18 January 2021

Origin of the Species

With its assimilation into popular culture as an everyday life practice, the story of where mindfulness came from often gets obscured, if not ignored. If you live in the West and are curious as to how you wound up sitting cross-legged on a cushion while watching your breath, here is a very potted history of mindfulness (in reverse chronological order).

It makes sense to begin with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the American molecular biologist who is sometimes regarded as a founding father of mindfulness due to his development of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme at the University of Massachusetts in the 1980s. It is true that Kabat-Zinn offers a significant starting point for the so-called ‘mindfulness movement’, but in terms of how mindfulness came to the West, he is merely the latest fresh-faced star in a much older and richer epic.

The Burmese Connection

Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues took their cue directly from Eastern meditation teachers – the kind whom westerners first began having large-scale contact with during the 1960s when travel to South-East Asia and the Indian subcontinent became a focus of counter-cultural interest. A significant point of contact here was the vipassana (insight) meditation movement. This was a popular outgrowth of Burmese Theravada Buddhism that distilled and democratised formal practices of mindfulness whilst retaining the ethical framework and social vision in which they were embedded. This movement went on to guide and influence many of today’s senior meditation teachers, including Kabat-Zinn’s, in Europe and North America.

Follow the mindfulness trail back further and two interlinking stories come to the fore. First, there is a revival of interest in particular meditation styles and techniques in late 19th/early 20th Century Burma, which was engaged in a counter-imperialist struggle against Britain at the time. The figureheads of this revival were the teachers who taught the teachers who taught the westerners of the 1960s.

The same colonial period also gave rise to the first serious western interest in ‘Buddhism’ – a term invented by British academics and missionaries. Some of these westerners ordained as monastics and became the first Europeans to self-identify as Buddhists. Others took up the subject for the purposes of academic enquiry, which would later prove just as significant. These developments took place in the context of what became known as Buddhist Modernism: the cultural fusion of traditional Buddhism and Western-style critiques of religion.

The Indian Connection

All Buddhist traditions, Burmese or otherwise, naturally trace their roots to the historical Buddha of ancient India. By virtue of curiosity, determination and liberal doses of good luck, European explorers in Asia during the 19th Century did the same by initiating a rediscovery of a longstanding tradition that had all but died out in its homeland.

Through chance detections of long-buried ruins, laborious excavations and the piecemeal deciphering of inscriptions on ancient relics, they wove together a tapestry of irrefutable facts about a distant past. This helped to give flesh and bones to a historical figure that many had, until then, thought a myth. Siddhattha Gotama, also known as ‘the Buddha’ – an honorific title meaning ‘one who is awake’ – turned out to be an Indian sage from the 5th Century BCE and, as it transpired, the architect of the core methods and forms of mindfulness in use today.

The Global Connection

In the centuries after his death, Gotama’s teachings were passed on, first by word of mouth, then in written formats, and later translated, reclassified, interpreted and reinterpreted. They travelled in all directions and in numerous forms. 

To the north, they melded with Taoism in China and also came to dominate religious life in Tibet. To the east, they manifested in what became known as Zen. From here, they would eventually sail the Pacific to pop up in North America, decades before Kabat-Zinn was born. Kabat-Zinn did not invent anything, rather he blended pre-existing Theravada and Zen practices with American Transcendentalism. He rebranded this composite as a scientific method that would be palatable to Western healthcare paradigms. The success of this rebranding exercise is what makes him deserving of a place in the story of mindfulness.

It would appear that Gotama’s teachings also went west during the Hellenistic period (1st - 3rd Centuries BCE), where they mingled with some of the practical philosophies thriving in ancient Greece, such as the Stoicism and Epicureanism.

The rest, as they say, is history.

18 November 2020

Jumping the Sharks (II)

If you are interested in how mindfulness can contribute meaningfully to the world you inhabit, there are two angles you could take on Mindful Escapes, the BBC’s “bold new genre of recycled nature footage overlaid with generic meditation instructions. One is that it’s no big deal – a pleasant arrangement of imagery on the old gogglebox and a harmless way to spend some downtime. Besides, if it’s a mindfulness revolution you’re after, it will not be televised.

