“Rare are helpful speakers, rarer still are good listeners, but rarest of all are words that though unpleasant are helpful.”
The concept that we criticise others for what we dislike about ourselves is met in Buddhist writings and is popular amount (pop) psychology publications. I was wondering if there is any basis to it.
The inspiration comes from criticism I kept receiving from my grandmother. It always came down to competence with her: I was criticised for being incompetent in its various incarnations. Over little things. Leaving the light on in the corridor. Not leaving the light on in the corridor when guests are over. Forgetting to buy something in the shop.
Then there were big things. Any time I defended myself against her criticism over big things, it inevitably transpired that her accusations were based on erroneous assumptions. She didn’t realise how hard I was working or what I was trying to do. Mostly though, it was over small things, especially for not complying with her idiosyncratic world view.
She wasn’t even that tyrannical: she would say to me that I am my own person and I make my own decisions. According to her, what I heard from her wasn’t oppressive and unsupportive, no, it was just her opinion – and she is entitled to one, right?
Naturally, her approach showed a lack of understanding of human emotion, relationships, empathy…
Furthermore, looking back on her life, it’s easy to see why she might see herself as the very thing she is accusing me of, of cautioning me against seeing as how she doesn’t actually mean harm: “incompetent”. Her life was so full of endless challenges: stagnation and lack of opportunity under Brezhnev, hopeful but troubled times under Gorbachev, then turbulent and Darwinian fighting to get by under Yeltsin.
All of the above have left her with no real tradable skills, just the knowledge of how to adapt while not getting accused of something she didn’t do, swindled or killed. By today’s definition of success she’s not all that “competent”.
So was she just trying to counsel me so that I avoid her fate? That may be what she told herself, but I believe the real motivation isn’t quite as selfless. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Knowing that she isn’t the picture of competence and success as it is understood in today’s culture, she pokes holes in the competence and success those around her so as to not feel quite so inadequate. In other words, if those around her aren’t better than her – at least in some ways, then she’s not so bad either. It was done to maintain self-respect.
Any time I would ask her if she has her phone before leaving, she would snap at me: “Stop asking me such nonsense!” It’s not that I felt that she wasn’t independent or indeed was trying to be in some way offensive. However that obviously hit right where it hurt the most: competence and independence.
Obviously, this extends beyond issues like competence and independence. It can be anything at all.
Interpersonal criticism and rejection always come down to the same main point: it’s far less about the person being criticised or rejected, it’s about the needs of the person doing the criticising and the rejecting.
I am not writing this to simply hate on the critics and tell them to get out of here “with their negativity”. The really interesting part is the following. Next time when you feel like criticising someone, ask yourself: is there something about me that makes me criticise this person? It can be fascinating what you find out 😉
Is there any mysticism to this? I don’t think so at all, even though these kind of theories often arise from the more spiritually inclined. I believe this phenomenon arises from recency/attention bias. If something is on one’s mind, e.g. competence, one is more likely to find issues with it in others.
If we were to try and be scientific about it, I would design an experiment like this: interview a person about things that bother them the most about themselves, then interview those closest to them in a random population, without directly letting them know the hypothesis.
I think an intervention-based trial would be less than ethical, but that could be tried too! For example, criticise person A about trait X and then ask them to find faults in people in a prerecorded video. Thoughts?
“If we had no faults, we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.”
In the professional medical world, Medscape is probably the most trusted up to date online resource. I am delighted to see that yesterday they published an article that highlights some of the more challenging and distressing aspects of meditation based on a recent scientific paper in PLOS One.
The reason I am so glad is that it means we’re moving to a different approach to meditation, one with more well-warranted rigour in how people talk about this intervention and away from the perception that this is something without side-effects.
Crux of the study:
the challenging aspects of Buddhist-derived meditation practices are well described in Buddhist tradition but are less so in Western scientific literature
the researchers interviewed nearly 100 meditators and meditation teachers from each of three main traditions: Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan.
the researchers developed a taxonomy of 59 experiences organised into seven domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective (emotions and moods), somatic (relating to the body), conative (motivation or will), sense of self, and social.
all meditators reported multiple unexpected experiences across the seven domains of experience.
the duration of the effects people described in their interviews varied widely, ranging from a few days to months to more than a decade, the investigators report.
some meditators reported their feelings, even the desirable ones, went too far or lasted too long, or they felt violated, exposed, or disoriented.
meditation experiences that felt positive during retreats sometimes persisted and interfered with their ability to function or work when they left the retreat and returned to normal life.
the meditator’s practice intensity, psychiatric history, trauma history and the quality of supervision are important factors that influence the meditators experience, but not for everyone.
the study highlights that the one size fits all approach isn’t ideal: “The good news is that there are many different programs out there and different practices available, and with a little bit of homework and informed shopping, someone could find a really good match for what they are after,” she said. “But I think often people just sign up for whatever is the most convenient or the best marketed, and it’s not always a good match for their constitution or their goals.”
Dissecting the side effects
Here are the reported side effects with the percentage of people who reported them in brackets:
It’s fascinating to note that nearly 50% noted a change in worldview. Open mind, new philosophy – fair enough. I would be on the fence about saying that I have a different world view because of meditation. It’s clearer, it’s calmer, it’s more adaptable, but it’s not really changed. Thus, it is possible that people who try to meditate are often looking for a new worldview or are quite suggestible.
Nearly the same number of people reported delusional, irrational and paranormal beliefs! I guess this is all based on Buddhism and there is a strong religious element to it. However, people were clearly made uncomfortable by it. I certainly experienced this: this is why I tread carefully when I go exploring meditation resources. A huge number of them are zealous, either for reasons of unquestioning devotion, or commercial ones. Snake oil requires faith.
Again, over 40% reported hallucinations. Just as a reminder – delusions and hallucinations are the key ingredients of psychosis and good reason to admit someone to a psychiatric ward. Obviously, these must not be quite as persistent as those associated with psychiatric disease, but if I had seen this table before starting mindfulness, I would have thought much more carefully. In this sample, 32% of people had a prior psychiatric history. This doesn’t explain how common all these DSM-sounding symptoms are among them.
