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. 

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