Mindfulness and the Value of Being in the Present Moment

I recently read Ruth Whippman's New York Times Sunday Review Opinion entitled, Actually, Let's Not Be in the Moment.  Her thoughts inspired me to think deeply about the value of mindfulness and being in the present moment.  Together with some mindfulness teachers around the country, we have been sharing our thoughts in response to this article, which I wanted to share with all of you.
I understand Ms. Whippman's frustrations about mindfulness, but I am afraid that she has misunderstood the practice of mindfulness itself. The danger in the modern teaching of mindfulness is that many are looking at it as a "quick fix" to our problems and a short-cut to happiness without fully understanding what it actually is and how to practice it.

I have seen firsthand over the past seven years the benefits of mindfulness being taught in schools, in inner city youth programs, in hospitals, in prisons and in private classes.  My fear is that many people who would benefit greatly from mindfulness will read this article and never try this incredibly helpful practice.

My colleague, Julie Bayer Salzman, sent the following response to the New York Times, which I think sums up so many important points.

A letter from a wonderful colleague to the New York Times . . .

After reading Ms. Whippman’s account of her experience with Mindfulness, I encourage her to continue her practice, not abandon it. Her frustration is normal, and I believe stems from a common misconception about Mindfulness. Mindfulness is not about "constantly policing our thoughts away from the past, the future, the imagination or the abstract"; it is simply about being aware of what we're thinking, how we're feeling, or what is happening in and around us, at any given moment. There is no judgment in the practice; there is only awareness. Nor is there shame in a wandering mind – we all have them! But most of us, too, can probably identify with the distress that comes from a mind that is constantly preoccupied with either the past or future, and cannot focus on the present. There is a practical benefit to training the mind to stay present, and a reason it’s referred to as a “practice” as opposed to a philosophy.

Her statement that "we give inner-city schoolchildren mindfulness classes rather than engage with education equality" disregards the proof that teaching kids mindfulness has positive effects on not just the individual child, but the classroom as a whole. Obviously there are issues that need to be fixed in an educational system that tries to find quick and easy solutions to deep, systemic problems, but that has nothing to do with the relevance of Mindfulness in the 21st century classroom.

Overall, though I understand her tone is intentionally witty and sarcastic, I am disheartened to know that this “opinion” is going to be read by millions of Times readers and add to the various misinterpretations of the practice that already exist. The essence of Mindfulness has been diluted and distorted, leading people to believe it is something it is not. It is not about “not thinking”, or being calm, or even finding happiness. Though a degree of happiness (perhaps “contentment” is a better word) and present-moment awareness are by-products of the practice, they are not the goal of the practice itself. Actually, there is no goal. It is in the "doing" that "being" arises.

At the end of her piece, Ms. Whippman writes: "rather than expending our energy struggling to stay in the Moment, we should simply be grateful that our brains allow us to be elsewhere." That's the one statement where I am in agreement with her, precisely because of my practice - for gratitude is at the core of the work (yes, even being grateful for a wandering mind!). The “struggle” need only exist for as long as one chooses.

It takes time for Mindfulness to take root, and the guidance of people/organizations who really know what they’re doing. I hope she does not give up.

The danger in choosing Ms. Whippman's  course of avoiding our reality by constantly escaping into a dream of some possible future happiness is that we can live our whole lives doing this only to realize one day that that brighter future has happened and we missed out on ever materialized, and we have actually missed so much of our lives by refusing to be awake and present for it. 
- Julie Bayer Salzman