The other angle is to see the programme as both a symptom and product of something that has gone terribly wrong with the transmission of mindfulness – a deceptive advert for its practices and a sign of what is to come in our brave new mindful world. For here is a high-profile broadcast – a likely introduction to the subject for many – that endorses experiential avoidance. On every level, this is antithetical to mindfulness. 

Reality Check

Image courtesy of Michael Leunig
Narrator Andy Puddicombe, who is an influential figure in the meditation business courtesy of Headspace, claims that Mindful Escapes is “an immersive experience that merges the external world with our internal landscape.” What does this mean (if it means anything at all)? Are viewers supposed to have a jhana experience? Or perhaps some kind of tech-induced altered state – like in the movie Videodrome but without the brain tumours? Well, it didn’t work for me (or anyone else I know). 

If Mindful Escapes ‘does’ anything, it is to pacify, to lull and, most of all, to dissuade from any need to know. Contrast this to the regular, longstanding objectives of mindfulness practice: to sensitise, to empathise, to see clearly, to take responsibility, to live heartfully. If there were a Trade Descriptions Act for mindfulness programmes, this one would never have aired. 

Tranquillity 2.0

Watching this programme brought to mind something mental health-related I once read. It concerned a new and amazing intervention that went public in the 1950s. Like mindfulness, it had an eleven-letter name beginning with ‘m’ and no-one had ever seen anything like it. Meprobamate was billed as a cure for anxiety and an enhancer of happiness. It was endorsed by celebrities and became a household name as the first “tranquilliser” (under the brand name Miltown). Its apparently miraculous effects on the general population’s well-being didn’t last long. By 1970, it had been listed as a controlled substance due to its potential for abuse and dependency. 

Meprobamate’s inventor had been talked into calling it a tranquilliser by renowned psychopharmacologist Nathan Kline because “the world needs tranquillity [and] you will sell ten times more.” Perhaps his words ring some bells in relation to the mindfulness zeitgeist. In its heyday, Meprobamate promised so much. It sold massively and fortunes were made from it. It proved to be destructive and left untold suffering in its wake. It continues to offer a pertinent lesson in never, ever, believing the hype. 

The Wisdom of No Escapes

When it comes to mindfulness, how do you tell the real thing from the copy? Well, one is an open-hearted embrace of the world in all its depth and mystery, joys and hardships; its essential characteristic is non-superficiality. The other is about self-absorption and favours image over reality; its essential characteristic is shallowness. We need to discern for ourselves which is which but, suffice to say, a clue that we’re on the right track is when our practice inclines us towards participating considerately in life and relating to those around us as fellow beings, not as objects. 

And what might be the purpose of such a mindful life? A Zen master answered this a thousand years ago in three words: “an appropriate response”. Stripped down, mindfulness practice is always about wise engagement with the world, inner and outer. 

However, the human psyche is hardwired to disengage from that which is too difficult or disturbing to bear, so we have our work cut out. Faced with a pandemic and a global environmental crisis it is understandable that we may seek – as the makers of Mindful Escapes irresponsibly seem to advocate – to numb ourselves against painful realities and/or get lost in denial. But every time we wise up, open up and find a compassionate response, we make ourselves available to the world again. In so doing, our practice is enlivened. 

There is nothing enlivening about Mindful Escapes. On the contrary, it is stultifying. How senseless that, in the name of mindfulness, its BBC producers intentionally discarded their resident expert David Attenborough’s vital message about the climate crisis. How embarrassing that Andy Puddicombe, despite his perennial enthusiasm for touting his ex-Buddhist monk credentials, in the name of mindfulness blew a golden opportunity to back his ex-teacher HH Dalai Lama’s tireless appeal to confront ecological destruction. How depressing that mindfulness, in the mainstream lexicon, can deputise so comfortably for dissociative behaviour.

Free-To-Air Mindfulness

In the context of contemplative practices that conduce to empathy and understanding, Mindful Escapes is a kind of death. It belongs behind glass in the burgeoning museum of McMindfulness. It should serve as a warning – not that we need any more of them – for what happens when, to use the old adage, you pick up a snake by the wrong end. 

