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Mindfulness Is Not the Same as Spirituality

During recent decades, the study and awareness of “mindfulness” has spread across western culture, inspiring people to notice: notice their emotions, notice their bodies, notice the environment. Undoubtedly, the simple act of noticing and engaging with our surroundings is a positive shift in the way our group consciousness is evolving. However, like other social trends, mindfulness runs the risk of being oversimplified, devolving from mindfulness to mindlessness. We’re already seeing the degrading effects of capitalism on mindfulness through the proliferation of products and companies that are shaping “awareness” into a lifestyle brand, creating an economic divide between those who can afford to be present and those who cannot.

Is the gentrification of mindfulness a problem?

I’m of two minds: I’m glad people have found comfort in being mindful, and that mindfulness has changed the way we think and talk about our relationships, education, work environments, and the way we raise our children, but at the same time, I wish we could divorce mindfulness from spirituality. All too often, mindfulness is associated with other spiritual practices, like yoga and meditation. On one hand, I think the introduction of mindfulness to popular culture has provided people with access to spirituality who wouldn’t have experimented with it otherwise, but at the same time, the version of spirituality they’re being exposed to is oversimplified; it’s lacking a moral compass. There’s a part of me that doesn’t think it makes a difference whether a person is practicing mindfulness superficially or whether a person is practicing it spiritually because both ends of the spectrum are providing practitioners with a beneficial experience that’s improving the quality of their lives in some way. But at the same time, I’m also bothered by the culture surrounding mindfulness because I think it’s misrepresenting the complexity of spiritual practices.

Spiritual practices, religions, and ancient schools of thought with layered, rich backgrounds have been absorbed by the mindfulness revolution and repackaged as free wellness workshops offered at your local gym. There’s a huge disconnect between mainstream mindfulness and the deeper, more resonant truth it’s oftentimes attempting to access. Using a coloring book because it’s relaxing is different from coloring a mandala because it’s “spiritual.” It’s true, mandalas are spiritual tools, but that spirituality is deeply entrenched in a cultural, historical, and philosophical background that has been developed for centuries. Unless there’s a larger dialogue taking place around the mandala, using it in a coloring book as the “key” to presence is both missing the point and disrespectful to the culture from which it  comes.

I think we’re seeing cross-pollination between the advent of mindfulness and ancient practices of spirituality because there’s an undeniable link between the two. Being “mindful” is something that spiritual practices, like yoga, have been trying to understand for centuries; it’s not new. Unsurprisingly, yogic practitioners and other Eastern scholars have determined that it takes more than just buying the right sound machine to transcend superficial reality. There’s no shortcut to nirvana.

I honestly can’t tell if the trendiness of mindfulness is because people are more aware of their lives and the environment surrounding them or less aware. On the one hand, I see people waking up to a deeper, more resonant purpose to their lives, but on the other hand, I see people panicking and turning to mindfulness as a mask to hide from the horrors of being human. I recognize the potential of mindfulness and can see it changing our culture in more ways than it already has, but I also think it’s important to keep in mind that mindfulness is just a tool, a way to notice, which is different from spirituality—a deeply personal practice that completely transforms how we perceive and understand the world, requiring more commitment than recognizing five new traits about your husband on any given day.

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