Thursday, 22 August 2019

No More Heroes

As I noted a few years ago, when assessing the growth of mindfulness in society at large, anything that becomes fashionable is susceptible to dilution and corruption. Uprooted from its ethical foundations, mindfulness can, in theory, be utilized for any number of human endeavours, from assassination and burglary to wine-tasting and golf. But when you divorce mindfulness from empathy, compassion and awareness of causality, what results is little more than a highly attentive, egocentric state of mind that is dissociated from the world around (Mindfulness for Unravelling Anxiety, 2016, pp109-110).

The ignorance, spin and profiteering that occur in regard to mindfulness aren’t new. Nor is the rhetoric of ‘self-mastery’, ‘resilience’ and ‘personal happiness’. Perhaps what is becoming clearer as we approach the third decade of the 21st Century is the inability of the mainstream mindfulness movement to deliver on its promise of a paradigm shift in human society.

Super Size Me

More striking again is the banality of the mainstream. Hollowed out of meaning, mindfulness in the marketplace regularly trades in its depth and mystery for a generous splash of self-promotion as the quickest fix in town.

McMindfulness is everywhere and aptly named. As Ronald Purser notes in a recent article in The Guardian, just as burgers and fries at McDonald’s are the same wherever you go, there is a similar lack of variation in the content and structure of mindfulness courses around the world.

This is evidenced by the manifold programmes and curricula implemented by a self-appointed establishment of training organisations, which refuses to engage with issues of social and economic justice, environmental destruction, climate destabilisation and cultural toxicity. The movers and shakers of mainstream mindfulness have opted to play no part in the revolution they once proclaimed for our interrelated, interdependent world.

Purser outlines how these programmers have reduced themselves to promoting a product – a market-friendly palliative offering new and improved ways of handling life’s rat race whilst insisting that one remain a rat. (Not a problem if you are a rat, but you’re not).

Mindless Nation

We are trapped in a “neoliberal trance”, says Purser, quoting what the education scholar Henry Giroux has called a “disimagination machine”, a process that stifles critical and radical thinking. “We are admonished to look inward, and to manage ourselves. Disimagination impels us to abandon creative ideas about new possibilities.”

On this subject, the last time I took any notice of mindfulness in the Press was also in The Guardian (see here). On this occasion, however, it was definitely business as usual: a puff piece about a meditation pod that is custom-made for office workers. The idea is that you “step in” and “float out” a few minutes later, then get back to work. About as world changing as a cigarette break, then?

What grabbed my attention was not the underwhelming pod but the accidental precision with which the writer captured something of our brave new mindful world: “Meditation used to be about the quest for deep existential truths: the inner peace it fostered was a side-effect that took off, like the discovery of Post-it notes by scientists who were trying to create the world’s strongest glue.”

What a nifty way of inadvertently summarising the collision of ancient wisdom and modern world. Yes, I know, this is usually described as a ‘meeting’ or ‘encounter’, but such words do no justice to the dismemberment and ruin that are becoming apparent.

The normal routine for rounding off articles on mindfulness is with a little flourish – something upbeat and positive that seeks to remove any need for the reader to sit with uncomfortable truths. Well, I’m not going to do that, not this time.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Hot Off The Press

Once in a while, an article about mindfulness appears in the mainstream Press that is worth reading. The standard fare about calming down / spacing out / focussing in / floating off / etc. / etc. / etc. takes a break. The smooth flow of sound bites about inner peace and the scientifically proven health benefits of meditation drops to a hush. Into the space pops an insightful and refreshing critique of what’s really going on.

This year’s contribution came courtesy of The Guardian, along with the confusing title ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ (read it here). Fortunately, the spin stops at the title, most likely because the author, Ronald Purser, is no lifestyle journalist, but that rare combination of a recognised authority who is unafraid to ask searching and difficult questions of other authorities.

Even if you have only a cursory interest in mindfulness, Purser’s piece deserves a read. He documents how secular mindfulness, having found itself as a major player in the ‘mood economy’, is succumbing to a graceless slide into a swamp of greed and exploitation – the very swamp it was designed to steer practitioners away from in the first place.

