Chinese/Japanese & Korean characters for mindfulness

This term I am attending a mindfulness course run by the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre, in order to develop a practice of mindfulness that I’ve found myself unable to really get going, get integrated into my life, on my own. The teacher for the course is solid, though he can be just a little bit too dreamy-happy-sounding at times for my taste. I’ve written before that I think that such a practice may be the answer to a lot of the problems in my life, since they’re all about being stuck in my head, and that is what mindfulness is all about working away from.

What is most reassuring is how the course is slotting together ideas that I’ve got from a variety of sources now into one framework, which helps me to realise that this is a very, very old philosophy that does work for people. By “variety of sources” I’m talking my late philosophy tutor Bob, an existential psychotherapist, some Buddhist monks at a temple I once stayed at, some religious and non-religious texts. The teacher on my course will come out with a phrase, and I will instantly be taken back to some idea of Bob’s or whatever. Seeing all these connections make me wonder why this stuff isn’t more mainstream than it is. I guess it is in the East.

This reassurance is very important when it comes to some of the apparent contradictions that ignorant Westerners like me come across very quickly when looking into this sort of stuff. I want to discuss the apparent contradiction that comes up first, for most of us, in connection with the Western mindfulness movement’s claim to be completely secular.

The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to hone one’s capacity to be concerned with only the present, turning away from the mind’s continual tendency to concern itself with the past or the future: to re-live and pre-live these in turn. Now of course one thing that we do in the present moment is learn from the past, and plan for the future, so we’ve got to let these back in somehow. I think the idea is that one should cultivate an ability to engage the mind in such tasks “from a place of intention,” that is, at the moments when it is really needed, and not when it isn’t. So a distinction between circumstances when you should and shouldn’t be concerned with the future and the past—even though that concern is altogether more mindful of where you are now than it is pre-mindfulness—seems to be required. That is, we have to learn when to deploy the honed capacity to be concerned only with the present, in addition to merely honing the capacity.

The secular mindfulness movement would surely want to say here that it can be used whenever you want to use it to reduce suffering from ruminating, and to put you in a better position to accomplish goals. There are a lot of people on the Internet who meditate to improve their ability to pick up women for casual sex. Businesses like Google are using it to make their employees more effective at achieving their corporate goals. And the Oxford Mindfulness Centre is all about treating depression; the science, it seems, really bears it out.

Now here is the problem: thinking in the terms of the last two paragraphs makes one unable to actually be mindful. If you are thinking about getting into a special state,[1] then you’re aiming for something, which is the wrong state of mind. But mindfulness is supposed to be very intentional. A guided meditation CD I have for the course says at one point (paraphrased from memory) “it might help to think of your posture as embodying a sense of taking a stand.” This is very conceptual, but, the secular mindfulness movement doesn’t have the right concepts here, because it is happy for you to go ahead and use the mindfulness training for whatever you like. Here’s an illustration. You can engage in something in your life that you think will be good for you. You think this with your conceptual machinery fully engaged, in advance of engaging with the activity, and afterwards, but you know that during the activity such thinking either won’t be possible or will get in the way of the experience. A few examples of this that I can think of are listening to music, having sex, doing some dangerous physical activity like climbing which you are already very good at so don’t have to think about very much. This is similar to the idea of flow. It makes sense to give up conceptualising for the period in which you engage in the activity. But with mindfulness you can’t give up your intention and the point is that in the Western version, you are allowed to have the wrong intention.

Compare this to a non-secular tradition of mindfulness from the East. (The following gloss could be so wrong as to be offensive to certain religious people, so please excuse me while I go ahead and simplify for my purposes.) The Buddhist monk seems to cultivate non-attachment to anything in particular, seeing the world as a non-dual whole. With no ego to speak of (in the ideal case), he just sees himself as one part of a very large whole, and kindness and compassion automatically start flowing as the best thing that that part can do for the whole. So, his intention in meditation not to be attached to his thoughts is perfectly in line with his overall intention to consiously work on breaking his attachments.[2] The Westerner doing a mindfulness course hasn’t got this, so he’s stuck with his cognitive dissonance, and so mindfulness seems impossible because it’s impossible for him to have the right intention.

I am coming up against this worry in my own case right now as mindfulness allows me to see clearly what it is that I need to let go of. I don’t think I can actually let go without making a decision as to whether it is right that I let it go. This lies very much at a conceptual level.

Here are two responses to my worry. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is told that he should play out his role as warrior because that’s his place in the world, and he shouldn’t be attached or not to the idea of him killing, because it’s all about letting things be. This isn’t really open to the existential Westerner. It is deep in our secular culture that we create our own meaning, and there’s no Indian caste system like Arjuna has to determine a role for us to just play out with non-attachment.

A Zen Buddhist would say “just sit zazen, chop wood, fetch water; stop doing all this philosophy, and all will become clear in time.” I don’t think it’s intellectually responsible to recommend mindfulness if you are unable to resolve tensions like the ones I have given. But for now I can get on with my course and see if things become clearer in the future.


[1] I’m not saying that the special state is a calm mind, of course, just a consciousness not attached to the thoughts going on, however many there may, or may not, be.

Not being attached to one’s thoughts is precisely the same as accepting things as they are and letting them be as they are, because it’s our thoughts that try to figure out how to make things different.

[2] Presumably this intention dissolves when the monk reaches enlightenment, since otherwise there is a kind of attachment to becoming unattached. There are numerous tensions like this in my extremely limited understanding of Buddhism.

It is refined escapism, an attempt to detach yourself from the material and intellectual conditions of your existence rather than attempting to change it. No surprise that Western liberals are so drawn in by this, given that they valorise mediocrity and establishmentarianism – and also given its convenience in reinforcing implicit orientalist conceptions of the East. Interestingly much of this is in its historical genealogy essentially a re-absorption of Western conceptions of the Orient in the construction of an othered Eastern ‘spiritual’ identity, rather than having anything to do with the noble-savage mythology of ‘ancient wisdom’.

One is also reminded of the Japanese Zen Buddhists who claimed in the Second World War that the soldier who knives another in the eye should “detach” themselves from their intentionality and say that, in the cosmic scheme of things, it is simply a knife contingently going into an eye. Or the repressive Tibetan theocrats who justified their rule on similar lines. Kindness and generosity do not follow from attempting to extinguish the self.

Comment by vince Mon 11 Feb 2013 21:34:57 UTC