Fear, anxiety, panic or paranoia came up for over 80% of people. I think is more a reflection on the sample than on meditation. Why to people meditate? Often they come upon it as a cure for anxiety. Indeed, in my experience, besides actually getting rid of the anxiogenic stimulus, meditation is a great method to deal with it. Depression was very common too at over 50%. Anhedonia and avolition – being unable to experience pleasure and not having any desire to do anything – are hallmarks of depression and were experienced by 18%. Personally, anxiety has always accompanied meditation in some way or another, but not in a bad way. It’s a little bit like saying that exercise cause shortness of breath. However, panic and paranoia are step to far.
Where there are mood changes, there are autonomic function changes and indeed they seem to have been affected too: level of energy, quality of sleep, appetite, etc. It’s unfortunate to note that many of those changes were negative with common reports of fatigue and pain.
As expected, 75% of meditators had their mind bent by Buddhist approaches to the self. We also know from MRI studies, that the anatomical self, seated in default mode network is modified by meditation, so this is expected.
To meditate or not? Meditate, but proceed with caution, a healthy balance of open-mindedness and scepticism – and preferably with supervision. In the words of Dr Walsh, it’s important to be challenged, but not overwhelmed.
As for me, I often take breaks from meditation. If it’s not happening, I don’t force myself too much. Thirty seconds of mindfulness is better than ten minutes of desperate striving effort and then feeling exposed, lonely and inadequate. To give it a Buddhist twist, we can think of the experience as if it is the weather. You may have decided that you are jogging today, but if it is stormy outside, it’s better to be a bit more adaptable, stay at home and practice your planks. Same here.
Lindahl JR, Fisher NE, Cooper DJ, Rosen RK, Britton WB (2017) The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0176239. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239
P.S. Have a look at this Christian blogger explaining the emotional conflict she experienced when exploring yoga. It’s not important to be religious to understand that imposing one system of beliefs over another, whatever it may be, can be highly distressing.
I’ve spoken about mindfulness to numerous psychiatrists, those that I’ve worked with and experts from various out-postings of the Western world. Completely unprompted, they all converge on one point:
We should pay more attention to what the Eastern philosophy already knows about the body and mind.
As Western doctors, we are trained in the evidence-based tradition. We hate nonsense treatments that are painfully common. Glucosamine. Cough remedies. None of them are better than placebo.
Then there is a rake of stuff that isn’t useless per se, but useless because it is irrelevant:”X reduces the risk of Y 10 times”… but they never tell you that it reduces risk from 0.001% to 0.01%. I call all of this snake oil, and I am passionate about doing what I can to protect the audience.
I am conflicted however: it seems that it’s impossible to address certain issues using an evidence-based approach. There is simply no way to do a randomised-controlled trial on certain things.
Whenever some esoteric group get something right, I tell myself that even a broken clock is right twice a day and if predictions are general enough, they cannot be proven wrong, a bit like a horoscope.
However, all of these renowned people trained in the evidence-based tradition are saying that much of these robust observational findings by Buddhists tend to get confirmed by our methods, such as fMRI, now, hundreds of years later. What a seductive proposition!
“I recently attended the International Symposium of Contemplative Studies ran in conjunction with the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. This is an outgrowth of the dialogues between the Dalai Lama and the neuroscience community that began in 1987 and resulted in a satellite meeting at the annual Society of Neuroscience meeting in 2005 entitled “The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation”. Out of these interactions an entire field of neuroscience has emerged: contemplative neuroscience.
What bothers me the most about the popularisation of mindfulness is that it is seen as an end instead of a means. This has the potential to deepen our self-absorption and even to become an exercise in narcissism.
Mindfulness is both fully embodied and relational. In other words mindfulness is a fundamental practice for getting in touch with our true selves. That true self or true nature is fully embodied.
In other words, it doesn’t just exist in our conscious thinking minds; it encompasses our full being including our somatic awareness, gut, heart and breath. But this must also extend beyond our bodies to others to achieve its full significance. In this way what arises out of mindfulness is what matters the most. This is the relational part. So mindfulness fully realised is not just within us, but also between us.
The Dalai Lama says that if everyone in the world meditated, there would be no more war. The reason for that is the fundamental goodness of human nature. Human infants are born genuinely helpless. Most people have a fundamentally positive attachment experience – or they don’t survive.
This is reminiscent of Harlow’s experiments in which baby monkeys were deprived of maternal interaction and were either developmentally devastated or died. So without the interaction with the mother the baby is like the seed that does not germinate..
So when we “get out of our own way” as Judson Brewer talks about in his TED talk, what emerges is our nature that is inherently good and compassionate, seeking to address suffering in ourselves and other people.
To my mind, mindfulness is the first step in realising that nature. It is a necessary, but non-sufficient condition. Mindfulness is a start, but ultimately it comes down to what we do with it. Some people have severe, traumatic attachment experiences, in some ways like Harlow’s monkeys.
This results in severe disruption in personality development. They may have borderline features and don’t have a strong sense of self or feeling of right or wrong, but for most of us this thankfully doesn’t apply. For most of us, all we need to do is to get out of our own way to realise the beauty of our own nature.
There is a lot of discussion about the popularisation of mindfulness and the misdirection that the general public is getting. It is possible for it to become too simplified, so that it becomes harmful. For example, Shinto Buddhism was misused in Imperial Japan and atrocities were committed because of that or in our times lets look at the ethical dilemma posed by the mindful sniper. It’s not just practice that makes perfect.
It is perfect practice makes perfect. It is really a value judgment that comes out of mindfulness. Which is reflected in our relationship with others and the world.It this way mindfulness becomes mindfulness in the service of others through compassion which in a way is a superpower. Just look at this article from CNN posted a few days ago.
One of the people I’ve crossed paths with is James Doty. Now, he is a professor of neurosurgery in Stanford. He is an amazing human being. He and I were residents together and became good friends. He went on to accomplish great things.
He says that he was misapplying the mindfulness skills that he was taught as a child. He learnt to concentrate in a very profound way. Back when we were residentshe struck me as an uncompromisingly focused person, at times arrogant, and always hilarious. But as he now admits he hadn’t had his bowl filled with compassion.
He was very mindful and amazingly effective. Since then he has gone on to do truly amazing things that were directly born out of his becoming mindfully compassionate. He has done philanthropic work on the back of CyberKnife success. He founded a journal club at Stanford where they would read the latest studies in contemplative neuroscience and wondered if the Dalai Lama would find this interesting.
