“Mindfulness” Hype & Driving

Zen's Walking Mindfulness

“Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness” is the mantra of many Western Buddhists. It has almost been hackneyed into meaninglessness. For great analysis of the mindfulness craze see posts by both  D. Chapman and Glenn Wallis.  Meanwhile I’d like to add my simple observations:

In mindfulness, you are not suppose to daydream but instead stay focused on your object of concentration. Mindfulness in meditation may be on counting, breath, body or on the act of sitting. In Zen temples, mindfulness, is practiced during walking meditation — you watch your step, the feel of your body and don’t daydream.  One is also suppose to be mindful cleaning the temple, washing dishes, eating food, etc . . .  My son still resentfully remembers one Zen temple were he was scolded by the priest when he dropped a clock and was told he was not being mindful — he was 8 years-old then.

Mindful Driving

Don’t get me wrong, the mindful exercise may have its place.  But be careful!  For instance, when I experiment being mindful while driving my car, I often miss turns.   It seems that by focusing on roads, cars and my act of driving, I turn off the simultaneous planning aspect of the brain which unconsciously keeps tabs of where I am and when I should turn.  Who knows what else gets turned off in my brain that is actually protecting me.  Heck, when I juggle and am too mindful, I drop the balls.

Our multi-tasking brains have evolved that way for adaptive purposes — they work!  Turning off our brains can be detrimental. I see mindful practice as useful, but not an end-all. It may build a skill but to idealize it is silly.

Finally, here is a classic pyschology experiment. Pay attention to the game and see what you miss. Mindfulness ironically always necessitates not paying attention.

Question to readers:  Buddhist readers, please jump in here and correct me.  You may have to knock hard, I may be too mindful of my typing.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

37 responses to ““Mindfulness” Hype & Driving

  1. Your account of “mindfulness” whilst driving merely demonstrates that this wasn’t. Probably it would be most helpful for you to stick to practice, breathing or walking, and forget all about mindfulness for the rest of the time. If you really want to expand it into daily life, then start with eating.

  2. @ Vijen
    You may very well be right. I am a very unskilled meditator. Do you do awareness exercises while driving? What has been your experience. What sort of meditation types do you practice? Thanx for stopping in.

  3. Glenn Wallis has an interesting critique, or beginnings of a critique, of mindfulness here:


  4. @ David:
    Excellent — thank you. I added his link to my post. Have you tried awaress of driving only experiments ever?

  5. Following David McMahan I would reframe ‘mindfulness’ partly as Protestant (seeing the ‘sacred’ in everyday things & activities), partly as Romantic (back to nature, to our ‘natural state’ — i.e. without all the distractions of our busy technocratic world). So eating your whole grain-tofu sandwich mindfully would be ideal. 🙂

    It seems to me that there are two ‘schools’ of mindfulness meditation at the moment (in theravada Buddhism). One is about focused attention, e.g. focusing on the breath/bodily sensations/thoughts/whatever and doing so training oneself to keep coming back to the object of meditation. The other is ‘being aware of the present’, e.g. observing whatever comes to the forefront of the attention (sound, thought etc.), so a kind of constant flux of impulses. Some teach the combination of the 2. (Sorry if you all know this.)

    Which approach do you take when you drive mindfully?

    Fancy mindfulness stuff from Great Britain: HeadSpace

  6. When Buddhists talk about “mindfulness” in the context of “total awareness of the present”, I always think of the bit from “Friends” where Ross tries to teach the girls about “Unagi” (total awareness): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ev_ob4mVwg

  7. @ Roni
    Loved the Tofu Sandwich!
    My experiment when driving was to only think about traffic: the road, my car, their cars etc — not about the rest of the day, the past or writing blog posts!
    If I did the first method, I would crash the car, if I did the second method, I would be a follower and not a driver. I was simply not trying to do the daydreaming past or future — just the boring freeway and routine reflexes. But then I would miss my turn! 🙂

    @ JS Allen:
    Very nice!

