Mindfulness is not (only) about stress relief

Breathing is a means of awakening and maintaining full attention in order to look carefully, long, and deeply, see the nature of all things, and arrive at liberation.

– Thich Nhat Hannah, Breathe, You are Alive

When I was at BUD/s, the Navy SEAL selection course, the instructors taught a relaxation technique that they called 4×4 breathing (or box breathing). You breathe in for four seconds, and exhale for four seconds, only paying attention to the breath.

The goal was to help the students calm their nerves before pool evolutions, such as “drown proofing,” where students would have their hands and feet tied and have to navigate the pool for a period of time.

Though the exercise is not particularly difficult in a physical sense, it can often make students panic. In a real life situation, panic in the water means you could drown. The training was designed to teach you NOT to panic and help you survive in potentially future life threatening situations.

Not panicking can save your life. 4×4 breathing would help with that.

But of course, 4 x 4 breathing was not invented by tough guy Navy SEALs.

Anapanasati, or “mindfulness of breathing,” is a Buddhist meditation technique. The technique involves observing the breath, and when inevitably distracted, to acknowledge the distraction and return to the breath.

The goal is to move you closer to nirvana, a realization of “non-self” and interior freedom from desire and suffering.

It is certainly something to aspire to (in that paradoxical Buddhist way in which you’re not supposed to try aspire to it).

However, in our current culture, this ancient meditation technique is being used not only by aspiring Navy SEALs, but by normal, stressed out professionals who want to feel less stressed by their work so they can do more work.

There is a whole mindfulness industry that now offers apps, retreats, and trainings to corporate America to help companies get on board with the mental health and wellness trend.

For example, Headspace, a popular meditation app I tested out during my Buddhism month, offers Headspace for work which is “a science-backed meditation and mindfulness solution for the workplace.”

The thinking is that if employees are stressed and it is impacting their work, an investment in these programs will help them de stress and perform their work more effectively.

There is nothing wrong with stress relief, but it only treats symptoms, not root causes.

If you truly committed to meditation in the context of the Buddhist tradition, you may develop insights that lead to bigger changes in your life. You may find that what is keeping you in the stressful job is an unhealthy attachment to prestige or a very high salary. Once you know this you may even decide to leave your job.

Whatever the deeper insight, the results may lead to something greater than the ability to do more for your employer.

Companies would hate this. 

This is why “mindfulness” companies can’t advertise things like “our mindfulness solutions give your employees deep insight into the nature of the self which will cause them to leave your company to live in the woods.”

Instead, they give you just enough mindfulness to do your job a little better, but not enough to realize that your job may not be worth doing at all.

So don’t be fooled. You can go deeper. And while you may not be an aspiring Navy SEAL, perhaps meditation CAN save your life.