If there ever is to be a bona fide mindfulness-based nature show on TV, it will extol the virtues of intimately knowing our locale as opposed to spacing out on images of exotic, far-flung places. It will teach us the names of the wildflowers that grow between the cracks in our pavements. It will encourage us to visit the same spots, close to home, over and over again; to become familiar with their delicate and changing details, and to discover the extraordinary within the ordinary. It will urge us to become conscientious protectors of green spaces and our fellow creatures. Most of all, it will encourage us to be sensitive actors, not dumb spectators.

11 November 2020

Jumping the Sharks (I)

Despite big media’s perennial tendency to set a low bar in its coverage of mindfulness (more on that here), observing how it treats the subject can be revelatory. A case in point is Mindful Escapes, a four-part collaboration between the BBC and Headspace, which aired during the UK lockdown. What might this “bold new genre of programming” have to tell us about a developing role for mindfulness in the broadcast media?

Public Health Broadcast

Mindful Escapes hit TV screens at the height of ‘coronanxiety’. The timing was deliberate, with Julian Hector, Head of BBC Studios Natural History Unit, explaining that the pandemic was “a time when the union of the natural world and our mental health could not be more important.” Commissioning editor Sreya Biswas hoped the series would “create conversations about mental health and support audience mental well-being”. BBC programme notes proposed that the show would “relax and rejuvenate” viewers.

In seeking to unite viewer with nature in the service of enhancing well-being, the programmers intended for Mindful Escapes to be therapeutic. Perhaps a more accurate word would be tranquillising. The programme is a slow glide through collections of superbly filmed images of the natural world, each accompanied by sparse and soothing narration – essentially guided meditation instructions – from Headspace’s Andy Puddicombe. 

At its most frenetic, you are watching dolphins at play. The median pace is probably the baby meerkats nodding off while standing up. The show demands so little of the viewer that it’s easy to go the same way as the meerkats. 

Sins of Omission

Perhaps the programme-makers would consider viewers falling asleep to be ‘job done’. Aside from their trite conflations of mindfulness and relaxation, awareness and somnolence, meditating and screen-watching, what is most revealing about Mindful Escapes is what’s missing. 

Scenes of animals hunting and killing have been edited out in favour of calming scenery. There are no sharks, no preying eagles, no mice on the run, not even an insect getting scoffed. Instead we are offered a carefully constructed illusion of the world and invited to lose ourselves in its imagery. This is mindfulness of the tune-in-and-zone-out variety.

The tacit encouragement to dissociate, to avoid any and all discomfort is even more telling in the absence of references to the environmental crisis. Basic facts about the species and habitats we are observing don’t get a look-in. It is beyond irony that the lemur scenes are accompanied by Puddicombe’s platitudes on the jungle being “alive with the sounds of life” at a time when 95% of lemur species are threatened with extinction. For Puddicombe, it seems, context is irrelevant to mindfulness; ergo, it doesn’t matter if polar bears might be starving when they look great on the telly.

Mindfulness in Crisis

Mindful Escapes was a flawed mission from the off. In their misapprehension of what mindfulness actually is – a bright, curious, discerning awareness that provides a foundation for wise choice-making and compassionate responding – the programme-makers managed to edit out this quality rather than add it in. By trading reality for fantasy and awareness for sedation they made a spectacle out of a crisis. If they’d had any sense, they would have taken their cue from resident BBC expert David Attenborough, who has been offering masterclasses in how to be genuinely caring and curiously attentive for decades.

Attenborough’s work has also highlighted the need to understand interdependence and causality – two benchmark qualities of authentic mindfulness practice – if humans and our fellow creatures are to have a future on Earth. In his recent programme, Extinction: The Facts, he warned: “We are facing a crisis. One that has consequences for us all. It threatens our ability to feed ourselves, to control our climate. It even puts us at greater risk of pandemic diseases such as Covid-19.” 

Climate. Covid. Crisis. Attenborough’s message is all about context. The environment is not some exotic abstraction. It is a living, breathing, interpenetrating aspect of everything, including all that is not yet born. Deep down, most humans get this. TV viewing figures for Extinction: The Facts hit 4.5 million – proof if it were needed that people are smart enough and resilient enough to face up to the situation we find ourselves in.

