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. 

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.

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