He was able to network through to Thupten Jinpa, Dalai Lampa’s English translator, and as he describes in his bestseller (Into the Magic Shop) soon found himself meeting with the Dalai Lama! Out if this The Center for Compassion And Altruism Research And Education (CCARE) was started at Stanford University. His memoir, Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart, is a tremendous resource in that it is both a first person account and sort of a manual on how to develop mindfulness and compassion.
Mindfulness is but the vessel in which the full contents of our consciousness is held.”
It was my pleasure to speak to Dr Chris Walsh, an Australian mindfulness pioneer since the 1980’s and a respected psychiatrist. Dr Walsh has trained with leading Western mindfulness figures such as Jon Kabatt Zinn, Mark Williams, Kristin Neff and Daniel Siegal. Dr Walsh and I spoke about the darker side of mindfulness.
As with any area experiencing such strong growth, mindfulness is surrounded by myths and misconceptions. What is one that you feel particularly strongly about?
It’s used by business to make people work harder. It’s not so much a myth, it’s just the way it is being used.
People think it’s a relaxation technique. This is tricky to address. Mindfulness does help people to relax, but that’s not the main game. It’s about training your awareness.
You cannot count on mindfulness to make you relax.
If occasionally mindfulness doesn’t help you relax, you will feel that it’s not working and are missing out on an opportunity to learn to hold an unpleasant feeling. This can be destructive.
Mindfulness can bring out negative emotions, especially during the initial stages. How would you recommend that a person deals with that?
The first thing is to have a good teacher. It’s a delicate balance and it can be hard to know when to lean into the negative emotion and when to stand back from it.
The basic principle is that it is ok to feel challenged, but it’s not okay to feel overwhelmed.
With any kind of learning, including learning to be mindful, it is normal to oscillate between feeling comfortable and feeling challenged. If you’re never challenged, especially with something experiential like mindfulness or a sport, the learning isn’t in its optimal state. Getting overwhelmed in mindfulness is the equivalent of getting injured when training, and this sets back the progress.
I have a few tricks on how to deal with being overwhelmed during mindfulness.
The feeling of being overwhelmed is most likely to occur when doing a body scan, especially when focusing on the chest and abdomen as this is where we tend to feel anxiety. I encourage people to find “safe places” where they are less likely to feel this anxiety: such as the resting one’s attention on the sensation of breath in their nose. Even this can be too much for some people.
Awareness of sounds can also help, as the attention is then focused on something outside the body.
Allowing oneself to move can also help to deal with the sense of being overwhelmed. In the Tibetan mindfulness tradition you can move; in the Zen tradition you are meant to be still no matter how much one’s knees hurt. This stillness doesn’t work for people with a lot of agitation. Doing walking mindfulness or exercising before doing mindfulness can help greatly. Some people think that this is an avoidance behaviour. I believe, it is taking a distance, while still still remaining present to the difficult experience.
Sometimes it is okay to let one’s mind wander off. When I run classes with inpatients, I tell them that it’s okay to daydream if it gets too much. The important thing is: come back because this way you can learn what has changed. This is very empowering: we don’t always have to do something to change things. They change by themselves.
These tips work for patients with mental health issues, e.g. PTSD, as well as people with no mental health issues.
Have you ever had any experiences when mindfulness had side effects? The “decentering” in mindfulness may impact an individual’s concept of the “self”. There are anecdotal reports of some vulnerable individuals developing dissociation and psychosis after reading self-help books or attending seminars – and more recently after practicing mindfulness. Do you see any risks in “trying it at home” when it comes to mindfulness?
It is damaging when people use mindfulness to dissociate or disconnect in some way. Two patients I encountered were attached to ecstatic states.
The first was a man with a background of heroin and alcohol addiction. He was able to stay away from drugs and alcohol for 10 years and then relapsed – which is when he came to me. He told me he was using mindfulness to stay away from his addictions and meditated for 8 hours a day! Just before the relapse he got a job: this stopped him from meditating for 8 hours a day, and so he relapsed.
When I questioned him about his mindfulness practice, he told me that he would just got into a blissful state for 8 hours, never experiencing any negative emotions.
I asked him to deliberately call to mind some unpleasant experiences while practicing mindfulness and pay attention to how it felt in his body rather than holding on to these blissful states. The lesson here is to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. In Tibetan Buddhism, they talk about samadhi. It is a blissful state – and sometimes people get addicted to this state. Some people this is enlightenment, but the Buddhist teachers say that that’s a delusion, an unhealthy attachement to something.
The second case that comes to mind was of a man with schizophrenia. Many of my patients with schizophrenia derived a great benefit from mindfulness. This man was having a Kundalini experience, where energy was going up and down his spine. They talk about it in the Hindu tradition. He would go through this experience for many hours a day and it made him more delusional and psychotic. It was very hard to persuade him to do less meditation!
I wouldn’t’ call either of these experiences mindfulness, as they weren’t this open, non-judgemental states. This is why having a teacher is important: so that you can reflect on your experience and receive some guidance.
How should one go about choosing their mindfulness teacher?
There are no absolute guarantees. I am aware of some highly trained psychiatrists who teach mindfulness, but don’t practice it. They say they do, but by talking to them, you quickly realise they don’t: they have a kind of striving attitude.
For people with psychiatric conditions, it is better to have someone who understands both the Western and the Eastern traditions. If you have a teacher, a psychologist or psychiatrist, who comes from the Western tradition only, it is important that they practice mindfulness themselves. It’s important for a teacher to be able to tune into the problems that arise for people as they go through their mindfulness journey rather than sticking to a rigid program.
There is a one size fits all approach to mindfulness among the public at the moment. Do you feel that that it’s appropriate for someone to use an app or should they find a teacher?
In my classes, I have a handout that reviews the apps and advises my patients to beware of any apps that tell them what to feel or that they should relax. People can play with apps – it gives them experiential information that allows them to commit to go to a class. Some people learn a lot from the apps. I haven’t seen the good apps causing any harm. Headspace is quite good. Buddhify is great for getting past the idea that mindfulness only happens on a cushion and has lots of shorter meditations that people like. Insight timer has nice mindfulness bells and nice soundtracks. Some are a bit New Age-y, so people need guidance in choosing the right ones. iTunes U UCLA meditations are quite good too. I send people to my website as I have some soundtracks there.
What are your thoughts on transcendental meditation? It became commercialised quite quickly once it reached the West. Do you worry that mindfulness is headed in that same direction?