This is a far cry from the world of Mindful Escapes, where Covid-19 is an impetus to forget, to do nothing other than immerse ourselves in pretty pictures and tranquillising words. Welcome to a world where existential facts are disallowed, where the image is preferred to the real thing, where nothing must be allowed to disturb our reverie. And here’s the twist: the dream being offered includes the illusion of being awake. 

Which leaves a pressing question for the world of mindfulness: How on earth did it come to this?

Click here for Part 2.

6 October 2020

Grand Narratives (III)

Where and how do you ‘situate’ mindfulness in your life? The previous two posts overview why this is a valuable question to consider. Wise reflection is an essential part of practice. Without it, we lose our bearings. Similarly, if we do not develop self-reflexivity, we become blind to how we are swayed by assumptions and narratives that may or may not be coherent, useful or true.

Mining your beliefs about mindfulness is always illuminating. It reveals what you identify with and, by extension, something about the nature of identity. It deepens your practice by opening up new channels for it. Nothing is off limits on the path of awareness. Mindfulness meets its potential in its engagement with the fundamentals of existence – meaning, identity, freedom, death – without any compulsive fascination but with the greatest sensitivity.

What’s the Story?

Below are fifteen avenues for self-enquiry. You could parachute any one of them into your depths and see how it lands. You could do this in any way you choose, such as through contemplation, dialogue or artistic expression. The method is not the point. The point is to give time to exploring yourself deeply.

  • Why do I practise mindfulness? In what specific ways does my practice give me a sense that I am making the most out of life?

  • Do I deliberately cultivate or aspire to attain particular mental states through meditation? Why?

  • How is my practice informed by ideas about health and connection? What does health mean to me?
    What about connection?

  • Do I believe that mindfulness practice is linked to wisdom, empathy or ethical engagement? Why? If I hold no such beliefs, what capacities do I believe my practice links to?

  • Who or what garners my interest, respect or adoration in the mindfulness world? Who or what does the opposite, perhaps even repels me? What do my preferences have to tell me?

  • If I achieved my goals in life, what would change about my practice? Would I approach it differently? Would I relate to others and the world differently? What role would mindfulness assume in how I conducted my life?

  • How do I view the current human era? Do I perceive a crisis or end-time? Do I believe there is a great turning, a new era beckoning? Do I believe neither? What ideas does my mind harbour about human existence over time? 

  • Do I hold particular beliefs about the nature of reality? Who or what do I have abiding trust or confidence in? What do the paradigms of science, materialism, religion and spirituality mean to me? How do these relate to practising mindfulness? How are my beliefs in turn affected by my practice? If all such ideas are insignificant to me, do I think that I have no metaphysical beliefs, that I am free of all baggage? If so, what is this belief?

  • What do I consider mind to be? A non-physical, personal faculty? An impersonal process? A function of the brain in the skull? An emergent property of energy? Something else?

  • What do I understand to be the relationship(s) between body and mind? 

  • When I am mindfully aware of thoughts, who or what do I think is doing the thinking?

  • How does my practice contribute to my self-image and/or inform my sense of being part of something bigger than me (e.g. a community of sentient beings, a transcendent value, a cosmological matrix)?

  • How are self-worth, personal popularity, status or material ambition bound up in my motivations to practise? If I think none of these are factors, what other anxieties or insecurities might compel me to keep practising?

  • If I knew I had one month to live, would mindfulness practice figure in my plans? If so, to what degree? What would be meaningful about spending time in this way? 

  • Do I hold particular beliefs about what happens to consciousness upon physical death? How do these beliefs affect my practice?

21 August 2020

Grand Narratives (II)

Since its emergence in mainstream culture, ‘mindfulness’ has come to denote many things: a mental quality, a meditative practice, a stress-relieving tool, a clinical intervention, an uplifting way of doing something, to name but a few. 

‘Being mindful’ is now a popular phrase that straddles a spectrum of meanings, from the frivolity of eating one piece of chocolate at a time to the potentially life-transforming experience of sitting an intensive meditation retreat. 

