mindfulness gone astray without the buddhism

I understand why people want mindfulness to be a secular, scientific wellness thing associated with psychotherapy. My first exposure to meditation probably came through an interest in martial arts I had until middle school. My first exposure to Buddhist ideas was probably the Jehovah’s Witness book Mankind’s Search For God, a kind of world religions textbook with additional JW propaganda. The Buddhism chapter was called “A Search For Enlightenment Without God”, which suited me because I had a JW mom and an atheist dad. My high school interest in mysticism came from tripping and reading about psychedelics. Eventually I learned zazen from actual (white) Rinzai Zen priests sent from a monastery in Japan. I was also into philosophy. To make a long story short, I came across an article comparing Derrida and Nagarjuna. There was a lot of Alan Watts. Zen and the Brain was a huge influence.

I’ve never been able to sit for much longer than ~17-25 minutes. At various times, I’ve been diligent about sitting once or twice a day. For the last couple years I replaced the zazen with taijiquan. I did a year of ACT. I heavily geeked out reading about Zen and later Tibetan Buddhism and Bon.

I’ve got I Ching and enso tattoos. I think of myself as “Buddhist, Taoist, whatever”, without a belief in the supernatural. I live in a cannabis haze, which isn’t orthodox. I’ve never formally taken vows at a temple and had a proper sangha (taijiquan was the closest). Western Buddhism. I don’t believe in qi.

But for me, “ego death” preceded any grounding in a meditation practice. I always understood meditation practice to be about translating that vision into everyday life. I accepted impermanence, emptiness, nonself…suffering caused by attachment, desire, aversion, ignorance. Buddhism is ultimately a strategy for having better social relationships. If taken seriously, it’s incompatible with capitalism.

I found the experience of being led through a mindfulness exercise at work disturbing, though. I agree with people like Zizek, who’ve said that Western Buddhism as popularized is perfect for neoliberalism. It individualizes the suffering and ignores systemic causes. How to handle your work stress and be more productive, etc.

From my point of view, the problem with “mindfulness” is that they took the Buddhism out of it. Aeon just published this essay by Sahanika Ratnayake, which argues that Buddhist assumptions are the problem with mindfulness. While it’s true that mindfulness is really about something nonverbal, the practice was traditionally done under the guidance of priests who believed in things. Psychotherapists raised in America have taken their place, along with their cultural assumptions. This is the source of confusion: psychotherapy types with no grounding in Buddhism. There’s no such thing as an experience with no interpretive framework at all. So I want to provide a different one.

Raised as a Buddhist in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, I have a long history with meditation – although, like many ‘cultural Catholics’, my involvement was often superficial. I was crushingly bored whenever my parents dragged me to the temple as a child. At university, however, I turned to psychotherapy to cope with the stress of the academic environment. Unsurprisingly, I found myself drawn to schools or approaches marked by the influence of Buddhist philosophy and meditation, one of which was mindfulness. Over the years, before and during the Cambridge trial, therapists have taught me an arsenal of mindfulness techniques. I have been instructed to observe my breath, to scan my body and note the range of its sensations, and to observe the play of thoughts and emotions in my mind. This last exercise often involves visual imagery, where a person is asked to consider thoughts and feelings in terms of clouds in the sky or leaves drifting in a river.

But you get the actual feel you’re going for by reading Buddhist texts, which have their own imagery. The specific meditation instructions matter. I’d typically start with breath-counting for a bit, then let that drop off and “just sit.” It was zazen, but “shikantaza” practice in particular. Taijiquan is pretty similar in terms of focusing on bodily sensations. Once you read enough Zen texts, you see the pattern. There’s something everyone is trying to express in different ways.

Something else you notice in reading about Zen: it’s all about 10,000 mistakes you can make in your practice. There’s a process of spiritual development, symbolized with things like the ox-herding pictures. You can only guide at the level of your own enlightenment, and people are learning mindfulness from relatively inexperienced teachers, or just from the internet.

I also think personal experience with drugs helps a lot, by showing you the general idea of the mindset you’re looking for. The short-term memory problems when you’re new to cannabis teach you to have great ideas and let them go and live in the moment.

Her issue with meditation comes from this experience:

Yet I’d also become troubled by a cluster of feelings that I couldn’t quite identify. It was as if I could no longer make sense of my emotions and thoughts. Did I think the essay I’d just written was bad because the argument didn’t quite work, or was I simply anxious about the looming deadline? Why did I feel so inadequate? Was it imposter syndrome, depression or was I just not a good fit for this kind of research? I couldn’t tell whether I had particular thoughts and feelings simply because I was stressed and inclined to give in to melodramatic thoughts, or because there was a good reason to think and feel those things. Something about the mindfulness practice I’d cultivated, and the way it encouraged me to engage with my emotions, made me feel increasingly estranged from myself and my life.

