, or whether others had already dropped other things on the Buddha’s lap, the core of the mindfulness debate, is not about what mindfulness (“really”) is[2], whether mindfulness has benefits[3], whether and how it can be integrated with a modern way of living and working[4], or whether it has other origins (or another future) alongside its Buddhist roots[5]. All debates around these questions are but side battles.

The real issue, I want to suggest, is obscured by this skirmishing. The underlying question that is hidden from sight is: Who, in today’s world, is entitled to not only theoretically talk to us about how we work with our minds but also practically recommend the best ways to do so? The debate is not – as it superficially might appear – a debate about methods or teachings. It is a debate about teachers. Just like, in the case of the computer bag on the Buddha’s lap, our questions could be: Who put it there? And why did they do so? And what do I learn from that?

As per my analysis, in the ongoing mindfulness debate, there are three logically distinct (although sometimes discursively mixed) strands of answers to these questions – and all of them explicitly or implicitly voice strong allegations towards today’s mindfulness advocates:

They are ruthless thieves! Mindfulness, it is argued in this type of narrative, is a core concept of Buddhism, and those who are transplanting it (or, for that matter, any other ideas developed in Buddhism) into a non-Buddhist concept are thieves, plagiarists, or charlatans[6]. From this perspective, using any of the Buddhist heritage without acknowledging its source and tradition is theft, and therefore people who do this have no moral (or personal) integrity. The person who put their computer bag on the Buddha’s lap must be a criminal. Most probably, the bag contains explosives, and not a computer. I’m pretty sure there’s the shape of a gun underneath their impeccable three-piece suit. I can see the assault coming.

They are authoritarian villains! Those advocating mindfulness, runs the second argument, are (mis-) using mindfulness as a support to sustain and extend their own (capitalist) power[7]. In their own deceitful minds, they are not interested in their colleagues’ or employees’ well-being or growth, but they’re stealthily applying another slithering device to make people more effective, efficient, and compliant in their daily work. Their intention is anything but noble, it’s outright exploitative and abusive. The person who put their computer bag on the Buddha’s lap is deliberately provoking and hurting others. Most probably, the bag contains quarterly reports (or maybe radical ideological writings). I’m pretty sure they’re mumbling profit-and-loss statements (or maybe incantations) under their forked tongue. I can hear the plot.

They are naive idiots! Finally, the third diagnosis attests that those praising mindfulness are misunderstanding its true purpose, as writes Virginia Heffernan:  “What commercial mindfulness may have lost […]: the implication that suffering cannot be escaped but must be faced”[8]. From this point of view, modern mindfulness junkies are naively getting themselves into something that is much bigger and much more challenging than they’re imagining in their wildest ecstasies. Their insight is so limited that they do not see the risks (and opportunities) of what they’re engaging in. The person who put their computer bag on the Buddha’s lap is gullible, stupid, and mindless. Most probably, their bag is stuffed with popcorn, porn, and playstation games. I’m pretty sure there’s a scent of peppermint candy and a faint whiff of grass. I smell the dawn of disillusion.

Now, it is obvious (or is it?) that none of us would want to be taught about the use of our very own minds (yes, our very own minds!) by thieves, villains, or idiots. What we imagine when we think about who to allow to enter our minds and engage with its workings (and its shortcomings) is an integer, well-intentioned, insightful person, devoid of corruptness, self-interest, or stupidity. A generous, compassionate, humble, and wise being. The person who puts their computer bag on the Buddha’s lap to gently challenge our own limited concepts and convoluted ideas, whose bag is stuffed with beautiful gifts, compassion, and endless skilful instructions for our personal and spiritual growth. So we can savour their words at all times, and we can feel their presence wherever we are. So we can surrender.

For some of us, there might be times when thieves become masters, villains unmask as virtuous heroes, and idiots display eternal wisdom. For most of us, however, most of the time, it is advisable to be anchored in a less shifty ground. So what we need is not a debate about mindfulness. What we need is a debate about teachers – and, even before that: The acknowledgement that none of us is able to grow, learn, and develop without help from somewhere. And the acknowledgement that this help, in order to make a difference, will be highly personal, deeply intrusive, unsettling at times, and, above all, never a smooth ride. And that therefore, it is all the more important to carefully examine those we dare to accept as teachers[9].

