The Positive Impact of Mindfulness
by Anam Thubten Rinpoche
Within the last few decades, mindfulness has become a trend that is sweeping the world. Today, people from different walks of life and various institutions are embracing the practise — mainly due to the fact that its undeniable benefits have been proven by modern science. Those who practice mindfulness have found that it can help them to achieve mental well being, which includes reducing stress and finding inner peace. You would think that everyone would praise its popularity, but this is not the case. There are those who criticise the global popularity of mindfulness for various reasons: it is not the true Dharma that has the potential to bring about things like satori (awakening), or it’s a watered-down version of the Dharma that is lacking in ethical principles. At the same time, there are also respected Buddhist teachers who feel that even some popularised versions of mindfulness have the power to bring us to a higher state of consciousness. Believe it or not, some might criticise it because they themselves don’t know so much about meditation.
These critics might not be aware of the main factors behind the ever-increasing popularity of mindfulness. For one, it gives immediate benefits to people in the modern world where many appreciate what is practical and empirical. And second, developed countries are rapidly becoming secular, and in Western Europe, the Asia Pacific, and North America this trend is expected to continue. Yet people in those countries also long for inner peace and will adopt practical means that can help their minds as long as there are no heavy religious/doctrinal strings attached. We need to make sure that there are spiritual and contemplative practices that secular people can adopt and feel comfortable doing. Increasingly, secular people are realising that they cannot find true happiness by relying on external comforts and material luxuries, and are finding that something is missing in their lives. They feel comfortable engaging in a contemplative practice as long as they don’t have to buy into a rigid doctrine.
Personally, I feel that the popularity of mindfulness has had a positive impact on society, inspiring people to engage in a form of meditation practice — one that everyone can do regardless of who they are. People are realising that they can change their lives by working on their minds. Our mind has its own tendencies that can cause us to be unhappy. The good news is that our mind is not unchangeable. We can teach our brain to shed its unhealthy tendencies and embrace positive ones. We can train our mind to be less angry and more loving, less fearful and more compassionate. We can even find long-lasting happiness by training our mind. For example, we can practice gratitude in everyday life to see increasing joy and positive experiences with our own eyes.
Scientists are also telling us that our brain is malleable and that we can change it by engaging in brain-training exercises, coining the term ”neuroplasticity,” since the brain has a certain level of flexibility (plasticity) to change according to our experiences. Mindfulness in particular has a transforming impact on the brain, which has been proven again and again in scientific trials. This is one of the main factors that has made mindfulness popular among people from different walks of life. You don’t need to be a Buddhist or hippie to get into a meditation practice. A friend of mine, a meditation teacher living in the US, told me that not long ago, he was hesitant to explain that he was a meditation teacher when people asked him what he did for a living, out of fear of being perceived as weird or alternative. Today, he can tell what he does and people think it is cool.
People have been practising meditation throughout history, especially in the East, where meditation has been deeply ingrained in the (religious) traditions. Mindfulness was taught by the Buddha himself and became one of the main practices in Buddhism. Yet even in Buddhist cultures, meditation was practised mainly by monks, nuns, and yogis. Lay communities engaged in spiritual practice by praying, making offerings to temples, going on pilgrimages, and receiving blessings from the clergy. So the massive numbers of people practising meditation today is truly unprecedented and something that should be welcomed rather than badmouthed. If we aspire to true change in our own lives or in the world at large, it should be coming from within us. We can generate this change by looking into our mind and letting go of old, bad habits, and developing loving-kindness. People need some kind of method to do that because it is not so natural for many of us. Mindfulness is the method that can galvanise the masses to do that which this world needs for peace and sanity.
To meet this interest, many people should be trained as meditation instructors, to take this method into every level and institution of society, including schools, corporations, and governments. To some degree, this is already happening, but there is still so much work to be done to bring this aspiration to fruition. There are some great mindfulness teacher-training programs offered in the US under the guidance of excellent meditation teachers. Participants come from many different countries, from almost every continent. This is very exciting. Next, we want to see powerful politicians begin to meditate so that they can make decisions with clarity and heart. Their decisions have a huge impact on the lives of so many and ripple out to the whole world.
The world is becoming smaller and smaller. Travel, communications, and the exchange of information are becoming easier every year. It’s so much easier to spread a movement now than in the past. Let’s take this opportunity to introduce meditation to more people so there can be a collective awakening, increasing sanity in the world. Some call this the “MacMindfulness” movement, which sounds like a pejorative, but I don’t care what name we give it based on our own prejudices and opinions. One thing I am certain about is that we need this MacMindfulness more than ever and that it will help lessen the suffering of many and help them find inner peace. And then people might want to explore the depth of Buddhism once they have gotten a taste of mindfulness.