In the intervening years, I’ve obsessed over this experience – to the point that I left a PhD in an entirely different area of philosophy and put myself through the gruelling process of reapplying for graduate programmes, just so I could understand what had happened.

But “insight meditation” is supposed to create a kind of analytical detachment. But the standard Buddhist instruction, in my understanding, would be to let the thought go and refocus on your breathing. You just note “thinking” and attend to your senses. By doing this repeatedly, you become less “attached to views.” You start to understand how thinking yourself into circles is making you miserable. Not to mention koan practice (not my thing), which is about maximal confusion and frustration and doubt.

The point of meditation is to train certain mental habits. Life starts going smoother the more you internalize those habits. But habits are a preconscious thing. Part of the point is also trusting your unconscious. The idea of mindfulness is that you’ll spontaneously notice things and know what to do about them, the more your mind is in order. Letting your mind wander without getting stuck in a rut is a way of processing things offline, not unlike free association.

Zen emphasizes nondualism. The mental dilemmas she’s wrestling with don’t have to be either/or.

The mindfulness movement is a prominent example of this shift in cultural habits of self-reflection and interrogation. Instead of engaging in deliberation about oneself, what the arts of mindfulness have in common is a certain mode of attending to present events – often described as a ‘nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment’. Practitioners are discouraged from engaging with their experiences in a critical or evaluative manner, and often they’re explicitly instructed to disregard the content of their own thoughts.

Meditation and therapy are complementary. Of course Buddhism encourages thinking about the self. Y’know…prajnaparamita. There’s no “instead of engaging in deliberation.” It’s just that meditation is understood as the best way of improving insight.

Meditation is a training exercise. You gain control over your attention, so you can better deploy it in all situations. The difference between sitting and the rest of life blurs. With meditation, you’re saying that now is not the time for that kind of rumination. Athletes don’t play their sport while lifting weights. Another thing you find with practice is that it’s hard to slow down and actually meditate twice daily for 20 minutes. It’s supposed to be like brushing your teeth. It starts your day right and then you let go of it before bed. You’re interrupting information overload and giving yourself time to process your life. You’ll realize things on the cushion, but then you’ll get frustrated expecting Great Things every time, and that struggle is the practice. It’s an attitude adjustment.

Meditation is the opposite of escapism. You could say mindfulness and dissociation are opposite coping strategies. The mistake is in thinking that meditation is like smoking a bowl, where you immediately feel calm for a while. Meditation, itself, will be very difficult at times. In meditation, you’re alone with your thoughts without the usual distractions. It’s hard to sit with suffering and bad situations and not run away from them.

Meditation is an empirical investigation of Buddhist principles in your own life.

My own gripes with mindfulness are of a different, though related, order. In claiming to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself. It fits oh-so-neatly into a culture of techno-fixes, easy answers and self-hacks, where we can all just tinker with the contents of our heads to solve problems, instead of probing why we’re so dissatisfied with our lives in the first place. As I found with my own experience, though, it’s not enough to simply watch one’s thoughts and feelings. To understand why mindfulness is uniquely unsuited for the project of real self-understanding, we need to probe the suppressed assumptions about the self that are embedded in its foundations.

The issue is that mindfulness was sold to her dishonestly or ignorantly. While zazen is the answer to all your problems, it also doesn’t really do anything and it’s not supposed to be goal-oriented (the paradox…). It also says that becoming enlightened is waaaaay hard. The first person to do it has a religion named after him! You might not succeed in this lifetime. It’s true that Zen sold itself as the “sudden teaching”, but anybody could look around and see that most people weren’t enlightened. Meditation is simple to describe and difficult to do.

Some business guru self-help types said otherwise, and they’re treated like the authority on mindfulness. It only seems “striking” that meditation techniques are rationally related to Buddhist doctrine if you heard about it from a non-Buddhist.

It’s striking how much shared terrain there is among the strategies that Buddhists use to reveal the ‘truth’ of anattā, and the exercises of mindfulness practitioners. One technique in Buddhism, for example, involves examining thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, and noting that they are impermanent, both individually and collectively. Our thoughts and emotions change rapidly, and physical sensations come and go in response to stimuli. As such (the thinking goes), they cannot be the entity that persists throughout a lifetime – and, whatever the self is, it cannot be as ephemeral and short-lived as these phenomena. Nor can the self be these phenomena collectively as they are all equally impermanent. But then, the Buddhists point out, there is also nothing besides these phenomena that could be the self. Consequently, there is no self. From the realisation of impermanence, you gain the additional insight that these phenomena are impersonal; if there is no such thing as ‘me’, to whom transitory phenomena such as thoughts can be said to belong, then there’s no sense in which these thoughts are ‘mine’.