The Profound and the Profane

The concept of mindfulness is flexible and adaptable. Hence, even at the clinical end of the spectrum, in programmes like MBCT and MBSR, where mindfulness is sometimes called an ‘intervention’ (i.e. a way to prevent or alter something), you always find poetry recitation forming part of essential course content. 

Poetry is a medium that lends itself to the provocation of perplexity and wonder. It seeks, even demands, no end meaning. Yet here you find it rubbing shoulders with the sterile language of ‘symptom management’ that characterises evidence-based mental health protocols. 

Conceptually speaking, mindfulness seems to have developed an ingenious ability for bridging the divide between the soulful and the scientific while still leaving room for nibbling that singular chocolate. Cap doffed.

Part of this versatility can be explained by the fact that mindfulness is still establishing itself in western culture. Like many fancy foreign imports, it will need time to move through its fad/fashion/fetishised stages before discovering where it truly fits. This is a process, one that every practitioner contributes to. A decade from now, mindfulness will be closer to finding its place as much through your efforts as anyone else’s. 

Reflecting upon how you ‘situate’ mindfulness in your life is a worthwhile exercise. If this is a new idea and you don’t know where to start, below are two different analogies, both from western tradition, that might serve as useful reference points. 

Ornamental Health

The first is from the late 18th Century when, inspired by the ideals of Romanticism, grottos were popular places for affluent members of society to spend time in for the purposes of contemplation. This fashion for meditating in natural surroundings subsequently gave rise to the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit, also known as a garden hermit.

A garden hermit was a man hired by a landowner to inhabit a purpose-built grotto or folly and play the part of a resident contemplative. The deal was that the man had to live permanently on-site while dressing and acting the part. Often this entailed growing a beard, not cutting fingernails and toenails, and speaking to no-one. Occasionally, the hermit might be obligated to break his silence and entertain dinner guests, for example, to offer them the best sagely counsel he could muster. In return for his labour, the hermit received a stipend, free room and board, generous amounts of downtime and an excuse not to wash. 

The hermit was a kind of live-action, one-man theatre which everyone – dinner guests included – knew wasn’t fully real. They went along with the show because it was a respectable way for a wealthy person to outsource their spirituality. Here lay the value of the pretence: it gave the landowner a license to flaunt their romantic sentiment and appear to be more ‘contemplative’ than they were. The fashion for garden hermits died out. Their lasting legacy is they are the forerunner for garden gnomes.

Gnome Truths

Garden hermits might seem silly now, a cheesy combo of fashion and façade, but they were an attempt to connect with the majesty and wisdom of nature. At the time, everybody involved followed the charade and imbued it with meaning. They were not unique in this regard. Humans of every era are prone to naïve and superficial interest in life’s profundities, never mind our perennial tendency to privatise and fetishise the spiritual. 

I appreciate the honest insincerity, as it were, of garden hermits. They are a reminder of how easy it is to reduce interfacing with the sublime to something materialistic and literal. When an existential enquiry becomes a ‘thing’, the arcane appears as a sketch. Any authentic encounter with the mysteries of life stands little chance if it is laced with a homogenized formula concocted from other people’s views and opinions.

I find it useful, if uncomfortable, to consider how my mindfulness practice might, at times, resemble a garden hermitage – something I separate off from the rest of my life, mix up with ideas I don’t truly understand, make into a ‘thing’ and project romantic ideals onto. At some point, I will get wise to what is going on. I will uncover my own insincerity and reconnect with something deeper and richer than ‘mindful me’. Then, the show is over and the real practice can resume.

Rock and Roll

A second analogy for situating mindfulness in one’s life comes courtesy of philosopher and writer Albert Camus’ famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). Camus compares the absurdity of human existence to the situation of Sisyphus, a figure from Greek mythology who is condemned for eternity to pushing a large boulder up a mountain, only for the boulder to roll down every time he gets to the top. 

Just as Sisyphus is obliged to repeat his meaningless task over and over again, so we humans search relentlessly for meaning where there is none, says Camus, thus rendering our lives absurd. Yet his conclusion is oddly life-affirming and far from nihilistic. Regardless of your own philosophical viewpoint, there are layers within this text that are hugely relevant to mindfulness practice.

