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Would You Like Fries With That Breath?

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Over the past few years, we have witnessed the explosion of mindfulness and meditation in popular culture. Physicians are referring their stressed-out patients to an eight-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, panicking children are taking quivering breaths before exams, athletes are using guided meditations to optimize performance and psychologists are prescribing meditation to enhance sex.

Shouldn't we be celebrating the advent of mindfulness to the boardroom, the locker room and the bedroom? These are encouraging trends in popular culture that are bringing new levels of awareness and compassion to daily life, both at home and in the workplace. Yet the unbridled enthusiasm for the very real benefits of mindfulness might unintentionally cloud the reality of what mindfulness might offer us in our lives.

In the past few years, this over-promising of mindfulness practice has been coined "McMindfulness." Many have wisely wondered what happens when mindfulness becomes a fast-food commodity. How might mindfulness be like the extra fistful of fries that are a party in the mouth and a teenage breakup in the stomach?

These are some of the common McMindfulness tendencies I've observed that can be misleading and counterproductive:

1. Over Selling (and Under Practicing)
(Mc)Mindfulness seems to be the answer for everything these days. While the scientific research in many areas is incredibly promising, ultimately mindfulness is not a means to an end. We don't practice mindfulness to flee the present moment for some idealized situation where everything is better, easier, and more pleasant. In fact, this craving habit of pursuing something beyond the present reality is precisely what creates our suffering. Persistent means-to-end thinking will destroy the fruits of mindfulness practice. While we might receive some relaxation benefit in the short run, the unintentional reinforcement of habitual craving for something other than the present moment will only deepen our suffering in the long run.

I've taught mindfulness to kindergarteners, inmates, physicians and executives. Of course, I wouldn't do this work if I didn't think mindfulness brought some benefit to people's lives. Mindfulness offers us a confounding paradox: it's precisely in surrendering any gain from the practice that we have the most to gain. When we let go of the "benefit" and commit to the regular and sometimes boring practice of meditation, we receive the greatest reward. This paradoxical wisdom eludes glossy advertisement and snappy media messages.

2. Equating Mindfulness with Positive Thinking
Mindfulness is not the cultivation of happy thoughts. The practice of mindfulness does not involve optimism (nor pessimism). It does not involve visualizing yourself as smart, rich, wise, important, or peaceful. The goal of mindfulness is not the achievement of a blissful state separate from the daily challenges of life. Rather, mindfulness helps us to remain grounded and stable in the midst of the inevitable hardships of ordinary life. Mindfulness helps to cultivate awareness of thoughts, emotions and sensations so that we can wake up to the stunning reality that we are not our thinking (positive or negative).

In my own life, the truth that we don't need to believe everything we think has brought an incredible relief from the torrent of my busy mind. Mindfulness practice offers stability that is beyond positive or negative thinking and is not dependent on what is manifesting in the running commentary of the mind. Our culture preaches you can "have it all" if you simply visualize what you desire and think positively. The problem, of course, is that we have gotten what we wanted.

At this point in human history, we in the West have more material possessions than ever before; we live longer; and we are safer than human beings have ever been. Still, we suffer, and in the process, we hurt one another and destroy our planet with this unbridled craving for what we don't have.

3. Glossing Over Risks
McMindfulness suggests that mindfulness is a fast track to personal and professional success without any reference to the ethical dimensions of how success might be defined. Too often, the sound bytes glorifying mindfulness miss the hard work, inevitable boredom and risks associated with a practice that is more a way of compassionate living than it is a course in stress reduction.

Many of us come to mindfulness to reduce our suffering in some way. In my own life, I discovered mindfulness when the raw and jagged edges of my emotional pain were lacerating my life. I would do anything to make the ache of sadness go away. Ironically, when I began practicing 15 years ago, my pain seemed to intensify. All the mechanisms that I had used to deny and ignore my own pain were dissolving in my meditation practice. Nobody told me it might get "worse" before it got "better."

Most of our consumer culture is driven by the attempt to numb pain. We eat, shop, drink, have sex, plan vacations, and consume media to avoid feeling the pain of life. Over time, mindfulness opens us to the full spectrum of human emotion -- from the most sublimely pleasant sensations to the most heart-wrenching painful experiences. In mindfulness there is a risk that we might become acquainted with not only the heights of joy but also the depths of pain. Committed practitioners will notice that this risk is inseparable from mindfulness practice.

When society mass produces food, we generally lose nutrition, flavor and freshness. What tastes good in the moment may not serve our health in the long run. When mindfulness is marketed and packaged on an industrial scale, something of its original genius is likely to be lost. I believe that we can live lives of presence, compassion and connection through mindfulness and meditation practice. While crispy, golden French fries might be an occasional fast food indulgence, true nourishment is most often slow and requires effort. And so it is with mindfulness: a slow, steady, and nutritious journey of practice; a gentle, unfolding awareness that becomes a way of life and a constant companion -- a lot like the breath.