It’s always good to be mindful, or so we’re told. The word mindful shimmers like an oasis of virtue, a haven and safe harbor in the sandstorm of life.

Mindfulness is psychology’s non-denominational name for meditative practice, being deliberately present and letting go of judgment.   Find a quiet place, concentrate on your breathing. As thoughts arise, notice yourself having them and then let them go, dissipated like waves ephemeral–just thoughts; nothing more.

Researchers have substantiated that mindfulness is a potent way to calm chronic pain.  The pain doesn’t go away but becomes less painful.  You accept the pain for what it is and nothing more, no exerted overlay of judgment opposing and resisting it.

Pain is your body’s blaring smoke alarm prone to malfunction. Sometimes it blares when there’s no fire, a false alarm.  You fear something that’s not happening or an imminent danger that isn’t really imminent.  Sometimes chronic pain is phantom pain, an alarm warning you that you’re in trouble when you aren’t.

And of course some chronic pain is real but can’t be ameliorated.  Your spine really is damaged, but medicine, both mainstream and alternative has yet to find a way to heal it.  No false alarm–there is indeed a fire, already as contained as it can be, the alarm blaring yet nothing to be done.   Mindfulness enables you to live with the blaring, cultivating the serenity to accept a blare you cannot change.

So does watching movies, playing video games, getting out of the house to be with friends or doing whatever else you find stimulating.  There are many ways to distract ourselves from the blare of pain, upstaging its negative stimulation with a more stimulating positive alternative.

Mindfulness however is upstaging pain with lower stimulation, not higher. Watching your breath isn’t as stimulating as watching an action movie. Rather, mindfulness is a practice for un-jading yourself, training your mind to focus more on what stimulates less.

Mindfulness trains you also to focus on the painful stimulation itself not its thought-ridden implications. Hear the blare as just a blare, not a call to action. Notice that, as a sound, the blare isn’t itself terrifying.   It’s just a sound. Its implications come to mind; you let those implications go away. Concentrate on the sensation itself, and on your breathing, under-stimulating though it may be, and through your focus find it more stimulating.

Imagine what power you would have if you mastered mindfulness. You would have in your repertoire the ability to withstand any pain you choose, the power to let go of any thought you found fruitless, like the athletic power to lift heavy weights, but more useful, since in our daily lives we’re called upon to lift the weight of painfully deadweight thoughts off our shoulders far more often than we’re called upon to actually weightlift.

Mindfulness’s roots are in religious and spiritual practices, where it’s not touted as a practice to build a capacity for serenity into your repertoire, but as a way of life.  In Buddhism or certain Christian sects, meditation isn’t just a healthy hobby like physical exercise; it’s the path to enlightenment, to some exalted state promoted as life’s highest calling.  The goal is to be mindful all the time. Never pass judgment; always accept everything as it is.  We find Buddhist teaching tales about monks who converted enemies into fellow practitioners by proving themselves completely accepting of their own deaths. The warrior comes at the master with a sword; the master says “ah-so” with a beneficent smile.

Within these traditions it often sounds like the goal is to become impervious, serenely accepting of everything as merely what is. If suffering comes from clinging don’t cling to anything. Be like the prince of peace. Let them nail you to a cross without preference for any other state. The alarm is blaring; you don’t mind. The alarm isn’t blaring; you don’t mind. Mindfulness as never minding–it’s all good.

Is mindfulness a useful exercise, an elective hobby for those who want to add skills to their repertoires, or is it the one true path to enlightenment? The spiritually inclined tend to tout it as the latter, I suspect for three reasons.

First, mindfulness practice isn’t inherently the funnest ride in life’s amusement park.  Few of us are naturally inclined to tear ourselves away from more high stimulus activities, plop ourselves on zafus and watch ourselves breathe, the spiritual equivalent of watching paint dry.

Indeed, mindfulness may be one of the more challenging things we ever ask our minds to do. Minds are highly evolved to attend fascinatedly to change, not similarity.  I count two practices in which we ask people to sustain superhuman fascination with what doesn’t change.  One is mindfulness; the other is marriage, and we romance the heck out of both, with mindfulness by romancing enlightenment; with marriage, by romancing happily ever after.  The more inherently unchanging an activity, the more we have to exaggerate the advantages of staying fascinated with it.  Marry for eternal joy; meditate for the enlightenment of eternal equanimity.