Selling the Family Silver

Here lies the perennial problem of all liberation movements, whether they be ‘inner’ or ‘outer’: what starts out as a revolution becomes a surrender. In this case, the quest for a better life, a fairer world, gets hijacked, privatised and co-opted for social, economic and political control. According to Purser, the commodification of mindfulness has left it “void of a moral compass or ethical commitments, unmoored from a vision of the social good.”

In recent years, a lucrative self-help industry has found ingenious ways of packaging mindfulness and selling it as a technique for stress-reduction and “personal life-hacking optimisation.” In so doing, its practice often degrades into a form of “auto-exploitation” whereby it merely aids one’s capacity to cope with the socio-economic toxicity that precipitated one’s stress in the first place.

Who could have predicted that, only a decade ago, the so-called mindfulness revolution would wind up as the touchy-feely arm of a profiteering medico-wellbeing industry that never wastes an opportunity to pathologise stress in order to generate rationales, remedies and treatments for it?

More on this subject in the next post.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Life By Autocue

As outlined in the previous post, it can be tricky to fully know what the mind is up to, moment to moment, as life unfolds in its typically novel, mundane, stimulating and ambiguous ways.

Investigating this process through mindfulness reveals intriguing truths about the behaviour of the mind. Many mental responses, such as reactivity to perceived threats, are hardwired. Learned habits and tendencies can seem equally fixed. Through practising awareness, we come to realise that we routinely operate in automatic ways.

Automaticity is not a bad thing. It confers advantages through allowing mental attention to dexterously flit to phenomena unrelated to the task-in-hand. Hence we can walk down a street and fiddle on our phones and make plans for next week because the act of walking down a street is not something we need to figure out or perfect anymore.

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

The downside to automaticity is that we fail to show up for the occasion of our own lives and so rob ourselves of its innate vividness and some of its joys. You probably know the experience (retrospectively at least) of becoming so distracted that you lose all sense of what happens next, only to ‘come to’ sometime later.

The potential for profound disconnection from present moment experience is all the greater in this age of the internet and social media. With powerful technologies at our fingertips, we are encouraged and seduced into consuming information speedily and superficially. How our minds love to skim vast directories of language and inexhaustible banks of imagery in their quest for instant gratification.

Even when we are relatively undistracted and alive to our sensory experience, it is easy for our minds to unconsciously react to a flutter of boredom, a pang of desire or an unpleasant sensation and, before we know it, our fingers are swiping screens and our eyes or ears are glued to some arbitrary object in a virtual world. Before smartphones came along, the possibilities for such mental hijacking weren’t quite so endless.

Non-Superficiality

When we get distracted, we act without awareness of acting, that is, we do not see and comprehend what is happening as it is happening. Often it goes something like this: a subtle feeling arises, either pleasant or unpleasant (e.g. sensual desire, boredom, restlessness); the mind reacts either by seeking to maintain or build up the feeling, if it’s pleasant, or to flee from or get rid of the feeling, if it’s unpleasant; this impulse leads to action, such as the physical act of reaching for a phone or the mental act of going into thought and fantasy.

By contrast, when there is an awareness of the initial feeling, this chain reaction does not happen in the same way. The mind does not run off. It stays with the felt experience. Blind reactivity abates. Actions arise out of clear intentions. There is a sense of stability and agency.

This is mindfulness: the ability to stay with experience for a prolonged time, and to really investigate it in detail. It is the opposite of distractedness. One of the classical characterisations of mindfulness (from the Abhidhamma, an early collection of teachings in the Buddhist tradition) is ‘non-superficiality’. Mindfulness does not skim over the surface or ascertain in a shallow way. It sinks into an object and facilitates a deeper knowing of it.

When you are mindful, experience deepens. This is a natural capacity you have, which is cultivated through practice. It is a lot more likely to happen when your phone is switched off.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

How’s It Going?

Can you recall, in precise detail, everything that happened for you in the moments just before you started reading this? The mental flowchart of choice-making and intention? The spontaneous co-ordination of your senses? The myriad micro-movements of your body’s muscles, tendons and ligaments?