  8. @ Sabio: Following the logic of the Theravada texts: if you could catch the memory of taking the turn previously involuntarily popping up, you would not miss that turn. Your post reminded me of the beginning of this article by Ajahn Brahm: The Quality of Mindfulness.

    Driving cars on busy roads was surely not the Buddha’s ideal secluded place for practicing mindfulness.

  9. One more thing: ‘fully’ enjoying your tofu sandwich/hugging trees/doing the dishes by being mindful of your action goes just in the opposite direction of remaining ‘independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world’.

  10. @ Roni
    Thank you kindly for the notes. I read most of Ajahn Brahm’s chapter. I am not sure what you are trying to say to me. Maybe you could put up an English post on your site and come back and link to it. I will read again later when less rushed, though. Meanwhile, again, thank you for you input.

  11. @ Sabio: I see a difference between 1. passive observation of this flux of sights, sounds… thoughts and 2. turning your attention to certain elements and turning away from others deliberately while observing them. This is what Ajahn Brahm’s text tells me. I would define mindfulness meditation as something that teaches you 1. to observe your habitual way of thinking (speaking, acting), to distance yourself from these patterns of thought & behaviour, 2. to be able to chose which patterns to keep or drop.

  12. Mindfulness has become a ridiculously useless term, which seems to mean feeling good about whatever one happens to be doing and pretending that is practicing Buddhism. Take a look at Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s very helpful essay “Mindfulness Explained” on the Access to Insight website.

    It is simply not possible to attend to sensations without engaging discriminative thought, and even if it were it would be pointless. That is not what Buddha meant by sati, which is clearly meant to include recalling and thinking about the causes and effects of every action.

  13. And please, everyone, don’t try to drive “mindfully.” Even the attempt is probably more dangerous than driving while texting.

  14. @ Tom Pepper
    Thank you for the referrence to Thanissaro’s article “Mindfulness Explained”. I chuckled at your warning not to drive mindfully!
    As to what “mindfulness” is, that is a big question beyond my grasp both in meditation experience and deciphering which teachings were the Buddha’s (if any), how teaching changed, how is the word used, which words are translated and much more. But we agree, as an English word, it has been overused, overpublished to make it, as you say, “ridiculously useless”.

  15. @ Roni
    Sorry, I am being a bit dense, it seems.
    I think I heard you talk about 2 practices:

    1. Passive observation
    2. Focused observation

    I am not sure if these may be she’ne vs lhatong in the Nyingma tradition. See my notes here.

    But then are you adding a third:
    3. observe your habitual way of thinking, distance from it, choose.

    Personally, I think there are hundreds of meditation techniques — each with different effects, each useful in different ways for different people.

    But I will stop there to see if I am understanding you.

  16. @ Sabio: Or simply I was not clear enough. 🙂 And yes, there are many techniques for the many different interests and needs of people.

    I asked a friend who is more familiar with the Nyingma terminology, this is my beta version:

    1. Focused observation (shi-ne)
    2. Awareness of the present moment (whatever comes up)
    2.1 Passive observation (preparation for actual meditation or a misunderstanding 🙂 according to the articles of Thannissaro Bhikkhu and Ajah Brahm)
    2.2 Observation and analysis (lhatong)

    What you took as 3rd point I would consider more the result of meditation, than a description of a practice. I mean this is what you get with both types:

    1. With focused meditation you have to keep bringing back your attention to the object of meditation — you will surely notice where you tend to ‘wander off’.
    2. With observing and analysing whatever gets your attention the most, you will see what kind of thoughts emotions etc. occur more frequently than others.

    So meditation is a kind of therapeutic tool at this stage (another important element of mindfulness meditation in Buddhist Modernism, but not far from how the Buddha is described as ‘doctor’ — see MN 105).