Camus’ Sisyphus accepts his fate and embraces the challenge of ascending the mountain. His task offers no reward but he commits to it nonetheless. He is present to his circumstances and regards the past and future for what they are: mental projections. He is fully in his existence, conscious of his condition, all the while refusing to surrender to its apparent futility. Each time he picks up his burden, he utters a silent “yes”. It is this attitude, says Camus, that allows Sisyphus to silence the gods, touch the deathless and conclude that all is well.

Breathing Space

In stark contrast to the garden hermit, Sisyphus offers clues on how to situate mindfulness practice at the centre of one’s life. His story is one of commitment, willingness, effort, presence and, through these, contentment. There is not even a hint of experiential avoidance or disengagement on his part. There is no artifice or wishful thinking. Sisyphus dwells in the midst of it all, unblinkered, bullshit-free. He teaches, as Camus puts it, “the higher fidelity”.

For me, Sisyphus offers essential lessons in re-homing practice when it has gone the way of the garden hermitage. He smashes down my grotto walls and urges me to wake up. When I sense the imposed limits of my situation and sit with the disquiet, nothing is off limits. Only when my cage has been firmly rattled in this way do I discern real possibilities for freedom. Then life becomes poetic again, even beautiful.

Regardless of your beliefs about life or mindfulness, Camus notes something pertinent to all practitioners. Sisyphus, on his downward journey from the summit of the mountain, is relieved of his burden and conscious of his situation. He is in motion, in his flow, fully aware of each footstep. He leans into life and is open to the task at hand. He clings to neither hope nor despair. This way of being echoes the old stories about mindfulness. Camus summarises them nicely: “That hour like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness.”

The next (and last) piece in this series will offer some reflections for your own practice.

3 July 2020

Grand Narratives (I)

If you were to consider what ‘mindfulness’ means to you, what would show up in your mind? If you were to reflect deeply on the nature and purpose of ‘practice’, what might you see? What informs your identity (assuming that you identify) as a meditator or practitioner? What are the ideas, imaginings or mythologies you have internalised about mindfulness? Such enquiries disclose crucial information about how your practice will unfold.

Modern formulations of mindfulness tend to revolve around the deliberate cultivation of open-hearted awareness in order to facilitate less reactivity to what is happening in the moment. Traditional formulations are more nuanced (read more on that here and here). What all formulations have in common is they are embedded in assumptions and narratives about the nature of reality and identity and, by association, ideas about how to live well. 

Mindfulness practice, in this regard, is a starting point from which you make a journey into existential territory. Where you go, with what aim in mind, is largely down to you. Somewhere in the mix will be ideas, views and perspectives you have internalised. A key task of practice is to become more acutely aware of how you are being guided, consciously and unconsciously, by these. 

Raw Materials

To do this work, you need to take into account the era in which you live. Bear in mind that mindfulness in the West is still in its infanthood, unsure of its place in the larger scheme of things and not yet fully known to itself. How it develops and what it grows into remain to be seen. This is exciting and offers great potential. But it can also impart a kind of youthful confusion to practitioners seeking clear waymarks for their journey.

In the meantime, what elements from the primal matter of modern mindfulness might we isolate and inspect to assist us with our enquiries? Obviously, there is the Buddhist influence. Buddhism, however, is notoriously hard to pin down. It encompasses a vast swathe of traditions, beliefs and practices. On top of that, not unlike mindfulness, it is still in the early stages of rooting itself – in this case, in a strangely individualized, materialist culture it had little knowledge of only a handful of decades ago. For these reasons, Buddhism can be difficult to make sense of.

What we could usefully identify, however, are the main ways in which Buddhism and, through it, mindfulness have melded with pre-existing ideas and tendencies in western culture. Four stand out: science, psychotherapy, romanticism and religion (particularly the theistic, Judeo-Christian variety). If you were to look deeply into your own psychology, might you find traces of one or more of these quietly shaping and steering beliefs about your practice?

