25 August 2021

The Power of Practice

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 after all.

Sweet Sufficiency

We sat on in silence. Then he lifted his head and told me something he had realised lately. Throughout his years of practice he had often wrestled with the language of renunciation due to the implication of quitting and spurning things. It had disturbed him that this term encouraged a certain fixation on the very object or behaviour that is relinquished.

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 on in his world. 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.

9 July 2021

If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Tranquillise Him

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.

Cultural Appropriation

Ronald McBuddha
This is not to undervalue the many good-hearted and well-intentioned mindfulness practitioners in western societies or the growing army of trained facilitators who help stressed and struggling people through teaching meditation skills. But the evidence base for any systemic change is meagre. What we are witnessing is hardly a revolution, is it? The last 20 years demonstrate considerably more success at monetising mindfulness than mastering it.

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.

Unconscious Awareness

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.

Crouching Buddha
Curiously, nobody seems to know when or where this form originated. I canvassed a selection of world-renowned scholars of Buddhist art, museum curators and antique dealers. None of them could say for sure. 

However, they did make highly uniform and educated guesses: the form is contrived; it is most likely between 20 – 40 years old; it was probably first manufactured in East Asia for the western consumer market. All asserted that its function is purely decorative, unlike traditional Buddha forms. As a symbol for western mindfulness, it’s a neat fit.

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.  

‘Code-switching’

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.

Wakey Wakey

Sitting Buddha
Traditionally, Buddhist statues serve a purpose: to remind the observing human of wholesome qualities – joy, compassion, wisdom and serenity – they already possess and may further cultivate. Statues come in numerous styles and postures but they commonly display a certain vigour and grace. 

Statues symbolise not just the historical buddha but your inner one. ‘Buddha’ is an honorific title meaning ‘one who is awake’. It refers to the wise and compassionately aware aspect of you. How ironic that the crouching buddha form is ‘one who is not awake’ – a representation of a being who holds nothing in mind and is ignore-ant of the world.

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. 

By contrast, try sitting like the crouching buddha. When I tried it, I felt confined and detached. It’s the sort of posture I could easily slide into if I were feeling listless or bored. It’s a posture that also engenders a certain self-consciousness and conceit, which are shadow qualities of mindfulness.

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.

Thinking Buddha
It is, therefore, a thinking posture, not dissimilar to more recent sculptures such as Rodin’s The Thinker. Note that the head remains alert. It seems that even at his most vexed and in need of a bit of self-propping-up, the Buddha was regarded as a person concerned with how best to engage with the world. 

Alas the same cannot be said for his crouchy descendent, who is not thoughtful, regards only himself and is, therefore, a fitting symbol for all forms of McMindfulness that have wheedled their way into our lives over the last two decades.

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.

19 March 2021

Bodyfulness

An easy misunderstanding to fall into with mindfulness practice is to see it as purely psychological in nature. Its emphasis on embodied awareness offers a strong clue that it’s as much an education in body as it is in mind. In this regard, mindfulness is an uncomfortable fit with mental health paradigms that are only interested in what happens from the neck up.

Participants on secular mindfulness courses, for example, quickly discover that ‘practice’ involves spending lots of quality time with a universe of physical sensations that normally get overlooked or screened out. Inspired by their two months of training, many go on to change their lives in ways reflected in what they do with their bodies, and how they treat them. 

Walking the Walk

In this regard, ‘mindful living’ comes down to embodiment. It is the cultivation of an ongoing, uncomplicated sensitivity to what is happening now: perceptions, sensations, hedonic tones, impulses, actions, all of which arise in a world continually seeking a response. 

There is, in fact, little about mindfulness that you cannot outwardly learn from a dog or a cat. Animals are perceptive, receptive, attentive and modest. They are naturally self-contained. Unconcerned with past and future, they dwell effortlessly in awareness, retaining a knowledge that humans easily forget, something the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau put so neatly: “Thus our earthly joys are almost without exception the creatures of a moment” (Reveries of The Solitary Walker, 1776 – 78). 

Balancing Act

Fortunately, humans are not entirely divorced from the natural wisdom of animals. Since the time of Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC), the so-called ‘father of modern medicine’, the psychological benefits of fresh air and exercise have been well understood. What we put into our bodies affect our minds. Even just a few minutes a day of aerobic exercise changes how the body regulates stress hormones. On some level we know that when we trade time outdoors for time peering into a screen we are taking risks with our emotional wellbeing.

Spending quality time with your body is an act of kindness. Contact with nature and activities devoted to moving the body are vital to human welfare. Unlike animals, humans are prone to overlooking such simple truths. For us, sustaining healthy behaviours requires wise attention and effort. These mental qualities of wise attention and effort lay the foundations for a mindful life, which is carved from a judicious consideration of cause and effect. 

Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

I have found the simple act of running around parks and fields to be a memorable education in body as well as mind. When I am alive to the moment, I am as connected to what’s happening inside me as to what’s going on around me. My body moves as a seamless whole, an incredible machine of interrelating parts in communication with each other and their environment.

At such times, I might become aware of how the breath regulates itself while maintaining its delicate correspondence with the viscera and skeleton. I notice how muscles harmonise with each other, and how the posture adjusts itself so finely to the forces of speed and momentum.

If I can fully relax into this and the thinking mind lets go, tensions I didn’t know existed often spontaneously come into awareness and then release themselves: joints stop clicking, muscles unclench, limbs free up, feet land more softly and gracefully on the ground. In these moments, my animal nature come to the fore. It is bursting with life.

Knees and Toes

At other times, when the mind is preoccupied with its stories or resistant to physical exertion, there is a lingering sense of disconnection. Like those dissatisfying mental health paradigms, I become the one who is interested only in what is happening from the neck up. A hardness invariably creeps into the running experience. Things start to grate. Body parts feel out of sync with each other. The feet meet the ground with a thump. The smash of thoughts inside my skull feels just as unyielding.

With mindfulness, I can pick up on this, hold it in mind, and a sensitive response becomes possible again. There is a newfound receptivity to whatever is showing up; there is less struggle and grabbiness. If I invite or encourage attention into my lower legs, ankles, toes and soles of my feet, often I’ll rediscover the simple joy of taking just one step. New relationships open up within the body and there is a brightness of contact with the grass, the air, light and shade. The world comes alive. The body swings back into rhythm. I am a humble, happy animal again.

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 about. 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 at 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 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.

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 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?

The Power of Practice

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 ma...