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Recently I met up with an old friend I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. We had planned to walk and talk on the seafront but a high wind made this difficult, so we headed one block inland and found a table outside a busy café-bar.
We both wanted a mug of black tea but the place served only pomegranate tea, which arrived after much delay in small glass cups. By this point, I had picked up from our conversation the extent of the difficulties and frustrations that had beset my friend through the pandemic, such as family problems and ill-health.
What particularly irked him, he confessed, was how his formal meditation practice had also broken down. His longstanding commitment to sit daily, or at least regularly, had buckled under the strain of events and tumbled, along with his mood, into a downward spiral. The last straw was not being able to attend a residential retreat that had been called off because of the lockdown.
I felt bad for my friend, struggling as he was with adversity and loss and knowing how important mindfulness practice was for him. Life can be such a pain, I thought. The wind whistled around us and I began to feel cold. The boozy drinkers nearby grew louder and, it seemed, more abrasive in tone. I wanted to get away. My glass of pomegranate tea looked so puny and my friend, his eyes cast downwards, so lost in his circumstances. I wished we had gone walking on the seafront after all.
Recent events, however, had offered him a deeper, truer understanding of renunciation – one that is about things being sufficient and acceptable just as they are. “This is enough,” explained my friend, sweeping his hand in the air as if scattering seeds in a field, and referring to, well, everything. All of it. It dawned on me, as I huddled in my chair, bracing against the wind and sipping lukewarm tea through pinched lips, that my friend was just fine despite his circumstances. If anyone, it was me who was resisting the conditions of the moment.
He went on to tell me more about discovering new reserves of equanimity and poise in life. It was a glimpse of how the residue of his years of practice allowed his appreciation for life and natural wisdom to flourish regardless of what was going. This is the power of mindfulness, one that leads to no barriers for attention, where nothing is excluded or clung to, and where every experience, no matter how taxing, holds the potential for insight.
I marvel at the subtle and slippery nature of mindfulness in all of its guises, whether that be as a theoretical construct, a psychological process or a set of practices. Mindfulness resists all efforts to be pinned down. It presents itself as a vast canvas for our projections.
And project we do. The fields of health, education, business, politics, sport and entertainment are awash with mindful-this and mindful-that. Do such manifestations herald a kind of cultural transformation? What kind of future do they point towards? It has been 40-odd years since the ‘mindful revolution’ began and 20 years since it gained traction, yet any semblance of a ‘mindful society’ appears as far away as ever.
What might the West have missed in the uptake? Answers to that pressing question can be found in both the forces that shaped mindfulness’s journey westward and the toxic influence of contemporary neoliberal ideology it contacted along the way. These would fill a book. Since this is a blog post, let me contribute just one image that captures something of the current predicament. Like all archetypal symbolism, this image shows up over the place but rarely receives attention.
Meet the ‘crouching buddha’ (sometimes called the ‘resting buddha’). In the UK, where I live, statues like these can be found in gardens and on mantelpieces across the land. Even without any knowledge of Buddhist iconography, one might guess that this is a non-traditional form.
Ambivalent Attachment‘Mindfulness’ may not be ‘Buddhist’ but Buddhism is fundamental to understanding mindfulness. Put on the spot, few western mindfulness ‘experts’ (trainers, researchers, advocates etc.) now dispute this. Yet many convey an ambivalent or confused relationship with Buddhism. When I have probed such people on this matter, their prevailing tendency is to retreat, one way or another, into the comfortable certainties of a secular-materialist worldview that has gone largely unexamined.
Each to their own. But the irrational part is these people are equally unwilling to disregard the Buddhist fundament. They may have a limited grasp of how contemporary subdivisions of traditional, secular and immanent Buddhism contextualise much of what they do, but they love the rootsy legitimacy that ‘ancient wisdom’ confers to their work and so are happy to employ the B-word in fast and loose ways.
I wonder if these people privately worry that mindfulness de-ethicised and reduced to proficiency in present-moment attentiveness doesn’t make great sense. Perhaps they even intuit that the tangible, pragmatic benefits of meditation are necessarily linked to larger philosophical and spiritual enquiries that go beyond all isms. If so, such thoughts are rarely shared.
This ambivalence about the origin and complex nature of mindfulness often takes the form of ‘code-switching’ (read all about it in this important book). It works like this: the mindfulness advocate when engaging people in a secular setting (e.g. a school, boardroom or a funding organisation) deliberately downplays (‘switches off’) any reference to Buddhism.
When that same advocate is around others open to Buddhism or where there is a perceived benefit to promote the spiritual aspect of mindfulness, they will ‘switch on’ the Buddhism to declare their mindfulness programme to be a vehicle for teaching the dharma.
I have been running mindfulness courses in secular settings for 14 years and can attest to how easy it is to ‘code-switch’, often without realising I’m doing it. It is deceptive and misleading. It leads to confusion for all concerned. It is not a good look for practices supposedly grounded in honesty and mutual respect. I feel relieved – a little embarrassed too – when my words are challenged and my insincerity is brought to my attention.
I wonder, too, if ‘code-switching’ might provide a clue for understanding some of the current dislocation of western mindfulness. For it is the kind of psychological sleight-of-hand that we tend to resort to when we don’t totally understand what we’re dealing with, or we haven’t thought things through, but we’re not willing to admit it. Rather than acknowledge our inconsistencies, we will obfuscate, prevaricate, complicate – do anything, in fact, to ensure that we remain in a state of comfortable ignorance. The crouching buddha nicely symbolises such a state of wilful clouding over.
An interesting thing you can do with Buddhist statues is to imitate them. For example, if you sit like the buddha in the adjacent image – grounded through the sitting bones, upright spine, shoulders relaxed – over time you will notice an energetic balance of mental calmness, stability and alertness. These qualities lay a solid foundation for the development of one’s meditation practice.
Crouching Buddha Hidden Meaning
On the upside, here’s a little scoop about the crouching buddha: he may be contrived but he has a precedent. According to Dr. Christian Luczanits, senior lecturer in Tibetan and Buddhist Art at SOAS, there is a unique representation of the historical Buddha leaning on his knee from the Gandharan period (3rd century BCE – 1200 CE), which resurfaced in a modified form in 13th century China. It signifies the moment after enlightenment when the Buddha is reflecting on whether or not to teach his experience.
So, the next time you see an advert for mindful baking, or read about soldiers improving their kill rate through meditation practice, or hear some ‘expert’ explaining how they can plot your mindful awareness on their new graph, you may want to pause to consider the subtle and slippery nature of mindfulness in all of its guises. And breathe. These are the proverbial blind men surrounding the proverbial elephant, knowledge slipping through their fingers. Be careful around them because they have the power to blind you too.
In these testing times, navigating the world of mindfulness is a job in itself. Know that you are not alone. There are many of us, sheltering indoors, doing our best to wise up. In idle moments we prop ourselves up on our knees in front of Netflix and watch Headspace: Unwind Your Mind the way you can’t not look at a car crash, while out in the back garden our little buddha statues doze quietly, cold as stone. It’s no revolution but at least it’s a wake-up call.
|Image courtesy of Michael Leunig|
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.
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 good 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.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?
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