“What’s in it for me?” is not an uncommon question in a mindfulness-related discussion. The answer depends upon what mindfulness means. In this article, I would like to consider 2 schools of mindfulness – journey-led and destination-led and see how their response might differ to the “Why mindfulness?” question. Let’s begin with destination-led school:
Destination-led mindfulness: A response from this school could be, “You practice mindfulness in order to reach a better state”. A better state could mean a less stressful life (e.g. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – MBSR1), or a state of nirvana or eternal bliss (e.g. in Vipassana2) or some other state. What is important for our purpose is not the particular destination but the “in order to” attitude. Mindfulness, in this school, is a means to reach a destination. Hence the term destination-led mindfulness. This doesn’t mean this school doesn’t give importance to the journey i.e. awareness at the present moment. It just means that there is an implicit or explicit emphasis on reaching a destination. The destination emphasis also brings with it a notion of progress indicating whether you are getting closer to the destination.
An assumption, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, in destination-led mindfulness is that it is possible to know when you have reached the destination. That is, it is possible to know when you have reached a state free of stress or attachments or desires etc. If the mind is anything like weather3 then this assumption is akin to saying it is possible to know if the weather has become still and in the future, it will not transform into and sustain its windy and stormy forms. The journey-led school does not make this assumption.
Journey-led mindfulness: A response from this school could be “Mindfulness involves learning to see clearly for its own sake”. The phrase “for its own sake” may appear puzzling. What do I mean by “learning for its own sake”? It means learning is not a means to get somewhere but an end in itself. Let’s use a metaphor and see if that helps. Why should a car have wipers? So that you see clearly while driving. Why should I see clearly? If I don’t see clearly, how will I learn about the situation on the road? And if I don’t see the situation clearly, how will I respond to it appropriately? Thus, seeing clearly is not important in order to reach a destination, but for learning about the moment-to-moment situation i.e. for its own sake.
How do I know I am seeing clearly? I can’t know for sure. But when there is an expectation mismatch that is repetitive, it could be a signal that I am not seeing clearly. A good proxy for repetitive expectation mismatch is sustained negative emotion. If I remain upset, anxious, angry, etc. then that means there is an opportunity to learn something new.
Note that journey-led school does acknowledge the relevance of a destination. However, it doesn’t place emphasis on it and it doesn’t attach any significance to the final destinations like a stress-free state or a blissful state. Such moments may come and go. According to this school, learning is a lifelong journey. A side effect of this attitude is that sense of progress doesn’t carry much significance. Once I declare, “I have arrived”, it may hinder the learning process.
Journey-led school tends to avoid using the phrase – the practice of mindfulness. How do you practice learning to see self-deception? It doesn’t always happen at 6 am in the morning. However, similar to the destination-led school, it does acknowledge shifting attention away from the current train of thoughts towards the present moment sensations. This can be practiced at 6 am every day but it can also happen at any other moment of the day as well.
Teachers like David Bohm4 and Eckhart Tolle5 have emphasized journey-led approaches. Some teachers like Jiddu Krishnamurti6 have emphasized journey at one time and destination at another.
Now, the human mind is conditioned to be reward-seeking. Hence, is it possible that one who claims to be part of the journey-led school actually belongs to the destination-led school deep down? Yes, it is possible. The desire for reaching a state could be deeply buried in the mind and not known. Is it possible that one starts with a destination in mind (say, stress-free life) and through the journey of exploration begins to see meaninglessness in reaching a state? Yes, it is possible.
I carry a bias for the journey-led approach and it is highlighted in my book “Mindfulness: connecting with the real you”. However, I feel it doesn’t matter which school you feel closer to. Perhaps you don’t have a choice anyway. And if you feel there isn’t much there in mindfulness that is understandable too.
1. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an eight week program developed by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1970s. This is what the book “Full catastrophe living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2nd edition mentions in the Introduction chapter – “Many of the people who come to the Stress Reduction Clinic have not seen much improvement in their physical condition despite years of medical treatment. <snap> By the end of eight weeks, when the program comes to an end, their smiles and more relaxed bodies are evident to even the most casual observer. <snap> They are less anxious, less depressed, and less angry. They feel more in control, even in very stressful situations that previously would have sent them spinning out of control.”
2. Vipassana, a 10-day course designed by S. N. Goenka mentions the following in the “Day five discourse” in “The discourse summaries” by S. N. Goenka page 27 – “If you practice, certainly a day will come when you will be able to say that you have eradicated all the old sankhara, have stopped generating any new ones, and so have freed yourself from all suffering.”
3. Mind is like weather: This analogy is explored by Prof. Karl Friston in the interview “Karl Friston: Neuroscience and the Free Energy Principle | Lex Fridman podcast #99” (39:15). Friston compares the attributes common between brain and weather – deeply structured, very non-linear, rests upon non-equilibrium steady-state dynamics.
4. David Bohm: In “Thought as a system” (page 84) (Saturday seminar on YouTube, 57:30), Bohm is asked following question, “If you attack me negatively, I could hold my reaction in abeyance. Is that a way to deal with this process?” Bohm replies, “You could try that. But I’m suggesting that we’re engaged in learning about this. We don’t know yet what to do with it. We have to be interested in learning for its own sake, because if we have any other sake it’s going to enter the conditioning.”
5. Eckhart Tolle: In an interview with Dr. James Doty of Stanford “Conversations on compassion with Eckhart Tolle” (57:15) Ekhart explores “Life is a journey” theme. He says, “Life is a journey. You want to go from here to there. Whether you will get there, we don’t know. Maybe on the way, you will branch out somewhere else. But at least you have a certain direction. It is good to have some direction in your life. But while you are traveling, if the destination takes up most of your attention, you miss all the journey. You can’t enjoy the journey anymore. And most of your life is the journey. The arrival is relatively rare. The wedding, the graduation, those moments are far and few between. The step you are taking this moment is the most important step.”
6. Jiddu Krishnamurti: In the following paragraph from chapter 24, “Think on these things” (2007 Indian edition, page 232), JK says, “If you want to examine every thought, if you really want to see the content of it, then you will find that your thoughts slow down and you can watch them. This slowing down of thinking and the examining of every thought is the process of meditation; and if you go into it, you will find that by being aware of every thought, your mind – which is now a vast storehouse of restless thoughts all battling against each other – becomes very quiet, completely still. There is then no urge, no compulsion, no fear in any form, and in this stillness, that which is true comes into being. There is no ‘you’ who experiences truth, but the mind being still, the truth comes into it.” As you can see JK starts with the journey (examination of thoughts) and moves into a destination (state of no ‘you’, stillness etc.)