Hidden in Plain Sight

I would suggest that certain western assumptions and cultural biases can also be gleaned from the nature and content of contemporary mindfulness training programmes. While courses vary, as do different teachers’ ‘takes’ on practice, patterns are evident (partly thanks to the western scientific tendency to publish copious amounts of research-generated data in the search for measurable truths). Examples include:
  • An implicit belief in the individualistic nature of practice (i.e. each of us are separate, self-directing psycho-physical ‘units’).
  • Framing human suffering as a problem that can be fixed or eradicated. 
  • Elevating the importance of disengaging and stepping back from thoughts in order to better regulate emotions. 
  • Emphasising formal meditation as a means to cultivating tranquil states over other possibilities (e.g. insight or ethical sensibility). 
  • Viewing the shift from the conceptual to the perceptual as an end in itself (i.e. mindfulness practice leads to no specified knowledge or discoveries).
  • A tendency to reify the ‘present moment’ and an enchantment with experiences of ‘being’.

This is a partial list – one, no doubt, informed by some of my own biases and assumptions. I am not suggesting any of the above are right or wrong, good or bad. What they point to, however, are some of the ways in which western scientific, materialist, allopathic-medical, psychological and romanticist beliefs have merged with much older ideas about mindfulness. 

Might reflecting on these allow us humble practitioners, finding our own way, greater glimpses of how such assumptions harmonise or collide with our own preconceived views and opinions and, in so doing, shape our experience? Better to be aware than not, right?

In the next post, I will suggest two very different analogies for how we might situate mindfulness practice in our lives. 

27 May 2020

Noble Action

Living in awareness cuts through erroneous divisions the human mind makes between ‘me’ and ‘other’, ‘us’ and ‘them’. Anxiety loses its primary foothold when we learn to trust and be trustworthy. We can relax. As we come to know more of our innate connectedness to other beings, we are more considerate in how we treat them.

We incline to activities that align with our values, rather than being swayed by fads and fashions. We reflect on how we make a livelihood and the impact it has on others. We see the sense in rejecting association or involvement with destructive behaviour. When we witness mistreatment, cruelty and injustice, we more readily take a stand against them.

Taking Care of Life

Active engagement with this troublesome world is as much part of ‘practice’ as appreciating its joys and wonders. True mindful living is not reducible to watching the breath on a meditation cushion; it means being dynamically in the world, with eyes wide open.

Such a comprehensive ‘taking care’ of life is what links mindfulness organically to friendliness – the willingness to move close to, respect and connect with. To be discerning about what we consume, physically and mentally, and thoughtful about what we produce, in both word and deed, is to approach life with open hands and an open heart.

Becoming more discriminating in how we take in the world, and cognizant of what we put into it, leads to a more nourishing experience for everyone. Mindfulness takes the form of a rapport with other beings and greater tolerance of the vicissitudes of life. Whatever shows up, we breathe with it, respond intentionally, observe what happens and learn from experience.

Good Practice Guidelines

Mindfulness is rooted in an ethical foundation for living. Cultivating awareness goes hand-in-hand with freeing oneself from destructive habits and careless acts. A traditional five-fold scheme to support one’s practice is:
  • To avoid harming living beings
  • To avoid taking what is not freely given
  • To avoid causing suffering through sexual behaviour
  • To avoid speaking untruths
  • To avoid indulging unmindful states through alcohol or drugs.
These are not commandments. They are training guidelines. They underscore the aspiration to live harmoniously with oneself and with others. They encourage awareness of one’s actions and the effects of these actions. For example, the point concerning intoxicants that cloud the mind is not a moral judgement on intoxicants, but a caution about their potential impact on the other four guidelines.

These five guidelines, expressed above as abstentions, also have a flipside. When lived by, they express themselves in their positive aspect, which are, respectively:
  • To act with kindness and compassion
  • To act generously
  • To practise contentment in one’s relationships
  • To communicate truthfully and recognise falsity
  • To act mindfully.
Designed to foster a particular attitude to life, such guidelines are the symptom and product of authentic mindfulness practice. Interestingly, practitioners often spontaneously develop such ethical sensibilities despite having no intellectual knowledge of these traditional guidelines.

From: Mindfulness for Unravelling Anxiety, 2016.

Origin of the Species

With its assimilation into popular culture as an everyday life practice, the story of where mindfulness came from often gets obscured, if no...