It’s that now is the only thing that’s real, and the ego is a construction. Our self-concept can limit our range of responses to a situation. The ego is about boundaries between self and other that Buddhism would say are illusory. “Dependent arising.” Everything is connected. Most importantly, ego-driven behavior creates more suffering than selflessness. Meditation is supposed to help you practice the Eightfold Path.

Like their Buddhist predecessors, contemporary mindfulness practitioners stress these qualities of impermanence and impersonality. Exercises repeatedly draw attention to the transitory nature of what is being observed in the present moment. Explicit directions (‘see how thoughts seem to simply arise and cease’) and visual imagery (‘think of your thoughts like clouds drifting away in the sky’) reinforce ideas of transience, and encourage us to detach ourselves from getting too caught up in our own experience (‘You are not your thoughts; you are not your pain’ are common mantras).

But those aren’t good instructions. Yes, it’s important to realize and experience that thoughts and emotions are transient. Remembering in the moment that your bad mood won’t last forever is a form of self-control. You’ll make better decisions. The exercise has more impact when you understand that it’s about seeing how Buddhist metaphysics applies to your own conscious experience. The fact that your thoughts drift away is a reason not to get attached to them, so you get back to the important thing of sitting up straight and watching your breath.

The “you are not your thoughts” business is “defusion” in ACT.

It’s a way of staying self-conscious so you’ll notice patterns in your thinking instead of getting caught up in a negative thought loop.

I put my earlier sense of self-estrangement and disorientation down to mindfulness’s close relationship with anattā. With the no-self doctrine, we relinquish not only more familiar understandings of the self, but also the idea that mental phenomena such as thoughts and feelings are our own. In doing so, we make it harder to understand why we think and feel the way we do, and to tell a broader story about ourselves and our lives. The desire for self-understanding tends to be tied up with the belief that there is something to be understood – not necessarily in terms of some metaphysical substrate, but a more commonplace, persisting entity, such as one’s character or personality. We don’t tend to think that thoughts and feelings are disconnected, transitory events that just happen to occur in our minds. Rather, we see them as belonging to us because they are reflective of us in some way. People who worry that they are neurotic, for example, will probably do so based on their repeated feelings of insecurity and anxiety, and their tendency towards nitpicking. They will recognise these feelings as flowing from the fact that they might have a particular personality or character trait.

Well, we have a sequence of experiences and remember some of them. We pick subsequences of those stories and make stories out of them. Meditation should help you see that you can build different stories from the same raw materials, and it’ll reflect your mood at the time. You should eventually understand, from meditative experience, that it’s pointless to go in circles about something like “am I neurotic?”. How do you know you’re not the “type of person” who likes green eggs and ham? Maybe your self-concept closes you off to things.

Nagarjuna was like, hooray that everything is impermanent, because if not we’d be stuck with our ignorance and negative traits, and enlightenment would be impossible.

Mindfulness, grounded in anattā, can offer only the platitude: ‘I am not my feelings.’ Its conceptual toolbox doesn’t allow for more confronting statements, such as ‘I am feeling insecure,’ ‘These are my anxious feelings,’ or even ‘I might be a neurotic person.’ Without some ownership of one’s feelings and thoughts, it is difficult to take responsibility for them. The relationship between individuals and their mental phenomena is a weighty one, encompassing questions of personal responsibility and history. These matters shouldn’t be shunted so easily to one side.

Meditation practice makes you see how much reality is “constructed”, and how much misery is self-imposed.

1,000 years ago, they wrote about how hard it is to find a good teacher.

I still dabble in mindfulness, but these days I tend to draw on it sparingly. I might do a mindfulness meditation when I’ve had a difficult day at work, or if I’m having trouble sleeping, rather than keeping up a regular practice. With its promises of assisting everyone with anything and everything, the mistake of the mindfulness movement is to present its impersonal mode of awareness as a superior or universally useful one. Its roots in the Buddhist doctrine of anattā mean that it sidelines a certain kind of deep, deliberative reflection that’s required for unpicking which of our thoughts and emotions are reflective of ourselves, which are responses to the environment, and – the most difficult question of all – what we should be doing about it.

Nobody legit described that as the way to meditate in the first place. The problem is that she was introduced to mindfulness in a totally decontextualized way, forever distorting her idea of what the teaching is about. There are answers to the objections that she raises, which she wouldn’t be raising if someone had explained it in context to begin with.

Traditionally, monks and nuns meditated, not consumers looking for stress relief. Seeing desire as a problem is anathema to our culture, so any authentic mindfulness is incompatible with it.