I did TM for a few years and found it helpful. I studied Buddhist meditation before that and it gave me the impression that the mind has to be completely quiet – which caused a lot of agitation. TM helped me to get past that as it involved returning to the mantra without trying to eliminate thoughts. TM also taught me about preliminary practices such as exercise.
In the East, mindfulness is used to investigate the mind as well as everything else. A lot of the insights of Buddhist psychology are now being confirmed using Western methods, such as fMRI. I believe this aspect of the Eastern tradition doesn’t get enough attention. However, we need to separate the psychology, philosophy and the religion. Those who say that Buddhism isn’t a religion are lying: it is a religion, but as well as that there are psychological and a philosophical components. These can be separated out, just like has happened in the West.
The tradition in the East is 2,500 years old, so we run into a lot of interpretation and translation problems. The Eastern languages have changed in meaning and nuance in that time just as much as Western languages have. Jus think how much trouble we have interpreting Shakespeare and his writing was only 500 years ago. Furthermore, Buddhist psychology is based onhuman investigation that has evolved over time, so it’s not like the Bible that has been “handed down” and and passed on as some kind of unchanging truth. The Eastern mindfulness tradition, in fact, has a lot in common with the Western scientific tradition. This tradition has evolved from the Socratic tradition which is based on debate and questioning. rather than prescriptive rote learning. I believe that if we start paying more attention to what is already known in the East our progress in understanding the mind will be accelerated and our meditation practices will become even more effective.
Dr Walsh’s own website contains a lot of case studies and blog articles on mindfulness that I would highly recommend: mindfulness.org.au
What you label as evil essentially depends on which side of you are on.
Being directional, having a goal, being in pursuit involves labelling things and people as allies or obstacles. In pursuit of our goals, we do many things which we may think are perfectly okay, but somebody else will thinks are evil. I am typing this on a MacBook Air. If I were a Chinese person, I would probably have good reason to consider Apple evil. As I am on the consumer side here, I feel somewhat overcharged and not having a lot of options beside MacBook, nonetheless meaning that they are my ally. Good and evil, all at once.
My actions inadvertently lead to the death of the cutest and friendliest cat you can ever hope to meet. This made me see myself as someone who can do evil, even though it was never my intention to do evil. Whenever someone else did evil previously, I felt they were, well, evil. Bad. Shouldn’t exist. This experience has taught me to see things differently.
Another throwback to my 1990s Russian childhood: there were some Roma people around. They have vanished since; I’ve no idea where they’re gone. I guess that’s just part of the lifestyle of those people I witnessed. The unfortunate prejudice was that you need to hold on to your wallet when one is in sight. Indeed, on occasion, I would witness some cursing shopkeeper shouting as a Roma woman was running away. As a child, I recall wondering what stimulates these particular women to live this life. It is really quite clear and much more relatable when you are an adult.
Indeed, a lot of the the men and women whom we may regard as criminals are in pursuit of their goals: they have babies to feed, bills to pay, whatever. We may feel that it is unfair for them to rob what we’ve earned with our hard labour (as if robbing isn’t labour). They may feel it is unfair that we sit in a comfy office pushing paper (as if pushing paper is that easy). Our motivations are actually quite similar.
I really don’t like that variety of philosophy that ends up telling you that white is black and black is white. So I am not doing that. All I am saying is that good and evil are subjective and transient.
A Darwinian life
Any kind of goal-directed behaviour is likely to result in someone else’s suffering. Maybe, in fact, it isn’t even the goal-directedness of our behaviour, but the fact that nature makes us compete. Are win-win situations really that great when you consider the wider context? Tesco (a kind of British Walmart) not only allows residents of small towns to purchase goods cheaper, but it also creates jobs in the small town: someone has to pack the shelves, look after the purchasing decisions, etc. It is also well known that whenever the likes of Tesco move into a small town, for every job they create, they kill two jobs (who wants to buy from the butcher now that you can get the “same” stuff cheaper). Whether it is good or bad on balance, it is Darwinian and it causes suffering for the butcher.
Or consider my poor moths. I lived in a carpeted apartment for a while. Mid-plank I noticed that some bits of the carpet were bare and then found that there were moths living under it. I had to commit absolute genocide against them. Three rounds of poisonous chemicals. They must have “thought” I was evil. But did I really have a choice? Again, a Darwinian reality of them versus me.
In an insect’s mind, the most important life on this planet is an insect’s life. It’s all the insect has – nAot unlike us, though some of us think of life in a more abstract manner.
In a Darwinian world, is it possible to never do evil? How about a better question: is it that clear what good and evil is? Doesn’t it all depend of perspective?
Happiness and accomplishment
This is why being terribly obsessed with goals and accomplishment is so disturbing: it relies on a concrete framework of wanted and unwanted events. For those who are especially interested, the 1996 Mount Everest disaster is a great example of how being goal-directed can cloud one’s perception of good vs bad.
A lot of readers indicated that they wish to hear more on the subject of happiness. Read the fable “Blessings in disguise” in this context. Events that we see as undesirable could well be good. I sometimes look back at my failures. In what now seems like a former life, I was interviewed with McKinsey. After what seemed like 17 000 rounds of interviews, I received a phone call from the partner. As he greeted me, I assumed I had it in the bag. Why else would he call me? No, it was a kick in the stomach. I went digging and found out that some slightly younger guy with a reasonably unremarkable CV got it instead of me. I couldn’t figure out the conundrum for ages (I naively believed I could). I now feel that it was a lucky escape.
I even look back at some of the events I then labelled as successes and think: I wonder where I would be now if I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole.
I want to simply highlight that some of our judgements about good and evil are completely off the wall.
I recall one scientist tell me that he won’t consider his career successful until he gets a paper published in Nature as a first author. Even if we ignore the needy narcissism, what a miserly contract to make with yourself! This is what I call off the wall.
Furthermore, everything is a chain of events.
If my aunt hadn’t suffered a medical negligence case, I wouldn’t have had the chance to go in on a rescue mission and reconnect with her, something that was way overdue. At the time of course, it all seemed like a bad dream.
I have to be honest: my interest in mindfulness started off, and still is, almost completely secular. I do not aspire to awakening and all those other big things that spiritual teachers preach (market). For me, it is more about resting the brain so as to allow it to function at its peak. This may sound cold and clinical, but all it is really is that I don’t have massive expectations.
