I have become convinced through personal experience, discussions with my late philosophy tutor Bob and some others, and exposure in written form to the Eastern concept of mindfulness, admittedly in a westernised form, that many of my views on the value and place of intellectual activity are wrong. I’ll try to set this out in a way that I am currently thinking about it in. Then I’ll say how, at present, this realisation seems to have left me worse off.

Here is my conception of the Eastern doctrine. We think, a lot. And since a lot of this is analysis of the past or planning for the future—and this is to put it mildly of course; worry and a bad kind of nostalgia are more common—a gap opens up between our mental lives and the present moment. This is bad for two reasons. Firstly, though perhaps a little crudely, the present moment is all there really is, so we seem not to be living fully. And secondly the anxiety that results from the gap is horrible.

To try to close the gap one needs to reconnect one’s awareness to the body, which is, necessarily, in the present. There is no sense in which one’s mental life is to be rejected. The point is to break your attachment to it. Buddhist meditation is little more than conscious effort to do this. Over time, this effort pays off and it becomes easier.

This doctrine of attachment as the ultimate suffering is deeply problematic. It’s what the Judeo-Christian westerner tends to object to first. It seems to me that the metaphysics and ethics required to make it plausible for all attachment to be undesirable—reincarnation, the loss of the self, the ultimate interconnectedness of all life—are untenable, at least at the very basic level of understanding I have of these doctrines. But is seems clear to me that attachment to the river of our mental lives has nothing to recommend it. I suspect, though, that this view entails a lack of attachment to other things, given how such attachments tend to manifest themselves. I think it might have some relevance to relationships (of all kinds) with other people.

I’ll now draw a distinction that represents my current understanding of what it is that one shouldn’t be attached to. It centres around the common thought that actions matter a great deal more than words. I distinguish two kinds of thinking: engaging one’s intellect to plan for those aspects of the future that one has control over, and learning from the past. I would also include academic thought here. This side of the distinction is the ‘doing’ rather than the ‘saying’. And on the other side we have worrying and over-analysis, going over and over old ground, getting anxious. This is the ‘saying’.

It’s easy to spout strong political opinions and enjoy building up an identity for yourself around this. It can be re-assuring and comfortable. I know that I have done it a great deal. Far harder is talking only when it makes a genuine difference, spending the rest of one’s time taking actual political action. Similarly, it’s easy to build up an identity for yourself by thinking through the past and fantasising about the future (the actual future or just a counterfactual). Far harder, but infinitely better, is dealing with the here and now and the self of the present. First you’ve got to accept that self. Then the surroundings. Your judgements of superiority and inferiority aren’t to be relied upon; the mind isn’t really that great. But they must be accepted rather than pushed aside.

I hope that it is clear in the two examples just presented how the ‘doing’ and ‘saying’ distinction applies.

The above narrative is my way of understanding mindfulness. Conscious effort to deepen my (virtually non-existent) meditative practice is the way to see if the above is any good. Continuing to carefully applying the tools of analytic philosophy to my own experience is the way to see if I can make sense of issues relating to attachment as outlined above. At this point friends of mine who have been thinking about these things for longer, as well as Eastern practitioners, would probably stop me. I am treating mindfulness as if it were a theory put forward by an philosopher; this has been my language throughout this essay. This is because I do not think it is very intellectually responsible to rely on a personally felt ‘understanding’ of these issues. It might feel like you’ve got attachment, say, sorted, but I have felt I’ve had many philosophical issues sorted until I have tried to write them down.

Finally to the position I feel I am in at the moment. I seem to have become very aware of my anxiety and worrying (a good thing) but all this seems to be doing is magnifying it. For I find myself paralysed by a lack of any other way to be. Either I worry, and over-analyse, or I do nothing: I don’t know how to fill the gap. Of course I can be distracted from the worrying. I meet someone I know well and interacting with them is easy. I do some kind of intellectual activity that isn’t too hard and it all goes according to plan. But then put me in a less comfortable social situation or trying to do some difficult work, and I find myself so aware of everything that I do that I am awkward and unfriendly, in the former case, and unable to concentrate in the latter. In the intellectual case the problem is recurrent in the archives of old posts to this blog. In the social case, my analysis leaves me with no way to be. I am unable to react as my relationship with someone dictates because I find myself waiting for my analysis to give me an answer to how I should behave. The very language of a relationship dictating something reflects the over-analysis; I find myself utterly unable to actually live the relationship. Which would be to live in the moment.

This whole essay is a very roundabout way of saying that my self-consciousness is crippling me academically as ever, and in the past three months or so, socially, too.