  17. Thank you for the note. I agree that those two tools are incredibly useful. Note too that they are mind tools that are practiced in science research, computer programming and fishing. I think they are tools that can be practiced without even ever hearing about buddhism or meditation. But meditation can be a convenient way to hone these tools.

    May I ask what traditions you have studied under or identify with?

  18. I totally agree.

    I sent you a mail about my bakground, Sabio, but here it is. I am a Theravadin (a Sravaka in your system), following more or less the teachings of Ajahn Brahm(avamso).

  19. Hey Roni!
    Yes, thank you for that e-mail, but I couldn’t pick up what tradition you are in.
    Does Ajahn Brahm have centers in Hungary?

  20. No, I went to his retreat in Germany last year, after having read his books & listened to his talks on YouTube and having practised breath medition according to his approach for 7 years (starting originally at the Buddhist University with a slightly different method but also from the lineage of Ajahn Chah).

  21. Mindfulness is a natural capacity we all have all the time. You are already using mindfulness when you pick up a cup of coffee, take a shower, and yes, drive your car. Practicing mindfulness is just a way to become more stable and clear in our mindfulness.

    The way mindfulness practice works is that in the beginning you eliminate external distractions to you can learn to be mindful of something simple like the breath. As that becomes stable you can gradually let in more and more material, so that over time your mindfulness includes everything.

    Unless your mindfulness is developed enough to include all the details of driving including relating with the other cars, seeing the whole plan of where you are going, etc., then practicing mindfulness is dangerous because you will be trying to focus on some aspects while not paying attention to others.

  22. @ Craig
    Wow, I forgot, you are someone who has a whole industry based on “Mindfulness”.
    I’d be curious what you felt about the two links I supplied by Chapman and Wallis.

    Meanwhile, a few questions:
    (a) Would you agree that folks in the “Mindfulness Industries” (those publishing books, doing seminars etc) use the word in vary different ways and make different sorts of promises.

    (b) Do you agree with David Chapman about it being relatively new to typify Buddhism as essential “mindfulness” training.

    (c) When you use the word “Mindful”, what Pali, Sanskrit, Japanese, or Tibetan word(s) are you thinking about or what texts are you referring to? [if you are academically oriented]

    Thank you if you have time.

  23. I counted 14… and people would seriously miss the gorilla?! for real? what’s up with the two “S” that are drawn on the wall?

  24. Hi Sabio, I don’t have a sense of the ‘mindfulness industry’ and what others are doing. I would imagine it varies widely, as mindfulness can be applied in endless possible ways. My own use of the word is also varied, but one common meaning I communicate is the idea of ‘being present’.

  25. @ Craig
    I should probably do a research article on the various uses of “mindfulness”. But I must say, “Being Present” has always struck me as odd and almost meaningless — but that is me. Yet it is one of the most common explanation out there. Though I am sure it works for you.

  26. Mindfulness and Murder (Thai movie trailer)

    Mindfulness definately sells. 🙂

  27. Hi Sabio,

    I cannot help but to make a sarcastic comment about buddhism and mindfulness. But first, I did not see the gorilla although I do something what one could call an form of non-thetical sitting. But the task of the experiment is clear, the mind is concerned with a well defined task and so it is occupied. It would be interesting to conduct this experiment with different groups of people and to assign different tasks to them. But anyway my point regarding buddhism and the mindfullers is that a lot of this people do concentrate while doing what they do. Many mindfullers for example concentrate on being better, how bad. And tibetan buddhist, as everybody knows, do nothing but concentrating on really wired things. So it is no wonder that many do not see how there is a business model out there exploiting them, a gorilla who leads them at the nose-ring through the manege of consumer capitalism and the pursuit of happiness.