All the same, I figured that if I am to get good at mindfulness, I need to explore it properly. The language used to explain mindfulness: non-attachment, non-judgement, acceptance – seemed very confusing to me. Confusing to the point of seeming to defy basic human nature.
The best way I can phrase it now is that the practice of mindfulness requires us to treat thoughts and emotions as if we are just watching them.
But it did beg the question: how do you make sense of acceptance and non-judgement? How does that gel with constant resistance and overpowering ourselves that we are all so familiar with? How, and why, do we set and strive for goals if we are meant to be just accepting? I did wonder if there is a certain nihilism to the teachings behind mindfulness.
So who better to ask than Professor Nietzsche, nihilism-connoisseur in chief?
Nietzsche misunderstood the concepts of Buddhism by mistaking interdependence for emptiness, probably due to lack of context and good translations
He defined Buddhism as a “true-world theory”, meaning that Buddhism claims there is another, superior form of existence (Buddho, Nirvana, etc) and that inherently defies the value of our common, normal, unawakened life, hence it is nihilistic
Despite Nietzsche’s rejection of Buddhism, his own philosophy is, in places, remarkably similar to it.
Nihilism? Decadence? Will to power? Superman? True World? Eternal Recurrence? Nietzsche was a complex guy. Read this to learn more about how his ideas stood in comparison to those commonly put forward by Buddhist traditions.
The recent “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari attempts to be the meta-history book of our time. I heard that the book was excellent from a few friends who think that everything popular is excellent.
This passage on Buddhism and happiness confirmed my view that the book is politicised snake oil. I am very open to being convinced otherwise.
Harari: “For 2,500 years, Buddhists have systematically studied the essence and causes of happiness, which is why there is a growing interest among the scientific community both in their philosophy and their meditation practices.”
“Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. However, starting from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions.”
Me: So far so good. Happiness = reality – expectations, meaning that it isn’t only a product of the events of the outside world. The bit about the body is also pretty solid: serotonin, etc.
Harari: “According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. People consequently ascribe immense importance to what they feel, craving to experience more and more pleasures, while avoiding pain. Whatever we do throughout our lives, whether scratching our leg, fidgeting slightly in the chair, or fighting world wars, we are just trying to get pleasant feelings.”
Me: Thus spoke Sigmund Freud. We are all about seeking pleasure and even more so avoiding pain.
Harari: “The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad and dejected. So if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away all the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles.”
Harari: “What is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes? Why struggle so hard to achieve something that disappears almost as soon as it arises? According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify.”
Me: This is probably true about Buddhism (so not Harari’s problem), though it does strike me as being rather nihilistic. Feelings are biology’s way to tell us how we’re doing, so saying they are inconsequential, ephemeral and aren’t worth pursuing seems defiant of our very nature.
Harari:”People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them.This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices.”
Me: Well, that’s not going to happen so long as we have an intact limbic system.
Harari: “In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been.”
Me: Things are about to get a little meta. What if you feel like pursuing your feelings? That’s a thought. Why reject it? Why disallow yourself from craving something? Isn’t that a “wrong” thing to do when you’re meditating? Harari is leading us down the road of blissful oversimplification. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Furthermore, our limbic systems will always crave certain feelings. That’s hard wired, and no amount of cognitive machinations or meditation is going to change that. So maybe these “accepting” people sitting in a lotus position on a green moral highground somewhere should accept their own biology instead?
Harari: “The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!”
Me: Miracle pill talk.
Harari: “This idea is so alien to modern liberal culture that when Western New Age movements encountered Buddhist insights, they translated them into liberal terms, thereby turning them on their head. New age cults frequently argue: ‘Happiness does not depend on external conditions. It depends only on what we feel inside. People should stop pursuing external achievements such as wealth and status, and connect instead with their inner feelings.’Or more succinctly, ‘Happiness begins within.’ This is exactly what biologists argue, but more or less the opposite of what Buddha said.”
Me: Nice summary, to be fair. However, he is calling people out on something he is also culpable of.
Harari: “Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of our inner feelings. Indeed, the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.”
Me: I am sorry, what? “True happiness is also independent of our inner feelings”? What is truehappiness? Why is that not an inner feeling? How do you define true happiness as distinct from just, you know, normal happiness? I surmise that normal happiness is a fleeting ephemeral emotion that he denigrated earlier, but I am really confused, what is true happiness?! Is this just an epithet designed to make me feel like a mere mortal not worthy of understanding Harari’s grand opus?
Harari: In Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are. Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes. When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry. This is my anger.’ They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others. They never realise that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.
Me: What are we then? What’s real? We’re in the Matrix, aren’t we?…
I am mesmerised by the robust evidence for the neurological, biochemical and behavioural benefits of mindfulness. I am working hard to figure out the philosophy behind it, that seems very foreign to me with its “acceptance” and “emptiness”.
For this I interviewed Bob Stahl, PhD. He is a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher with over 25 years of experience. His PhD is in philosophy and religion. How exciting is that?! Bob sheds light on some of the philosophical conundrums of mindfulness that have preoccupied me here. He knows what he’s talking about, having founded 7 mindfulness-based stress reduction programs in medical centres in California and having written a number of books on mindfulness. In addition, Bob runs insight meditation and convergence retreats too. Clearly, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk to him. [If, for whatever reason, you’re wondering, this is not a sponsored post.]
You are an expert at mindfulness-based stress reduction. How has it evolved since its inception by Prof. Jon Kabat-Zinn?
I began teaching in 1991, a bit before the big wave of interest in mindfulness that predominantly sparked by Bill Moyer’s series Healing and the Mindand Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work. The mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme hasn’t really changed much over the years. The core principles remain. The training of the mindfulness teachers has grown and advanced tremendously, however.
MBSR is secular. Do you think this is more of a benefit or a hindrance to most people starting it?
MBSR is sacred rather than secular. The sole purpose of MBSR is to alleviate suffering.
MBSR is not religious, but it is spiritual.
Secular implies a cold kind of separation. Having said that, MBSR can be delivered in a hospital, which is obviously non-sectarian and open to people of different religious traditions and views. It is indeed not associated with any one organised religion, but it has many underpinnings that MBSR. There are the teachings in Buddhism and Buddhist psychology. There are also the underpinnings of the wisdom traditions of non-duality, stress physiology, neuroscience and group experiential education. The underpinnings come from the wisdom found cross-culturally.