Probably not. Even if you think you can, try extending the same question to the last five minutes of your life, which will appear as a blur of changing moments, some of which you may be able to account for, but many of which you won’t.

This is quite normal. Life flows. It's always changing. We have an experience. We remember bits of it. Mostly we don’t. Most of what happens vanishes like a dream. We like to think we are in charge of our experience when, in fact, minds are running on auto-pilot much of the time, rendering us oblivious to such facts of existence. Becoming clearer about this – getting real about it – is a central project of mindfulness practice.

You Are Reading This

Consider, for example, your experience of reading this blog. Have there been occasions when you’ve noticed that, although you thought you were reading the words and taking them in, your attention had wandered to something else entirely? And then you realized that you couldn’t remember the last bit you read?

Perhaps you decided to retrace your steps. Maybe you went back a few words or lines and read them again, only to discover that they were vaguely familiar? If you did, well spotted for noticing that your mind had wandered in the first place.

Here’s what happened. You definitely experienced those words, otherwise they would not be familiar, right? But you weren’t aware of them. Experience and awareness are different. The word ‘experience’ comes from the Latin experiri, meaning ‘to try’. The word ‘awareness’ comes from the Greek horan, which means ‘to see’.

Experience implies participating in an event while awareness implies an observation, or overview, of that participation. So, on one level, you engaged with those ‘missing’ words but, on another level, you didn’t. During those moments, the aware part of you failed to show up. This is mindlessness in action.

By contrast, that moment you ‘woke up’ to the fact that you had drifted, you assumed a position of both participant and observer. This is mindfulness in action.

Monday, 1 April 2019

The Social Value of Mindfulness (2)

There is something inherently conscientious about mindfulness. Practitioners often spontaneously clarify or develop ethical sensibilities despite having no prior intellectual knowledge of this side-effect of practice. Such experiences reflect pre-modern formulations of mindfulness.

The English word ‘mindfulness’ is a rendering of the ancient Indian term sati (more on that here), which means ‘recollection’. To recollect, expressed in the negative, is to be non-forgetful and non-distracted. The implication is that sati denotes the empowering of qualities of alertness and care.

This is neatly encapsulated in the Buddhist simile of the gatekeeper. A gatekeeper needs to be watchful and diligent in order to do the job. The job here is understood to be ‘guarding’ the mind, that is, being circumspect with what is passing through the mind, what is being constructed in the mind and what the effects of this will be.

Such a gatekeeper is envisioned as a sort of naturally wise, ethically sensitive, health and safety officer, who helps to keep out the foolishness and carelessness we are prone to while granting ready access to all the beneficial and wholesome mental qualities at our disposal.

Heedfulness

In Buddhist psychology, conducting one’s life in a resolutely mindful fashion is called appamada, which translates as ‘non-neglect or non-absence of sati’ or, expressed in its positive, ‘heedfulness’. Sati, established as appamada, is understood to have a social as well as an individual value – others necessarily benefit from one’s own practice of mindfulness.

How so? By being aware of one’s motives, thoughts, words and deeds, and their impact of oneself and others, one becomes clearer about what needs to be done, and what should be left undone. That is, one begins to relate to life appropriately by making clear ethical choices. One becomes more ‘response-able’.

Such a comprehensive taking care of life is what links mindfulness organically to friendliness – the willingness to move close to, respect and connect with. Whatever shows up, we breathe with it, respond intentionally, observe what happens and learn from the experience.

Friday, 1 March 2019

The Social Value of Mindfulness (1)

Sometimes touched upon in contemporary training courses, but more often ignored or overlooked, is the ethical dimension of mindfulness. What, you might ask, has individual mind-training and solitary meditation got to do with ethical action?

In its simplest sense, to meditate is to develop your capacity to be on better terms with yourself. The intention, therefore, is to empower a harmonious and authentic relationship with one’s psycho-physical organism. Meditation is a friendly activity directed towards oneself.