At the same time, while being conscious and cautious about whom we ourselves commit to as our teachers, we also have to be fully aware of the fact that different people, at different times will need different teachers. Maybe, for some, the thief, the villain, and the idiot are just right, like when the great yogi Naropa was taught by the great yogi Tilopa among whose activities grinding sesame seeds, working as a prostitute’s pimp, and juggling fish were the less eccentric examples. Judging others’ teachers is even more difficult than finding a suitable teacher for oneself. And, as a corollary to this: Judging what others get from mindfulness is even more difficult than understanding what it can mean for myself.

So, in the end, the mindfulness debate points us back to ourselves, to our own integrity, intention, and insight, and to our (in-) ability to make guesses about the integrity, intention, and insight of others. In this way, it points to our own minds. It points to the question who we’d like to be in charge of our minds, how we can expect our minds’ workings to grow, stabilise, or dismantle, and what reflections we arouse with our minds. In this way, it also points towards the pointlessness of pointing to others as scapegoats for what is ours to attend to.

The Buddha, of course, sat unmoved, steadfast and in silence with the computer bag on his lap.


[1] So, at least in this case, there’s no sign of India not properly acknowledging its Buddhist heritage, as recently discussed by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse in his article “How India is squandering its top export: The Buddha” (http://www.huffingtonpost.in/dzongsar-jamyang-khyentse/how-india-is-squandering-_b_7008922.html?utm_hp_ref=india, [retrieved Apr 23, 2015]). For the record, however, it needs to be noted that the statue is plastic and its artistic roots are probably Japanese. BACK TO TEXT

[2] By far the best (both in terms of content and in terms of writing) recent article on this question is Virginia Heffernan’s piece in the New York Times Magazin on “The Muddied Meaning of ‘Mindfulness'”, see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/magazine/the-muddied-meaning-of-mindfulness.html?_r=0 [retrieved Apr 23, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[3] I talked a bit about this in my post on “The Value of Embarrassment and the Myth of Meditation”. If you do a little research, you can find scientific proof of almost any conceivable beneficial effect of mindfulness (or meditation). BACK TO TEXT

[4] Among the most mind-boggling examples for attempts at answering these intriguing question are Lodro Rinzler’s thoughts and works, see http://lodrorinzler.com [retrieved Apr 23, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[5] Interesting reflections on this question can be found in Vincent Horn’s talk on “Buddhism Unbundled”, here http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2015/02/bg-352-buddhism-unbundled/ [retrieved Apr 23, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[6] See, for example, the gradual discovery of the Buddhist origins of some self-help materials as narrated by Dan Harris in his article on CNN.com, here http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/10/living/harris-anchorman-buddhist/index.html [retrieved Apr 23, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[7] A good example for this kind of thinking spelled out is Mark Siemons’ article in faz.net on “Kapitalismus und Buddhismus: Der erleuchtete Angestellte”, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/der-erleuchtete-angestellte-der-kapitalismus-wird-immer-buddhistischer-13531831-p3.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_3 [retrieved Apr 23, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[8] Cited from the article mentioned above in footnote 2. BACK TO TEXT

[9] There is, of course, Buddhist thinking about this question. However, the Western world (and by consequence the business world in most of its modern forms) generally lacks the concept of and therefore also rigorous thinking about (spiritual) teachers, i.e. who they are, how to recognise them, how to work with them. Quite to the contrary, at least in Europe, there’s a strong (and valuable) tradition of skepticism towards those who try to invade our minds. For a good overview of problematic examples see Anthony Storr’s “Feet of Clay: Saints, sinners, and madmen: A study of Gurus” (1997), or – more recent and with a different twist – Kevin Dutton’s “The Wisdom of Psychopaths: Lessons in life from saints, spies, and serial killers” (2012). Against this backdrop, it is definitely anything but a small task to develop a modern approach to teachers. I’ll come back to this question in future posts.  BACK TO TEXT

2 responses to The computer bag on the Buddha’s lap: How the mindfulness debate misses its point

  1. I am completely mystified by the mindfulness debate. I am not a Buddhist, but I had the great pleasure of once meeting the Dalai Lama. With his unique smile and shaking his head he said: “There is no difference between the East and the West. Everyone has the same mind. So every person has the chance to gain enlightenment – the ability to live a joyful life.” Which for me is the essence of mindfulness. If you live a compassionate life, you will find happiness. With regard to teachers: no need to pay any of them or to listen to self-proclaimed gurus. Everyone you meet is your teacher. You just have to listen closely.

    Liked by 1 person

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