MBSR was designed to help with specific issues. What are the most common problems that people come to you with?
There are 3 main interrelated categories: stress, physical pain and illness. This can be related to a chronic or terminal disease, stress at work, or a desire to improve one’s wellbeing.
You teach mindfulness to physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals. What are some of the main challenges and lessons in mindfulness for this group?
First of all, they are not immune to the human condition that includes ageing, illness, death and separation.
Compassion fatigue, processing the pain of those whom they serve, burnout, anxiety, addiction, depression and insomnia are the most specific problem that affect the people belonging to healthcare professions.
There is strong culture of success in our world. We spend our lives striving for accomplishment in a goal-directed manner. It is quite counterintuitive, if not scary, for a person conditioned like this to engage in a practice of non-striving, non-reactivity, non-attachment and non-judgment. “If I stop striving, will I still be able to accomplish?” Could you comment on this apparent contradiction?
Mindfulness often gets confused with non-striving, non-attachment and non-judgment. People think they are not supposed to feel or have those feelings – and this is actually a misnomer that causes confusion.
Mindfulness is about being present and aware of what’s actually happening and acknowledging it. It is best to leave out words like “without attachment or striving” because many people actually discover how filled they are those feelings.
Could this confusion be arising from our interpretation of Buddhism?
I’ve been a student of Buddhism for many years and lived in a Buddhist monastery for over 8 years. The word for mindfulness is sati.
There’s nothing in the definition that talks about being non-judgmental or non-striving. It’s all about being present, being aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment.
Perhaps, we could say though that non-striving and non-attachment are attitudes that can be brought into mindfulness practice that serve to help us to see more clearly where we are stuck with either grasping or aversion. Let us remember that the sole goal of the mindfulness practice is freedom.
What is the most common misconception about MBSR?
I am very excited about the exponential growth of mindfulness. As with all things that are popular, there are some fads. There is some commercialisation of mindfulness.
There’s also confusion between mindfulness and positive thinking: “You’re saying negative things, you’re not being mindful.” We should be mindful of rage, sadness, anger and fear. That’s just part of the practice. Mindfulness does not mean being positive. It means being aware, present and acknowledge it.
There’s also another apparent contradiction.
Mindfulness is both very personal and completely impersonal.
On one level, mindfulness is incredibly personal. We are really getting into our loves, joys, fears, hates, etc.
We cannot psychologically or spiritually bypass our personality.
Our personality is what we need to work with to grow. We need to understand where it is that we get caught and cannot see clearly, what stories do we tell ourselves, etc. It is incredibly personal. On the other hand, mindfulness is incredibly impersonal. The body is doing its thing, it doesn’t ask us. Mind states come and go out. Whose mind is it anyway?
In Buddhist psychology, there are 6 sense organs: the mind is the sixth.
What does it do? It experiences thoughts and emotions. Just like the nose experiences smells and the ears experience sounds, the mind experiences thoughts and feelings.
In your experience, are there any therapies that MBSR is most synergistic with?
Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy was developed out of MBSR. It has been shown to be very effective, especially in treating relapses of depression. Furthermore, a variety of programmes, such as mindfulness-based childbirth and parenting, were developed based on mindfulness.
What stops most people from practicing mindfulness every day, given that it can time as little as a few minutes a day?
This is something that comes up a lot. We encourage people to sit with the resistance: what’s there? It could be a number of things. We have such a longing to feel good, but doing preventative things requires a deep commitment.
If you’re really committed to knowing the truth about where you’re stuck, practice becomes a way of life.
Your whole orientation turns towards freedom. It helps people to get inspired.
Sitting and meditating isn’t as important as whether you’re aware of what’s going on inside you, is it coming from some old conditioning, etc.
Could you explain what is involved in a mindfulness retreat?
Retreats are very important.
How can we be with others if we haven’t been with ourselves?
A silent retreat is the time to dive deep into our own life, our own story, where we’re holding on and where we’re pushing away. Retreats can be in the insight meditation tradition, Zen tradition or Tibetan tradition. In the insight tradition, we teach the four foundations of mindfulness, the three marks of existence, the four noble truths.
MBSR stemmed from a retreat. Jon Kabat-Zinn got the idea while on an insight meditation retreat. He left the meditation centre, applied to start a programme – and the rest is history.
I do a lot of retreats on how Dharma informs mindfulness-based approaches. Many people entering into mindfulness don’t have a lot of experience with meditation. We help people to have the experience of the practice and to understand what informs mindfulness approaches.
You sit for 45 minutes, walk for 45 minutes, sit for 45 minutes, walk for 45 minutes… It starts at 6 in the morning and stops at 9 at night. Instruction is given once a day to clarify the teaching. There’s usually a talk in the evening to help guide the meditations. It’s a progression through the four foundation of mindfulness. We also offer group and individual practice discussions to check in with the students.
Bob suggested that I go on a retreat. I am very tempted. He travels all over the world, though he is usually found in sunny California. You can find out more about his centre here.
On my quest to figure out the philosophy behind mindfulness, something that I came to be interested in through a neuroscience/psychiatry angle, I came across an intriguing presence here among the philosophically inclined bloggers: Nguyên Giác. It is my pleasure to share his views on some difficult questions that have been on my mind. As this topic concerns religion, some readers may get sensitive. Please remember Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Enter Steven.. (I try to stay silent for most of it, but alas…)
Who am I?
I’m Steven J Barker Jr., or Nguyên Giác. I share my insights at gnotruth.com. I’m always reluctant to put forward any view, but for the sake of the people like me who benefit from the formless teachings, I type words and share them on the internet. For the sake of people like me, who have been burned by modern Christian dogma, I share alternative early Christian views. For the sake of the little ones arising in this Saha Realm, I gently shine my light so that others may see.
Not forcing any particular view, but smashing all views with Nietzsche’s hammer – I am that kind of philosopher. The anti-philosopher.
A journey through religion towards mindfulness
I was introduced to Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing when I was 12. My mom saw that I was struggling with big questions. She bought me a book: “Living Buddha, Living Christ”. I had already become quite absorbed in Christian thinking, but it was starting to bring huge conflict as my intellect was developing and Christian theology makes n0 sense. It is anti-intellectual.
Thich Nhat Hanh introduced me to a new way of thinking about the teaching of Jesus. He helped me to understand my own spiritual tradition. Understanding my own spiritual tradition, I also began to understand the words of Buddha. As a child, I began to incorporate mindfulness into my daily life.