Similarly, regardless of whatever you’re doing the rest of the time, while you are meditating you are neither engaging in nor intending to harm anyone or anything else. Meditation is, even by this minimal measure, a friendly activity towards other beings.

But the ethical dimension of practice goes much deeper. When we pay close attention to our experience, we invariably begin to discover more about the many shades of our mind, some of which are not so bright – the selfish impulses, the harsh judgements and distasteful prejudices that trickle through it and, indeed, cloud over it.

Guilt, shame, animosity, resentment, fear and hate… Oh yes, the whole toxic emotional cocktail resides within! Can we be honest, at least with ourselves, about that? Can we be on friendly terms with it all? Being honest and being friendly are what this practice patiently demands of us.

Cause and Effect

The intimacy of meditation can bring into stark profile the confusion, not to mention moral ambivalence, of the average human mind – all those “should I or shouldn’t I?” questions that nibble at the conscience.

As we pay attention, we begin to see and feel how certain movements in the mind, or the recollection of past actions and styles of behaviour, create mental disturbance in the here-and-now. We can experience this presently and directly in meditation.

The paradox is that such an experience is liberating. We become more attuned to cause and effect – how the way we act affects our mind, and vice versa. This leads to making healthy, skilful choices or, at least, to minimizing the painful impact of selfish, ignorant ones. We might already know, in our heads, that it is difficult to have a peaceful meditation practice if we are heavily invested in lying, stealing and abusing others. But to know that in our hearts is revolutionary.

In this way, the influence of mindful awareness extends from the solitude of formal meditation to quietly effecting change in the world. Behaviours adjust naturally towards the benign. Minds gravitate naturally towards the skilful. We come to realise, beyond doubt, that acting in friendly, fair and compassionate ways is better for everyone, including ourselves.

Friday, 1 February 2019

The Proliferating Mind

I sit down to meditate. I commit the next minutes of my life to the practice of mindfulness of breathing. The meditation bell sounds to signal the start. A few moments pass. I notice a mild pang of hunger in my belly. An image of chocolate – its taste, texture and colour – flashes across my mind. I note this and gently, patiently, return attention to the breath.

More moments pass. Sensations in my belly continue to draw my attention. Somewhere far in the background there is a vague knowing that my mind is discreetly launching one of its advertising campaigns to convince me that the desire for food is more fulfilling than meditation. I know from experience this is not true, but I am prone to forgetting, which is what happens next.

Off to the Movies

Before I’m wise to it, the cinema screen of my mind is spontaneously manifesting assorted scenes from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It then proceeds, for no apparent reason, to critique Gene Wilder’s performance in the lead role before tumbling headlong into a miscellany of Gene’s movies – random scenes, bits of dialogue, a hodgepodge of sound and vision. Little do I know it but my mind has galloped off to the movies and mindfulness of breathing is history…

… What an intriguing guy Gene Wilder was... Such a great face… The way he seemed to hold in all that emotion, you never quite knew what was going on with him.... I wonder how he chose his parts… I wonder what he was like in real life… That scene in Blazing Saddles when he raises his voice in that funny way of his reminds me of that weird song he sings on the boat trip in the Chocolate Factory… oh yeah, chocolate… Young Frankenstein was funny, though, wasn’t it?… What about his mate Richard Pryor’s stand-up? He must’ve been outrageous back in the day…

On and on chatters the mind.

… and how about Bill Hicks?… He was dynamite… His skit about the first Gulf War was razor-sharp… The media frenzy around that war was out of control, wasn’t it?… They used to call the Vietnam War “the first television war”, didn’t they?... That documentary on Vietnam narrated by Peter Coyote was a cut above the usual, wasn’t it?... Peter Coyote was in ET, wasn’t he?… I didn’t think I was going to watch all that documentary… But I did, didn’t I?… Ten episodes in all, yeah… It’s a pity the hard drive didn’t record half of one of the episodes… Was it Episode 3 or 4?... I can’t remember…

And on and on.

