Saturday, 30 November 2019

Vintage Roots

As modern conceptualisations of mindfulness evolve and expand and, occasionally, stretch to the point of near meaninglessness (mindful mushroom-picking, anyone?), revisiting first principles is a journey worth taking.

Early Buddhist psychology, from which major elements of contemporary theory and practice derive, offers a range of concise definitions and colourful similes to illuminate precisely what the mental quality of mindfulness is and what it does.

Here is a short summary of just one of the numerous categorisations of sati (the term for mindfulness in the Pali Canon). This list relates to the key characteristics of sati’s activity:

Monitoring: Mindfulness is understood to monitor, supervise and steer other mental qualities. It is described as a ‘watchful charioteer’. This simile highlights sati’s qualities of steering and supervision of other mental faculties together with its vigilant nature, which can note specific objects on a journey (inner or outer) whilst simultaneously maintaining a balanced and broad awareness that serves the smooth and successful passage of the journey as a whole. 

Integrating: Mindfulness is a regulative, organising activity in meditation, which notes any lacks and deficiencies, brings in appropriate qualities and suitably applies them.

Stabilising: Mindfulness exerts a stabilising function in regard to sensory distraction, as described in the ‘simile of the post’, which likens six animals to the six sense organs of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. These sense organs can be restrained by the ‘strong post’ of sati, which exerts a stabilising function in regard to sensory distraction through its ability to tether the senses and 'keep them near'. In this way, mindfulness remains aloof and impartial, but also connected to what is happening at the sense doors.

Protecting: Mindfulness guards the mind by helping to prevent the arising of unwholesome states through its clear view of a situation, as highlighted in the ‘simile of the gatekeeper’ (more on that here). Such a protective role comes about through sati’s ability to exert a controlling influence on thoughts and intentions.

Applying ‘detached’ observation: Mindfulness is a calm and non-reactive type of attention, which ‘stands back’ to observe phenomena, rather than interfere with them. It helps one experience all feelings with a detached outlook. This offers a more objective stance towards one’s experience. It is sometimes referred to as ‘bare attention’, a key aspect of sati in that it both encourages sense-restraint and allows one to see things as they have come to be, unadulterated by habitual reactions and projections.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Minding My Own Busyness

Recently, I found myself in a restaurant with three other mindfulness teachers, shovelling Pad Thai down my throat at great speed and with considerable mess. We were discussing meditation between partially digested mouthfuls while repeatedly checking the time.

We were on a short lunch break during a mindfulness conference and, time- and food-wise, had bitten off more than we could chew. Rushing back to the conference, splattered in noodle sauce, still attempting to conclude discussions, I had the vaguest glimmer of knowledge that I wasn’t so much ‘walking my walk’ as stumbling around in a state of mindlessness.

Sure enough, two hours later, during a talk on the importance of a teacher’s embodiment of mindfulness, I discovered myself – partially slouched in a plastic chair, partially propped up against the conference room wall to ease my indigestion – firing off non-urgent emails on my phone.

This was a ‘good’ moment. It reminded me that mindfulness is not about where I go, what I do, who I hang out with, or what labels I attach to ‘me’. It is simpler than all of those.

Simple as in: being sensitive to the cause and effect of actions. Simple as in: being aware of the relationship between stress and response. Simple as in: taking care of body and mind. Simple as in: getting clear about one’s priorities in the here-and-now.

Action Plans

I once received a useful teaching from a car mechanic on how to handle the human tendency for doing too much. He knew his propensity for taking on more jobs than he could handle and further overloading himself by not taking proper holidays. So he would staple together certain pages of his work diary to indicate when he would take breaks from work. Crucially, he would always stick to his plan. Skilful intention, resolution, kindness and care, all manifested with the click of a stapler. Nice work.

Something I’ve been practising myself for a while is to pause when I find myself facing an unconsidered task or situation, and to inwardly pose three questions: Do I need to take this on? Do I want to take this on? What is my intention here? Momentarily stopping and checking in with myself often clarifies how best to proceed.

Of course, I can just as easily forget to do this. These are the times when I find myself biting off more than I can chew, blundering about like a nitwit, and washing off noodle stains afterwards.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Taking the Mick Out of Mindfulness

The commodification of mindfulness as a ‘feel good’ therapy prescribed for personal gain now has a name: McMindfulness. Such a package assumes its rightful place in the burgeoning catalogue of problem-focused, goal-orientated therapies designed to soothe overloaded human minds.

McMindfulness is a fitting product for an ethically unencumbered marketplace trading on human desire and aversion, but it lacks authenticity for this very reason. It also relegates mindfulness to a bland technique dedicated to attaining ‘presence’ and so neglects the practice’s broader purpose of ‘holding in mind’, seeing clearly and remembering what is of value.

When a practice for cultivating awareness becomes blind to itself – and, by extension, its interdependent nature – the awareness that results is partial and sterile.

Dead Calm

Elevating the ‘present moment’ into some kind of special state, or goal, is an easy trap to fall into. Mindfulness practice may be a worthy antidote to getting unhelpfully lost in the past and future, but it can just as easily lead to getting uselessly stuck in the here and now. Chasing the calmness of ‘being present’ is usually the cause of this.

Conversely, skilful practice is about letting go of any insistence to be present and giving up on acquiring calmness. This is a delicate balance and easy to miss – all the more so if we forget to reflect on what we are doing, practice-wise, and why we are doing it. Wise reflection is essential to mindfulness. When we abandon this and lose our spirit of enquiry, something in our practice dies.

Walking the Tightrope

The obstacles are many on the path of mindfulness, but they teach us so much. I have learned the hard way over the years that practice is like walking a tightrope – skill and effort are required and it is possible to lose balance at any moment. I go chasing contentment, only to wind up disappointed. I go chasing ‘enlightenment’, only to remain ignorant. Guess what happens when I try to be ‘a great meditator’!

The good news is that when I give up on chasing, balance restores itself and the practice glides. Such moments bring a refreshing humility – I am engaging with something bigger than and beyond ‘me’. Practice ceases to be a private affair. Mainlined into the flux of existence, I may even, for a fleeting moment, glimpse my non-separation from this world of beings and the ever-changing mystery and wonder of it all.

From: Mindfulness for Unravelling Anxiety, 2016.

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.

Vintage Roots

As modern conceptualisations of mindfulness evolve and expand and, occasionally, stretch to the point of near meaninglessness ( mindful mus...