I began to understand that mundane daily lifeis the chess board – it’s the actual playing field – the meditation cushion is nice, but, eventually, we have to actually stand up and face the real world.
I am Buddhist. I am engaged in the practice of continual mindfulness. In Christian terms, this practice can be called ‘walking in the Kingdom as a Child’. Before I start rambling, I want to share this beautiful description of Mindfulness by Sadasiva Saccidananda (my Dhamma friend and internet ally):
Simple practice of mindfulness, awareness of anything external or internal passing before your mind-camera, culminates in awareness of awareness itself. Naturally you shall rest in the common factor of all observations: awareness itself and seeing all as awareness, as mind in mind.
Seeing all things as equal data, even your “ego” as another observable actor among others, leads to equality & equanimity.
A mindful Jesus and a non-religious Buddha
A Buddhist is one who works toward Buddho. Buddho is unfiltered, explosive and serene awareness. Awakeness. Enlightenment. A Buddhist is one who practices mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh likes to equate mindfulness with the Holy Spirit.
In another of my spiritual traditions. the teachings of Yeshua, or “Christianity”, this energy or experience is called Gnosis. Perfect Gnosis is Buddho. This might sound far flung, wild and/or weird, but the path to PrajnaParamita (perfection of wisdom) is as simple as following one’s own breath.
If your leaders tell you, “Look, the kingdom is in heaven,”
then the birds of heaven will precede you.
If they say to you, “It’s in the sea,”
then the fish will precede you.
But the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you.
When you know yourselves, then you will be known,
and you will understand that you are children of the living One.
But if you do not know yourselves,
then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty.
The above quote, from a text which is as “authentic” as any in the New Testament, has Jesus telling us to ignore televangelists with their promises of heaven.
Instead, we find him encouraging us to practice mindfulness. The simple process of Gnoing ourselves is healing: this is mindfulness.
And, this rebellious Jesus, where did he come from!? Well, obviously, the early Church wouldn’t have survived into the present if it had openly rebuked its own leaders and encouraged people on their own spiritual journey instead of conforming to its dogma. The Gospel of Thomas’ position was thoroughly attacked by the author of the Gospel of John (check out the work of Elaine Pagels). Sadly, today’s Church is founded on the belief that Jesus is totally unique – the only son of God – this is John’s position.
John abhorred Thomas’ message that we are all children and the kingdom is already here.
Gospel of Thomas, 108:
Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me.
I myself shall become that person,
and the hidden things will be revealed to that one.
As you can tell, I’m not very stoked on John’s message. And, I am very stoked on Thomas’ (Thomas means “twin”). I understand the message.
I could try to outline the process; I could try to describe the mind’s journey from ignorance and suffering to awareness, understanding and love – but this has already been done before me. There are many, many maps already – the problem is not that there aren’t enough maps, the problem is that the territory is real, alive, and changing. Old maps quickly become useless.
The ancient “map-makers” of the territory of the mind are not at fault for our foolish clinging to dead doctrine. The fault is ours.
With our fear, greed, laziness, addiction and delusion we have developed all sorts of wrong views that propagate through the mind system and create the painful errors of war, famine, disease, etc.
Gospel of Thomas, 52:
His [Yeshua’s] students said to him,
Twenty-four prophets have spoken in Israel
and they all spoke of you.
He said to them,
You have disregarded the living one among you
and have spoken of the dead.
There must be a way forward that honors the past, but also releases its grip upon our minds. We would all do well to learn to ‘philosophise with hammers’.
History of religion: a case of oversimplifying the (very) complex
History is a nice and tidy story.
History is, necessarily, always an oversimplification.
We don’t have the capacity to know this present moment in totality, so how can we hope to know the twists and turns of ephemeral ideas through rough and bloody history? I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive for historical accuracy. I’m saying we should always be skeptical of this or that narrative.
The Christian church’s “history” has been revealed to be a fabrication.
The idea that Early Christianity was one cohesive movement has been thoroughly discredited and replaced with the understanding that it was a very diverse movement with many ideas about who Jesus was and why he was important.
The same must be true about Buddhism. The West has a nice story about it’s development, but that story is just a nice summary that is most likely missing some huge pieces. I read a passage from the Encyclopedia of Religion (article by Frank Reynolds and Charles Hallisey) the other day. It boggled my mind for a bit:
“The concept of Buddhism was created about three centuries ago to identify what we now know to be a pan-Asian religious tradition that dates back some twenty-five hundred years. Although the concept, rather recent and European in origin, had gradually, if sometimes begrudgingly, received global acceptance, there is still no consensus about its definition.”
“Buddhism” is, in many ways, a European idea! Interacting with the actual cultures that practice Buddhism, you quickly find that their practice is not what you expected- it is not what you read about. Sure, there are lots of familiar things that we Europeans have accurately portrayed, but the pulsing reality of Buddhism in practice is always different from anyexplanation of it. It is the practice that goes beyond, beyond all thought, beyond all concepts – this practice simply cannot be made into a system. All such systems are merely hindrances.
In short, Buddhism’s history is complex and frequently oversimplified.
In the West, we have this idea of a singular Buddhism that puts forth one coherent message. However, in truth, there are many Buddhist schools and traditions with various stances on all sorts of weird issues.
This is why I have to stand back and redefine my Buddhism. I chase Buddho. I chase Gnosis. Wherever it arises, with whatever name, wearing whatever clothing – I chase Buddha. The big Buddha. The ineffable Buddha.
At the same time, I don’t want to disrespect the religious traditions that have nurtured my growth. I’ve benefited from the support of a Vietnamese Buddhist community. Taking the five precepts, becoming an “official lay Buddhist”, I received the name “Nguyên Giác”. It means something like, “awakened source” or “source of awakening”. If you like labels, you could say that I practice a mixture of Zen, Pureland and Yeshua Buddhism.
I was not raised in a “religious household”, but for whatever reason, even in my earliest memories, “religious” issues have always been extremely important to me. I did attend a Lutheran Church when I was young. I’ve read the Bible many times over and have dug through all sorts of academic papers that analyse the larger cultural context of early Christianity. I’ve spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting the texts that arose over the course of Christianity’s evolution. It has been fun and challenging. As a child of the West, the figure of Jesus has played a huge role in my development. Jesus has been with me – as both irritant and as comforter.