Second, it’s harder to sell negative psychology than positive psychology.  If you sell mindfulness meditation as a way for the pathologically over-anxious to calm their extraordinarily frail nerves, you’ll get a few takers, but if you say that mindfulness is a way for you, a normal person to become a superior person, you’ll get far more.  After all, which would you rather have people see you reading, a book entitled “How to stop being an exceptionally troubled stress-bunny,” or “The path to exceptional wisdom”?

Third, we tend to exaggerate how much we should do whatever we’re unlikely to do as much as we should. If, for example, you’re not mindful enough, and react to every little alarm, you might try to convince yourself not just to react less but never react.  The advice is simpler that way, easier to apply without adjudication. And what’s the harm in aiming for always being mindful?  You don’t have to worry that you’ll succeed. No one ever does. Chalk up to human imperfection your failure to live up to your “always be mindful” standard.

I think the mindfulness movement borrows too heavily from its spiritual roots, distracting us from the most important question we face.  The smoke alarm is there for a reason.  If absolute mindfulness’s were ever mastered and we effortlessly accepted all pain, it would be like taking the battery out of the smoke alarm. Since some fires are real, dangerous and quenchable, being without a smoke alarm is an unjustifiably dangerous state to cultivate. When it goes off, you want to think about its implications and decide whether it’s a blare worth attending to or ignoring.

Which pains to get over and which ones to attend to—that is the question and one that extreme mindfulness professes can be addressed with a blanket dismissal. “Get over them all.”

Challenge proponents of chronic mindfulness on this and they’ll tend to start prevaricating, adding caveats that undermine the absolute pro-mindfulness stance they insist on holding:

Of course you still think about the implications of your pain but you just notice them, not judging them but accepting them all as equally insignificant and letting them all go. In other words think about them, but don’t.

Of course thoughts have consequences. That’s why we’re saying it’s better to cling to them because they are completely dispensible. In other words thoughts have negative consequences, so don’t think about them because they don’t have consequences.

We’re saying don’t judge your thoughts because thoughts are judgmental.  In other words, judge having thoughts as worse than not having them.

Mindfulness is the better state, the one in which no thought gets priority. In other words the thought of mindfulness is a better because no thought is better.

We’re not promoting mindfulness. That would be judgmental. We’re just observing that mindfulness is an option that yields certain kinds of results. Saying that one thing results in another is a thought, and if the results are generally desirable, taking about what causes those desirable results is tantamount to promoting it. For example saying “exercise results in a longer healthier life” while stated as a fact is actually a judgmental promotion, given the human preference for longer healthier lives.

Mindfulness isn’t an argument against thinking about the future or the past. You just want to do so mindfully in the present.  In other words feel free to think about the future and past but just don’t think about the future or the past.

Mindfulness is knowing for sure that in fact you can’t know anything so it’s best to just go along with everything. In other words it’s true that there’s no truth.

Mindfulness is the path to virtue since it makes you unattached to outcomes and therefore the most universally generous and accepting person possible. In other words acceptance is always the best, even if it means being accepting of the most ungenerous behaviors from others.

Of course you fight and hold assumptions and stick to your commitments and principles. Mindfulness doesn’t preclude that. In other words stick to your commitments by letting go of your commitments.

None of this mind-melting pretzel logic arises if you stop clinging to mindfulness as the 24/7 ideal and instead treat mindfulness as a worthy, optional practice for adding to your repertoire a greater capacity to ignore certain smoke alarms.

Or better yet, if we distinguish between two kinds of mindfulness practice:

Offline mindfulness practice:  Take time out of your day to meditate, working to let go of everything on your plate.  Start small, at first practicing in a comfortable place when your mind isn’t consumed by intense thoughts. Gradually get to where, no matter how consumed you are by thoughts you can let go of them for the duration of the exercise, thereby gaining some temporary distance from them.

On-line mindfulness practice: In your day, of course not all thoughts are created equal, not all pain is worth ignoring, not all virtue is in turning the other cheek. Even pacifist pick their battles; no benefit in thinking otherwise, in fact great danger in doing so.

The stated goal of mindfulness as a practice (what I’m calling offline practice) is to gain the power to discern better which alarms to attend to and which to ignore, discernment made more possible when you have in your repertoire the ability to either attend and ignore.

None of us are born with ability to simply say of any intense thought or emotion,  “That’s unworthy of my attention” and then just switch it off.  If we’re going to gain that ability it will be through some practice like mindfulness.

Do mindfulness meditation as a practice, but don’t try it at home 24/7. Don’t try it at work in the potential battlefields of your daily life, where what you really want is best reflected by the serenity prayer as wisdom–the wisdom to know the difference between the alarms worth serenely ignoring and the alarms worth your courageous response.