… What a shame that old Vietnam movie, Go Tell The Spartans, starring Burt Lancaster and that other guy whose name I can’t remember, didn’t get more acclaim at the time… It was ahead of its time… At least a year ahead of Apocalypse Now… Or was it two?... Burt was great… His character in The Swimmer was tragic and deluded... That last scene is kind of eerie… I remember watching that film while eating three bags of salt and vinegar crisps… That’s one bag of crisps too many, isn’t it?… I’m really hungry… Some chocolate would be nice… Willy Wonka had a factory full of the stuff, didn't he?... What an intriguing guy Gene Wilder was…

The interval bell sounds marking the halfway point of the meditation period.

Double Bill

The sound of the bell triggers a momentary retrieval of awareness, though not for long. All this mental monkeying about has gathered energy around itself. It fires up again and blasts off in a new direction…

… This is useless… I haven’t even started meditating… Why do I never learn?... It’s really simple, just watch the breath… Stop wasting your time and focus… Focus focus focus… Why has this happened to me?... Is it just me?... Maybe it’s just me!?... What if I never sort this out?... Maybe everyone can meditate, but I can’t… Concentrate, concentrate!… No, relax, don’t push, then concentrate… Gentle, easy does it… One moment at a time… I’m pretty sure it was Episode 4 that got lost on the hard drive… I definitely watched all of Episode 3… The one after Episode 2, that’s right… I wonder what’s up with the hard drive… It was a cut above average, that series… They called Vietnam “the first television war”, didn’t they?...

There comes a point when I wake up to what’s happening – the wandering, the reminiscing, the brooding. The sheer nonsense of it all. I catch the mind blundering about its virtual universe, storyboarding its own demented manoeuvres. Finally, I am awake to what is actually going on. I have recollected my intention to practise mindfulness of breathing. And, right then, the bell rings to signal the end of the meditation period!

No Refunds

If such an experience during meditation is in any ways familiar to you, know that you are not alone. Human minds are prone to conceptual proliferation. The content may vary but the process is the same. In the example above, note the webs of thought that spin outwards and loop in inconsequential patterns. Note the chains of association and petty judgements. Note the implicit self-absorption and self-referencing. Note the lack of awareness of this self-view. Note the lack of empowerment of the intention to be present to what is occurring in the here and now with equanimity. In terms of meditation, note the complete waste of time.

Conceptual proliferation is the tendency of the mind, once triggered by some perception or other, to ‘spread outwards’ into strings of thought that appear solid and real, not ephemeral and ever-changing. This gives rise to a strong sense of ‘me’ (the thinker and believer of the thoughts) that is separate from the world ‘outside of me’.

This invariably leads to a sense of tension or pressure because there is some longing for something I haven’t got or frustration at things not being the way I want them to be. Since this process is happening out of awareness, no insight is possible. Therefore, the mind learns nothing and keeps tangling itself up in its own nets. When ‘I’ finally wise up to what’s happening, at best it’s been a farce. If the thought-content is less innocuous, it may well feel more like a horror movie. Whatever the emotional impact, it’s always a waste of time.

Start Again

When you spot conceptual proliferation in action, this is a ‘good’ moment, that is, a moment of strong mindfulness. Stay attentive. Watch the show without getting lost in it. Refuse to be seduced. Become aware of emotional responses to the wordplay and imagery of the mind. Feel the feelings. Explore how emotions build themselves up through thoughts. Can you feel the restlessness of the mind in the body? Can you sense the compulsive energy to leap from thought to thought? Keep watching. Keep feeling. If you lose track, start again, one moment at a time. Ease and clarity can flourish under such conditions.

Another route out of conceptual proliferation is to track back through the chain of thought that led to the whole blossoming of nonsense in the first place. When you notice your mind has wandered off, review the thoughts that have arisen to find where they arose from. It will likely be some sort of association with a bodily sensation, sound, smell, random memory or idea. When you find what it is, stay with that, just recognising it and feeling its resonance. Just for a few moments. Then let go and return to the breath. Start again. Spending an entire sitting period ‘starting again’ is, in meditation terms, time well spent.

No More Heroes

As I noted a few years ago, when assessing the growth of mindfulness in society at large, anything that becomes fashionable is susceptible t...