Gospel of Thomas:
Seek and do not stop seeking until you find.
When you find, you will be troubled.
When you are troubled,
you will marvel and rule over all.
Marvelling is a wonderful practice. I think marvelling could be classified as a type of mindfulness meditation.
There have been experiences that have revealed ‘deep’ things that are difficult to put into words. Putting words to these types of experiences, if not done with extreme care, can be harmful to oneself and to those who hear. So, instead of pointing at the goal of supreme Gnosis, I try to point at the path of mindfulness. It is something everyone can see and touch. The biggest truths cannot be conveyed with words: mind-to-mind is the only way. Set on the path of marvelling, an individual will find their own way by following beacons of joy.
It seems that the focus of many bloggers and mindfulness advocates is to promote mindfulness as yet another miracle fix on the way to flat abs and a yacht. Mindfulness isn’t a shortcut to effortless positive thinking.
The fact that the 440×220 pixel Twitter platitudes with a stock sunset background and a quote from a Buddhist have become so popular reflects the growing misunderstanding surrounding mindfulness.
While mindfulness does help with depression, anxiety and other difficult mental states, achieving a certain mental state – or indeed happiness – isn’t the purpose of mindfulness. While it isn’t necessary to buy into the philosophy behind mindfulness to practice it, it’s important to understand what it is one’s getting themselves into.There’s nothing at all wrong with “secular” mindfulness, the kind pedalled by corporations, promoted to children, etc. Indeed, I am in no way a Buddhist. However, I believe that hiding from this philosophy and still expecting to get experience mindfulness to the full is futile. The philosophy states that…
At the root of all suffering is attachment.
Non-attachment is a key tenet of the Buddhism. Attachment is our attempt to deny the fact that everything is impermanent, hence is causes a dissonance between reality and perception ultimately resulting in suffering. The concept seems at odds with out common view of happiness that involves the strife to get through a checklist of experiences and things – and walk of into the sunset in permanent bliss. However, the concept of non-attachment is echoed in the philosophy of Stoicism, the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche and modern talking therapies such as CBT and REBT. Indeed, I struggle with the concept again and again. It seem that Buddhism advocates that we live our lives a bit like plants: accept everything that comes our way and adapt.
Using mindfulness as some kind of trick to accomplish certain goals just doesn’t make sense.
Born at Google and based on brain science, SIY uses the practices of mindfulness to train Emotional Intelligence skills, leading to resilience, positive mindset, and centred leadership. In the midst of complexity, it’s about finding the inner capacity to create, to thrive, to lead. And it’s surprisingly fun. Backed by some of the world’s leading experts in neuroscience and mindfulness, SIY is changing thousands of lives in over a dozen countries.
Here’s a book they propose. I haven’t seen the inside, but if I may judge by its cover, I find it wanting.
Indirectly, insights into how to achieve goals may be precisely the result of the practice. However, a realisation of the irrelevance of those goals may also be the outcome. Being in the moment involves not knowing how it will all turn out. Barry Magid is an American psychiatrist who went against the current. He argued against using meditation as yet another vehicle en route to the conventional happiness prescription, i.e. maximum pleasant feelings and thoughts, minimum unpleasant feelings and thoughts.
Magid’s understanding of mindfulness is that it is a way to stop trying to “fix” ones’ experience of things.
His argument is somewhat routed in mythology: struggling to escape one’s demons is what gives them their power.
The fight for a vision of happiness is the cause of the problem, not the solution to it.
Freud’s seemingly basic idea of our psychology was that we seek pleasure and avoid pain (and we avoid pain much more than we seek pleasure). He argued that our subconscious was a big long list of everything we avoid. The Buddha confronted suffering, he didn’t move away – he moved into the pain – and that is how he became free.
As a doctor, I know that it’s very worrying when a patient doesn’t flinch away from a painful stimulus. I am starting to come around to the idea that for our higher cognition, the non-reflex, non-fight-or-flight, it is better to not flinch away from mental pain.
That’s how I understand mindfulness. It’s not sitting there thoughtless. In fact, trying hard to fix the busy mind is yet another trap. The way I understand it is that it is necessary to observe it without clinging or fleeing. Like I discussed with Bela,
For me the experience of mindfulness is a bit like being on a tight rope: the abyss of clinging to the left and of fleeing to the right. Sometimes of the past to the left and of the future to the right. Just like it takes a lot of awareness to remain on the tight rope, flexing the right muscles, adjusting to the wind, it takes the same kind of awareness to stay in the moment.
Seneca, Freud, the Buddha – and our new friend the living psychiatrist Magid all seem to think that flinching away from suffering is what makes it worse.
The Abhidhamma, a central text for Buddhism, teaches that the mind is a bit like a sense organ. Thoughts and feelings come in just like smells, sounds and tastes. Recently, I observed a thought that seemed completely extraneous to me: having relaxed after non-stop worrying about a sick animals, I found it strange how someone else would get so upset about a pet in hospital. Not every thought and emotion belongs to us. Why do certain songs cling to our minds? In what way are they ours?
We could consider the inescapable nature of the smell of cigarettes – or the taste of toothpaste every morning as a way to understand the presence of certain thoughts and feelings.
It gets a little bit “meta” – as we are more abstractly thinking (one may say observing non-judgementally) of regular thinking (to do list, he said, she said, itchy, hungry, Never mind I’ll find someone like you, and other assorted circular randomness) – and saying that regular thinking is just like an organ of perception. What does that say about abstract thinking? Is that the “real” thinking? Somewhat over-simplistically, I suspect that this abstract thinking is a process of the prefrontal cortex, while the regular thinking is carried out by more basic circuitry we share with many animals.
In this vein, not being able to get the motivation to do something because one’s sad doesn’t make sense. One needn’t feel pumped to do work. If thoughts and feelings are like smells and sounds, one can still muster the agency to do what needs to be done. The Stoics would argue like this also.
In a sense, this still means that mindfulness is a route to happiness, only I changed the goal posts of what happiness is. In a sense, mindfulness is a fight to stay on the tightrope of the present moment – and thus a fight for happiness. This is all difficult to state in words, but I think you all know what I mean.
Mindfulness doesn’t have a purpose, except perhaps to reconcile perception and reality – which is so obvious, it is a bit embarrassing to state as a purpose.