    On the other side, Herbert Guenther, for example, elaborates on the evolutions of buddhist meditation and concentration in his „From Reductionism to Creativity“. He works out that there was a well differentiated knowledge about different forms of „concentration“ and a development of the understanding of the workings of the mind which lead to a „uncontrived self-settledness“ which is „not so much a coming to an end; rather it remains an ongoing »thinking«“ (p. 93). Unfortunately certain forms of knowledge are lost to consumer buddhism….

  28. @Matthias
    I liked the phrase “consumer Buddhism.”
    I looked over Herbert Guenther’s books. Review say he is very hard reading with very poor writing. Very abstract, Hegelian and continental philosophical jargon. You make him sound interesting but those reviews sound horrible.

  29. @Sabio.

    Regarding „hard reading“: Yes! „Poor writing“: No!
    The book I mentioned is something like a history of buddhist thinking about the ,mind‘ from the abidharma to the dzgochen-tradition. Guenther uses for example continental european terms (Heidegger‘s „Faktizität“) or terms from the physics („symmetry break“) to translate terms from the tibetan dzogchen tradition. This indeed makes for „hard reading“ and is indeed debatable, but beside frequent mentions about Guenther‘s style and a few remarks from other scholars I am not aware about an in-depth study into his work – which is most overdue.
    The one great thing about Guenther is that he is one of those scholars who forces one to develop one‘s own understanding of a subject. One must know that most writings of Guenther are about the dzogchen-tradition. He is a scholar and not a Lama, that‘s why he is inaccessible for true believers. He is certainly controversial because of his far reaching interpretations of buddhist terms. But this said he is also always making it clear that what he does is a first attempt. He almost everywhere in his writings presents new translations for terms which where previously translated differently. So this is all hard reading, but it‘s good reading and it‘s about thinking. If I where interested in dzogchen particularly then I would complement my reading about this subject for example with Sam van Schaik on http://earlytibet.com/author/. He is doing a lot of work about Dunhuang and is bringing a lot of light in it‘s dark caves. From this source one can find a lot more.
    At last, regarding the theme of this thread, in my opinion with Guenther it is possible to discern and establish a form of ,meditation‘ which is absolutely unknown to most of so called dzogpachenpos nowadays. In this case Guenther has, in my eyes, definitely a good take about what it is with ,meditation‘. It‘s nothing magical, by the way.

    Could you give me a link what “review“ you mean. Is this a website or just reviews like on amazon?

    CU, Matthias

  30. @Matthias
    I enjoyed and think I can understand many of your points. Is this the best (most approachable) book of Guenther that you recommend?
    Thank you for the Schaik recommendation too.

    Yes, the reviews I read were on Amazon

  31. Hm “most approachable”…? Personally I think this is THE book about buddhism in tibetan dzogchen perspective by Guenther. It leads into a avanced discussion of dzogchen thinking. This last part in itslef could serve as a take-off point for further discussion of what to take from this tradition into the real world. If one is interested in this then I would recommand it.

  32. Thanks, Matthias. Just to be clear, this is the book you are referring to:
    From Reductionism to Creativity (2001).
    Correct? (I will order it — you have persuaded me)

  33. … from gorilla to guenther 🙂

  34. LOL ! That is a plus of blogging – being corrected, redirected, introduced …. And who’d know a gorilla would help so much.
    BTW, linguistic question
    Günther vs Günter
    I guess both spelling are common for the same (usually first) name. But it struck me odd to see German with a “th”, not to mention that the only Günter that came to mind for me was Günter Grass. So my question: what is with the “h”? 🙂

  35. Yes the spelling is the same in both cases and the name can be first or second name. The “h” comes from the old form of the name Gunther. The “h” was lost in the modern form because it is not spelled and the “u”, like in “too” but a bit shorter, became “ü” – what you don’t have in english. Gunther is one of the guys in the Nibelung epos. He had a place not far from where I live at Worms maybe 1200 years ago… A nice little castle, lot’s of hassles with other kings, a very very nice woman called Brunhilde which flirted too much with someone called Siegfried. Wagner composed horrifying operas about this 😉

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